Shades of Diversity in the Comic World

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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?

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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.

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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." 

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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.

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Eaton also sees problems with the structure of fan culture itself, which seems content with the status quo. This was neatly symbolized by the editorial choices at Comic Con. "My panel featuring four black creators and a professor of history was shot down so that a panel on black characters — featuring no black creators — could be held. I am still very salty about it because it perfectly illustrates my issue with the industry," she said. "They want us as consumers, but God forbid we actually try and snag a seat at the creator's table."

With the passing of Dwayne McDuffie back in February, the already tiny pool of black comic creators writing for mainstream publishing houses shrank yet again. Black creators often craft the types of comics that speak realistically to the day-to-day experiences of people of color. Brothers said that at this point, he's shifting his focus to indie space.

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"Sanford Greene, Dwayne McDuffie, Afua Richardson, are all more likely to give me the comic that I want," Brothers said. "I feel like [black fans] are all slowly learning to stop beating our heads against the wall; we just get what we need elsewhere. I'm not saying the big two [Marvel Comics and DC Comics] are hopeless, but there is so much going on with creators who are doing their own thing."

With that optimistic look toward a future outside of the publishing house, one has to wonder — does the future of comics still lie with the printed page? "Not everyone wants comic books. If I want to see a good cyborg story, I can go to Cartoon Network," Brothers said. "I like comic shops, but finding one is a pain, finding a good one is a pain and you are only getting part of the story."

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He notes that new generations of comic fans are showing up to these types of events because of films and video games revolving around the heroes — not because of their slavish devotion to Wednesday-afternoon comic book release schedules.

While black creators have similar struggles in the movie and TV world, the democratization of the medium through digital comics offers signs of promise in a somewhat bleak landscape. Already, initiatives like the fundraising site Kickstarter have lowered the bar for entering the comic space by allowing creators to directly fund their own projects, instead of waiting for approval by publishing houses.

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And fans of color are speaking up: Donald Glover, a nerdy and proud actor on the popular show Community, started a Twitter campaign to be cast as Spider-Man in the reboot. While he didn't make the cut, his actions led to the new black-Latino Spider-Man fronting the comics.

The major decision makers in the industry may not be quite ready to acknowledge the reach of fans of color, but thanks to sheer numbers and our changing society, that day is soon on the horizon.

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Latoya Peterson is the editor of Racialicious.com and a frequent contributor to The Root.

Latoya Peterson is a hip-hop feminist, anti-racist activist and deputy editor of Fusion’s Voices section, opining on pop culture, news, video games and everything that makes life worth living. 

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