Shades of Diversity in the Comic World

Major comic book publishers need to create more superheroes for a growing black audience.

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At New York Comic Con, black fans were out in full force. Unlike stereotypical depictions of comic book conventions showing nerdy, older white men stuffed into kid-sized costumes, the show floors of Comic Con looked a lot like the streets of New York City -- just with a few more superheroes around.

Nerds of color didn't just begin descending on Comic Con; people of all races, ethnicities, genders and sexualities normally find something to relate to in the broad and vivid world of comics. But is simply participating in this world enough for black fans and black creators? Or do we need to play a more integral role in the future of the historically white comics world?

Comic Con, like many other conventions, did give a nod to diversity. A panel discussion called "Always Bet on Black" revealed a history of black characters in the medium. Despite the late time slot, the line snaked down the hallway of the Javits Center. Writers and authors also used the gathering to promote their up-and-coming projects, including a screening of Adult Swim's new animated series Black Dynamite, based on the 2009 film.

Cheryl Lynn Eaton, the comics aficionado and blogger behind Digital Femme, noted, "I was thrilled at the diversity I saw behind the booths, within the pages and in the crowd. But I couldn't help but notice that the majority of the brown faces were visible behind the tables of struggling indie companies instead of those at major publishing houses."

As in most aspects of corporate America, the comics industry also struggles with diversity. But things are beginning to change. "I attended a Marvel panel that featured two Latino editors and an Asian director of communications. A few years ago, that panel would have been all white. So things are getting better -- slowly," Eaton said. "I'm just not satisfied with slow change behind the scenes when the books and fandom have changed so rapidly."

Indeed. Images from NYCC show a virtual rainbow coalition of fans, from enthusiastic, 40-plus women with dreadlocks and Superman T-shirts to children, barely out of diapers, who were able to identify their favorite comic characters on sight.

So what contributes to the disconnect? The comic world is a very small community, with limited opportunities for entry and advancement. Many of the classic creators and their assistants were white; black creators have only recently been allowed access to the majors. 

But a lack of diversity in the executive suite isn't the only issue with creating comics that feature black heroes. David Brothers, founder of 4thLetter and contributor to Comics Alliance, believes it's a more complicated mix of factors than the usual pop-culture whiteout. "Companies are desperate to keep a black character in print -- we've had an ongoing Black Panther comic since 1999; DC [Comics] has been pushing characters hard. They want to make it work, but the sales numbers aren't there." 

Is it just a matter of black comic fans not supporting titles that feature black characters? That may be worth exploring, but Brothers explained that most of the blockbuster, mainstream superheroes were all created before the 1950s, giving them decades to attract and maintain fan bases. Superman (debuting in 1938), Wonder Woman (1941) and Batman (1939) are still the main icons and biggest draws for the box office and merchandise.

It is harder for characters created after the Golden Age, Brother said. While there are exceptions to the rule, such as Spider-Man (1962) and The X-Men (1963), heroes such as Black Panther, Falcon and Luke Cage only started to shine after the civil rights movement started influencing comic artists.