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Forget the pittance; comics needs more diversity on monthly titles

Comic Books

Forget the pittance; comics needs more diversity on monthly titles

Representation only matters when it actually matters.

There’s a reason I called this column “Learning to Cope.” And not just ’cause puns are dope.

Really, I wanted it to reflect the idea that all of us — fans, creators, and journalists/critics — are working together to better understand and engage the larger comics industry. So far, that’s meant exploring a lot of issues surrounding representation and diversity/inclusion — it’s something we can all do much better with. Whether that’s calling out our favorite creators and publishers, or being held accountable to these ideas ourselves, it’s an issue that affects everyone who loves comics. To ignore them is to stymie this institution we all hold dear.

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But this latest instance hits especially close to home. As part of the Marvel Voices line, the publisher is celebrating diversity with two really interesting books. This week’s Marvel’s Voices: Indigenous Voices #1 features Native American and Indigenous characters written and drawn by Native American and Indigenous creators. Next year’s Marvel’s Voices: Legacy #1 will provide the same for black characters and creators. Meanwhile, over at DC, they’re launching something slightly similar in 2021 with Truth & Justice, which is meant to celebrate “new, emerging storytellers” (i.e., a perfect opportunity for much-needed representation regarding both creators and characters). It feels like something worth celebrating — mostly.

The Issue of Representation

These are all hugely essential books. They’re the perfect way to 1) open up new opportunities for POC to write and draw comics and 2) give a platform to black/Indigenous/etc. characters that often don’t get first-tier treatment. Especially since the comics industry continues to struggle with how to best manage both of these elements. There’s clearly been a huge push toward greater diversity in comics; even one Marvel executive said this process has “alienated” fans. Even if that feels wildly untrue, it does speak to the effort by some groups/outlets, the perception of some other groups (i.e., trolls), and, by extension of that second point, the need for a continued push to further open things up.

Similarly, in doing research for this piece, I found way more available data interested in breaking down comics fans versus male/female readers as opposed to an ethnographic breakdown. There’s at least some info out there, albeit from circa 2015 and culled from Facebook data, but it does show that black, Asian, and Latin readers make up a not insignificant portion of the comics base. What that then shows is that not only does comics in general have an issue understanding the problem of inclusion, but the efforts so far have had something of an impact. Even if said impact is only that we see how far we still have to go collectively.

Forget the pittance; comics needs more diversity on monthly titles

Courtesy of Marvel.

Hooray for the Chosen People

So while I think these Legacy and Indigenous books are crucial, and I commend the creators and publishers for an effective first step, I’d also like to see such one-shot offerings celebrating Jewish characters and creators. I don’t want this to be about what group of people is more or less oppressed — the least of which because, as a straight white male, I’m wholly uncomfortable on getting within a light-year of that conversation. Instead, I’ll say that representation for all groups is deeply important if we really want to do a meaningful job of making comics genuinely inclusive and reflective of the world around us. It’s far less about who deserves a spotlight now (everyone should have their equal chance) but rather what we’re doing at all times to improve the standing of under-represented groups. Is it logistically and financially difficult to explore every religious/ethnic group? Of course, but the whole point of these books is to get people to understand the multi-faceted nature of comics and its readership. I want as much of a spotlight for all people.

All of that said, however, I think it’s especially important to give a spotlight to Jewish characters and creators. For one, there’s so many across both Marvel (Moon Knight, The Thing, Kitty Pryde, Justice, Iceman, Wiccan, Magneto, Polaris, Volcana, Quicksilver/Scarlet Witch, etc.) as well as DC (Batwoman, Firestorm, Doctor Manhattan, Ragman, Sandman, Nite-Owl, Harley Quinn, etc.). Jewish creators have been fundamental to the success of comics since the very beginning, including Neal Adams, Stan Lee, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Joe Kubert, Will Eisner, and Howard Chaykin. I wouldn’t dare go into a deep dive here, especially because there are just so many amazing resources (here, here, here, here, here, and here). The point is, there’s a rich vein of Jewish heritage in comics.

