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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Diversity in Comics- There's a right and wrong way to do it.


I’m all for Diversity in comic books. It warms my heart when I see a new comic book character that’s Black, Hispanic, Asian, Gay or Lesbian.

Except when it’s done in a half-assed way.

And the comic book industry has been doing a terrible job of trying to diversify itself for the past 10 years. Instead of creating new minority characters, they’ve been shoehorning minorities into the roles of popular White characters.

A couple of years ago in an effort to diversify its superhero ranks, DC Comics killed off veteran Superhero the Blue Beetle and replaced him a Hispanic teenager Jamie Reyes.

A year after that DC killed off cult favorite superhero Firestorm and replaced him replaced with a Black teenager Jason Rusch.

And around that time, DC also introduced an Asian Male version of its Atom character Ryan Choi. However, as that character was finding his voice and beginning to surpass his white male predecessor in popularity, he was killed off.

And most recently in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man Peter Parker was killed off and replaced by Miles Morales, a half-black half-Puerto Rican character.

With the exception of Ryan Choi, readers were mostly turned off by these new minority characters. Why?

It’s tokenism plain and simple.

Instead of being Firestorm, he’s “Black Firestorm” Instead of being Blue Beetle, he’s “Hispanic Blue Beetle” and instead of being Spider-Man he’s “Half-black-half-Puerto Rican Spider-Man” Color comes before storytelling and character development.

Sorry, but diversity isn’t creating a Black, Hispanic, or Asian version of a White character. It’s creating original characters of color and sexual orientation and allowing them an opportunity to access the comic book marketplace. Moreover, it’s about allowing women and minority writers and artists an opportunity to find employment in the comic book industry.

These half-assed attempts at diversity by comic book publishers are a reflection of the real problem within the comic book industry: The lack of African-American, women, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities working behind the scenes. 40 years since the introduction of characters of color on the pages of comics and the creative people at the keyboards writing the stories and drawing the pictures are still 95% white and 95% male.

And that’s why their attempts at making minority characters fail so miserably.

Want to know what makes for great minority characters? Want to know what would make the comic book industry more diverse?

Hiring women and talent of color who can write characters who have a great personality, character traits and experiences the reader can relate to and identify with, and a “voice” that speaks to reader.

As an African-American writer who has written characters of color, I focus more on developing a character’s “voice” and personality before I think of their skin color. Because I understand it’s that “voice” that’s going to tell the story and allow the reader to explore a character’s culture.

And along with that “voice” I understand what’s going to make any character relatable to the reader are the kind of internal character traits they have, not their external skin color. I’d rather a reader discover that John Haynes to be a good man, Marilyn Marie to be a strong intelligent woman, Nikki Desmond to be a rich spoiled brat, or that Isis is awkward and inadequate than to just see them as Black. I feel those internal traits are what the reader will identify with when they read the story and that’s what’s going to endear them to the character and make them care enough about them to buy their stories.

Serious efforts at diversity educate the reader on the culture of another community and help the reader gain a broader understanding of the world they live in. It’s not something that can be cut and pasted in a slap-dash fashion like comic book editors are doing right now. Effective efforts at diversity require organic development through careful planning, solid storytelling and the support of editorial to allow these characters enough time to discover their own audience.

If the comic book industry were serious about diversity on the pages of their comic books, they’d be hiring more women and minority writers and artists behind the scenes to write and draw the stories. Then they’d let those women and minority writers and artists create some new minority characters and let those characters find an audience on their own instead of forcing people of color into roles that don’t fit them.

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