Marvel’s diversity run

Michelle Rodriguez recently commented on diversity in the superhero genre, initially in an interview with TMZ and later in a Facebook post defending herself after she was criticised for her remarks. She said “This whole ‘minorities in Hollywood’ thing … it’s so stupid. Stop stealing all the white people’s superheroes. Make up your own.”

When she was called out for her racism, she posted a video on her Facebook page saying:

“The language that you speak in Hollywood is ‘successful franchise’ and I think that there are many cultures in Hollywood that are not white that can come up with their own mythology…

“I’m just saying that instead of trying to turn a girl character into a guy or instead of trying to turn a white character into a black character or a Latin character, I think people should stop being lazy, and that people should actually make an effort in Hollywood to develop their own mythology.

“I’m considering this while I’m out there coming up with projects to do and things to write. I think it’s time for us to write our own mythology and our own story.”

Oh, of course, it’s laziness that’s been holding up the tradition of a white smorgasboard of talent in Hollywood(!) Rodriguez’ views neatly buy into the structure of thought that presumes if you try hard enough you can achieve anything, even overcome structural oppression.

Stealing white people’s jobs

It is especially galling that Rodriguez’ comments stem from a discussion about superhero films, a genre that contains approximately five million white, muscular, blonde haired, blue eyed men named Chris. It seems almost ridiculous to have to even point this out but a whole host of people need to be convinced that a person of colour playing a traditionally white character is financially viable. Based on the current number of POC-lead superheroes, this is apparently impossible or, at least, really fucking hard.

The way Rodriguez frames it also doesn’t really help her case; the image of a person of colour creepin’ up and pinching white men and women’s God-given roles feels more like something from bullshit mountain than an actress who should know better. You only need to take a look at comments on any social media site concerning announcements of any character that isn’t a white, straight man in the comics industry to be hit with bigotry about people of colour commandeering the roles of traditionally white characters and ‘feminist hate groups’ carrying out their evil doings once more. The context of this highlights just how infuriating Rodrgiuez’ comments are; they play into the idea that there is a feminist plot to overhaul comics and stick it to the white man where it hurts the most – in his comics-loving, woman-hating, white supremacist balls.

In isolation there would be few people who would argue that people of colour shouldn’t be inventing their own mythology but, again, Rodriguez’ framing of the issue reveals more about her perception of the issue. The issue, obviously, is the ‘stealing’ comment and a quick look of output in the comics industry for the last few hundred years reveals an obvious bias.What this point of view completely by-passes is the real-life toll of a representational whiteout. There’s an overwhelming lack of multitudes of races (that aren’t white, natch), queer representations, and women in general.  Everyone who isn’t a cishet white man is looking to see themselves reflected and validated only to find a vast, white, nothingness.


Inventing your own mythology

Inventing your own mythology requires the right foundation – writers, editors, illustrators – just in order to appeal to a wider audience. It needs that at each level to encourage a greater number of diverse actors having mythology available to audition for. Rodriguez’ comments are ignorant because they fail to see the difficulty of people of colour being cast in traditionally white roles, never mind a person of colour writing their own comic which is eventually turned into a series of films. (Of course, that writing would need to be able to be understood by white people, without only being written for white people and a little bit representative of the actual group you’re trying to write about but even then it’ll be taken as wholly representative of that group which wasn’t even what you were trying to do and oh no, you’ve cast Bendysnatch Cabbagepatch in it, I give up).

Invention vs. subversion

Inventing your own mythology as the only form of changing things is deeply flawed because it missed out on the effects of subversion. Comics function on the premise of different universes that allow character reboots. In the long term the comics industry is built to change with technology, political and cultural developments – race and gender and sexuality are an inevitable factor of that. I don’t think comics emerged as a radical subversion genre aimed at building diversity through positive representations but that’s how it could function. As it is, like many other institutions the comics industry is dominated by cishet white males™ at each and every level. Genuine overhaul would naturally require the encouragement of more diverse writers, illustrators and more, right to the very top.

The other side of the diversity coin would be the kind of representations that are being churned out. Recently, Marvel has recently been announcing changes to comics line ups and Liz Watson of The Daily Beast characterised this recent diversity run as follows:

For once, the boundless nature of comic story-telling is actually being used to cross boundaries.