The Ins and Outs

However, I do want to pick up on two really essential points here. The first is that it’s more than just Jewish creators like Bill Finger creating Batman, or Jack Kirby (the son of Austrian-Jewish immigrants) pushing creative boundaries — comics are inherently tied to the Jewish experience. Which is to say, the feelings of post-WWI alienation and disconnect experienced by many Jews informed a lot of the “tragic” origins of beloved heroes like Fantastic Four and Superman. Transforming suffering into personal triumph is a universal concept, but there’s no denying that a lot of how we know it comes (in scope and structure) comes from a distinctly Jewish-American experience. The foundations of the heroes and archetypes we love so much are tied to a unique configuration of religious/spiritual beliefs and modern history — sort of like how jazz belongs to black Americans.

comics

Courtesy of DC.

Building from that first tidbit, my second point is that, despite the amount of info available on the topic, there’s still some level of “secrecy” attached to the comics-Judaism dynamic. What that means, I think, is there’s still a misunderstanding about Jews in America and their larger role — one that’s spurred on by and reflective of our country’s relations with Jews from a global perspective. Not only that, but this continued “disconnect” has some real consequences (ergo, a bump in anti-Semitic hate crimes aligned with the “rise” of white nationalism). The “secret” here could actually be less about “hidden” information and more the way (especially given recent events) in which the perception of Judaism in the U.S. remains unclear. Even as antisemitism remains a clear issue, the large populace is still experiencing a misunderstanding or disconnect with Jews as a whole — something that’s a common thread in U.S. history.

Ultimately, having some spotlight on Jewish comics creators and characters is about bridging a gap that still exists while also fundamentally connecting back with the “roots” of the industry. I can’t or won’t say that there wouldn’t be modern comics without Jews, but I will say that there’s not a lot we can do to disconnect the two pillars. I think as opposed to black or Indigenous creators/characters, it’s less about giving space where it’s been criminally lacking in the past and instead shedding a spotlight on something that’s always been there. Judaism has had a massive effect on comics, and if we recognize that as much as we can, we accomplished something essential: cast the industry in its proper light.

Does the fanbase often skew toward ” bland-ass white dudes?” Yeah. But I think a showcase for Jewish culture goes a long way to showing that comics have always been a place for society’s “outcasts” and “misfits,” a place where the suffering of the world can be transformed into great art. Comics may seem like one thing, but they’re fundamentally a place where people place their hopes and dreams for something better. If there’s anything wrong with that model, it’s (very partially) because we’ve forgotten that core idea. It should be the time to reflect backward on the industry and fully understand just what pillars or ideals this thing really stands on — and to a degree that’s Jewish lives and experiences.

Forget the pittance; comics needs more diversity on monthly titles

Courtesy of Marvel.

The Human Side of Diversity

At the same time, I have to admit that at least some of this issue is personal. I’m the latest in line of what I understand to be “bad” Jews. As I’ve come to understand our lineage, men on my father’s side have had an increasingly tenuous relationship with Judaism. From the halls of a Conservative temple visited by my great-grandfather to my grandfather apparently having to celebrate high holidays alone to my own father never getting a bar mitzvah, I’m firmly not a Jew in any sense. (I was actually baptized as… something.) Except in my heart and mind, where I’ve always felt a distinct connection to Judaism, to the point, I contemplated converting as a teenager and then again in my early 20s. Part of this has been a desire to connect back to my family, especially those I’ve never known or had much of a connection with. But it goes deeper, and I feel some profound kinship with Judaism as a concept.

There’s a story I once heard about this 19th-century Polish rabbi named Simcha Bunim Bonhardt. He apparently kept two pieces of paper on him at all times: one that read, “Bishvili nivra ha-olam” (or, “for my sake the world was created”) and “V’anokhi afar v’efer” (or, “I am but dust and ashes.”) That speaks volumes about how Jews see the world and that sense of dichotomy that prevails within their overall faith. Beyond that, I think that demonstrates a kind of unease that permeates Judaism, a distrust in not only in authority but even in one own’s idea. A perpetual sense of second-guessing that I think is vital to a well-rounded person. Judaism seems like the place where the real test of faith is the commitment to the self and its relationship with the world.

And as part of that identification, I get why representation is so important. It’s not that I understand what it is to be black or Asian and the hardships those peoples face — I know how important it is on a personal level to see your “people” having their moment in the sun. A chance to tell their stories informed by their own relationships and beliefs and the way they view the world. Great stories aren’t born out of the ether, and they often come from a specific structure. Everyone — Jews, POC, women, etc. — all deserve to share these stories because no one else can.

