Well, HOLY CRAP. It’s all done broke loose now, hasn’t it. What the hell is going on? The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together. OR should that be: men and women, blacks and whites making COMICS together.
It seems like “The Diversity Issue” in comics has exploded all over the place. It can’t be silenced. It can’t be swept under the rug. More accurately, its ISP can’t be blocked. The intersquawk just won’t let these issue die. Is it just a few malcontents who won’t shut up?
Is it a reflection of the world we live in?
Or is it just that as we enter the Digital Age of comics (and everything else) infinite accessibility means that the broadening audience for comics needs them to step up and join the real world?
I prefer to see the recent tempests over the New DC’s gender balance and mixed-race Spider-Man as more of the latter. It isn’t just Sue at DC Women Kicking Ass. It isn’t just David Brothers. These issues get raised again and again and again because of a profound truth:
COMICS ARE FOR EVERYBODY.
As DC and Marvel struggle to hold on to their audience and grow a new one, they really can’t afford to alienate customers — they need every one. They’ve got the white, male super-hero reading crowd, but as Bob Wayne said the the State of the Industry panel at San Diego, “We need to build a bigger pie.” That pie is going to have ingredients in all shapes and sizes. And colors.
Comics already have diversified, outside the big two, certainly gender-wise. I’ve already pointed out how 2010’s top-selling graphic novels show a wider audience for comics. In the past 10 years we’ve seen new markets and new genres emerge, thanks to bookstores and Amazon but also smart, savvy comic shop owners who aren’t so stupid as to want to turn away new customer bases.
This is how it should be.
But there is a dark, potential corollary to this. Is it possible that there are some comics readers who are so threatened by the Other that they will stop buying material that reflects diversity? Sadly, that is probably true as hateful comments here and elsewhere show. Is this number big enough to offset gains in other areas?
In writing about Miles Morales, the new Ultimate Spider-Man yesterday, I said “Despite some reports that books featuring non-white leads don’t sell in comics shops, we see this as a savvy move on Marvel’s part.” Here’s what I was talking about.
Last year, Rich Johnston wrote about how BRING THE THUNDER was Dynamites second-lowest-ordered book ever, and suggested that it might be because the book featured an African-American lead:
The second lowest ordered book of all time from Dynamite is coming out this week. Bring The Thunder #1, created and co-written by Alex Ross, written by Jai Nitz and illustrated by Wilson Tortosa.
[snip] Alex Ross creates a number of covers for the publisher and, while it’s fair to say that Ross may not be as prominent as he was in the days of Marvels and Kingdom Come, his covers always lift sales for books, and it’s arguable that the first issue of a new superhero comic created by the man should sell better than, well, Queen Sonja #37. Or Deepak Chopra’s Buddha #3. Or Pat Lee’s Widow Warriors #4.
So there is uncomfortable reality that this book does feature a lead African American character, and promoted as such. And that such reduced preorders may be as a result that some believe that such books automatically sell lower.
That’s all pretty anecdotal and suppositional and doesn’t really prove cause and effect. But it is worth considering.
Two years ago, there was a longer discussion of this, spinning out of comments by Tom Brevoort, Marvel’s executive editor:
I don’t know that it’s any one thing, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that it’s all part of the same phenomenon that makes it more difficult to sell series with female leads, or African-American leads, or leads of any other particular cultural bent. Because we’re an American company whose primary distribution is centered around America, the great majority of our existing audience seems to be white American males. So while within that demographic you’ll find people who are interested in a wide assortment of characters of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, whenever your leads are white American males, you’ve got a better chance of reaching more people overall.
