The moment when my passion for comics began is as clear to me now many, many years later as it was then. It was the moment when I saw Batgirl on the TV screen. As a small child I loved Batman, but I couldn’t be Batman because I was a girl. But then there was this girl, woman, doing the things that Batman could do. And I soon found she was not just on television but in comic books too. I was hooked.
That moment of seeing Batgirl, and realizing that there was someone like me who could do cool Batman stuff, stands at the crux of so much that I work for in comics. I believe in Dwayne McDuffie’s vision that everyone should be able to see someone who looks like themselves in comics. I believe it fervently. And today I’ll tell you why I care so much on a personal level.
On Tuesday, Marvel Comics unveiled the new Ultimate Spider-Man, Miles Morales who is a biracial teenager. I don’t read Ultimate Spider-Man or much Marvel, but the sight of Miles’ face in the Spider-Man costume made me, as well as many others, very happy.
But the unveiling of Miles also brought out a sickening display of racist hatred. I wish I could say I was surprised. But I’m not. The same day that Miles was unveiled there were also news stories about a member of Congress who used the term “tar baby” in a discussion about the President of the United States.
But this post is not about the racist reactions. This post is about why Miles Morales is important.
My love of comics, and of DC Comics in particular, is something I’ve passed along to my children. Why not? Comics have given me much joy and pleasure through the years; what parent doesn’t share interests they love with their child?
Like many parents of young kids, my home is filled with superhero toys and kid comics. There is Batman shampoo and t-shirts and drinking glasses. If DC has stuck a logo on it and marketed it to kids in the last five years it has probably ended up in my home. And that’s not just because I read comics. Superheroes are so prevalent and pervasive that they become a part of kid’s life even if their parents don’t read comics.
A while ago, I guess a year and half or so, my son asked me a question. “Mommy, what DC hero looks like me?” Kids are like that at a certain age, they become incredibly focused on making connections to themselves (pre-schoolers can be raging egomaniacs at times). My son is Korean so I showed him Ryan Choi, the Atom written by Gail Simone. And he was thrilled. For the next few days he was obsessed with Ryan and he would repeat, “Mommy, he’s just like me.” Over and over. Because that’s the way kids are. We bought the JLU figure and he was happy to add it to his collection.
And then last year one of the only Asian superheroes in DC Comics, the only one that looked like my son, was murdered on page and his body stuffed in a matchbox.
The moment disgusted and angered me, but those feelings were certainly amplified because of my son.
I never told him, of course. Ryan has appeared the Batman Brave and the Bold animated series and he also showed up in Tiny Titans. And when he appeared there my son loved it. (Though he’s added Kid Devil and Kid Flash to his list of favorite characters so there was less pressure on explaining why Ryan wasn’t seen anymore.)
Jim Lee recently revealed that the Atom in the new Justice League is Ryan Choi. While I am not completely satisfied with the level of diversity in the new Justice League, that Ryan Choi is on the team makes me very, very happy. Now, when my son looks at the Justice League he will see someone he can say is “just like me.” Isn’t that something every parent would like to have? Isn’t that what any comic fan would want?
Which brings me to Miles Morales. In the world of comic book heroes and kids there are very few icons. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man are probably the top four. These are the ones that get licensed over and over and put on all the kid’s crap that is strewn throughout my home. There are no Luke Cage toothbrushes. No Storm or Cass Cain lunchboxes. No Ryan Choi or Solstice grape scented shampoo.
And there may never be. Because the big two kids superhero licensing is about the big icons. And those icons are all white.
But now they’re not. Now when a kid picks up a Spider-Man toothbrush, or puts Spider-Man sheets on their bed or pulls Spider-Man underpants on with a Spider-Man t-shirt, underneath that mask there is someone who doesn’t look like every other icon. Now there is Miles Morales.
Dwayne McDuffie said he started Milestone because he couldn’t find anyone who looked like him in comics. His most popular character, Virgil Hawkins aka Static, was the star of a long running animated series that was viewed by many more people than buy the most popular comics from DC or Marvel.
Static never got an all-ages comics like other superhero shows from Warner Bros., but he is getting a comic in the new 52 as is Mr. Terrific, Blue Beetle and Batwing. These books give hope, as with the return of Ryan Choi, that DC is listening and is upping its commitment to diversity. But these books are also competing against Batman and Superman and Green Lantern. I hope they don’t get lost. I hope DC promotes them beyond their traditional direct market. There was a devoted television audience for Static Shock; everyone of them is a potential new reader of Static #1. And of other DC comics.
I’ve said my piece on the need for the Big Two to embrace diversity. It’s is simple - the world is changing, comics need to evolve or be a dinosaur. Heidi McDonald at Comics Beat said similar things in a post yesterday. DC and Marvel still have a long way to go.