Despite this, Marvel’s efforts might not feel like enough. Why not launch titles starring independent black or female characters instead of having them temporarily adopt another’s mantle? But the sad reality is that the comics industry is too insular to foster any kind of radical change. It still remains incredibly difficult for new comics and heroes to get a stronghold in the marketplace. Most new titles are cancelled within a matter of months. Especially as comic prices rise, readers seem to be sticking with the titles they know and love. Consequently, Marvel is working within the system (and to be fair, it’s a system which they helped create) to introduce a wider variety of heroes to the consumers buying familiar titles like Thor.

It’s a Trojan horse strategy, sneaking in African-American or female heroes one book at a time, for a few months. It’s also a low-stakes method of taking risks, particularly when one considers the scope of Marvel’s cinematic universe. Marvel superhero films have dominated the box office for the last few years, and a Black Widow movie would provide exposure to a much wider audience than the blinkered world of comic book readers. Yet all but two of their upcoming 11 films will feature white, male leads.

As Watson recognises, Marvel’s diversity hasn’t bled into the cinematic universe which, as a separate entity to plot lines in the comics industry, can afford to reinvent and overhaul characters. Instead a whole bunch of white dudes have been cast, even where white dudes were not to be found. Watson also demonstrates the difficulty of a stand-alone book succeeding and the limited ‘radicalism’ of temporary diversity. Marvel appears to be testing the waters and limiting their commitment to meaningful, sustained diverse representations. However, subversion of existing white superheroes is not radical change but given the track record in comics…it sort of is.


A more useful way of thinking about invention vs. subversion is to look at the two not as an opposition, but as a symbiotic relationship. One does not need to triumph above the other but, subversion is representative of small changes that are supposed to be building blocks to an imaginary comics industry that is representative of the audience it purports to engage with. Invention is altogether more complicated with issues of audience numbers and relative critical success of new characters. Below are a few examples of subversion and invention combining.

The power of subversion and/or invention

Source: http://marvel.wikia.com/Samuel_Wilson_(Earth-616)
Source: http://marvel.wikia.com/Samuel_Wilson_(Earth-616)

Captain America

Subversion in comics that is based on turning traditionally cishet white males into a different race, gender or sexuality is extremely powerful because it contains that which invention alone doesn’t – the acknowledgement of past representations and how the new representation is to be understood in opposition to it.

A prime example of this is Marvel’s announcement that Sam Wilson (the first African-American superhero in comics) is to become Captain America in a reboot of the most iconic Avenger. (Joe Quesada [Chief Creative Officer at Marvel] stated he doesn’t see colour, during an interview with Colbert, which. No, son. No.). Obviously, there were the standard comments from giant babies crying about how Captain America just isn’t black and Marvel were just trying to be politically correct and other general not-dealing-very-well-with-change situations.

Personally, I hate Captain America with a fiery passion. I think Captain America is the absolute worst. I understand how for some people, that’s like saying that you don’t like puppies and ice cream. There’s just something about draping a guy in American flags, giving him the muscly blonde-haired, blue-eyed thing that makes him an emblem of patriotism embedded in aggressive colonialism and self-righteousness that is the very backbone of said colonialism. Granted, not everybody is going to see Captain America like that but I can’t see him as anything else.

However, add Sam Wilson to the mix and the representational power of a black man (who has a much more likeable personality, lbr) as an emblem of America. It changes the representations, for me, from aggressive colonialism to the reality of a diverse America. Sam Wilson can come to embody American patriotism through a distinctly different frame; instead, it is a patriotism built on pride in a country rather than hatred and fear of other countries. Steve Rogers is perfectly capable of doing that (probably for people who aren’t the children of Pakistani immigrants but nbd) but having a black man do it, instead is extremely powerful. That power is built on subverting white mythology into something more relatable for the rest of us. Sam Wilson functions against Steve Rogers.

Thor

Source: http://marvel.com/news/comics/22875/marvel_proudly_presents_thor
Source: http://marvel.com/news/comics/22875/marvel_proudly_presents_thor

The announcement of a female version of Thor follows much the same representational path as Captain America. It is excellent to see a woman in the role of Thor, especially given the mythology of Thor’s hammer only lifting (yes, Thor is a giant dick joke, we all know that) by one who is worthy. There is the caveat, as usual, of this version of Thor being a limited run in comics but it’s about bloody time – Thor was a frog before Thor was a woman. Legitimate thing that happened, Google it.

