A Modest Proposal for Diversity in Comics

This post originally appeared on Panels, which is now Book Riot Comics

A few weeks, I wrote a critique of Spider-Man #2 that included a brief footnote setting out an idea I’ve been working on over the past few months. Here it is, for the link-averse:

[A]s a general matter, if your book has a woman, person of color, religious minority, etc., as a main character, then you should probably have at least one person on the regular creative team from that group. Otherwise, you run into serious issues of authenticity and you risk speaking on behalf of people, instead of allowing them to speak for themselves.

I probably shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised by the number of comments the post got focusing on that brief footnote, sometimes to the exclusion of my broader point. So, I wanted to explore the idea in a little greater depth.

First, though, it’s important to note that I don’t see this as a hard-and-fast rule to be applied to all comics everywhere. There are exceptions—some of which I’ll get to below—and what works in one situation won’t work in others. Basically, think of my “rule” as the Pirate Code.

The Pirate Code

I’d use the phrase Comics Code, but that’s already been taken.

But why is this important in the first place? For me, it’s about verisimilitude, about creating characters and stories that are true to life; in other words, it’s about authenticity. There are some things that it are very difficult to fully understand—let alone write about—without having experienced them oneself. Having a diverse creative team means that it’s possible to draw from a broader range of experiences, to tell stories in a more genuinely authentic way.

Having a diverse creative team also makes it much more likely problematic scenes and characters will be caught before publication. It is by no means a guarantee—people make mistakes, don’t notice things, decide not to “make a fuss”, etc.—but it definitely helps. Even when problems slip through, having a diverse team can totally change the tone of the response: when Jem and the Holograms came under fire for its representation of a transgender character, artist Sophie Campbell was quick to acknowledge the issue and apologize in a heart-felt series of tweets.

I could go on and on about why diversity is important. Instead, though, here are some great articles other people have written about it: Laura Hudson over at WiredJoseph Cain at The Mary Sue, and Panels’ own Hélène and Paul Montgomery.

Okay, so let’s say we’ve convinced you in the abstract that diversity is important. But what exactly do I mean by my “guidelines”?

1. I’m talking about creative teams, not just “writers”, so I’m not saying that only a Chinese-American woman can write Silk or that only a half-black, half-Latino writer can write Miles Morales. As practically all comic writers will tell you, artists are a critical part of the storytelling team, and are in many cases heavily involved in the broader plotting. On some books, the editor will also play a major role in developing storylines and characterization. Ms. Marvel editor Sana Amanat, for instance, is largely responsible for Kamala’s family and community feeling so authentic.

But, I would draw the line somewhere. Not all editors are like Amanat, and an inker or color artist might not have the same influence on storytelling that a penciller does. For me, the question is: does this person have major influence in the storytelling process? This will differ greatly from series to series and from publisher to publisher.

2. My focus at this point is with title characters in solo books. Comics can have large casts, and excluding an established supporting character or team member because they aren’t represented on the current creative team would be silly. But, title characters are different. While supporting characters come and go, the title character is, with rare exceptions, there every month, the plot circling around them. Issues of identity and experience are just far more likely to come up with a title character.

But, I do encourage creative teams to do their research and to get diverse perspectives when working with supporting characters outside of their comfort zones. Looking just at Batgirl, there’s a significant difference between how Gail Simone, Daniel Sampere and Vicente Cifuentes handled the introduction of Alysia Yeoh, and how Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher, and Babs Tarr handled villain Dagger Type. That said, the latter creative team did a fantastic job of recognizing the issue and corrected it before the trade was published.

Team books are a tougher case. Insofar as possible, team books should have diverse creative teams. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that the travesty that was Avengers #200 could have happened if a woman had been on the creative team. But, it usually isn’t possible to represent everyone on even a small team, especially in intersectional ways. Editors putting creative teams together for team books should think long and hard about diversity and representation, but the ideal mix will differ greatly from book to book.

3. Intersectionality can make this seem complicated, but it doesn’t really need to be, since no single member of the creative team needs to represent every aspect of a character’s identity. While it might be ideal to have a half-Black/half-Latinx creator working on Miles Morales, it isn’t strictly necessary is two different members of the creative team are Black and Latinx.

4. On the other hand, “LGBTQ” is not itself an identity. There are major differences between the ways that the different groups experience the world, so it is not enough that a gay man is writing a lesbian character or drawing a transgender character. Again, the goal is achieving authenticity and avoiding unconsciously offensive scenes.

4. My primary concern is with work-for-hire books, rather than creator-owned titles. I am much more comfortable criticizing, for instance, who DC hires to write, illustrate, and edit Wonder Woman than I am criticizing a team of creators telling a story that is wholly their own. That said, there can still be serious issues with creator-owned comics, as we saw with J.G. Jones and Mark Waid’s Strange Fruit. Still, I think the rules are different for creator-owned books and I’m not going to scrutinize creator-owned books to the same degree (even if I might still occasionally ask why every single member of a creative team—down to the color artist, letterer, and assistant editor—is a white man).

5. Similarly, I see these guidelines as applying prospectively, rather than retroactively. I am not going to judge comics created decades ago by whether the creative teams were diverse; instead, I’ll judge them by whether they were actually offensive. But, just because we did something in the past doesn’t mean we should continue to do it. There is room in the comics industry for people from all backgrounds, and there are people from all backgrounds trying to make a career in comics. This shouldn’t be too hard.

That said, as I’ve been thinking about these guidelines, I’ve realized just how few series really meet them, including a number of books I really love. But, this isn’t ultimately about just me: it’s about making comics better for everyone.

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