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Affirmative Action Comics

 

There has been some disgruntlement recently over the issue of “Too Much Diversity” in comic books. The claim, particularly directed against Marvel Comics, is that comics publishers are ruining comics by chucking the classic, iconic characters and replacing them with lame-o “Politically Correct” gender and racially-diverse knock-offs. We've seen the same sort of thing in other corners of fandom, with the “Gamergate” controversy and the war waged by the Rabid Puppies on the Hugo Awards.

On the surface, these “White Heroes Matter” activists may seem to have a point. There have been several instances in the past few years of Marvel heroes being elbowed aside in favor of token women and minorities.

Nick Fury has been replaced by a son, who is black and looks like Samuel Jackson, but who inherited his father's eye patch. Captain America lost his Super-Solider Serum-derived youth and became old, and passed on his shield and his code-name to his partner Sam Wilson, the Falcon. Wolverine lost his mutant healing powers and his name and costume were adopted by a teen-aged girl named Laura Kinney, alias X-23, who happens to be his clone. Bruce Banner was killed by Avenger Hawkeye, in order to prevent him from hulking out; but not before a young Korean-American genius named Amadeus Cho devised a means of removing the Hulk powers from Bruce's bloodstream and assimilating them into his own body. Tony Stark is currently in a coma, but a young black college student who built her own suit of powered armor has taken his place under the name of “Ironheart”. And then, of course, the biggie: The Mighty Thor has lost his Uru Hammer, Mjolner, having become unworthy; and that hammer is now being wielded by a woman who has taken his name.

And that's not counting the new version of Ms Marvel, who is a Pakistani-American girl trying to juggle her two cultures with her super-powers; or the revival of Jack Kirby's DEVIL DINOSAUR, who has come to our universe and been adopted by a black girl in middle school who happens to be a super-genius carrying the Inhuman gene; or the Undefeatable Squirrel Girl.

Straight white men are becoming a minority in the Marvel Universe! Is that fair?

Well, first of all, none of this is new. Comic book companies have been bringing out alternate versions of old standby heroes for ages now. In the Golden Age, DC came up with Batwoman and Batgirl, rival crime-fighters who acted to a certain extent as romantic foils to the Dynamic Duo. Then in the Silver Age we got Superman's cousin, Supergirl, and the modern Barbara Gordon version of Batgirl. Granted, none of these characters crowded out their male counterparts; (although Supergirl did wind up taking Superboy's spot in the Legion of Super-Heroes).

In the '70s, John Stewart, a black character, was introduced as a back-up Green Lantern to fill in when Hal Jordan was unavailable. Although originally a “substitute Lantern”, John quickly developed into a strong character of his own. Later still, Roy and Dann Thomas created a slew of new characters for INFINITY, INC., a series set on Earth-2 featuring children and proteges of the original Justice Society. Many of these second-generation heroes were distaff versions of their mentors, like Jade, the daughter of Green Lantern; orYolanda Montez, the second Wildcat; or Power Girl, Earth-2's version of Superman's cousin.

When I belonged to a comic book club in Iowa back in the mid-'80s, there was an issue of the club's fanizine which featured several of these characters: Power Girl, the new Wildcat and the new Doctor Midnight from INFINITY INC., along with Harbinger and the new Doctor Light, an Asian woman, from CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. The cover's caption used the slogan of the “New DC” of that era, (“There's No Stopping Now”), modified into reference the National Organization for Women: “There's No Stopping N.O.W.”

During this period, Marvel got into the act of gender-swapping characters as well. Concerned that other companies might trademark variations of some of their hottest characters, Marvel created female versions of both Spider-Man and the Hulk: Jessica Drew, Spider-Woman; and Jennifer Walters, the Savage She-Hulk. Shortly after the Kree warrior Mar-Vell died of cancer in the graphic novel THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, the company introduced a new character with that name, a black woman named Monica Rambeau. After a time, though, Marvel decided to give her a different name and create a new Captain Marvel, related to Mar-Vell. There have been a couple other different Captains Marvel since then and the current hero to hold the title is Carol Danvers, the original Ms Marvel.

Now, in some cases these changes were indeed made in order to increase the diversity of the heroes published. In the '80s, writer Gerard Jones and artist Mike Parobeck created a revival of an old DC character named “El Diablo”. The original version was something of a “Zorro” knock-off; but Jones re-imagined him in the present-day as an idealistic young city councilman in a southwestern town who fights crime by night on a motorcycle. Jones originally pitched the idea as a limited series, but his editor liked the idea of a Hispanic hero and felt that the character deserved an ongoing series. The series only lasted for 16 issues; I suspect it was not dark enough for the Grim 'n' Gritty '80s. The current version of El Diablo has more of a supernatural background and is a supporting character in SUICIDE SQUAD.

But this brings us to another reason why comics companies try to put women and minorities in their books. It isn't necessarily White Guilt and Political Correctness; it's also the bottom line.

Look at it this way: In 1967, the highest selling comic for the month of July was BATMAN, and it sold 807,700 copies. In July of 2017, the biggest selling comic sold only a little more than 122,000 copies. Comic book audiences have shrunk, even as comics themselves have become more mainstream, as people are more likely to get their super-hero fix from movies, TV and video games – even from graphic novel compilations – than from the traditional monthly “floppies”. Comics companies have to expand their audience however they can, and this means trying to publish characters and comics that appeal to people beyond the demographic of obsessive 20-30 year-old fanboys.

And for a long time, comics were marketed to all sorts of groups. Comics featuring black characters or other racial minorities, (with the exception, of course, of comical sidekicks), may have been rare, but they were not unknown. And there were many comics titles aimed specifically at young girls, especially during the post-war years, when Romance Comics became very big.

I suspect what changed this was the Silver Age boom in super-hero comics which lead Marvel and DC to put all their comic book eggs in the basket of a Single Comic-Book Universe with a Shared Continuity. When the Newstand Model of comic book distribution collapsed, the Direct Market saved the industry, but at a price. Comics were no longer found usually in spinner racks at the local drugstore, where kids and parents could easily access them, but at specialty comic shops run largely by fans for fans. And I think that without intending it, this helped ossify the idea of Comic Books being a Boy's Club.

But the publishers know that there are untapped markets out there, and it drives them crazy. And every once in a while they try a scheme to tap into those markets. Marvel's “Star Comics” imprint of the '80s was once such attempt; a line of kid-friendly comics, mostly licensed properties and a few original titles, including one or two that were obviously trying to imitate the Harvey Comics house style. Another was Milestone Media, a creator-owned company that worked out a deal to be distributed through DC, intended to showcase racially-diverse characters by racially-diverse creators and aimed at a diverse audience. Although Milestone only lasted for a year or two, it left behind a rich legacy of characters who have become a part of the greater DCU. And then there's the case of Vertigo, DC's line of supernatural comics boasting more mature themes and sophisticated storylines than the mainstream DCU.

Although Star comics flopped, and Milestone was more of a moral success than a financial one; Vertigo, supported by it's flagship titles, SWAMP THING, SANDMAN and HELLBLAZER, was quite successful and managed to draw female readers, who appreciated good writing and who found the standard super-hero slug-fests boring.

But as a storyteller myself, I don't tend to think about what is most inclusive or what is the most marketable, as much as what makes the best story. And there are valid creative reasons for re-vamping, and even replacing old and venerable characters. Comic books, more so than other literary forms, are trapped between two contradictory imperatives. In order for the reader to have any emotional investment in the characters, he needs to be able to see them grow and develop. But the necessities of the form require the main characters to remain static and unchanging. This tension between the need for development and the need for familiarity is the reason why one DC editor has cited the most important aspect of comics as “the Illusion of Change”.

Two of the time-tested ways to spice up a stale, boring character are to do a re-vamp, changing certain aspects of the character but leaving certain core attributes intact; and creating a new character, based off the original but with certain differences for variety.

The DC Silver Age was largely based off the first method, with Golden Age characters such as the Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman dragged out of mothballs and given completely different identities and origins. During the early '70s, Wonder Woman lost her powers and began dressing in pants suits. Two decades later, something similar happened and she traded her old accouterments for a leather jacket and a pair of biker shorts. In the late '80s, Captain America briefly had to turn in his costume and Shield and adopted a new identity as “The Captain”; and Tony Stark is always upgrading his Iron Man armor. These changes don't always involve costumes or super-powers. There was the historic moment when Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson got married. And let's not forget the period where Superman had a mullet. Strike that. Let's forget about it.

The second method includes several characters I've already mentioned: the Golden Age Batwomanl (as well as the modern-day character bearing that name); Supergirl; She-Hulk; Jonni Thunder, (Jonni Thunder? Yes, Jonni Thunder); Spider-Woman. Many of these invoke Rule 63 of the Internet: For every fictional character appearing on the Internet, there is also a cross-gender version of that character. But the purpose of all these distaff clones is not just so that the fanboys can drool over big-chested Lady Punisher. (Okay, maybe partially, but not entirely). But the idea is to add variety to the title and expand the story possibilities for the character.

But is it fair that the classic, iconic super-heroes be shoved aside in favor of these opposite-gender clones? Ah, and here is the most important point:

NONE OF THIS IS PERMANENT.

Some years back, Warner Brothers released a cartoon series called “Loonatics Unleashed.” It was set in an apocalyptic future where the descendants of the classic Looney Tunes characters have banded together as a team of edgy super-heroes who dress in black and are spiky as all get-out. Did I mention it was edgy? It was intended to be an action-comedy and much more comic-bookish than the old Warner Bros. Cartoons. And people hated it.

One little girl became a media darling for starting a petition demanding that WB bring back the Real Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck and all. Because she believed, and the media reporting on this encouraged the belief, that somehow Ace Bunny was the replacement for Bugs and that Danger Duck and Daffy could not exist at the same time. That Warner Brothers had done something similar with “Tiny Toons” a decade earlier, and again with “Baby Looney Toons” does not seem to have occurred to anyone. The Loonatics ran for a season or two on TV and then faded away; and Bugs and Daffy are still around.

The same is true for the comic book heroes. Yes, Thor and Tony Stark and Wolverine and the others are on the sidelines for the time being, but does anyone really believe they will stay that way? Wonder Woman eventually ditched her pants suit and got her tiara and magic lasso back. The Incredible Hulk has been Green and Stupid, and then Green and Smart, and then Grey and Smart but Cynical and not quite as Strong, Green and Smart and Strong and Cynical, and for a brief period Weak and Puny But Only When He Got Angry. Within the last few years, Captain America has died, got better, grown old, got better again, and turned into a Hydra Agent. The jury is still out on whether or not he can survive the last. Heck, Superman even cut off his mullet.

In the late '90s there was a period where DC radically changed Superman's costume and powers. He became a sort of living lightning bolt with electrical powers, who had to wear a special containment suit to avoid electrocuting everybody. I remember at the time seeing editor Mike Carlin giving interviews in which he swore that these changes were no gimmick but would be permanent. I don't think any long-time comics readers believed him.

In some cases, the changes to a comic book really are intended to be permanent; kind of like the New Coke. Wonder Woman's pants suit was such a case, but low sales and the need to have the character in the comic book match the artwork on the kids' licensed lunchboxes meant that she eventually got her old costume back. When Batman had his spine broken in the “Knightfall” storyline and he was replaced by Azrael, a fanatical psycho-puppy in a spikey suit of powered armor, I suspect that the creative team deliberately set out to make parody of the edgy, grim heroes of the era, so that fans would better appreciate the real Batman when he came back.

I've read that when DC was planning the “Death of Superman” arc, Mike Carlin asked Neil Gaiman if they could use Death of the Endless from his SANDMAN comic in the story. Gaiman reportedly asked, “Is he really going to be dead and not coming back ever?” The fact that Carlin would not give him a definite answer was itself an answer and Gaiman said, “No.”

I was somewhat amused by the agitation in the general public over the storyline because I'd already seen Jean Grey come back from the dead and I figured that Superman would too. I knew this was a gimmick and would soon be undone. All I demanded was that the gimmick yield some good stories. And it did.

So I regard the latest crop of Marvel's “Politically Correct” heroes much the same way. At worst, the old heroes will eventually come back and the new ones forgotten, as was the case with Artemis, Wonder Woman's replacement from the '90s. At best, the new hero will become incorporated into the mythos of the old as was the case with Beta Ray Bill, the alien who for a time wielded the Hammer of Thor and eventually earned an Uru hammer of his own, and the comic's shared history become all the richer for it. Either way, all I ask for is a few good stories with engaging characters. And from what I have seen, this Marvel has given us.



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Kurt Wilcken draws the webcomic “Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine” at http://www.kurtoonsonline.com/ and writes a weekly blog about obscure Bible stories, “The Ones You Didn’t Hear in Sunday School” at: http://onesyoudidnthear.blogspot.com/ He also sometimes refers to himself in the third person and he lives for feedback.