If you’re a comic book fan, you might have heard that Marvel Comics’ Black Panther is poised for some very big things over the next year or two. Several months ago, Marvel’s first black superhero made his live-action debut in the so-completely-awesome-I-saw-it-two-times (and supremely better than the bleak n’ dreary mess that was Batman vs Superman) Captain America: Civil War. In the film, Chadwick Boseman plays the king of the fictional and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda. Boseman brought a gravitas to the role that thoroughly impressed me (I was also impressed that he was given a satisfying character arc in the film). Meanwhile, in the comics, one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary writers on race issues in the US, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has been writing the new Black Panther series since April (you didn’t know?! Well hie thee to a comic book store or Comixology). Then there’s the much-anticipated 2018 live-action Black Panther film, which sees Boseman reprise his role as the African ruler in a movie that may well position the character as a major player in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (a role he very much deserves). That’s not the only cool news involving the character though, as a recent panel at the San Diego Comic-Con revealed. November sees the release of a companion title to the Coates series, titled Black Panther: World of Wakanda. The book will be co-written by Coates, the Bad Feminist herself, Roxane Gay, and poet Yona Harvey:
If I’m not mistaken, Marvel leads DC on that front, as the last several years has seen the New York-based publisher produce titles like Ms. Marvel, Black Panther, Captain America (Sam Wilson), Spider-Man (Miles Morales), Nova, Red Wolf, Spider-Man 2099, and Devil Dinosaur & Moon Girl. Meanwhile, over at DC, the company’s only books in recent years with a Person of Color in the starring role are Dr. Fate and Cyborg. The powers that be at DC cannot be ignorant of the demand for more racially diverse titles. In fact, this awareness is probably a significant reason why the company will soon be adding a new title to it’s publishing schedule, New Super-Man. The title will see a Chinese teenager acquiring some of Superman’s powers:
Now, I tend to harp on the problems in Hollywood and/or the comic book industry bc I care. I care about movies. I care about comic book characters. And I care about racial and gender diversity in both. I want things to be better. I want greater representation (not just of women and PoC, but also queer and disabled people, and more still; but that’s a subject for a different post). Not just for my benefit. Not just for the benefit of others whose opinions align with mine on this subject. I also want greater representation bc it is important for future generations, as cultural anthropologist Michael D. Baran explains:
It is critical that children see all sorts of people playing both the good and the bad roles in media. Otherwise, they may take those absences as meaningful and it may affect how they understand social categories. And it is certainly important for kids to be able to identify with heroes that they feel represent who they are as people.
For very young kids, this might or might not fall out along racial lines and we must be careful not to impose our reification of race onto their knowledge. But we might as well err on the good side, by having a diversity of heroes for people to relate to – not just racially, but also in terms of gender, religion, body type, etc.
While Marvel Studios has much work to do in diversifying its interconnected universe, there are some bright spots on the horizon, and I think there is cause to have some degree of optimism that things are getting better (even if getting to better is like swimming uphill in a tar pit).
I’m optimistic because the Netflix series Jessica Jones was an intense, well acted, rollercoaster of a series that I loved from start to finish. Jessica Jones was presented as a strong, flawed, and three-dimensional character. The widespread acclaim of the show led to the quick announcement of a second season (speaking of which, I need them to announce *when*). On the big screen, I’m optimistic because 2019 sees the release of Captain Marvel, which will mark the first feature length MCU film with a woman in the starring role. Based on the Marvel Comics superhero (formerly known as Ms. Marvel/Binary/Warbird), this movie has the potential to position Captain Marvel as the premier female superhero of Marvel (in a way comparable to Wonder Woman’s position at DC). Though no actress has been cast in the title role, I am hopeful that this movie and this character will receive the respect they both deserve. Back on television, all 13 episodes of the Mike Colter starring Netflix series Luke Cage (which has been likened to the critically acclaimed HBO series The Wire) drop on September 30. In the last decade, I’ve gone from ambivalence toward Cage to a fan of the character (writer Brian Michael Bendis may do a lot of things I don’t like, but his treatment of Cage has been exemplary). And then there’s the Black Panther, Marvel’s first black superhero. Seeing what Marvel has planned for the King of Wakanda between the comics and the big screen ought to please a great many Panther fans. I know I’m excited.
