Get your geek on: crowds on the way into San Diego Comic-Con 2013. Photo: Getty
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Where’s Wonder Woman? How comic book diversity has failed to translate to the big screen

With over 75 years of history, comics boast a multitude of inspirational female, black and even disabled characters. Superman is, at its heart, an immigrant tale, while X-Men is an allegory of the fight against fascism. 

San Diego Comic-Con International, which takes place every July in Southern California, is the largest, longest-running and best-known comic convention on the planet and, as befitting both its name and history, attracts an audience from a plethora of national and ethnic backgrounds, both able-bodied and disabled, and over 40 per cent of whom are female, all united by a shared passion for pop culture. And yet some would say the inherent irony of Comic Con is that the diversity of its attendees – so visible on the convention floor – is not necessarily reflected in the very pop culture that fans are there to celebrate.

Gal Gador as Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman

This year nowhere was this more evident than at two of the most highly anticipated Comic Con panels: Marvel and Warner Bros. While the film studios were there to promote, respectively, The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, many fans were hoping for news of a Black Widow or Wonder Woman movie. Unsurprisingly, given Hollywood’s relationship with female-fronted films, the studios were not forthcoming. Mind-boggling though it is, Batman v Superman will be the first time Wonder Woman – the most famous female superhero in the world – has appeared on the big screen.

Anthony Mackie as Falcon in Captain America: the Winter Soldier

Earlier this year, Anthony Mackie, who played Falcon (AKA Sam Wilson) in Captain America: the Winter Soldier spoke of his joy at being able to give young black boys a superhero to look up to and said girls should have the same opportunity: “There should be a Wonder Woman movie… ‘cause little girls deserve that. There’s so many of these little people out here doing awful things for money in the world of being famous. And little girls see that. They should have the opposite spectrum of that to look up to.” Meanwhile, Marvel is equally reticent to commit to a Black Widow film, despite both the fans – and Scarlett Johansson, who plays Black Widow – publicly calling for one.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow

While lack of diversity in Hollywood is not news, it is more noticeable in comic-book movies than the usual blockbuster fare because of the contrast that can be made between the films and their source material. Comics have long been regarded as a highly progressive medium – it is no coincidence that the first comic book (Action Comics #1 with Superman on the cover) was published in 1938, a year before the Second World War – and provided a forum for exploration of race, gender and even disability. Superman is, at its heart, an immigrant tale while X-Men, which recently had its fifth box-office outing starring Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, is an allegory of the fight against fascism.

With over 75 years of history, comic books boast a multitude of inspirational female, black and even disabled characters – one-time Batgirl Barbara Gordon was for many years confined to a wheelchair. Last year Abraham Riesman, writing in the New Yorker, noted that Marvel’s comic books are “more ethnically diverse, feminist, and queer-positive than they’ve ever been” and that was before last month’s announcement that, in the comics, Thor is to become a woman and Mackie’s character Sam Wilson will step into the Captain America suit.

Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones

To some extent the diversity portrayed in the comics has been preserved on the small-screen, however. While based on a fantasy novel series rather than a comic book per se, fan favourite Game of Thrones has led the way in this regard, with the actress Natalie Dormer, who plays the controversial Margaery Tyrell on the show, saying during a Comic Con panel, “The best female roles I think are in television at the moment, I really do… Where television is fantastic and is way ahead of film, it doesn’t feel the need to polarise women so much.” The series has also turned Peter Dinklage, who was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, into a household name.

Matt Ryan as John Constantine in the forthcoming Constantine

Even television has its limitations, however, no doubt in part due to the prevalence of conservative groups in the US such as the Parents Television Council. Thus, despite its legions of fans, Game of Thrones has been criticised for being “too white”; while Constantine, a forthcoming NBC series heavily promoted at Comic Con this year, has been blasted after producers refused to confirm whether the title character will remain bisexual, as he is in the comic series on which the show is based.

Ultimately, setting aside the complex question of whether it is even possible for artistic endeavours satisfactorily to reflect the audience that consumes them (and spends money on DVDs, cinema tickets and merchandise), from a purely critical view, what’s disappointing about on-screen depictions of comics straying from their source material is that they inevitably suffer creatively. For it is the very diversity of the characters – their individuality and their struggles – that gives them depth and, in turn, longevity.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.