Once again, the announcement brought much criticism from certain fans about Marvel pandering to calls for diversity. It’s interesting to note the degree of vitriol for any character change that is from white man to any and every combination of woman/LGBTQ/all the races on the planet which are not white. It’s plainly obvious to me why Marvel and the comics industry as a whole is unsustainable if it persists with  white men the only type represented and yet the reaction to any Marvel announcement involving the above types of people is met with outraged cries of political correctness.

Ms Marvel

Jamie Mckelvie & Matt Wilson
Jamie Mckelvie & Matt Wilson

My love for Kamala Khan has already been expressed online before and I still think this comic is an excellent example of thoughtful, sensitive representation rooted in reality rather than newspaper headlines. This series is a reboot, previously occupied by Carol Danvers, Sharon Ventura and Karla Sofen. This, then, would be an example of subversion, but, given that it had been a while since anyone had been featuring as Ms Marvel and just how different Kamala Khan is to the rest of the Ms Marvel’s, this is a very different style of subversion than the more popular titles of Captain America and Thor.

It feels more like an invention of mythology within a subversion, than anything else. Kamala’s family and friends are showcased alongside the superhero-plot, a decision that instantaneously emphasises her humanity and character alongside her development as a superhero. This particular feature makes her believable, likeable and serves to cement her as a different form of representation that functions in a wholly different way than ‘was white, is now something else.’

She-Hulk and Black Widow’s current comic runs

Source: http://philnoto.tumblr.com/post/67025975739/early-black-widow-promo-art#notes
Source: http://philnoto.tumblr.com/post/67025975739/early-black-widow-promo-art#notes

This example is that of two well-established characters in the Marvel universe with their own extensive histories and fan bases. Of course, as women they’re not as widely regarded as the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Spiderman and whatnot. However, both these current runs are excellent reworkings of compelling characters, especially Black Widow with Phil Noto’s frankly, magical art. They also represent, however, examples of reboots that do not subvert. They are stand-alone characters in their own right with their own mythology.

Young Avengers

Young Avengers2

A quick run down of notable superheroes in this team team: Hulkling a.k.a Teddy Altman who is gay; Wiccan a.k.a Billy Kaplan who is gay; Miss America a.k.a America Chavez who is a lesbian; Prodigy a.k.a David Alleyne who is bisexual (and OPENLY STATED IT, it can happen!). As of Volume 1 of the series, four of the six are LGBT characters and not all the team is white. That’s quite a line up and the success of the current run has demonstrated the popularity of a commitment to diversity rooted in invention of new character mythologies.

Marvel Puzzle Quest and Spiderman Unlimited

Screenshot_2015-03-11-23-44-09

During International (Working) Women’s Day last weekend Marvel created corresponding events in two mobile games – Marvel’s Puzzle Quest and their Spider-Man game. The former saw a ‘Women in Marvel’ event created which provided power-ups to female characters, in addition to variant covers that featured women. The latter had an ‘International Women’s Day’ event where players competed to unlock various female versions and allies to Spider-Man. Their intentions are evident; they were marking a worldwide day intended to commemorate and celebrate women around the world.

But, once the event was over it was back to business as usual. Marvel Puzzle Quest, at least, has made it easier to unlock various characters and is steadily featuring more female superheroes. The Spider-Man game, maybe I’m just really terrible at it and, this combined with the fact that I refuse to spend real money on it, makes it more difficult to unlock female characters. Playability aside, this is classic tokenism – once Women’s Day is over it’s back to business as usual.


The examples above demonstrate, to varying degrees, that increased diversity is a continuous process with no finite end. It can only be judged with each piece of media and, given the structure of white superiority and supremacy, will be judged in opposition to the construction of whiteness. This doesn’t mean that everything Marvel produces will be written by and for white people exclusively but, rather that white people have the loudest voice in forming and judging representations. Subversion and invention of mythology, then, are issues which simplify the complex question of how best to represent minorities. Michelle Rodriguez’ comments, however, are excessively simplistic (as well as plainly wrong) and echo a common assumption that people of colour are at fault for a severe lack of representation.

Given that Marvel is headed by straight white middle class dudes it will usually miss the spot in sustained diversity changes that are meaningful and genuinely revolutionary. The difficulty with talking about Marvel’s attempt at diversity is that whilst it is genuinely exciting that Ms Marvel is about a Pakistani American immigrant and Young Avengers is queer as hell, the white-washed and straight-washed history of comics needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. It can always be done better.


