Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Diversity and the Business of Comics

For a medium that primarily focuses on the exploits of colorfully clad people with powers and abilities beyond normal humans doing astonishingly amazing things, comics books struggle with the concept of change. Most comics are rooted in narrative storytelling, one event leading to another followed by another. This implies a passage of time, a progression of growth. Yet the characters in these narratives are not allowed to change or, if they do change, they don’t stay that way. Batman may not always be Bruce Wayne today but rest assured that Batman will be Bruce Wayne tomorrow.

This dichotomy of forward motion without really moving forward has been an OK working model for modern comics since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first introduced the Fantastic Four. But there have been forces at work that have challenged that model.

  1. The core audience for most comic books has been viewed as young, male and mostly white. This slice of the demographic pie has been shrinking and, on top of that, putting less of its disposable income towards comics. The upshot? Declining sales even as comic book super heroes enjoy a boom like none other with the Marvel Cinematic Universe being the principal driver.
  2. In order for comics to be viable, they have to reach a wider audience other than young and mostly white males.  They need to make comics that appeal to women and people of color and gay people and so forth and so on. 

That’s why we’ve seen progressive moves at DC and Marvel over the last few years to bring a broader spectrum of people to the forefront of their comics. At DC:

  • Batwoman is a lesbian
  • African American super hero Cyborg went from Teen Titan to founding member of the Justice League and starring in his own solo series
  • The Green Lanterns assigned to Earth are a Latina and a Muslim
  • China’s answer to Superman recently debuted

Marvel has been at the forefront of promoting different types of people as super heroes. One of its most successful launches was the new version of Ms. Marvel who is a Muslim teenager from New Jersey.

However, Marvel’s efforts have elicited some negative feedback, particularly from conservative pundits. Sam Wilson, a black man formerly known as the super hero Falcon, became the new Captain America and the right wing nutcases out there nearly lost their minds. “Political correctness out of control” was a common complaint.

While keeping Sam Wilson as the wielder of the shield, the original Captain America, blonde hair blue eyed Steve Rogers, returned so there are now TWO Captain Americas in the Marvel Universe. But in a recent storyline, it was revealed that Steve Rogers may be an lifelong sleeper agent for the evil organization known as HYDRA. So...

White Captain America = EVIL
Black Captain America = GOOD

Everybody over there at Fox News got that?

Of course, it's just comic books, people! We've seen these kind of plotlines before. But this is what happens when pundits turn pop culture ephemera into political statements.

Things took a particularly nasty turn when Marvel announced that the new Iron Man would be RiRi Williams, an African American teenage girl.

Now the first question that comes to mind is how can a GIRL be Iron MAN? Well, technically speaking, Iron Man is a suit of armor. It is, essentially, a man shaped weapon worn by the user. It is a tank in the form of a metal suit. There is no requirement that the gender of the person driving this tank has to be male.

Still, the blowback from certain quarters has been intense, particularly from conservative news sites run by people who probably don't even read comic books. To these people, the idea of Iron Man being a black female is the ultimate in politically correct thinking run amuck. I imagine someone would pop a blood vessel if RiRi is also a lesbian.

"Political correctness" is a frequently misappropriated phrase used to voice a disdain or dislike for things not being like they used to be. But what Marvel is doing here is looking at another way to expand their audience. Having Iron Man be a black woman is an obvious outreach not just to women and/or persons of color but also to those more forward thinking white males who hear about this and say, "Well, that's new."

For Marvel, diversity in comics is not just about "political correctness". It's just plain good business. The more people who buy your product, the more money you make. What kind of business model would choose to focus only on one shrinking slice of the demographic pie when the entire spectrum of human diversity may be open and waiting? 

And it is working. Key point: a recent storyline had the original Thor (the one who looks Chris Hemsworth from the movies) lose his mystic hammer, Moljinor. The hammer has since come into the possession of Thor's former girlfriend Jane Foster and now she is Thor. This new Thor has not only been a critical success but a financial one as well with sales of the new female Thor exceeding her male predecessor. 

The foundation of a lot of our favorite comic book super heroes was built from the 1940s to the 1960s, resulting in a lot of super heroes from the same cookie cutter mold: white males. And even within that limited spectrum, little distinguished one white male from another other than hair color.

The world around us is different now and it is the folly of any business, even the comic book industry, to not realize that and act accordingly. RiRi Williams as Iron Man is a challenge that spurs the imagination and the interest of a whole new group of comic book readers. RiRi Williams as Iron Man is good for business.

And if it isn't? Marvel will just bring back Tony Stark because that's how comic books roll, people.

Thanks for dropping by and remember to be good to one another. Another new post is coming up tomorrow.


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