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Just Because Society is Messed Up Doesn’t Mean Comic Books Need to Be

Just Because Society is Messed Up Doesn’t Mean Comic Books Need to Be

It’s really great when legends in a particular field dismiss the concerns of minorities. Did I say great? I meant horrible. But that’s exactly what happened at the Television Critics Association press tour.

Comic book creators Michael Kantor, Todd McFarlane, Len Wein and Gerry Conway participated in this press tour to promote a documentary on American comic books called “Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle.” As reported on Think Progress, they said some pretty messed up stuff.

There is a disturbing sexist streak that runs through geek culture, and comic books are no different. Women are vastly underrepresented at the big two comic book publishers, Marvel and DC. According to McFarlane and Conway, there’s not really any need to worry because there isn’t really a barrier to entry!

“There’s nothing stopping the people that want to do those from doing it,” McFarlane said when I asked if the dominance of the kinds of images he’s produced suggests a creative stagnation in superhero comics. Conway agreed, saying that “There may be some people who are actually very, very passionate to do that themselves, and they should. I mean, I don’t think there’s a barrier necessarily in the field. There’s certainly a barrier at the two main companies for new talent,” in a nod to my point to McFarlane that the employment levels of women and people of color at major comics companies are extraordinarily low.

Yeah, because we all know how easy it is write and draw in your spare time while working a job that supports you and your hobby, then build up a fan-base that will eventually pay you for your content. A major publishing house has nothing over the power of the Internet!

As painfully tone-deaf as those statements are, I’m more concerned about something else. Alyssa Rosenberg reports in the piece from Think Progress:

It’s an ancient canard that male heroes are as idealized as women, an idea that ignores their costumes, the difference between a fantasy of power you want to inhabit and sexual ability you want to take advantage of, and the contrast between admiring what someone can do with their body, and what you can do to theirs. But when I followed up with McFarlane, Wolverine creator Len Wein, and The Punisher creator Gerry Conway, the presentation became a showcase for a kind of attitude that’s far from universal in comics, but that still exerts considerable power among both creators and consumers of comics. In Conway’s words, “the comics follow society. They don’t lead society.” And the society they follow is all too comfortable with McFarlane the fantasies of artists like him dominating superhero comics.

Comics don’t lead society, they follow. This feels like an epic cope-out. In essence, what they are saying is this: white guys dominate the culture. Until they don’t anymore, comic books will be dominated by white men.

OK, cool, but comic books are part of culture. White guys will dominate culture until they don’t anymore, but the people who make the culture we consume refuse to diversify. I’m not the only one who sees this as a self-perpetuating cycle, right?

Furthermore, this seems like a dumb way to run a business. Sure, comic books are art, and art should reflect the culture in which it is made. But look at superhero-sized blockbuster Marvel’s The Avengers. Women accounted for 40 percent of those who saw the movie on opening weekend. And are you familiar with cosplay? Think of all the hours of thought and planning and all the money it took to create these amazing comic book-inspired costumes. Don’t tell me these women aren’t fans and don’t deserve to be represented in the medium.

Perhaps the most insulting thing to come out in Rosenberg’s piece is that these respected comic book creators seem to believe that giving in, as it were, to demands for more female/POC/LGBT representation in comic books would necessarily lead to bad stories.

Conway, McFarlane, and Wein all defaulted to another line of argument: that anyone asking for more diverse superhero comics is effectively asking for an entitlement that won’t produce good storytelling.

“There hasn’t really been historically a comic book that has worked that is trying to get across a kind of message, if you will,” McFarlane insisted. “So the female characters that work are the ones that are just strong women that actually it’s good storytelling, and the odd character that is a minority that works is the one that is just a good strong character. They’ve tried to do minority characters and bring that label and that surrounding [debate] into it. You’re aware that you’re reading a minority comic book. I think it’s wrong.”

I guess since white, hetero, cis-male are the default human setting that those characters bring only universal truths to the table. I think the point is that we’d like to see a lot of different characters from a lot of different gender, ethnic and racial backgrounds. The problem with the “token” character is that that character then has to speak for an entire race or gender, and that’s not fair. No one wants a crappy character just to fill a quota. However, it’s not unreasonable to want a superhero that you can identify with.

