January 16, 2012

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Dr. King, Comics, and Why Race Still Matters

My personal favorite Dr. King
biography.
Editor's note:  This post is probably going to upset a few people.  I'm sorry for that, because if you feel like the "race problem" is over in America (and elsewhere) and that there's no need to examine racism, intentional and otherwise, in the 21st century then you are either sadly naive or a bigot, depending.  You won't like this post, and rather than curse my name, why don't you just move along?

Editor's note 2:  I write this post with a bit of hesitation, not because I do not believe strongly in what I am about to say, but because I am white.  I have privileges that I get just by being white.  I can't know what it's like to be a minority in this country.  But I try to look at this as objectively as possible, and I think I can speak, however distantly, on this subject.  Please bear with me and forgive any missteps.  They are made not in malice, but in an attempt to highlight what I consider to be real issues.

Today is the day in the United States where we mark the anniversary of the birth of Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr., the face of the modern civil rights movement.  It's not his actual birthday, mind you, but people like holidays at the end of weekends more than they like recognizing the sacrifices made by a great man.  It's sad that having a three day weekend trumps the purpose of having the day off, but that's incredibly American.

Sadly, for a lot of people, today is just a bonus day to sleep in.  Just as we like to pretend there's nothing wrong with so many other issues in America that aren't germane to comics, I think there are quite a few people who know that Dr. King fought against unjust laws in the South and now those laws don't exist, so everything is just fine.

Those people are wrong.  Dr. King's Dream wasn't answered when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.  They didn't get fulfilled when an African American became President.  Just because Eddie Murphy was the biggest name on Saturday Night Live and Oprah was the darling of white middle class soccer moms doesn't mean the problems he pointed out are over.  In fact, they can be the exceptions that end up proving the very rules.

Rest in peace, and thank
you forever for
Justice League Unlimited.
While there are many issues relating to race in America, I want to specifically look at comics.  Anyone who reads about comics and news of the industry knows that minority involvement in mainstream comics is shallow at best.  It is difficult to name high-profile African American creators in comics, and we recently lost one of the best, Dwayne McDuffie.  Even those who are fairly well known are not on the biggest superhero books, such as Justice League or Batman or Fantastic Four or the Avengers.  Kyle Baker does an adults-only version of Deadpool, and while that character is popular, it's not like that book is selling in the top 25 of superhero comic books.

There are certainly others whose names are recognizable to those who read a lot of comics, but I don't think any of these creators who are household names, with no offense intended (and apologies if I am discounting them).  Ron Wilson drew some of my favorite Thing stories, but that was decades ago.  Brian Stelfreeze used to do Batman covers, but you have to go back to the Clinton Administration.  Keith Pollard did Amazing Spider-Man around the time I was born.  Christopher Priest once edited the wall-crawler, but I don't think he's written anything for Marvel or DC in about ten years now.  I loved Darryl Banks' art style, but I wouldn't know the last time I saw it.  There are a few others I could name-check here, but I think you get the point.
They meant well.
I think.
While we've come a long way in terms of portrayals of African American characters in superhero comics and have even progressed to the point where Luke Cage can be in charge of a group of Avengers (the cool one, if you ask me) and a Batman spin-off book features a hero from Africa, it's troublesome to me that the people working on DC and Marvel comic books are almost exclusively white.   As I write this, DC does not have a single African American creator working on their books after recent changes.

Not one.

You can do all you can to improve portrayals of minorities in your books, but young African Americans reading these books need more than just characters that look like them (though that is a step in the right direction).  They need to be able to read these books and say, "Hey, this is something I can do because there are people just like me already doing it!"

Love that belt buckle.
This is where we circle around to an argument that happens everywhere.  I have heard more times than I care to count the "race doesn't matter" trope.  That argument claims that it doesn't matter the race of the person involved, because we are all equal.  It's further compounded by its odious counterpart, "only the best should be allowed to do it" followed closely by "you want quotas."

All of that is bullshit.

Let's start with the first one.  I work with a large population of African American youth.  As a consequence, when I'm not reading comics, I also read about how young minds operate.  Guess what?  Studies show that kids look around and notice who is just like them!  And when they don't see people who are like them, they figure, perhaps even unconsciously, that the job in question is not for them.  So when they read Green Lantern or Fantastic Four or Invincible, and none of the people involved are black, too many of them will think that they can't work in comics, either.  It's not something you pick up on, until you're reading a student write "that person is just like me" on their paper.

And then you see it on a second paper.  Then three, four, and five.

So don't tell me that having African Americans writing and drawing comics doesn't matter because race doesn't matter.  That's just not the case.

The second argument, that only the best should be working in comics, is almost laughable.  Go look at comic books with six inkers and try to tell me with a straight face that we have only the best working right now.  I'm not even going to name check some terrible creators who have books right now with Marvel and DC.  We all have our preferences, but to claim that these and only these people can work in the industry (some because they have for over twenty years and that is their only selling point) is a joke.

As for the third argument, no, quotas are stupid.  No one is clamoring for quotas when they say that there need to be more minorities in comics.  But when Ann Nocenti is only your second female writer, you have a problem.  When you cannot find a single African American that you think could write a comic, that's a problem.  This is not a case of asking for a percentage, this is a case of saying that you just can't ignore the fact that your creative teams are whiter than the poster board they're drawing on.

I'm not saying that Marvel or DC are trying to be racist.  I think Chris Sims said it best when he felt the lack of African American creators is due more to a lack of thinking than thinking of discrimination.  My point is that to try and claim that this doesn't matter is misguided at best and harmful at worst.  We ignore diversity at our peril, all of us, whether we are readers, writers, bloggers, artists, editors, or publishers.  We can keep chasing the same 100,000 aging readers who are overwhelmingly white by giving them a steady dose of Rob Liefeld, Howard Mackie, Brian Michael Bendis, and other familiar names or we can look at inspiring the next generation of creators, starting now.

Don't get me wrong.  I love a lot of the creators working today, and I'm glad to see them working.  I also want well written and well drawn books, regardless of the race of the creator.  But I think that ignoring this problem is hurting the industry.  I am a comics evangelist.  I want more comics, and I want more people reading comics.  One of the ways to do this is to have more people of different races working on superhero comics.  While I love my indie comics and my self-published minis, their audience is limited.  Only a book like Superman has the power to let young men and women like the ones I work with know that they, too, can work on a comic book.

Now that's a dream Dr. King could get behind.