Further reading:

Keeping Score in the DC vs. Marvel Diversity Arms Race

DC Comics’ Diversity Crisis: Why the Status Quo Rules

How Marvel is Opening Up Its Universe to Women and Minorities

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5 thoughts on “Marvel’s diversity run

  1. Quick correction for Young Avengers: Patriot isn’t gay. Prodigy is. Prodigy is David Alleyne, former X-Man (well, former New Mutant, but whatever), who joined the Young Avengers during the Gillen/McKelvie run, which Patriot was absent from. Only two of the original Young Avengers are gay, but Gillen and McKelvie added two new team members who are LGBT.

    That aside . . . yeah, I think Rodriguez’s comments were really, really stupid. She should know better. She should know how difficult it is for people of colour to get cast in any major movies, especially blockbuster action movies. Superhero movies have an especially poor track record. It’s easy to say women and people of colour should be “creating their own mythologies,” but Hollywood has made it very clear that they don’t give a damn about the mythologies of women and people of colour.

    As a straight white man, I want more movies starring people who are LGBT, people of colour and women. I am very well-represented. I do not need more representation. People who are Not Me have so little representation, and they need a whole lot more.

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    1. Thank you very much for the correction, I’ll edit it right away 🙂

      It is very easy to say any minority group should “create their own mythologies” but even that is fraught with so many hurdles that it makes Rodriguez’ comments look even more bizarre

      Thank you for reading!

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  2. Marvel has kind of a problem because a lot of their “diverse” characters belong to the X-men, which they can’t use because Fox owns the rights…and Fox has no interest in showing all those diverse characters and instead prefers to create the Wolverine show.

    I am of two minds in the “changing race or gender of established comic book heroes” issue…I think it depends on the level of how established said heroes are. It doesn’t matter if Captain America is suddenly black, in the mind of the audience Captain America is Steve Rogers and eventually he will take up the mantel again. Same with the female Thor (and honestly, that one is really ridiculous, because to me Thor is a person, not some kind of title). Especially since Norse Mythology would allow to create some kick-ass female characters.

    With Captain Marvel or Nick Fury on the other hand the change worked, because the characters they replaced were never that interesting in the first place. And in turn, since the title “Miss Marvel” was free, it makes sense to create a diverse character to “fill the void” so to speak. And since the general, not-comic book reading audience doesn’t even know that there was another version beforehand, those characters are in a perfect position to become mainstream eventually.

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    1. Right, but if we’re judging viability of character changes then to only use less well known characters or characters that aren’t on current rosters, makes those changes pretty low-stakes in terms of commitment to diversity.

      I agree that Captain America=Steve Rogers, but, given how all-encompassing that particular mythology is, it can take the hit in terms of someone else being Captain America. It happened with Bucky taking over as Cap for a while, and Sam is a similar sort of sidekick-becomes-Cap situation. Also, Thor is hardly a bastion of commitment to Norse mythology so, again, it can take the hit and it can be something else for a while.

      I absolutely see what you’re saying about how Marvel passing the diversity baton to less well-known characters is a great way to make these kind of changes, and maybe they are just testing the waters with audience reaction by rolling out changes slowly. I really do feel that whatever combination of subversion or invention is going on, there can be bigger and better commitments from the comics industry as a whole. I’m not really seeing reasons why bigger characters can’t be changed. I don’t think Marvel would change them in the MCU so if all we get is changes in the comics, that’s a compromise as far as I’m concerned.

      Thanks for reading

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      1. I think that people forget that what consider “A-Listers” are not A-listers because their comics are necessarily the best out there. They are “A-listers” because they got an adaptation back in the 1970s. And I think that is the way each character, no matter if diverse or not, has to go to break into the high ranks. Marvel is now in the comfortable position that it doesn’t matter what they throw on screen, if it is part of the MCU there will be an interest, which is why they got away with picking a fairly unknown property like GotG, instead of first building the characters up in Cartoon and/or TV shows. To me, it looked like a test run, and since it worked, now Black Panther, Captain Marvel and the Inhumans are slated.

        Concerning the bigger changes: I can just say that I wouldn’t like a blond Superman (I know, DC, but one of the best examples) either, and now that Nick Fury has been established for the big screen, I will never ever accept a white one again (yes, I know, the original is still present in the comics, I am talking in terms of the general media). Just like I’ll never accept a young Ms Marple, or a clean shaven Poirot, or a small and overweight Sherlock Holmes, or a Harry Potter with red curly hair.

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