And in the case of Jews, it’s very much the stories that rest at the core of comics: dealing with isolation and pain, the power of community and your tribe, operating in a society that’s not always quite so friendly, etc. These are triumphs and heartaches shared across the board, but stories that one can only be understood from a Jewish perspective if written and drawn by Jews. We deserve to hear these stories as much as people can tell them if we ever want to know and understand one another in a meaningful way.

Forget the pittance; comics needs more diversity on monthly titles

Courtesy of DC.

Open up the World

At the end of the day, though, books like Marvel Voices and Truth & Justice are just a drop in the bucket. Ultimately, they’re one-shot deals, and while any work for creators is great overall, it doesn’t really have much impact in the long-term. If anything, these projects can feel like an act of pity or a small pittance — sure, they make for great optics but a month after they’ve been published most folks have likely moved on. Instead, it would be good to see more monthly titles from women, POC, gay/lesbian, and trans writers and artists.

I get that some people might readily say, “Well, there’s plenty of monthly books by women/POC/LGTBQ/etc.” But as this excellent breakdown from Book Riot noted, there’s still a massive gender disparity within DC — not to mention “creative teams are not particularly racially diverse, especially the writers.” The fact is that women and POC aren’t being hired, even for these “one-off” projects. (For instance, in the giant-sized Catwoman 80th anniversary issue, women comprise just 25% of the 48 total creators involved. So there’s clearly work to be had, it’s just a matter of not enough being done to hire non-white males.)

To once again preemptively counter someone else’s argument, there’s bound to be some mention of already vibrant characters that span the racial, gender, and sexuality spectrum. To that I say, it’s also only a pittance. The problem is that, given the disparity of women and other creators, we’re still having these diverse characters written and drawn by men, which seems sort of counterintuitive to some degree. It’s not enough to have these characters if they’re just going to reflect the values and ideas of the same kind of people behind the scenes time and time again.

It invalidates characters like Riri Williams or a Wiccan — and more than that, it feels like the worst kind of appropriation if this continues to be the case despite calls for more diversity (plus, a more than robust roster of talent who can actually do meaningful things with these characters). Can white people write important black or Latin heroes? Yes, but imagine those same characters in the hands of people who understand them as they are socially and culturally. I think the real issue here is that whatever power we give to black, female, and/or LGTBQ talent feels like a ploy when they have no ability to tell meaningful stories behind just one book that’s often a money grab for anniversaries or the like. Opportunities aren’t real if it’s just in some box.

Forget the pittance; comics needs more diversity on monthly titles

Courtesy of Marvel.

So that’s why we need more POC and women and Jews and truly diverse writers and artists with actual monthly titles. We’re sending a clear message that these people are viable talents and they can have the sort of long-term, meaningful impact that helps push the boundaries of character development and storytelling while maybe actually making a little money (or at least some waves). It’s a message that says their stories aren’t trinkets to be admired in the safe bubble of some one-shot but can actually live and grow in the big, wide world, to become the foundations of a publisher’s next era and maybe even actively inspired some fresh-faced kid looking for a hero (the caped variety or just a writer/artist). It’s about taking that risk if only to see that it was never a risk at all, and there’s a real demand for diverse talent telling rich, dynamic stories.

One More Thing

If folks like that aforementioned Marvel big wig think diversity is a “turn-off,” maybe it’s because there’s never been enough real diversity and inclusion beyond some base-level performance. I get there’s not a ton of titles out there (except there is, but I see the point about the issues in generating a monthly title with real sustained impact) — but that doesn’t mean it has to be this way. Having more diversity doesn’t automatically mean more money generated, or that readership goes up — or that we even have this easy-to-fill space for everyone (though one would certainly hope all of this could be true). Instead, it’s about telling the kinds of stories we want from the people who deserve to do so — that’s how we create an industry and a surrounding culture that we can all be proud of. Still, nothing happens until real changes are made, and we learn to tell these tales in a way that serves the people actually involved.

This is a learning experience for everyone, and I want us to celebrate the occasion to be better for every single person who says they fully and utterly love comics. I also want puns to be far more socially acceptable, but I won’t push my luck.

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