May 1 2013

Comic Book Superheroes Face Their Greatest Challenge!

Stuggling to stay relevant in the 21st century

Sargent1Despite the fact that you can’t turn on the TV without being reminded about the existence of superhero movies, the original medium for superhero stories —comic books—has been in significant decline over the past few years.

They’ve tried to bring in new readers by diversifying their line-up: DC Comics rebooted everything with its “New 52!” while Marvel Comics created the parallel “Ultimate Universe” where the same characters face different, more “risky” situations in a completely separate, parallel universe.  This experimentation has led to some great, progressive storylines that have moved the medium forward, but it also highlights some big problems.

Because it’s difficult to create a strong, original character in a crowded fictional universe, writers often use an existing hero as a template for a new one. For example, one of the most well-rounded female characters in the DC Universe is Batgirl, whose secret identity is Barbara Gordon (unbeknownst to her father, Batman ally Commissioner Gordon).

Gordon used to be a unique hero in comics. After being shot by the Joker while off-duty (Batman: The Killing Joke), she was paraplegic for several years, and fought crime as Oracle: an “infojack” who inserted herself into the crimefighting community so effectively that soon seemingly every DC hero was relying on her information. She even led her own team of female superheroes, the Birds of Prey, who got their own series.

She was a high-profile, highly competent disabled character with a ton of agency—but the editorial team at DC ultimately decided to change all that. At the beginning of the “New 52!” reboot, the DC editorial team decided to give her her legs back, get her back out fighting crime with her fists, and give her the name “Batgirl” again.

This was done, presumably, to increase sales, since a Batgirl comic will sell more due to its implicit relationship with the character Batman. The comic is still fantastic, as Birds of Prey writer Gail Simone (creator of the feminist comics blog Women in Refrigerators) followed her over to the new book, but it’s far less effective as a tool for gathering new readers or increasing female visibility in mainstream comics.

Another problem is the convention of the art. The status quo when it comes to depicting female characters is to focus utterly on the breasts, butt and hips, even to the detriment of the story. For example, in the very first issue of New 52! Catwoman (very well-written by the talented Ann Nocenti) spends the entire first page giving us different shots of her bra and ample breasts without ever showing us her face. Once we do see it, her expression is always sultry and sexually enticing, even when the dialogue and exposition clearly explains her anger.

A particularly egregious example has Catwoman (#14, 1/13) removing her outfit to discover her skin has been marked with numerous bat-symbols while she was un-conscious. Her character says “Have to wash this stench off, fast,” but the angle and her facial expression make it look like she’s seducing someone who shares our—the reader’s—perspective.

This trend is further exacerbated by comic books’ tendency to play fast and loose with the concept of “consent” in their depicted sexual relationships. The most iconic example is Avengers #200 (10/80), which came to be called “The Rape of Ms. Marvel” (LoC, 1980) and involved Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers watching one of their female members be sexually assaulted, kidnapped, and ultimately brainwashed by a mind-control device into falling in love with her rapist. As Iron Man watches Ms. Marvel fly off to a parallel dimension in the arms of the supervillain, he remarks: “We just have to hope that turned out for the best.”

Since then, the editor has apologized and another writer (Chris Claremont) has written a story (Avengers Annual #10, 11/81) in which Ms. Marvel returned and told all the Avengers exactly where they could shove it, but the tradition of casually toying around with rape and just not really worrying about it continues today, mostly in situations of mistaken identity.

At one point in the Ultimate Universe (Ultimate Spider-Man #67, 10/04), Wolverine and Spider-Man swapped bodies, and when they swapped back, Mary Jane (Peter Parker’s long time love interest), ended the issue saying: “That thing you tried to do last night…can we wait until we’re older?” In the Ultimate Universe, Mary Jane is 15 years old, but this attempted statutory-rape-by-fraud is played off as a casual joke.

Attempts to introduce characters of color are even more of a mixed bag. When the creators reimagined several prominent characters for the Ultimate Universe, they were definitely conscious of diversity: Nick Fury, a traditionally white, grey-haired man, has been replaced by a Samuel L. Jackson look-alike. (Marvel Studios later followed suit by actually casting Jackson in the role for the films.) The new Black Widow is Asian-American Monica Chang.

More recently, they decided to kill off Peter Parker (Ultimate Spider-Man #160, 6/11) and replace him with Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Latino teenager.  Created by Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sarah Pichelli (all three of whom are white), the new character has been very well-characterized and well-received thus far as Spider-Man.

Sargent2But other decisions haven’t stood up to scrutiny as well. Over in the DC Universe, the new Green Lantern is Simon Baz, a Muslim-American under investigation for terrorism charges. (He’s innocent.) This narrative decision, by half-Lebanese writer Geoff Johns, works well with the established mythology—“Green Lanterns” are an elite space police force chosen for their “ability to overcome great fear,” and the ring chooses Simon at least partly because of his ability to face the cultural fear that comes with living as a contemporary Muslim-American.

However, this effort at diversity has been coupled with attempts to make him “edgy,” so Baz is prone to dramatic emotional outbursts, and insists on carrying a gun (New 52! Green Lantern #0, 11/12) despite the fact that he has a ring with the incredible power to materialize anything he imagines. Furthermore, most promotions for Simon show him brandishing the gun instead of his ring, and the cover of the very first issue depicted him wearing a mask resembling a ski-mask, and pointing his gun directly at the audience in a threatening manner.

As noted by the AV Club (“The Arab-American Green Lantern Debuts and Everyone Thinks He’s a Terrorist,” 9/7/12), it harkens back to the 1990s, when comics were overly concerned with being “edgy”—but when you’re focusing that gimmick on a new character of color and only on that character, it’s hard to see it as a benign decision.

Part of this problem comes from the predominantly white and male make-up of comics creators. Tim Hanley at does “gendercrunching” for both major comics publishers (2/26/13) and analyzed ethnicity once last year as well (8/23/12). His results are unsurprising: Though female and non-white contributors are on the rise, the population is still nearly 80 percent white and about 86 percent male, depending on the month. And progress is slow: DC had only a 1.4 percent increase in female writers during 2012.

It’s depressingly common to hear the argument that comics just happen to be a niche market for suburban white boys, so it makes sense to reflect that population in the creators. There is a similar argument about action movies, videogames and television, and like all those arguments, it is blatantly untrue.

There are no specific studies to cite, but only someone completely insulated from comic book culture could say with a straight face that this is at all a “whites only” community. African-American comics author Brandon M. Easton wrote an op-ed for Bleeding Cool (9/13/12) in which he described growing up in a predominantly black community and noticing “that there were a ton of Marvel and DC fans who were black, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, lesbian, developmentally disabled and physically handicapped, male and female.”

Aside from his anecdotal evidence, there are several different black-themed comic book conventions in the United States, and even a successful blog (Cosplaying While Black) dedicated to showing that there are thousands of black comic fans in this country who love comics so much that they recreate their favorite costumes to wear at conventions.

Or as writer Luke McKinney said in his column at (12/8/12), “If you think the greatest Thor fan in the world is male, wow, you’ve been using a different Internet from me.”

But whether it’s the fault of the writers, the editors or the readers, the fact remains that comics have been especially slow to adapt to more diverse demographics. And if they don’t grow up and figure out a way to fix these problems, there’s not likely to be a future for the industry.

J.F. Sargent (@JFSargent on Twitter), a frequent contributor to the website Cracked, would like to thank Austin Murray for lending his considerable comics expertise (not to mention collection) toward the creation of this article.