(Oh, and for evidence that comic books can have wonderful diversity of characters while still managing to tell a really compelling story, pick up Gail Simone’s new title, The Movement.)

The comic book industry has a problem. It’s too white, it’s too male and it’s too skittish, and it’s unfortunate that it seems unwilling to confront this problem and grow from it.

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Image credit: Pat Loika

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176 comments

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1:16PM PDT on Apr 8, 2014

As a female fan of superhero stuff, I'm not really offended by whether or not there are an equal number of male and female characters, I just want the characters to be interesting and not enforce any harmful stereotypes. More ethnic diversity would be cool so long as it doesn't feel forced.

9:16AM PDT on Aug 29, 2013

I LOVE my comic books and my female heroes. I also love the male heroes. don't read so much into this, most of these heroes came about in the early 90s, they have changed a lot and females have come a long way since

9:51PM PDT on Aug 19, 2013

God Forbid, is it possible all creators of comic books are GOP?

4:03PM PDT on Aug 16, 2013

Nick A. and many Native Americans actually prefer to be referred to as American Indians. You can't please everyone all the time. But I hope my point wasn't lost by what you chose to call attention to. In my post I did in fact use the word black not once but twice. Variety is just part of good composition form.

3:12PM PDT on Aug 15, 2013

Mildly interesting. Thanks.

9:25AM PDT on Aug 15, 2013

Brenda R, it’s interesting that you put people down because you say they “mock and belittle any who dare challenge the way things are in their little world” and yet you do what you accuse them of when you call people “Straight male geeks (and their queer and or female allies with something to prove).” What challenged your little world?
Melanie B, thanks for mentioning Joss. The final TV ep of Buffy was empowering for all young women. Another of his masterpieces was Firefly/Serenity, which had a lot of diversity. Too bad the networks just don’t “get” Joss.
Vernon B, thank you SO MUCH for reminding me of Cloak & Dagger.

8:42PM PDT on Aug 14, 2013

give me the Furry Freak Brothers, or anything by Robert Crumb, we all need a little fantasy.....or Heavy Metal Magazine in the 70s......boy did I just date myself.......

5:45PM PDT on Aug 14, 2013

I know the Fannish side of things and the Fen are more diverse than the general population.

2:16PM PDT on Aug 14, 2013

s a comic artist myself, I am all too familiar with the white,male, hetero-normative paradigm and how it strangles variety in the comic industry. I was at ComiCon Chicago just last week and it was painfully obvious there. The problem is, that's not a reflection of the fanbase. Almost 40% of the readership these days is female. And a surprising contingent of that body is also open to minority representation of both race and gender orientation as well. So it's a matter of an all boy's rule the schoolyard mentality. It's not about what readers want, it's about what publishers want to sell.

Which is sad, because contrary to McFarlane's idiotic statements, it IS the role of the artist to lead society. It has always been our place to comment on our world--what's wrong with it, what's right with it. And to play along with entitlement culture is weak.

And it's sad. Because the rich vista of comic art available to audiences could be so much richer yet.

7:50AM PDT on Aug 14, 2013

I really need to comment on this (from ThinkProgress's article, not mentioned in the article above), by Todd McFarlane:
"- - if I wanted to do something that I thought was emboldened to a female, I probably wouldn’t choose superhero comic books to get that message across. I would do it in either a TV show, a movie, a novel, or a book. It wouldn’t be superheroes because I know that’s heavily testosterone-driven, and it’s a certain kind of group of people. That’s not where I would go get this kind of message, so it might not be the right platform for some of this."

I've never liked McFarlane's drawing style and I hate what he did to Spider-Man, and it seems he's an idiot as well. He's basically saying here that superhero comics are for male geeks who expect certain clichés and he's more than happy to repeat those clichés, certainly not willing to stretch the boundaries of the genre and try to address other groups outside the stereotypical fan base... hell, bring back the classic Stan Lee / Jack Kirby to show this arrogant tw*t how to get innovative with superhero genre.

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