Or… The Real Problem with Diversity in Comics
I’m horrible at recognizing white faces. Of course, I interact with dozens of white people on a weekly basis. In the grocery store, the comic shop, and each Sunday in church. (Sorry. Since the pandemic, those are the only places I frequent). If you count my online presence, I interact with hundreds of whites on a daily basis. Yet, my wife often makes fun of me because any time we’re watching a movie, I’ll say something like “Isn’t that the girl from ____?” and she’ll respond with “No. You’re just terrible at white people.”
It turns out I’m not alone. Studies dating back to the early 1900’s call it the cross-race effect. Basically, it means that people tend to perceive those of another race as all looking alike. Most people can only distinguish between individuals when they have a greater familiarity with the group as a whole. It’s not racism. It’s just human nature, and that’s okay.
This is why my good friend Dan appreciates the art of Jim Lee. Lee, being of Asian heritage, was keen enough to give each Asian member of the X-Men an eye shape that actually matched where they were from, instead of the standard slanty-eyes that were shorthand for Asians at the time.
It’s also the reason I love Milestone Media, a publisher founded in the early 1990’s by four Black men with a stated goal to bring more diversity in the comics medium. While most would recognize Milestone for their signature achievement of bringing Static Shock into households everywhere in the early 2000s; the comics they published between 1993 and 1997 are some of the finest examples of diversity and representation the Comic Book medium has ever seen. Sadly, the direct market wrote them off as “black books”, and they had to close their doors when the speculator bubble burst in the late 90’s.
Thirty years later, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are the in vogue corporate buzzwords of the day. Companies are tripping over themselves to show that not only are they not racist, but they’re making a real effort to make sure that Blacks, Latinos and the LGBT community get the spotlight shone on them in a real way. More cynically stated… “See, we’re not racist! We have Black friends!” There’s no example more prominent than Miles Morales.
Making his debut in 2011 following the death of Peter Parker in the Ultimate Universe (long story), Miles was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli to be the replacement Spider-Man. Reception was mixed, with many dismissing Miles as Marvel’s attempt at Political Correctness. Others were excited their Black and Brown children might be able to see themselves in a popular hero.
In 2018, Sony released Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The animated film depicts Miles Morales in a multiverse spanning mayhem, trying to find the confidence to be his own Spider-Man with the support of Gwen Stacy as Spider-Gwen and Peter Parker’s Spider-Man, each from a different universe. The film was a huge hit among audiences, and even won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Into the Spider-Verse served as a second layer of proof that Black Superheroes could fill seats in theaters, following Marvel’s Black Panther being the first film to cross the billion-dollar box office threshold earlier the same year. From then on, Miles was here to stay. He’s got animated series, video games and merchandise in every Big Box store in America. He’s the face of Black superheroes worldwide. And that presents a new problem.
Last week, Marvel released the fourth issue in the What If: Miles Morales miniseries. Since Miles’ story is rooted in the idea of alternate universes, what if in another universe Miles became Wolverine? Or Captain America? Or Hulk? Well in issue 4, Miles became Thor. And boy, was it an exhausting read.
We open with Miles as the ultimate symbol of cocky urban youth. We get shots of his abs, fresh high-top sneakers (complete with Mjolnir logo in place of a Nike Swoosh), and a bleached blonde curly fade a-la Odell Beckham Jr, with a lightning bolt part cut into the side. On the next page, we get our first look at Asgard. It’s not quite the shining mecca you’ve seen in the Chris Hemsworth movies. Instead, graffiti emblazons every conceivable surface, including the hammer Mjolnir itself. There are sneakers hanging from the power lines. (Why does Asgard have power lines?) Miles basks in the adoration of his constituents while wearing a hooded vest instead of Thor’s signature cape. Then, he opens his mouth and things just get worse.
Every time he talks, there’s another hip hop inspired catch phrase. My favorite is probably Missy Elliot’s “Flip it and reverse it”, but that’s a close second to 2Pac’s “All Eyes on Me!” I joked in a YouTube comment that this book felt like someone forced an AI to watch BET for 10 years, then write a comic book. Man, it was bad.
For what it’s worth, writer Yehudi Mercado issued an apology for his “inauthentic portrayal” via Twitter on Wednesday. But if we’re waiting for comic creators to apologize for inauthenticity, we’ll be waiting for a looooong time.
Inaccurate portrayals of blacks in comics aren’t new. While Marvel has always been seen as progressive, giving Black characters spotlights before anyone else, the depictions were often painful to read. Luke Cage got his powers by being the subject of a government experiment (Tuskegee, anyone?), and his foe Black Mariah looked like… well, this.
T’Challa aka Black Panther is generally seen as the exception. However, he wasn’t always portrayed as the most capable of heroes. (Is this your King?!! Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.) Before Killmonger got his hip dreadlock/fade combo for the movie, he inexplicably wore a Jheri Curl, despite being born and raised in sub-Saharan Africa. Even M’Baku (portrayed by Winston Duke in the Marvel films) is based on a character named – pause for effect – Man-Ape.
Many online use these facts to argue that more Black stories should be told by Black writers. They’re not wrong, but I think there’s a different diversity problem in comics. How is it this book went from script, to pencils, to inks, to test prints and finally a published book without anyone raising a concern?
If Marvel had anyone in the editorial department with more than a surface level understanding of African American culture, they could have easily stopped a book this tone-deaf from being released in 2022. Surely, someone would have raised a finger to explain that covering Asgard in graffiti does more to insult the Black community than to honor Miles’ Brooklyn roots. Someone has to be in the room to say “You know… I’ve met a few black people. They don’t act like that.” Someone has to be able to tell the difference between the characters in a Hughes Brothers film and the black people you’ll meet in the world outside your window. Simply put, there aren’t enough minorities in editorial.
James Owsley Christopher Priest was the first Black editor at both Marvel and DC Comics underscores the real disparity. For this opinion piece, I tried to nail down a list of Black people who have held editorial positions at the Big Two. I got the aforementioned Priest, Joe Illidge (a Milestone alum who spent a mere 2 years editing the Batman line), and a few disgruntled former employees complaining about racism they experienced during their tenure at DC Comics – one of whom had been there 19 years. It’s not a great track record. And until it’s fixed, we’re going to keep getting these terribly inaccurate portrayals of nuanced minority cultures.
As I write this, it’s Pride Month. Marvel and DC have pulled out all the stops to make sure you’re aware of their LGBT characters. In February, they did the same with a series of special variant covers for Black History Month. But no amount of parading minority characters around will change the fact that we’re getting largely empty stories that feature them.
On the other hand, Milestone Media made a major comeback with DC Comics in 2021. We’ve got new series featuring Static
Shock, Icon and Hardware. They even put out an 80-page Black History special just this week. The anthology style one-shot features a who’s who of Black writers and artists depicting history lessons you won’t find in most school curricula. It’s a great example of what happens when you put minorities in positions of real power.
Efforts like these are necessary; because unless you have a deep understanding of a culture outside your own, you likely won’t appreciate the small differences that make up that culture. And you certainly won’t care to get them right for a comic book. It’s not racism. It’s human nature. But we should probably do something about it.
Brandon ‘BJ KICKS’ Jackson is a comic fan turned YouTube personality. When he’s not writing his own biography in the third person, you can catch him unboxing and reviewing comics 5 days a week. Views posted are his own. But this is his website, so we guess they’re automatically ours too?