Miles Morales is now Spider-Man. Ryan Choi is back and in the Justice League, Static has a DC title. DC Comics has publicly committed to gender diversity. And there is some positive movement on gays in DC comics with Batwoman and Apollo and Midnighter in the new 52. No question there is much, much more to do. But these are positive signs that both companies are realizing there is a need to expand beyond the traditional readers.
Will these things help combat the horrible, sickening racism that seethed in the comments sections about Spider-Man this week? (Or the ugly language used in the past week’s discussion around women and comics?) God no, I am not that naive. But will having a biracial Spider-Man that doesn’t look like every other superhero icon help? I believe it can. And really isn’t having a child who doesn’t have the same skin color as Batman or Superman or Wonder Woman or Iron Man or Thor now being able to look at Spider-Man and say, “Mommy, he’s like me!” a wonderful thing no matter what? I think it is.
Yesterday I posted how DC Comics had published a corrected version of the Flash family from Flashpoint #1. This portrait included the granddaughter of Barry Allen properly portrayed as a black woman. In the pages that were included in DC’s Green Lantern Free Comic Book Day issue, she has been colored and presented as a mysterious white member of the Flash family.
How did this happen? I have no idea. I asked DC if they wanted to comment on it yesterday, but my email has not been responded to. Neither have I seen any explanation. And even if they did respond, I am sure that they would say it was a “mistake.”
But a mistake that changes one of the few women of color in the Flash family, one of the few women of color in the Legion, one of the few women of color in comics is more than a mistake. It’s a painful reminder that in comics, white is the default. White is the majority. White is the easy choice because you have, according to Marvel’s Tom Brevoort, only a 1% chance of being wrong.
One year ago this week, DC Comics killed off Ryan Choi. The only male Asian superhero of prominence was murdered and shoved into a matchbox. The reason? To make the Titans look evil and, of course, to pave the way for his white predecessor Ray Palmer to return to comics. The timing of this latest fumble on race by DC would be amusing if it wasn’t so enraging and sad because
This conversation with Brevoort has been written about elsewhere and I was only tangentially involved; the conversation was driven by the essayist SonofBaldwin, but I can tell you it was one of the most disheartening things I’ve experienced during my time in comics fandom. Why? Because it confirmed something I and others have suspected for a long time; that white is the default because anything else is less important and hard. Need proof? Read why there are not more white faces at Marvel comics. Why 99% of superheroes were white and are white. Why a Black Avengers is a "contrivance" (as say opposed to “Pet Avengers”)
Oh, that’s social justice and that’s not their job. Their job is to write
I had to ask.
So says the man whose company published “Wolverine: The best there is" and so many other comics that make a steaming pile of dog crap look good.
How painful is it to hear a representative of Marvel, a Disney company - a company who does “corporately mandate” diversity - dismiss diversity so casually? As if it was an effort that wasn’t important? As if it were something that in the scheme of things didn’t really count? That the idea of being inclusive is less important than allowing writers to do what they want.
Is it any wonder why their medium is in a slow, painful decline?
And that brings me back to this “coloring mistake”. It is easy for DC to hand wave it. “We were rushed” “There was a miscommunication” “The artist and writer didn’t communicate the right way” I can go on and on thinking up the reasons they could give (because they haven’t given any reason). But the bottom-line is this. Somewhere along the line, somebody didn’t care.
They didn’t care to check. They didn’t care to think that a black woman would be in a “white family”. This is an industry where superheroes are “99% white” and where including characters who are not the white default is considered “social justice”. Where killing off and marginalizing characters who are not white in favor of characters that are white is done over and over. Where we have seen, time after time, readers who are not default of white, male and straight are not a main focus.
I get lots and lots of aggressive responses from people when I post about race and gender on this blog. And many of the responses fall into the same meme, “white males are the majority of readers in comics so why shouldn’t comics consist mainly of them?”
And you know what I say? I say comics is better than that. I say the majority of comic readers are better than that. I say Warner Brothers/DC and Disney/Marvel are better and smarter than that.
You don’t grow a business in a global and diverse world by catering to a minority. And that’s what white males are. Sorry guys, you are a minority. The world is far more diverse than that and is getting more diverse everyday. And it is time for big two comics to smarten up and pay attention. To care. Because if they don’t, the big two comic companies will get left behind.
To less than 100,000 readers a month the Green Lantern is a white guy — to millions of television viewers he is a black man.
To DC Comics, Wonder Woman is a problem that requires constant fixing and doesn’t appeal to their core readers — to the Estee Lauder corporation she is a valuable brand that drives revenue.
To formerly “male-focused” entities such as the NFL and NASCAR women are a valuable, core audience — to the big two comic companies they are an after thought.
To Marvel an all black team of Avengers is a contrivance and the Avengers should consist of “A team” players — to many sports teams an all-black starting line-up are their superstars and their “A-team.”
In big two comics gays barely exist — in the real world they are everywhere.
The world is changing. It is time to care. Diversity is important. The choice is simple — do it and evolve, or be a dinosaur.