Diversity in comics: Marvel’s attitude is closer to the Stone Age than to a new Golden Age

Why your favourite comic book publisher sounds like your least favourite elderly relative.

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The comic book industry has always considered itself a vanguard of progressiveness; where school library books, blockbuster movies and television failed to turn up varied protagonists, DC had characters like Oracle, a wheelchair-bound genius super-heroine who was an integral part of Birds of Prey – a mostly female team of badasses.

Meanwhile, Marvel comics had the X-Men. “Mutant and Proud” spoke to generations of readers from minority groups – and when those diverse characters were projected on to the silver screen, other filmgoers saw themselves represented. And yet recently, Marvel has made headlines, over and over again, for its apparently newfound disregard for diversity.

First, X-Men writer Marc Guggenheim claimed in an interview that a new story arc would be “more about the X-Men as heroes than the X-Men as a struggling minority fighting for their very existence”. Although Guggenheim stressed that X-Men is still “a story about extremism”, his decision to downplay connections with the fight for civil rights and equality seemingly dismisses the fact many fans like the X Men precisely because they are “a struggling minority”.

More notably, David Gabriel, Marvel’s vice president of sales, claimed that increasing diversity in comic books was becoming less of a lucrative strategy: “What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity. They didn't want female characters out there," he said. "I don't know that that's really true, but that's what we saw in sales.”

However, it's possible that Gabriel was conflating two issues - struggling sales and increased minority representation. The drop in sales to which he was referring was arguably a function of the flawed direct market system under which comics are distributed, which – as writer and critic J. A. Micheline told me – “alienates newcomers and only encourages a single and archaic avenue of purchases, which in turn guarantees that only a sliver of people buy comics in a way that reflects success to companies”.

Marvel has also been criticised for not comparing its sales figures for diverse comics with those that they consider to be “not-diverse”; not including the sales numbers for their digital comics; and marketing things unequally. Given these recent comments, fans have pointed out the irony of how heavily the publisher has been marketing the arc of Captain America with Cap as a member of Hydra (an organisation founded by a Nazi), in comparison with its lacklustre push for readers of their newer comics. Also, introducing diverse replacements for famously successful characters rather than simply coming up with new ones has been criticised as a strategy that estranges long-term readers.

These are not the only reasons why big-name publishing companies are experiencing lower sales than in previous years. No longer are we locked in the bilateral Cold War of Marvel versus DC, both of whom have become so associated with film and television in recent years that their printed efforts feel slightly sidelined.

Other comic publishing houses are stepping into the breach – stealing the best writers - and, dare I say it, surpassing their predecessors. Ibtisam Ahmed, a doctoral research student at the School of Politics and IR, University of Nottingham (and avid comic book fan) told me that “the drop in sales mentioned by Marvel is down to the unpopularity of some storytelling, not people of colour or queer characters". He added: "Otherwise, the likes of America Chavez [the first gay Latin-American Miss America] and newly-out Iceman would not have received their own comic series, the likes of Wiccan and Hulkling [both from Young Avengers] would not have been top of fan lists for their own series, and Riri Williams [the young black woman taking on Iron Man’s mantle] would not have been used by universities in promoting women of colour in the sciences”.

Comics have always been political and, while they may have been a niche interest in the past, thanks to the internet and big budget superhero films (which can afford the CGI to make scenes look as epic as they deserve) they have experienced a mainstream boom. Fans today do not have to hike miles to find a place which sells flimsy single issues. Now, anyone can go online and order the trade paperbacks straight to their home, or even discover new original web comics that independent authors and illustrators have lovingly curated and then gifted to the masses.

Jennie Gyllblad, creator of independent comic book Skal, told me that “in the independent/small press scene, diverse creators - and audiences - are thriving (if not dominating). With the internet and comic conventions, creators have a mainline to readers, so voices from all walks of life have a chance to be heard”.

The real concern, she explains, is that there are problems with money in the comics industry in general, with creators beginning to turn to unconventional forms of funding online, such as Patreon and Kickstarter. This is something that the emerging powerhouses of the comic book community have taken to heart; one of the reasons for the exodus of some of Marvel’s best talent is because publishing houses like Image, the third largest publisher in the US, have made most of their comics “creator-owned”. This means that the original creators of a comic book own its trademark and copyright in entirety and are not subject to creative interference.

Arguably, Image is doing so well because it chooses its titles based on the stories, rather than repeatedly rebooting old successes to cater to a homogeneous audience (I’m looking at you again, Marvel).

Today, it is rare that minority creative teams are put in charge of famous comic books. This may be partially down to the idea that once a story is handed to a marginalised person it becomes viewed as solely for marginalised groups. As Dee Emm Elms, who wrote a short story starring transgender heroine Kit Farben, which was included in volume 2 of graphic novel My So-Called Secret Identity, told me: “When a white cis man slays a dragon, white cis men call that an adventure. When a woman or a minority slays a dragon, white cis men call that an agenda”.

Marvel's tone-deaf statements are particularly galling since they have recently begun to build a diverse audience  – brought in by the appeal of Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers (which offers a poignant look at sexuality and mental health – and hopefully will continue to do so).

DC rightly ruffled feathers with their New 52 reboot, which saw Barbara Gordon shift back from Oracle to Batgirl. Still, they have a much better track record with LGBT+ characters, notably Wonder Woman and the now canonical relationship between Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn.

Realistically, though, this has just shone a light on the many impressive other comic books out there which do not use “diversity” performatively but instead try to represent their varied readership. From my favourite, the internationally acclaimed Saga - which stars a range of characters of colour against the backdrop of a chilling war - to independent web comics like Skal, Priya’s Shakti and My So-Called Secret Identity, it is clear that there is a demand for more diverse comic books. As Ibtisam Ahmed told me, “in an age where being queer, a person of colour, and/or a woman is increasingly deadly, these stories are vital for not just creativity but survival”.

Anjuli R. K. Shere writes about science. She was a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman.