Recently, Boom! Studios had a press release about diversity in comics. In said release, Ross Richie, CEO and cofounder of Boom! Studios discussed a longing to open up a dialogue about comics appealing to a wider audience: an audience of diverse races and genders. There is even a hashtag for it, #comicsforward, as in Push #comicsforward. And, marketing ploy or not, I think this whole thing is wonderful.
Sean: What really got to me was this quote from the press release:
Have you ever had a friend that shared a lot of your interests, but they didn’t read comics? You gave them Watchmen, you gave them Y: The Last Man, you gave them X-Men. But nothing stuck. They liked the idea of comics, but there wasn’t a comic book that felt like it was made for them…
To answer the rhetorical question above, yes, I have a couple of those friends. But, the one pal that comes to mind first is my younger sister. She’s one of my best friends, but she’s never been really huge into comics, though we have very similar taste in movies and TV. And part of this is surely because a lot of the characters she might be able to relate to in many of the comics I might recommend are either a) men, or b) Such poor attempts at writing strong female characters they might as well just be men.
Dave: Frankly there aren’t too many comics geared towards women that aren’t soap opera style romance stories. The idea of a comic “geared for them” is a complicated one, particularly because content needs to reach the widest audience to reap the most profit. Historically young white males is the audience of choice for publishers of every type, from TV to comic books, which dictates the content. The fact that Boom! is attempting to flesh out its audience is a remarkably bold move and here’s hoping it works out.
Greg: There’s a lot to pick apart in his statement, but here I’m interested in his choice of examples, which I’m sure are all common attempts at “first” comics, each with their own flaws of accessibility. I’ve learned that unless you know for sure that someone is into superheroes, it’s usually not a good idea to start them with a superhero comic, especially not one with as convoluted continuity as X-Men.
Watchmen may be one of the best comics of all time, but it’s still a superhero book, and really is best appreciated by those that are already well-versed in superhero comics.
As for Y: The Last Man, it may not be a superhero book, but it’s 60 issues long. I’d hardly call that accessible.
My point is, when you’re recommending comics to people, consider your audience. I hope that Boom! starts publishing more books for people like my grandparents, who completely check out of any media at the sight of any trace of fantasy or science fiction.
Sean: I think Richie was simply listing the most popular comics that people tend to recommend. I agree with Greg that suggesting superhero books is not the best way to go. However, I can remember comic reader friends who did recommend Watchmen to me. And really, I would say the best way to get people into comics would be to gear it towards genre first. If you had a friend into, say, sci-fi, you recommend a good sci-fi comic you read. Or, perhaps you could even just recommend an author or artist first.
Dave: I used to always pass off Blankets as the introductory comic for friends, but full disclosure, I recently got my girlfriend interested in comics with Y: The Last Man.
Races, Genders, and Sexuality
Sean: It seems to me one easy way to incorporate more women into comics is to start hiring more women writers and artists. Same goes for incorporating a wider array of ethnicities. If all you have are white men writing comics, then that is the perspective you get, and some well-meaning white men might not even write a crappy woman character or character of a different race on purpose. Still, in general, more diversity in the staff will surely lead to more diversity on the page.
Case in point: Lumberjanes, as Richie brings up in his press release, is an all female creative team. You want a good comic for a female audience, get a female team who was once a female audience to craft the stories.
Greg: Yeah, I agree that we need to see more diversity, not just in terms of characters (although that is important) but creators. Comic book writers and artists come from all walks of life. I think mainstream comics are getting a little better at this (at least as far as artists go), but there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of seeing an industry that accurately reflects the world we live in, especially in terms of writers. I mean, it’s great that Shaft writer David F. Walker got hired by DC to write Cyborg, but this seems to be the first time in YEARS that either of the Big 2 hired a single Black writer.
I think it should also be noted that comics are not the only media that fail to depict diversity, especially when it comes to sexuality. I’d love to see more stories like Chip Zdarsky and Kagan McLeod’s upcoming Kaptara, they describe as “gay Saga” featuring a gay sci-fi action hero. Interestingly, I don’t think either Zdarsky or McLeod are gay, but it’s great to craft stories about people that are different from you, at least if you don’t resort to stereotyping.
