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

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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.”

Cul­ture re­search

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.

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