The unlikely new heroes of comics
PC comics Indie artists lead the way as comics enter a new era of inclusivity, reports Garrick Webster
How indie comics are leading the way for heroes of all shapes and forms to be represented.
I wanted my son to be able to see characters like himself doing amazing things
The overweight teenager who’s bullied and teased, but shrugs it off with a laugh. The disabled reporter who remains dignified, even when a prominent politician mocks him. The transgender individual, humiliated by not being allowed a toilet. Or the Down’s syndrome child with a heart defect, who fights for life through multiple open-heart surgeries before the age of one. They’re all heroes – absolutely – but you’re unlikely to read their stories in comics.
Yes, there are blind and wheelchairbound heroes. There are gay superheroes too, here and there. And the outsiders – orphans, mutants or anti-heroes – are well represented. Mainstream comics are becoming more diverse, but for some creators it’s not coming quickly enough. So they’re doing it themselves via indie publications that are both stunning and inspiring.
Metaphase is a great example. It was written by comic fanatic Chip Reece, whose son Ollie has Down’s syndrome (DS), and features a hero based on Chip’s young boy.
“The comic idea came mostly from my wanting to eventually share my love of comics with Ollie, but then discovering that there were no characters with Down’s syndrome in the stories. I wanted my son to be able to see characters like himself doing amazing things, so he could dream just as big as I did as a kid.” With a script for a 10-page teaser, Chip got artist Kelly Williams on board (see Industry Insight, far right) and eventually Peter Simeti at Alterna Comics agreed to publish it, with some funding coming via a Kickstarter campaign. Now anyone can buy it on Amazon.
Dan White is another dad who saw the gap in what mainstream comics were offering. He developed Department of Ability (DoA) because he couldn’t find any wheelchair-using heroes that his daughter Emily could relate to. Like Ollie, she’s now the hero of a comic.
The UK-based charities Scope and Strongbones support DoA, enabling Dan to write and draw it full time, while
at the same time being a sort of inclusivity evangelist. He shows the book to people all the time, taking feedback, and is inspired by Al Davison, a comic artist who suffers from spina bifida like Emily.
“My skills have gone from fairly static and apprehensive in the ideas stage, to thinking ‘just go for it’ in the final page – disability very much in your face,” says Dan. “Al Davison’s work, for instance on The Spiral Cage, has taught me that every page can feature a different style of panels and imagery without losing the hook and power of the story.”
It isn’t just parents with disabled children who are pushing the agenda. The indie publisher Aftershock has big ambitions for Alters, a new series
If there’s not a comic book out there yet that’s doing what you want to see, then start creating yourself
featuring Charlie, who is transitioning to become Chalice, and at the same time becoming an Alter – a powerful hero to protect humanity.
beyond a transgender story
Italian artist Leila Leiz has been drawing the comic, which deals with subjects far beyond transgender issues. “We’re hoping to do stories about homelessness, mental and physical health, people dealing with difficulties in life such as job loss or mistreatment by society,” she says.
An inclusive team and a huge amount of research helps with the book’s brilliant execution. Leila continues: “The entire creative team is made up of different genders and gender identities. Our colourist, for example, is a trans woman. Each of the scripts is read by at least five trans people, just to ensure we’re on the right path. But the less we make this about transgender rights and the more we make it about a character who happens to be trans, the more effective our story will be.”
The Pride is a well-established indie comic created in Wales. It began eight years ago and aims to represent LGBTQ+ heroes as real, threedimensional characters rather than stereotypes. Its writer is Joe Glass, who is tired of seeing queer characters
introduced through a big coming-out story, before fading into the background. Joe’s noted that many gay characters are white men. There are few black ones, and bisexuals often turn out to be villains.
“My run on the artwork has a simple style, but it doesn’t mean that the realworld issues addressed in the comic have to be,” says Gavin Mitchell, one of the lead artists on The Pride. “Diversity was, and still is, an important part of the roster of heroes and The Pride is constantly expanding to include as many as it can. It’s a book that’s meant for everyone, so hopefully the art reflects that.”
sizing it up
Over the generations, overweight characters in comics have tended to be victims, baddies or providers of comic relief. Not Faith, a hero who’s been around for 25 years in Valiant’s book Harbinger, but has only recently got her own series. Originally drawn by Jim Shooter, today Montreal artist Marguerite Sauvage is on pencils and Faith received nominations for three industry awards last year. Marguerite’s rendition of the character is intelligent, confident and beautiful.
“She talks before fighting, she believes in redemption instead of revenge, and she’s positive and generous,” explains Marguerite. “That’s what I want to express through my drawing. Her body size is a part of this message of progress and tolerance. We challenge conventions and prejudice by showing a good example, like Faith would do.”
Mainstream comics are certainly changing, but as is often the case the indie publishers and self-publishers are sparking the real creativity when it comes to unlikely heroes. Gavin’s succinct advice chimes with what all the creators we spoke to told us: “If there’s not a book out there yet that’s doing what you want to see, then start creating yourself,” he says.
“Comics are for everyone and can be created by anyone.”
The creators of The Pride wanted more realistic LGBTQ+ heroes. In Alters, transgender issues are woven into the storyline.
People with Down’s syndrome are told they can’t do things. Metaphase addresses the prejudice.
Ollie has Down’s syndrome, but finds a way to become a superhero.
The wonderful Department of Ability has given artist and writer Dan White his big break into comics.
The Department of Ability’s characters are as different and diverse as possible. The Pride’s script doesn’t shy away from the hurtful language aimed at the LGBTQ+ community. In Alters, Charlie become Chalice, awakening powers that could save humanity.
Plus-size superhero Faith is confident and solves problems. No aspect of the storyline is based on her size.
Artist Gavin Mitchell went for a classic Silver Age look for The Pride.