Dave: I think today’s audience has become so enamored with a default good guy that they are shocked and unnerved when a different race or sex is used for the protagonist of a story. Obviously the only way to break this mold is to do so by breaking expectations and stereotypes and stop sticking white male blondes into every single new series.
I’ve recently seen a lot of conversations about inserting Miles Morales into the new Spider-Man movie since they are rebooting the character anyway. Lots of folks are angry that anyone would even suggest changing the race of Spider-Man and that Peter Parker needs to be white to be the character he was created. I’m not sure I agree, but then you have an opposite argument of cheapening the character by simply changing their race or sex rather than giving them a whole new character to call their own. Case in point, Captain America is now black and Thor is now a female. Interesting points, but again, the industry is driven by sales and I suspect most publishers are willing to take a chance on a race swap over an entirely new character that doesn’t have a fanbase.
Sean: I absolutely agree with you, Dave. It’s great that Spider-Man had a chance to be black, but wouldn’t it be better to create a brand new character, who was black from the start? I’m not even close to suggesting publishers shouldn’t race and gender swap characters, because it’s certainly a less risky start, and overall it is good for comics. But, it’d be even better if there was, say, a black woman superhero, or a gay superhero, who started that way. Then we could follow the character from the beginning, and see the struggles they’ve had to go through. In fact, the ideal scenario is Marvel or DC hires say, a black man to create an entirely new black superhero, or they hire a lesbian to create a brand new gay female superhero. Something along those lines. But hey, a black Spider-Man is still a definite step in the right direction.
Sean: Most people over thirteen assume that there are plenty of comics for little kids, and honestly, there might be. What I can tell you is that almost all of the characters that started as a way to entertain children have now been co opted by adults and have become super gritty and frightening as all heck. Seriously, compare sixties Batman comics with the current standard, and tell me a little kid can read both?
Greg: So much has been done over the past few decades to convince readers that comics aren’t for kids (sometimes with nuanced, genuinely mature comics like Maus and Sandman, other times with cynical comics like Identity Crisis that insist upon their unearned sense of “maturity” like a prattling adolescent) that children have largely been neglected, perhaps deliberately, by many comics publishers. That’s a shame. I work at a school with plenty of kids that LOVE comics. Even when I bring in something like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, they clamor for it.
Kids are absolutely a viable audience for comics, so why aren’t we catering more to them? Yes, there are some great comics for kids that come to mind, but the selection is still somewhat limited, especially, again, with the Big 2. Kids love superheroes and need more comics like Superman Family Adventures and Thor the Mighty Avenger, original works featuring established superheroes that aren’t based on preexisting movies or TV shows.
Dave: I think there are more comics directed at kids than ever. Boom! is currently publishing books straight from Cartoon Network after making an exclusive deal and Dark Horse has their Itty Bitty Comics Mask. Given though, they are smaller publishers which means less notice from the public. It’s clear comics are becoming more popular than ever if you believe the sales stats coming from Comixology and such, so isn’t it only a matter of time until the current audience becomes parents and wants to find great comics for their kids? Maybe it’s happening now, I don’t know.
But what about older readers? I honestly don’t see much of anything in the American market for older readers on a weekly basis unless you count graphic novels from Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly.
Sean: I think the hardest audience to hit would be older readers. Again, I think the only way to do it right would be to hire an older writer. Because, seriously, if someone asked me to write a comic for older people, I think I’d fail miserably at it, by nature of the fact that I have no idea what it would be like to be, say, a person over fifty years of age.
Sean: Specific wording aside, I’m all for this whole Push Comics Forward thing Boom! has decided to start. And I say this for entirely selfish reasons. I’ve been reviewing comics on this site now for roughly two years, I think (maybe three? Terrible with numbers). I’ve read a lot of comics. And, I want some fresh voices, and some new perspectives. I love comics, and I want others to love them as well, all sorts of others. And I want people from all walks of life to create them.
Comic books are a medium that deserve respect in the same regard as films or books. And one way to get this respect is to not only experiment with different ways of storytelling inside of the medium of comics, but to also explore different character types and creators within the medium.
Dave: If anything this will create different stories because the motivation behind the content is different than the norm. That’s a good thing.
Greg: Agreed all around. It’s a great time to be reading comics, but the industry can get even better with more diversity. With the proper care from publishers, creators, and fans, we can become part of a new golden age.