From its very beginnings, the USAmerican comic book industry has been dominated by white characters. Whether we’re talking genres like crime, romance, horror, or science fiction, the industry has demonstrated a very clear bias in favor of white people (specifically white, heterosexual, cisgender men, but my focus here is on race). This holds true for my genre of choice: superheroes. For most of the history of superhero comics, white people have been headliners. From the Golden Age to the Silver Age, through the Bronze Age and into the Copper Age, the overwhelming majority of characters with their own comics have been white people. Even when writers began featuring characters of color in their stories (think of heroes like the Black Panther, the Falcon, Shang-Chi, Sunfire, Red Wolf, Karma, Danielle Moonstar, Storm, Tyroc, Dawnstar, Invisible Kid II, Vixen, Vibe, Black Lightning), these characters were typically members of teams, or background supporting characters. Rarely did they carry books of their own. It was almost always white people who had their own comics.
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.
Inspired by the imagery of Star Wars, the words of J.R.R. Tolkein, and the tales of West African history as told by a Senagalese elder, Louise-Julie spent years researching various African dynasties. The end result was Yohancé, a futuristic space opera heavily influenced by African culture and design:
Six years ago, he challenged himself to combine these influences with his skill as an artist and his desire to tell African stories. One of the results of this endeavor is Yohancè, an upcoming futuristic space operarich with imagery influenced by ancient African culture and design, which aims to connect people with Africa’s past by creating a new mythology inspired by the continent.
The first installment of the graphic novel is planned for April and tells the story of professional burglar Yohancè, whose martial arts and acrobatic skills have earned him the nickname ‘The Monkey.’ Yohancè is on the run after stealing a precious artefact from a ruling empire, an object that he discovers is connected to his past.
The graphic novel promises to be a sprawling space adventure, but for the New Jersey-based artist, it’s a deeply personal project born from a desire to invigorate interest in Africa’s rich history, and reestablish connections disrupted by war, colonialism, industrialism and time.
The American-born Louise-Julie, who has Creole, European, African and Indian ancestry, spent much of his youth traveling with his parents around Africa where they ran their own telecommunications and security systems design business. During his senior year, spent at an international school in Burkina Faso’s capital city Ouagadougou, the young teenager was introduced to a Senegalese griot, or storyteller, who spoke to him about the history of the region; recounting stories of kingdoms and wars, of royalty and noblemen.
Back in the US a year later, Louise-Julie came across a diary entry detailing the meeting. Recalling the South African-born Tolkien’s use of different mythologies to create the sprawling fantasy world of Middle-earth, he began researching the history, oral stories and artworks of different African tribes and nations. He used his extensive research to create an encyclopedia of sorts, a frame of reference to create new storylines, characters and civilizations rooted in African history.
If you’re worried about his use of ‘monkey’, don’t be. He is aware of the racist roots of the terms and wants to reclaim and take ownership of it (thus reducing-hopefully-the racist nature of the word):
He imbued his “rogue hero” with the traits he found fascinating about the species: intelligence, strength, agility, their unpredictability and cunningness—not the distortion that is the racial slur. Yohancè “doesn’t tie himself down to any code,” says Louise-Julie. “Moral ambiguity is also part of his character too.”
I haven’t been able to find a release date for Yohancé, but for those interested, keep an eye on the Facebook page. It’s supposed to be released in digital format sometime this year.