House of Representatives
The genius of Stan Lee — and he was a man possessed of genius, despite the bad press he’s generated in recent years since translating that genius into a fortune that was denied to many of his employees — is that he was able to see the way the wind was blowing. He saw, at a critical moment not only for the comics industry but for the country, that there was money to be made not just from the kiddies who constituted their previous audience, but from an entirely new generation. The college kids, the longhairs, the brainiacs, even the blacks in the inner cities: comics’ big tent was getting bigger, and he found a way to sell to them.
It’s a lesson that his inheritors have tried awfully hard — but mostly awfully — to repeat. That big tent has gotten bigger and bigger over the years, but comics (superhero comics in particular) have strained to open its flaps to the diverse groups trying to get in. This often means the industry fights against its own interests; Marvel and DC are now huge corporate properties, and films and television shows based on their characters, in addition to being profit-centers of their own, are meant to bring more readers’ attention to the comics themselves. But, it turns out, those readers aren’t the same ones they were in the ’60s and ’70s. More of them are women, for example, and more of them are black and Latino and Asian. More of them are from foreign countries, from immigrant families. More of them are queer.
Unfortunately, the conversations about how to best tell stories that speak to these new readers in the same way a 40-year-old Jewish hustler found to speak to nervous young gentile men in the early 1960s have too often been hijacked by the sons and grandsons of those same men, who now feel as threatened by the incursion of people not like them as they felt isolated by the absence of people like them way back then. The comics companies have mainly attempted to recognize that the American consumer of 2015 is not the same as it was fifty years ago by making changes — a generous person might call them cosmetic, while a cynic might refer to them as tokenism — to the racial, sexual, and religious makeup of some of their characters; but this has failed on a number of levels.
For one thing, it has met with altogether too much resistance from that contingent of the fanbase for whom anything but a white, straight, male hero is an intolerable insult to the way things ought to be. That’s to be expected, but what’s dismaying is the way the companies have reacted, jumping out of their seats at even a perceived backlash against modernizing their rosters a bit, or trying to have it both ways by pandering to those who feel comics should add more color and gender diversity while surreptitiously winking at the reactionaries that, really, nothing is going to change. Being risk-averse is part of the corporate mentality, but it’s not what made Stan Lee a millionaire.
In truth, though, even if Marvel and DC went all in — even if we woke up tomorrow to a Muslim Spider-Man and Black Superman was more than just the name of a professional wrestler — that wouldn’t change things much. Changing the appearance of the fictional characters isn’t going to appease readers who are in it for the social justice; it’s pretty likely that, just as there’s a vestigial rump of fans who will never stand for any diversion from the big-chinned hetero white dude model, there’s also an irreducible minimum of vocal critics for whom no gestures towards inclusiveness will ever be enough. But neither of those groups, annoying as they can be, are the problem. The problem is the aggregate of readers, who, in addition to being far more diverse than the fans of 20 years ago, are much more media-savvy, much more aware of the insider world of the comics business, and much harder to fool than ever before.
These readers are the ones who do not so much revolt at the cavalier attitude the comics companies have towards minority representation in the stories themselves as they do at the lack of minority representation in the companies. You can make an entire Justice League without a single white male, and they will still smell a rat if it’s still the same white males writing and drawing the stories. The recent controversy over Strange Fruit wasn’t because it was particularly misguided; it was certainly a lot less egregious than the treatment of African-Americans in comics of the past. It’s that it was written and drawn by a pair of white men, and not only did this leave open questions of authenticity, but even if we are to assume these particular white men are informed, talented, and creative enough to write a convincing story about an African-American man’s experience of the pre-civil rights South, couldn’t they have found an actual black person who could do the job just as well?
The recent announcement that Ta-Nehisi Coates would be writing a forthcoming arc of the Black Panther series was welcome news for this very reason. It is not so much that Coates is supremely qualified to take on this role; Dick Gregory’s wise advice that black people are no more inherently capable of understanding the vast, sordid tangle of racism than sick people are experts on medicine should not be forgotten. Coates, too, is not a writer of fiction, and may find that comics writing is a skill set that he does not currently possess. The difference, though, is that he can always learn to write good comics, just as he learned to write great non-fiction; but Mark Waid can never learn what it is like to be black. More and more, it is clear that representation is not just about portrayal, but about creation. Al the ‘strong female characters’ in the world don’t do feminism a bit of good as long as they are written entirely by male writers, and act exactly like male characters who just happen to have women’s bodies. The experience of a minority is intrinsic, not incidental. And until what is seen on the page is reflected in who makes the page, representation will not truly be representative.