Even as we entered the Modern Age of comics, there have still been relatively few comic books featuring People of Color as the main characters, at least not at Marvel and DC. That’s not to say there have been none. Milestone Comics was a DC imprint in the 90s which featured primarily African-American leads in all their titles (Milestone 2.0 is on the way in the not-to-distant future too). And in the last few decades, a handful of characters of color have held their own titles at Marvel and DC-some for a short time, others for several years (Steel, Black Panther, Storm, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Ms. Marvel and others). But even today, the industry is still dominated by white characters.
The lack of People of Color starring as the lead in their own books falls on the shoulders of creators and publishers to a large degree (some of it is certainly the market to some degree). The people making comic books and producing comic books have predominately been white. So of course, they’re going to write and publish what they know. As a result, we’ve had a plethora of white characters. It’s not necessarily a deliberate thing. I don’t believe writers for DC or Marvel down through the years said “I want to create a new character or a new comic book and I want a white lead character and mostly white supporting cast”. Nor do I think the Editors-in-Chief at Marvel or DC sat down and said “We need to publish another book with a white character as the lead”. But the bias in favor of white people that exists all throughout our society manifests in all its corners. And “white” has long been considered the default in our culture. It’s the automatic assumptions laden in society (which can be seen when you realize that white people are often described as “that guy” or “that woman”, but People of Color are often described as “that black woman” or “that Hispanic guy”). It’s the standards of beauty that use white folks as the default. And yes, it’s the default to white characters on the part of creators and publishers of comic books when new titles and characters are created.
While the Big Two publishers have made strides to diversify their staff in the last few years, their ethnic diversity initiatives have a long way to go before they reach anything at all representative of the wider USAmerican population. Similarly, while their publishing lines have expanded to appeal to ethnic demographics outside of white folks, they have a loooooooong way to go before they’re putting out enough product to satisfy the appetites of People of Color looking for greater diversity in the Big Two. For those people looking for books featuring People of Color in starring roles, or those looking to support creators of color, or both, it may be necessary to explore beyond Marvel and DC. Beyond superheroes. And beyond print comics for that matter. One example of a book featuring an ethnically diverse cast by a Person of Color recently came to my attention. New Jersey-based artist Paul Louise-Julie has worked to craft something visually stunning in his creation, Yohancé.
Ok, so I read this comment on the Facebook page of a Root article on the lack of diversity in the Academy award nominations:
I’m just curious as to why people freak out and scream “Racism!” just because no black films were chosen. Maybe the committee just didn’t think they were good enough. Maybe I’m kinda playing devil’s advocate here but I’m genuinely curious.
This person clearly doesn’t understand why people (largely, though not exclusively, black folks) are crying “Racism!” over the Oscar nominations. People like this do not understand what the big deal is bc to them, these are just awards. They can’t seem to see beyond the awards and see the deeper problems. Or maybe they haven’t tried to view the world outside the lens of their privileged experiences. In any case, even though people like this are being blatantly racist (I mean, come the fuck on with this “black people just weren’t good enough” bullshit. Because white people, by default *are* good enough?!), I’m going to give a response that treats such inquiries in good faith (don’t ask me why). The following is my response to the queries of the above commenter about why African-Americans take issue with #OscarsSoWhite:
“The award for Best Picture goes to Straight Outta Compton!”
“The Oscar for Best Actress goes to…Naomie Harris, Spectre!”
“The Best Actress award goes to Adepero Oduye, The Big Short!”
“And the award for Best Director goes to Ryan Coogler, for Creed!”