At the time, Mark Waid commented:
Tom’s syntax following that is a little blunt…man, I wish it were wrong, but it’s not. Every comics publisher ever, including BOOM!, can tell you maddening tales of retailers who, even now, in the 21st century, are hesitant to order books with non-white, non-American leads because their community won’t support them. It’s absurd, it’s crazy-making, I don’t know what it’s going to take to change that other than time…but like it or not, it is an unfortunate truth of the time in which we live.
puts the blame squarely on retailersmentions retail demand as the weak link, as does Johnston’s item: they are just skittish about ordering these books due to poor customer demand. (There have, of course, been successful comics with ethnic leads — Black Panther, Spider-Girl, Spawn.)
That brings us to this week’s kerfuffle, the Larry’s Comics Incident.
I’m not going to rehash all of this, but suffice to say that while discussing the new Ultimate Spider-Man, Larry Doherty, owner of Larry’s Comics in New England, tweeted two idiotic racist jokes which he soon deleted because people were outraged. I’m not going to post them here but you can read them here and here.
Doherty, who runs stores that are very supportive of a wide variety of material, has made a name as a “straight talking” loudmouth who revels in being offensive. But whereas previous salvos against women and gays could be laughed off more easily, Doherty learned, as did Michael Richards and Jimmy the Greek before him, that once you start making racist jokes, you get held up to a new degree of scorn and revulsion.
While he tried to laugh it off at first, Doherty got so much heat he had to apologize and has since shown a more subdued demeanor on Twitter. And a complicating matter: Larry is also the driving force behind #comicsmarket, a weekly Twitter conversation on marketing and — wait for it — expanding the audience for comics. Many people, publicly, and privately, complained that Doherty shouldn’t hold himself up as a representative for selling comics when he used the same channel for such tasteless jokes. Graphic Policy has a great rundown of the issues:
The greater issue is, it’s a black eye for the #comicmarket. As a whole the discussion has been positive, and a lot of great things have come out of it, but a few people can ruin something easily. The discussion at times, beyond this incident, has been combative, negative and participants are dismissed due to their status of not being retailers. Threats towards artists, writers and publishers that mimic George Bush’s “you’re with us or against us” pepper the discussion as if those tweeting are a La Costra Nerdstra.
And it’s a shame because #comicsmarket had some good conversations and observations, and we need that kind of dialog.
But there’s more. I was following the Tweet-storm closely over the last few days, and before he took a new tack, during his more defiant phase, Doherty tweeted something else that didn’t get as much attention:
Static. You know, the African American superhero who had his own TV show for a while.
Friends, let us reason together.
Do you think there MIGHT POSSIBLY be a connection between this comic getting low pre-orders in a shop and the fact the shop is run by a man who would make tasteless racist jokes and then cluelessly defend them as good natured humor?
What is cause and what is effect in the above talk about minority-lead comic selling less? How much is expectation?
At all the retailer events I attended at Comic-Con, it was a continuing refrain among shop owners — you have to sell and sell and sell and keep your customers happy. It is possible, I suppose, for the Wednesday-driven economy of the comic shop environment to thrive and grow on their existing audience. But that isn’t what DC’s recent moves are telling me they think is true. Given all the horrible bigoted comments that the Miles Morales character has received, I think it took some courage on Marvel’s part to make this move — and they should be commended — but I also don’t think they had anything to lose.
We’re moving forward, people. This is the new world. Nearly a year ago, Mark Millar told me “It’s desperation that makes innovation in any medium. Comics need to get desperate.”
DC and Marvel are trying to move outside their comfort zone. For some at these companies, that zone was really really comfortable, and they are now going to be very very uncomfortable — Dan DiDio’s comfort zone will long be haunted by Kyrax2. But the reality that is plain to see is that to survive, Wednesday is going to have to evolve.
That panel of Miles demasking was everywhere yesterday. And the more I saw it, the more I loved it. It’s iconic (I wish the dialog were a little more iconic but so be it.) It’s a beautiful drawing full of character that draws me in. It reminds me a little of Velazquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, which is surely too high praise as that painting is one of the greatest of all times, but they share that sense of humanity which informs the best art.
That panel makes me think of a better place for comics. And to survive, we all need to get to that better place. Together.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.