Back in black.

First off, kudos to the wonderful Loren of One Diverse Comic Book Nation for sharing Brad Mackay’s article on the dearth of black heroes within mainstream comics. I don’t know if I agree with the sentiment that there is a dearth of black heroes, but there is a great deal of information contained in the article that may make those involved with the comics industry as readers and as employees think a bit differently about how minority characters are portrayed and presented to the public.

“Somehow, in this medium people are so out of touch with popular culture that they don’t understand that black culture is popular culture.”

Reginald Hudlin

The preceding quote from the article struck a chord with me. Why are people in this medium out of touch with popular culture? Is it because minorities in general and black people in particular have been almost overwhelmingly shut out when it comes to creating mainstream comic culture? I’ve never had a problem finding stories about black heroes. There are many black heroes in supporting roles in countless comics. However, I’ve had a difficult time finding black creators with steady gigs at…anywhere, actually. Marvel is the only established comics company I know of that has black writers on staff. Top Shelf is the only established company I know of that has a black editor on staff. Three black staff members out of dozens of comic companies? That’s embarrassing.

Black individuals are allowed (and encouraged) to spend money on comics, we’re allowed to appear in the comics. However, we’re not allowed to help direct the culture of comics. We’re seen, but not heard. Moreover, when we’re seen in the pages, it is usually in a supporting role. When stories are created by individuals who were not raised to see black people as leaders and heroes in order to sell comics to an audience that also was not raised to see black people as leaders and heroes, a good supporting role is the best you’re likely to get.

The problem is that selling to the same old sheltered set of readers isn’t working. That audience is dwindling rapidly. They’re growing older. The children they’ve sired? They think of a black man when someone says Green Lantern. Entertainment mediums such as television, video games, and movies have taken the content produced in comics and have altered it to make it palatable to an audience demanding diversity and equality. I can turn on my television and occasionally see a cartoon where a black man is a powerful entity in his own right and can lead a team to victory. However, when I open the pages of a comic that same black man is merely a supporting character to a white hero.

Why is that so? It occurs because the comic industry caters for the most part to an audience that is lost in time. This audience does not mind new characters and might even enjoy seeing a few different faces, but those characters must never be more powerful than the white heroes they know and love, and must never rob those characters of the spotlight.

That audience is shrinking, and comic companies are beginning to covet the larger audience spending billions in disposable income on video games and DVDs. And so you see the absolute hilarity of comic companies attempting to sell to a new, diverse audience using the same old tactics and the same old roster of artists, writers, editors, and publicists geared towards selling comics to that dwindling sect of fans desiring the comfort of stagnation. And then you see the absolute bewilderment from employees of those companies when they are bombarded by complaints from that diverse audience—because they’ve presented work that is considered to be at best out of touch or at the very worst sexist and racist. They are stunned that readers haven’t warmed to a heroine with a costume as tiny as a bikini. They are surprised to find that their new book starring a minority character has low sales. After all, they put an ad in Wizard magazine.

However, this is not a rant stating that middle-aged white men can’t write, draw, or publicize wonderful stories starring minority heroes who are treated with dignity and respect. They can and they do. For the ones that do, diversity is a part of their daily lives—either through the individuals they interact with or the research they do. Is it what keeps them from being out of touch.

I honestly feel that the best approach to gaining new readers is to have a workforce that reflects the type of audience a company is attempting to reach. Another wonderful approach is to have a workforce that is willing to interact with the type of audience a company is attempting to reach. A third solid approach is to have a workforce that is willing to do extensive research on the type of audience a company is attempting to reach.

Yes, I know I’m on the outside looking in, but given the output produced and/or the way it is being marketed, I’m fairly convinced that the majority of comic companies in the US and overseas aren’t concerned with any of the preceding approaches. And when they come across an employee that is, it is generally due to luck rather than actively searching for one. So, how does a company that is terrified by the idea of changing its status quo reach out to an audience that longs for something different? Well, that’s a post for another day.