In one of my favorite Facebook comic forums, The Comic Nerds of Color, the conversation of representation in comics once again reared its ugly head. Why ugly? Because it is one of the more divisive arguments had among comic readers and comic creators. The questions and responses are across the board from forcing education on readers so they know there are other choices, to creators having higher standards which would allow them to compete better with the other “mainstream” titles out there.
On the Quest for Blackness, the question regarding comics and representation are serious issues of debate:
- Should we be forcing the Big Two (DC Comics and Marvel Comics) to be more representative of the culture diversity in the world today?
- Can it be considered representation when the characters being written are Black/Brown/Other but all of the creators are, as they are currently, over 90% white men?
- Can these white writers truly represent the perspective of people of color/diverse natures, when they have never truly been aware of what our struggles are other than the stereotypical media they consume (which is also written primarily by White men)?
- Should we be creating the comics we want to be seen and represented in?
- In our quest for representation, when have we reached enough representation? Why isn’t War Machine/Iron Patriot enough?
- How do we know when we are being represented sufficiently/effectively in the mainstream comics and it’s associated media industries (such as movies and television)?
- Why did Vixen have to be vetted with an animated series while Supergirl went straight to live-action? For most non-comic fans, both are equally obscure.
- Should the Whiteness of a main character automatically assume viewer-ship of a series?
- What about the problematic characterization of the Black Best Friend in many media spin offs of traditionally white characters?
- Given the longevity of many comic companies and the dearth of Black or other characters, does this mean minority representation is limited to secondary, non-heroic roles?
- Are disabled or differently-abled characters unable to be related to sufficiently by the able-bodied to justify their almost complete invisibility in media? Should we be trying to change this?
There is no quest for representation
Either there are comics produced by Black creators or comics written by Black creators for major comic companies. The first work for themselves, the second work on the behalf of companies paying them to write for established characters.
Working for yourself is gratifying but a decidedly steeper slope to get people to recognize your unique creations. If your work is exemplary, your artwork amazing, your stories incontrovertibly compelling, you may have a chance to compete against characters who have been transforming the world since the turn of the last century…
Working for the Big Two means you are working on a character whose history and pedigree are well known, sometimes all over the planet. But you have a decidedly lessened chance to make lasting change to a character whose underlying nature is little more than an established brand.
One does not make the other obsolete. People have to be able to discern the difference and recognize how their choices can affect the creator who has struck out on their own. If your goal is to see more creators of color, more diverse creators, then your mission is simple. Put money in the hands of those people because they are doing what you want; they are creating something new which won’t happen at the Bigger Companies who make their money keeping their brands alive and retelling the same stories over and over again.
Our job is to educate the people who are consumers that we are out there producing quality material. And then we have to produce it. Again and again until they have no question as to whether we can, but ask instead: “When is the next due out?”
Representation is real, but it is also slowly and steadily being addressed by a new generation of artists, writers and creators who empowered by the high quality tools, the legacy of comics, both in print and online, now realize they can produce quality books at a fraction of the cost of previous generations.
The barrier for entry is MUCH lower than it has ever been. The potential for readership is much higher than it has ever been, FOR THOSE WHOSE QUALITY MERITS IT. And spends the right money in the right places to ensure their advertising is top notch, not just in print but online, in social media, using the newest tools possible.
REPRESENTATION IS EVERYWHERE.
It is one of those conundrums you have to embrace when you start working in media.
There are thousands of people of color working in media in any number of ways. The problem is the tens of millions of OTHER working in media. With numbers like that, it is easy to find yourself outnumbered, surrounded and completely ignored; a drowning fly in an ocean of buttermilk…
But it doesn’t stop people from complaining about our singular changes at representation. CinemaBlend reports:
The latest in representative news is Idris Elba was seen as the front-runner to play the lead role of Roland, the last gunslinger. This news was met with some degree of concern by some corners because Roland, as depicted in Stephen King’s novels, is white. Well, the movie’s writer and producer has his own feelings about those concerns. He doesn’t give a shit.
Akiva Goldsman is absolutely in love with the idea of Idris Elba playing The Gunslinger. His excitement is palpable in a recent interview where he speaks about the possibility of Elba in the role. His feelings toward those that don’t like the casting choice are equally clear. They can go to hell.
“I’m unbelievably proud of it as a collaborator on this enterprise and because I think that he’s a great actor and I couldn’t be more thrilled that he is likely to play a part… I understand that people who are thoughtful about the storytelling and the racial politics of the storytelling might want to understand how that informs that storytelling, and I respect that and I hear that, and those things are not things we didn’t think about or don’t think about. The racist assholes should go fuck themselves.”
This is only one of the many different attacks we have had to endure regarding representation and our ability to appear in stories which are presented previously as White men.
Idris Elba finds himself at the center of such controversies particularly when he found himself portraying the guardian of the Asgardian rainbow bridge, the Bifrost, as Heimdall. An entire internet row was made of this when a Black man was chosen to play the whitest of the White gods of the Norse.
Didn’t change anything, Idris was excellent and an entirely White pantheon got a bit of color…
Our mission as creators is a complex one. We must educate the masses to show them, not only can characters of color exist, but we can do it as protagonists, not just the subordinate, unpowered, Black Best Friend…:
- Black characters can and do exist in the Future, science fiction movies to the contrary. That is nothing but a casting decision, not reflecting real life. Movies such as the Hunger Games and Divergent often present a future where people of color barely exist at all.
- We do exist in the past, and not always as slaves. There is plenty of history to choose from and Blacks were represented in all of it. Do the research and write those stories. Do the research and write whatever the hell suits you. White people do it all the time and no one blinks an eye.
- We can exist in parallel dimensions where we are free from any cultural, social or sociological limitations placed on us in THIS culture. Make your Black, Brown, or otherwise diverse characters as bad-ass as you want them to be. Worry less about being a Mary Sue and more about telling a great story.
What Black readers NEED more than anything else right now are stories, lots of them, showing us as the wonderfully diverse, culturally complex, sociologically adaptable individuals our cultures are unable to show in a world where we are considered a monolith of Blackness.
We can do this. If we don’t represent ourselves, our stories will never be told.
Two lions sunning themselves on the Serengeti in a parallel universe…
“Hey, did I tell you I caught one of those Human things. He was delicious.”
“You didn't. Those Humans are wily. Why you lying?”
“No really, I just ate a Human hunter. I got his spear right here. Smell my breath! They are awful tasting, kinda stringy and they scream while you eat them. Who thought they would be good eating?”
“I heard they tell people they win confrontations with us. All the time.”
“Really? Who would believe that? Look how scrawny they are. These guys couldn’t stop my cubs from snatching a meal out of my mouth. Talk about deluded…”
“Well, once we eat them all, we can talk about how great they were and how inadequate they were living out here on the Serengeti. What made them think they could’a been a contender?”
“I've eaten my share of these fellows and they often brag about their bigger brain and how it makes them the apex predator. I try not to laugh as I disembowel them.”
“I know. If I hear one more time how they’re going to rule the world, I’m going to feed myself to the hyenas. Give it a rest, already.”
Thaddeus Howze is a popular and recently awarded Top Writer, 2016 recipient on the Q&A site Quora.com. He is also a moderator and contributor to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange with over fourteen hundred articles in a four year period.
His speculative fiction has appeared online at Medium, Scifiideas.com, and theAu Courant Press Journal. He has appeared in twelve different anthologies in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. A list of his published work appears on his website, Hub City Blues.