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Pride Month in comics should transcend rainbow-washing
Marvel Comics

Comic Books

Pride Month in comics should transcend rainbow-washing

Pride should be celebrated, not the comic publishers’ good PR.

It’s the beginning of Pride Month, and companies are already rolling out their rainbows, plastering on a progressive air to drive sales. Alcohol businesses are selling rainbow bottles to an audience disproportionately affected by alcoholism. Large companies like AT&T have rainbowed their social media graphics while donating to anti-gay politicians. Even LEGO is releasing a Pride-themed set without intent to do anything else.

This phenomenon of rainbow-washing isn’t new. It happens every year and people eat it up — especially in the comics industry. This year, Marvel and DC are kicking it up a notch and for the first time releasing whole pride anthologies alongside their variant covers. While special issues and covers themselves are great, comic publishers like Marvel and DC Comics don’t truly follow through in their support for the community due to a lack of support for and hiring of LGBTQIA2+ creators, blatant censoring, and absence of tactile support like donations. Because of this, they’re partaking in the same rainbow-washing that other companies do. 

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I say this as a member of the LGBTQIA2+ community. This is not an attack on the creation and release of Pride-related comics themselves. I’m excited to meet LGBTQIA2+ heroes Somnus in Marvel’s Voices: Pride #1 and Aaron Fischer in The United States of Captain America #1 this month. I can’t wait to read more of Steve Orlando’s Midnighter and learn more about newcomer Jess Chambers in DC Pride. But with the release of these Pride anthologies, we shouldn’t be letting them use their positive PR and hailing them as wholly virtuous monoliths for change. 

Marvel reveals new superhero and mutant Somnus to be revealed in 'Marvel's Voices: Pride' #1

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

The biggest offender of this pride hypocrisy in comics this year is Marvel with their release of their Marvel’s Voices: Pride #1 special issue. 

Not six years ago, Marvel’s All-New, All-Different relaunch was rife with corporate straight-washing of Hercules and featured a not so “different” lineup of characters in terms of their identities. Two years ago Sina Grace, who wrote Iceman (2017), faced a similar problem. He spoke on how poorly he was treated by Marvel’s editors throughout the whole process. He was shown ambivalent support for online hatred, told the book would fail “if it were ‘too gay’,” and treated as “someone to be contained.” Darkveil, a drag queen mutant that Grace created, was also shoved aside after the cancellation of the series. To then have Iceman featured in the Voices anthology feels like a slap in the face to fans and creators alike. 

Just last year Marvel announced a New Warriors reboot composed of all-new heroes with Gen-Z-inspired names, powers, and characteristics. One of these characters, named Snowflake, was to be non-binary — the creators said that it was an attempt to “reclaim” the term. The announcement received rightful backlash for being painfully “woke” and for these themes to be taken on by two cisgender men. The series was planned to debut in April of 2020 but Marvel has remained completely silent and unresponsive on its future.

Some of the things Marvel does to try to be progressive, like this New Warriors idea, really come off as especially forced. This has to come from the fact that a lot of these storylines and characters are being created and written by people not of the community. If Marvel wants to create diverse, engaging stories, they need to hire diverse, relevant creators beyond this single pride issue instead of positioning it as something that fixes all of their past discretions and covers their lack of true structural change. 

Pride Month

Courtesy of Marvel Comics.

If Marvel wanted to attempt to truly help, they would donate part or all of the proceeds of Marvel’s Voices: Pride #1 and the many variant covers to an LGBTQIA2+ organization or charity instead of only using the good publicity to help themselves. Maybe they’re thinking that the simple representation of these identities is what is actually helping. But without any sort of further action attached, their publicity is getting a greater benefit than the cause they’re supposedly trying to help. So when Marvel throws out rainbow issues and promises that they’re diverse, of course it feels hollow. 

DC follows close behind Marvel in their performative pride problems. Not too long ago, they let a vigorously homophobic writer continue at DC, playing the “not the views of the company” card to shield themselves from controversy. Their Rebirth revamp harkened words of inferred non-cisgender, straight, white men exclusion from Geoff Johns. They’re also pocketing all of the profits for their DC Pride anthology and pride issues. What happened to the thoughtfulness found in 2016’s Love is Love collection, where proceeds went to Equality Florida? This year is also DC’s first mega pride issue, and the sheer amount of positive press this move is getting is enough to say that they are benefitting immensely.

This isn’t at all to fault (many of) the writers and artists of these comics. Their push to tell these types of stories and feature these specific identities has surely helped Marvel take these steps in the first place. Many of these creators fighting for LGBTQIA2+ characters are also of the community themselves. It’s the marketing and corporate decision-making from the higher-ups that make these moves performative and lackluster.

And don’t even get me started on live-action adaptations. From the MCU’s blatant censoring of both Valkyrie’s bisexuality in Thor: Ragnarok to Geoff Johns’ refusal to let Adam Strange be openly queer in Krypton, they’re a mess. These decisions were also made by people higher up in the chain of command, with the writers and directors pushing for these identities to be featured. Obviously, different people run on-screen and on-page superhero media, but they come from the same companies, and the same cowardly “sticking with what’s safe” approach to preserve profit resonates between both industries.

This doesn’t mean that Marvel and DC haven’t had positive representation, or that you shouldn’t enjoy it. In fact, this is something that these publishers should keep doing. If they truly want to make an impact solely through representation and exposure as they seem to be trying to do, then continuing to create stories with well-developed LGBTQIA2+ characters that both normalize their simple existence and celebrate their identities will do that. But marketing a single issue in such a grandiose way won’t accomplish that in its entirety. Both Marvel and DC have said that they will continue to feature LGBTQIA2+ characters and storylines, but will they be helmed by LGBTQIA2+ creators? Last longer than a year? Not feel like an obligatory performance?

DC Preview: DC Pride #1

Courtesy of DC Comics.

It could be said that indie publishers partake in rainbow-washing, as they often print Pride variant covers for the month as well. But these publishers aren’t trying to make their support for Pride such a huge public statement with special issues and overzealous marketing. I’m not exempting them of any wrongdoing, but their intentions often match their actions. Image and Skybound are even donating all of the proceeds from some of their pride variant covers to the Transgender Law Center this year, much more than Marvel or DC could say they’re doing.

Pride started as a riot against police control and state oppression. It’s a celebration of identities but also a remembrance of the past and continued struggle faced by the LGBTQIA2+ community. In celebrating Pride as some homogeneous victory through these anthologies, Marvel and DC are ignoring the fact that there is still a lot of work to be done globally, and are boiling support for the community down to representation and rainbows rather than tactile action. 

There’s some big questions surrounding these Pride comics: who are they doing this for, and for what reasons? Who ultimately benefits? If the answer is the companies themselves, like it seems with Marvel and DC, that’s where there’s an issue. 

Ultimately, it is incredible that these characters and issues even exist at all. But it’s sad that these shallow, profit-orientated actions are being positioned as revolutionary rather than the bare minimum. It shows that this isn’t the pinnacle of progress and reveals how much more needs to be done. 

Progress is slow, and we can’t expect everything to be 100% pure and amazing when it comes to intentions for pride month and the LGBTQIA2+ community. Right now, celebrate, share, and savor these characters and their spotlight, but this Pride Month, we can’t forget to criticize the comic companies they come from so that they can be a legitimate force for change. Just like the companies that sell us rainbow bottles and LEGOs, we should be aware of their intentions when they sell us Pride comics, and hold them accountable for helping rather than let them wash any aid away with a colorful stripe. It wouldn’t be progress, but it would be much, much closer.

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