Former DC editor and current Comics Alliance editor-in-chief Joe Hughes kicks off Black History Month by baldly stating a shameful fact about the US comics industry::
This is the first week of Black History Month, a four-week celebration and remembrance of the significant events and people of the African diaspora. For many, myself included, it’s a month to reflect on where we’ve been, as a people and as a nation, and to contemplate exactly where it is we’re going. In terms of the comic book industry, an obvious interest and passion of mine, there is one glaring and sobering fact that needs our attention: There is currently not a single black writer working on a monthly series for either of the two biggest comic book publishers in the United States, and precious few working for any of the others.
The whole piece is s must read, but a few more excerpts just to make sure you get the message. Although The New 52 did start out with a laudable attempt at diversity, writers Eric Wallace and Marc Bernadin were gone after the first few passes. Marvel NOW! never even got that far:
That’s two major initiatives over the past 18 months from the two biggest comic publishers in this country meant to update their brands in an attempt to better reflect the world we currently live in. Yet somehow, from the angle of a black writer trying to break into comics, this current era in the industry looks quite a bit like the one we were supposed to be leaving behind. For what it’s worth, publishers like Dark Horse, Image, IDW, Valiant, etc. are currently not faring much better, which is also a concern. Marvel and DC often hire writers after they’ve had some commercial or critical success at smaller publishers. If these publishers aren’t hiring black writers either, it could certainly be argued that it lowers the chances of Marvel and DC doing so.
Hughes compares the push for black writers to the much more visible push for female writers—it’s much easier to promote women because they are more easily identified. But the lack of a more diverse voice for mainstream comics hasn’t gotten nearly as much play as it should have:
So where is our collective outrage about our current situation? Why isn’t any of this being discussed more? There are certainly many reasons behind that, some of which go well beyond the comic industry and reflect America’s current climate and the changing (and perhaps diminishing) discourse on race, but the biggest factor may simply be a lack of voices. In the past Dwayne McDuffie was arguably the most recognizable and vocal figure on the topic of black creators in comics.
And for about the 400th time you say to yourself, “I wish Dwayne was here.” But even this formidably talented and intelligent man could not singlehandedly reverse the trajectory of the Big Two—although he and his friends tried with Milestone, an entire line of comics written mainly by and starring people of color. David Brothers has a parallel project naming ALL the black writers who have written more than one issue at the Big Two. It’s not a particularly huge list.
The lack of black writers is especially odd given that comics have a huge minority readership. Marvel, in particular, has always had a strong crossover with the rap community—even when Marvel was suing them. Storm and The Black Panther are arguably the best known black superheroes, aside from the TV-only John Stewart Green Lantern. DC has made many attempts at diversity, as with the now vanished Mr Terrific book and even VOODOO—even if the execution of these concepts has often drawn criticism. But behind the page, it’s almost impossible to sustain a career as a black writer in comics.
Now of course there are many reasons for this. And one of them is racism. Americans are racists. Our society is divided sharply across racial lines, and even having a black president hasn’t changed that. In fact, I would say that having a black president has actually ENTRENCHED tribal reactions against diversity and the internet has given voice to the most hateful and paranoid racial fantasies.
But while the issues of sexism in nerd culture are aired every five minute, racial roles are rarely given the same examination. For instance, this piece by cosplayer Chaka Cumberbatch—who happened to be black— about a photo of her playing Sailor Venus is astonishing:
“For a black cosplayer (not to be racist) she did an amazing job!” the original Tumblr post read. It was later was edited to include “I love her skin tone” after all hell broke loose.
Personally, I’ve always been stuck on those first few words: “for a black cosplayer.” As if the bar was set lower for us, as if we weren’t expected to perform on the same level as white cosplayers.
[snip] I lost track of how many times the post was liked, reblogged, linked to other websites — even now, nearly three years after the picture was taken, complete strangers will come up and reference it to me at cons, and it’s even come up in job interviews. My Venus became the unintentional face of the cosplay race debate online, an unwitting example of “Black cosplayers doing it right,” as if 9 times out of 10, black cosplayers were doing it wrong by default.
What kills me is that in person, nobody has the balls to say a word about whether or not they think darker-skinned people should cosplay lighter skinned characters — but online is a completely different animal. Online, I was “Nigger Venus,” and “Sailor Venus Williams” because I am black.
My nose was too wide, lips were too big, I had a “face like a gorilla” and wasn’t suited for such a cute character, because I am black. My wig was too blonde, my wig wasn’t blonde enough, or, my wig was ghetto because I was making it ghetto, by being black and having it on my head.
That the woman in question happened to be playing a character that was a space alien disguised as Japanese girl makes the whole argument more surreal. That cosplay is an empowering fantasy to allow you to inhabit a make believe role to have fun is ignored. The reactions to black Sailor Venus completely overlook the purpose and spirit of dressing up, and reinforce the rigid roles that people of various races are supposed to play.
For another example of stereotyping, basketball legend recently Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote a very smart piece about the HBO sitcom Girls, including its racial messages. The world, myself included, reacted with amazement. Part of our amazement was jealousy—it is surely unfair that the greatest basketball scorer of all times, and a man who fought onscreen with Bruce Lee, should also be a talented writer of insight and nuance. But Jabbar responded to the amazement with a reminder not to judge people too quickly:
What do people expect when an ex-jock discusses pop culture? “Hmmm. Magic light box have good shows. Me like some. Others make me puke Gatorade. Me give it three jock straps.”
Maybe this will help: I have a degree from UCLA. I’m an amateur historian who has written books about World War II, the Harlem Renaissance, and African-American inventors. I read a lot of fiction as well as non-fiction. I watch TV and movies. I have acted in both. I have been a political activist and an advocate for children’s education. How should an aging, black jock like myself know anything about pop culture? Man, I am a living part of pop culture and have been for nearly 50 years. Beyond that, I think pop culture expresses our needs, fears, hopes and whole zeitgeist better than some of the more esoteric and obscure forms of art.
What can I say to those critics except, “Don’t judge me by the color of my team jersey, but by the content of my articles.”
The takeaway from all of this is clear: if only Kareem Abdul Jabbar would write some comics, everything would be solved.
On a more serious note, while reading the comments on any of these threads (and doubtless this one) is an exercise in despair about the future of America, after dipping into the CA one for 5 seconds I came across this frequent bingo card entry:
Same question I asked over at CBR – who do you suggest we look at? Are there any writers out there we aren’t hearing about whom we should? Let’s skip over the Whys and wherefores, and come up with examples of people who can and should world for the Big Two, and then perhaps start wondering allowed if they should get a shot, and maybe why they haven’t.
In the spirit of getting the ball rolling—called it Django Unedited—I invite people to nominate others or themselves in the comments. (And yes I will rigorously police this thread. Haters stay away.) Are you black? Do you write comics? Speak up! Do you have an industry horror story? Email me at comicsbeat at gmail com. Names will be withheld but no anonymous emails.
The way to be inclusive isn’t to stand around talking about being inclusive…you have to actually include someone. A diverse industry is a stronger industry.
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.