“And the Oscar for Best Actor goes to Michael B. Jordan, for Creed!”
“And the Best Actor award goes to Idris Elba, for Beasts of No Nation!”
“The best actress award goes to…Jada Pinkett Smitth, Magic Mike XXL!”
“The best actor award goes to John Boyega, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens!”
Were you hoping to hear any of the above at the 88th annual Academy Awards on February 28? I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but it’s not going to happen, bc no black actors or directors have been nominated for an Academy Award this year. Guess we have to dust off the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.
See that guy above? That’s T’Challa, aka the Black Panther. He’s a fictional superhero/monarch residing in the Marvel Universe. He’s the king of a Wakanda, a scientifically advanced African nation, a member of the Avengers, a scientific genius, and the first black superhero in mainstream USAmerican comics. In 2018, he’ll be the first major black Marvel Comics superhero (Blade is neither major nor a superhero) to receive his own theatrical film.
See that guy? That’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, a USAmerican writer, journalist, and educator. He is the National Correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about cultural, social, and political issues, particularly where those issues intersect the lives of African-Americans.
Know what Black Panther and Ta-Nehisi Coates have in common? In a tremendous win for the company, Coates will soon be writing the adventures of the Black Panther in an all-new ongoing series from Marvel Comics:
The word that Mrs. Bronson is unable to put into the hot, still, sodden air is ‘doomed,’ because the people you’ve just seen have been handed a death sentence. One month ago, the Earth suddenly changed its elliptical orbit and in doing so began to follow a path which gradually, moment by moment, day by day, took it closer to the sun. And all of man’s little devices to stir up the air are now no longer luxuries – they happen to be pitiful and panicky keys to survival. The time is five minutes to twelve, midnight. There is no more darkness. The place is New York City and this is the eve of the end, because even at midnight it’s high noon, the hottest day in history, and you’re about to spend it in the Twilight Zone.
The pervasive influence of white bias is felt in all corners of society. From musicians to actors, politicians to police officers, firefighters to lawyers, CEO’s to teachers, there is no area of society free from the bias in favor of white people (and, more specifically, heterosexual, cisgender, white men). As a long-time comic book reader, I was long ignorant of this bias in the comic book industry. Growing up as a teen, and later as a young adult, race was never on my radar. It wasn’t until I began to pay attention to matters of race that I began to see the comic book industry through more enlightened eyes. Once I began to view the world with greater clarity and understanding, I began to see that the comic book industry has long been dominated by white men. And that explains why, for the vast majority of the history of USAmerican comic books, white men have been the primary protagonists, villains, and supporting cast members. The same holds true of the film industry. But what if things were different? What if white men were not the sole (or primary) guiding forces behind movies and comic books all these decades? What if people of color were involved as well? What might the result be?
Alijah Villian is an artist who has tried to imagine just such a world. Using African-American celebrities, he re-imagines protagonists and antagonists from comic books and movies. Take a look:
Hollywood, aka Tinsel Town, is home to the entertainment industry of the United States. Viewed as the land of the rich and famous, Hollywood has long been the destination for many people seeking to make a name for themselves, whether on the small-screen, the big-screen, or in the music industry. Unfortunately, with so many people looking for fame and fortune, Hollywood is a difficult industry to break into, let alone succeed in. Some groups of people have an advantage in the industry, due to a bias in their favor. This bias-which favors white, heterosexual, cisgender men-has resulted in a Hollywood that is not reflective of our culture at large. Because of this bias, members of marginalized communities-LGBT people, women, and People of Color-have greater difficulty making it in the entertainment industry. Whether in front of the cameras or behind them, on the big screens or the small ones, these groups have long been plagued by unequal treatment in Hollywood. The second annual Hollywood Diversity Report (available for download here) examined more than 1,000 broadcast, cable, and digital tv programs from the 2012-2013 season and its results were not encouraging.
Continue reading “The progressive march of pop culture”