The rise of diversity within the comics industry
About time Change is sweeping through today’s superhero comics and artists are rising to the challenge, discovers Garrick Webster
Change is sweeping through today’s superhero comics and artists are rising to the challenge, discovers Garrick Webster.
Comic books have always aimed to surprise. Sometimes through sheer weirdness and offbeat humour, like Guardians of the Galaxy. Sometimes through brilliant storytelling, such as The Dark Knight Returns or Grant Morrison’s run on Batman. But the past few years have seen more experimentation than ever before.
Eight issues into Marvel’s reboot of The Mighty Thor, the character disappeared and returned as a woman. Soon after, Wolverine also turned female. Captain America’s shield is now held by an AfricanAmerican character, black teenager Riri Williams wears the Iron Man suit, and Ms Marvel’s alter ego is now PakistaniAmerican Kamela Khan.
In DC’s books, Batwoman is a Jewish lesbian, Catwoman is bisexual and there are dozens more examples we could mention. Despite the recent rise of populist politics and a lurch to the right, comics have embraced diversity more than ever before. “If you ask me, I say, ‘Yes, this is cool,’” says Italian artist Stefano Caselli, who draws the Invincible Iron Man, which is written by Brian Michael Bendis. “I was kind of shocked when I found out that Riri Williams would replace Tony Stark, but once I heard that Brian was writing it, I relaxed. He’s the best at writing about teenagers.”
Stefano implemented a range of adjustments to draw Riri authentically. Based in Italy, he decided it was a good idea to research everything from US black culture through to street fashion. He worked hard on how she expresses her emotions and faces new situations. Then there was how she’d wear the suit… “I knew I had to change Iron Man’s moves,” says Stefano. “Inside the armour we have a teenage girl, which changes the
way the character moves and acts considerably. She has to seem a little insecure and heroic at the same time. I really wanted to have readers see Riri improve with each issue.”
Although artists like Stefano have brought both nuance and finesse to the job of depicting socially relevant heroes in their comics, there’s been a steady stream of cynicism from some quarters. Marvel VP of sales David Gabriel was left eating his words when he blamed poor sales on the introduction of more diverse characters. Others have said that it’s going to be cheaper to get a young black woman onto cinema screen as the next Iron Man than Robert Downey Jr’s asking price. Others still have queried everything from the storylines to the marketing support that the books have received.
“You have to stay true to the theme and core of the story and cast accordingly – that’s the bottom line,” says Bristolbased writer Rob Williams (Unfollow and Suicide Squad). “But diversity is also something I’m aware of, and I try to have a healthy mix in my stories.”
He continues: “It’s also about the major companies hiring diverse voices. There could be more of that, I’m sure, but it is happening. They’re not quite the boys’ clubs they once were.”
Marley Zarcone, based in British Columbia, draws the innovative book Shade: The Changing Girl for DC’s Young Animals imprint. Shade was a male character in the 70s, but his illusion-projecting vest has been refitted for a teenage girl – an awkward alien called Loma from a place called Meta. It’s been wild stuff seeing this book aimed at a younger, female audience develop. And a far cry from hairy, angry old Logan.
“It’s all about the books. Diversity is great and necessary, but being thoughtless in execution doesn’t help at all. It just gives room for people to blame poor sales problems on diversity,” says Marley.
Look back, looking forward
Like Marley, Cliff Chiang is having great success well away from the muscle-bound white man in spandex comic book trope. He drew the iconic first cover of Ms Marvel, starring Muslim character Kamela Khan, but his regular series, Paper Girls, with Brian K Vaughan, is new and yet nostalgic at the same time. It emulates the Amblin Productions movies of the 80s like The Goonies and ET, but with an all-girl team of heroines.
“I wanted the girls to feel like the real, charming and adventurous girls that I grew up with back in 1988,” says Cliff. “Each needed her own recognisable look and style, to make them easy to identify. When you see their designs, their personalities should come through.”
Arguably, indie titles and creator-owned publishers have always shown a bit more daring and diversity. The recent sudden swing in such a short space of time has left some indie publishers slightly bemused.
Peter Simeti runs Alterna Comics, publishing creator-owned books. He’s got a pretty open submissions policy, and while he’s aware of the need for more diversity in the industry, it doesn’t drive the agenda.
“Diversity is great,” says Peter. “Lasting and meaningful diverse characters with impactful storylines are even better.”
He continues: “When it comes to accepting submissions, I look for great stories first and foremost, created with quality and heart. Focusing on anything else would be a disservice to creators and readers everywhere. It’d be hypocritical of me to champion a creator’s vision while insisting that they change the gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation of a character that they’ve created.”
What happens next? Well, rather than a Trump-like arrogance towards minorities suddenly appearing in comics, we’re likely to see even greater diversity, with deeper characters and storylines as writers and artists try new things. Watch this space…
I wanted the girls to feel like the real, adventurous girls that I grew up with in 1988
African American character Sam Wilson now holds Captain America’s shield, here drawn by Paul Renaud.
Riri’s vulnerability is one of the things Stefano Caselli wants to portray, even though she now wears Tony Stark’s iron suit.
Concept drawings of the Iron Man suit that Riri Williams wears in the reinvented comic Invincible Iron Man from Marvel. Unfollow, drawn by Michael Dowling. A diverse comic, driven by Rob Williams’ unique social media concept.
Paper Girls drawn by Cliff Chiang is like Stranger Things, but the heroes are all teenage girls. Scrimshaw from Alterna Comics features a mixed team of heroes drawn in Dave Mims’ inimitable style.
Nobody imagined the day Wolverine would become a woman. Striking issue 19 cover by Leonard Kirk.
Shade the Changing Girl drawn by Marley Zarcone. Amazing stuff from DC’s Young Animals label.
DC’s bizarre 70s creation Shade the Changing Man really has changed… into a teenage girl.