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.
Image credit: Pat Loika