DC Comics aims for more diversity

Mainstream comic books in the U.S. have long featured a sea of white, male faces. From the beginning of the industry back in the Golden Age, through the Silver Age, and into the Bronze and Modern Ages, there has been a lack of diversity in superhero comics. Characters like Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Flash, Spider-Man, Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil, and so many more mainstays of Marvel and DC have been white guys. Now, that wouldn’t be such a problem if they didn’t dominate the comic racks. But they have. For the better part of the 20th Century and even into the 21st. It hasn’t been until recent years-the last 5 or 6 by my estimate-that Marvel and DC have made a concerted effort to diversify their output. With pressure mounting from readers, both companies have taken steps to produce content that doesn’t appeal to the same old, same old crowd. Which makes sense, bc GBLT people, women, and PoC read comics too. And in significant numbers. This can be seen by dropping in on any of the numerous comic book conventions around the country. The people showing up aren’t just white men, and they want to see themselves reflected in the comics they read. The pressure exerted on the companies by female readers has led to an  explosion of titles featuring women in starring roles. Where 30 years ago, Wonder Woman, She-Hulk, and Supergirl were pretty much the only women starring in their own titles, the last few years have seen Starfire, Harley Quinn, Black Canary, Batgirl, the new female Thor, Storm, Squirrel Girl, Elektra, Black Widow, She-Hulk, and Captain Marvel (among others) receive their own books. But the request for greater diversity from the Big Two is not limited to fans asking for more books with female leads. Many readers (myself included) want more books headlined by People of Color.

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:

Starring 17-year-old Kenan Kong, the book (which debuts July 13th) will be written by Chinese-American writer Gene Luen Yang (who recently finished a stint as the writer of the main Superman title) and drawn by Viktor Bogdanovic. Yang appears to have invested a good deal of thought into crafting the backstory of the character:

“My mom’s family left Mainland China when she was just an infant. She spent most of her childhood in Hong Kong and Taiwan. My dad was born and raised in Taiwan. My family hasn’t lived in China for at least a generation. I’ve only visited China twice, so my understanding of Chinese culture is through echoes.”

“I would be writing about Chinese life as an outsider, but some American readers would assume that I was an insider simply because of my last name,” he continued. “It seemed like a situation fraught with peril.”

He decided to move forward with the project by taking his own advice about reading and writing “outside of their comfort zones.”

He did come up with some rules for naming the character:

  • The name would need to be a plausible Chinese name.
  • The name’s meaning should relate to the character’s journey in some way.
  • The English version of the Chinese name should be derived using Pinyin. There are different ways of Romanizing Chinese. A lot of what we see in American Chinatowns uses a system called Wade-Giles (or is “Wade-Giles-ish”). Pinyin is now the standard in Mainland China, so that’s what I want to use in the book.
  • The English version should have the initials K. K. I want to use this as a mnemonic device to help readers connect the new character to Clark Kent. I can’t use C. K. because there is no hard c in Pinyin. The Pinyin c is pronounced “ts,” like in “cats.”
  • The English version should be immediately pronounceable by American readers who haven’t studied Pinyin. This means I have to avoid certain letters like x (pronounced kind of like “sh” in Pinyin) and q (pronounced kind of like “ch”).
  • The Pinyin version cannot sound Japanese.

The last rule was added later after some confusion with the initial name idea.

“What would I think if I were a casual comics reader and I encountered an Asian super hero named Kenji Kong as a supporting character in a couple panels of a DC comic, without any context for the name? I’d probably assume some non-Asian writer had confused Asian cultures. I was only thinking about how I’d make this character and his name work in the particular story I was going to write… I had to change the name.”

I think this is a really good idea. Asian characters are woefully underrepresented in comics (even moreso than Black characters), and this is a good step in remedying that issue. I’m reminded of the psychological benefits of kids being able to identify with elements of the media they consume, so I can imagine this could potentially excite young Asian readers. And if the new Super-Man doesn’t excite them, perhaps they’ll enjoy reading about the Chinese Justice League, which will feature Chinese versions of Batman and Wonder Woman (they debut in issue #2).

May this book have a long and healthy run!

DC Comics aims for more diversity

9 thoughts on “DC Comics aims for more diversity

  1. 1

    I’ll cautiously take it as a good sign that they decided to come up with an Asian-American lead character who isn’t in one of the stereotypical roles. Also encouraging that they’re hiring creators with more personal connection to the character’s questions of cultural identity than a white writer, however well-meaning, could bring to the project.

    It is a bit troubling that heroes who aren’t white straight men seem to be concentrated in the “alternate version of a popular hero” category. (And that pattern goes for both DC and Marvel.)

  2. 2

    It is a bit troubling that heroes who aren’t white straight men seem to be concentrated in the “alternate version of a popular hero” category. (And that pattern goes for both DC and Marvel.)

    I didn’t think about that, but that’s a good point. It’s happened with Iron Man, Captain America, Superman, Flash, Kid Flash, and more. 🙁

  3. 3

    It goes a lot further than a Chinese Superman.

    In DC Universe: Rebirth #1 its clear that they are at least trying to take this diversification thing seriously.

    Potential SPOILERS! ahead for those that haven’t read it yet.

    It deliberately highlights Ryan Choi, as Atom (I believe Choi is a Korean surname?), Jaime Reyes as Blue Beetle, a woman as green lantern (Jessica Cruz?), Jackson Hyde (who’s black and gay) as Aqualad, and Wally West the younger (black cousin of the first Kid Flash).

    I’m a cynical person by nature so I’m reserving judgement till I see how things turn out. We’ll have to wait and see.

  4. 4

    I didn’t mention those events bc they aren’t new. Ryan Choi, Jaime Reyes, Jackson Hyde, and Wally West (new Kid Flash) are all established characters in the DCU) who are being re-highlighted. Plus none of them are (as of this writing) getting their own titles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to see more diversity, but my larger point was that it is great that DC is allowing a racial minority to have his own book.

    (and as a longtime DC reader who stopped reading with the New 52, DC: Rebirth was *awesome*)

  5. 6

    It is a bit troubling that heroes who aren’t white straight men seem to be concentrated in the “alternate version of a popular hero” category.

    Has either DC or Marvel put out any new titles with completely new heroes? I’m not the most up to date person on this issue, but I’m having trouble coming up with any new heroes at all, even straight, white, male ones. It seems to all be reboots.

  6. 7

    I feel like they might want to go a different route with Batman. It totally makes sense for Western Batman, bats are associated with fear and the night and vampires. So Bruce Wayne is adopting a fearful costume that strikes at the psyches of his enemies. But bats are considered lucky in China–in fact, bat and good fortune are homonyms in some dialects. So Batman would also be Good Luck Man.

  7. 9

    It doesn’t look like it, just based on the costumes. The color change for Superman makes sense (red being a fortunate color symbolizing life and all), and there’s definitely some change to Wonder Woman’s costume (and given Western Wonder Woman’s origins in Greek mythology, that would be a given), but Chinese Batman’s costume has gone through the fewest changes–possibly because his origin story is less rooted in the Western Mythos and his costume colors are practical for his “sneaky crime fighter” style. But I’ll be interested to see where they go with this.

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