Race to the Bottom: Comics, Race, Gender and Fandom

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The 21st of February, 2015 will be the three year anniversary of the day we lost Dwayne McDuffie. If he had lived he would have turned 53 this year and the reason I’m writing this article, the reason I want everyone to remember Dwayne McDuffie’s passing, is two fold:

Part 1: Dwayne McDuffie was a ground breaking innovator who met Halle Berry and then rejected her in the most hilarious, nerdy way possible.

Part 2: We, comic fans and comic creators alike, are utterly disrespecting the memory of Dwayne McDuffie.

“The Token”

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Dwayne McDuffie was one of the founders of Milestone Comics, an independent imprint of DC that was eventually folded into the main universe with varying levels of success back in the 90s. This was the movement that gave us books like Hardware, Icon, and Static and it was a highlight of 90s era comics. Dwayne’s reasoning behind Milestone was pretty straight forward and clear:

“ If you do a black character or a female character or an Asian character, then they aren’t just that character. They represent that race or that sex, and they can’t be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people. You know, Superman isn’t all white people and neither is Lex Luthor. We knew we had to present a range of characters within each ethnic group, which means that we couldn’t do just one book. We had to do a series of books and we had to present a view of the world that’s wider than the world we’ve seen before. ”

Basically, when you add a black character to the Justice League or a hispanic character to the Avengers, they’re boring. They’re boring because they serve no serious function except to meet some sort of invisible super hero quota of having exactly one visible ethnic character. It is a meaningless character because they are created as an attempt to check a box, not to grow the story. They can become fantastic characters,  they can be astounding characters, but often for the first few years you get this nagging doubt every time you look at them: “You exist because some suit wanted you to exist. You exist because somebody at Time-Warner wants to toss someone a bone.” Randomly inserting a black man into your comic, especially when he’s written as “Generic Black Man A”, is not diversity.

This isn’t a new problem (Hollywood has suffered from this issue for years), but it was fertile ground for Milestone to tackle an issue most other people refuse to get their hands on: “I am not my race, I am me.” Milestone Comics made many attempts to show that simply being African American or Hispanic or Asian is meant to be the beginning of a character’s story, not simply his end or his most defining characteristic. Hardware was a gritty genius, Icon was an aloof alien, Static was just a fun loving teenager. They were people.

In a way, this is one thing that many comic book companies have gotten better at but I wonder to myself “would Milestone truly get made today?” because there is still a serious gap in how this balance is accomplished because we still consider black superheroes as something “unusual”.

Minorities as Novelties

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Something that annoys me is seeing superheroes getting a racial swap, either by replacing the original character or at times performing some story related weirdness. Steve Rogers gets replaced by Sam Wilson, Nick Fury is replaced with Nick Fury Jr (Surprise, Nick Fury had a black son we never knew about. Dumbest. Storyline. Ever.), Mach 1 on the Thunderbolts takes some kind of magic skin darkening formula to cloud his identity, Ryan Choi takes over from Ray Palmer…then is almost immediately killed. A random Latin Girl took over from Ray Palmer in New 52 but Whoops she’s a villain. The Punisher was black for a while, by the way.

I hate that.

Not because I don’t like seeing superheroes of color or gay superheroes or female superheroes. I hate it because it’s lazy and it shows a lot of the same shallowness I mentioned at the start of this article. It’s an attempt to add legitimacy to something that requires no legitimacy. “Hey, we’re going to racially swap out this one character to show how we’re committed to diversity.” When it was announced that Sam Wilson was going to become Captain America, do you know what my first thought was “What about all of Sam’s Phoenix stuff?” and then I realized, “Oh yeah, there isn’t any stuff.” Sam Wilson was never truly given a chance to shine on his own as a character and suddenly we’re saddling him with the legacy of taking over for a character who was more or less in continuous publication for 8 decades and I’m supposed to celebrate this? Why?

First of all, no one seriously believes this is going to be permanent, because it never is. Call me in 25 years when Sam Wilson is celebrating his anniversary as Captain America. Second of all, if you want to show me how “legit” you are when it comes to race, why not make all the Avengers black and then just pretend like it’s no big deal. That would never happen…because subconsiously the comic industry still sees characters of color as novelties.

I had a chuckle with a friend of mine after it was announced that Johnny Storm was going to be black in the next Fantastic Four movie. “Why not just make them all black?” I asked and he laughed and said “NO! One at a time, that’s progress.” It’s a fair point and we were joking but it’s a serious one. I might mention that it’s also telling that they picked a young, smart-ass, comic relief character to be black on a team that includes a multiple PhD genius, a female physicist, and a respected test pilot. Who are they kidding?

This stuff annoys me because it shows a disconnect between the people who read this stuff and the people who make these decisions. They play this unconscious game with what character is more or less important. So Sam Wilson as Captain America is a big deal because what? When he was Phoenix he was a less important character? I’m supposed to throw a parade because a guy with the stars and the stripes on his uniform is black?Our President is black, so frankly who gives a damn that your fictional character is apparently black now.

And who decides what character is or is not more important to your universe? So if John Stewart becomes Batman he’ll be more or less important than he is now? John Stewart, like most great things at DC, is a great character because he’s been part of great stories. Remember Mosaic? Remember Green Arrow/Green Lantern, the critically acclaimed series that introduced him as a character? I would take one John Stewart story over a hundred Marvel stories any day because John Stewart is a goddamned hero and having him on the Justice League animated series was a no brainer because he was a great character. Same with Carol Danvers who is now Captain Marvel and Kamala Kahn. They are great because people took the time to make them that way. Good stories are what make characters important, not press releases and if they want me to buy Phoenix as Captain America, make a good…no, make a great story. I have my doubts about that since Marvel has written that many great stories in a long, long time.

But that doesn’t matter because there is something wrong with the people who read those stories in the first place…

There is something sick in fandom

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Race is a touchy issue. Gender equality is also a touchy issue. Not talking about these things doesn’t make it less touchy. But this…this is unacceptable. 

I will never understand what has happened with this country and it’s politics in the last few years but let me break it down for you: There is something truly sick in our message boards and twitter feeds. In the last few years I have seen some truly hateful stuff from the people who I probably see at the comic book store every day. What is supposed to be a group of people who read the most open minded genres in the world has turned…wrong, almost evil. There is a sickness in our fandoms and we have allowed it to fester. Remember when the people who bullied nerds were not nerds themselves? What have we become? Nothing good, frankly. Those objections I shared about “color swapping” comic book characters? I was afraid to share them because I legitimately do not want to be seen agreeing with the unpleasant people who now rule over my fandom. I would be so incredibly ashamed to

To the people who want to object to that statement on political grounds or want to cry that I’m just showing my political stripes when I make statements like that, fine. The temperature is so sky high in America right now that there is no room for the idea that maybe I just don’t like racism. That maybe I’m not some touchy liberal stereotype and that maybe I can hold more than one thought in my head at one time. Think that if you want but… I am white, male, I am lower middle class, I live in Louisiana, own a gun, and vote Republican when I feel like actually voting. I went to college. Twice. And I am fairly conservative. I am a committed comic book fan, a lover of video games, and I have bought a few Playboys in my day. I am about as far from a feminist, African-American-Studies-at-Berkeley softy as they come and I speak with some authority when I say that saying racist things and threatening women is not a conservative value. I’m a conservative…I should know. It is also not a sign that you’re a committed fan of comics when you claim reverse racism about Donald Glover getting “considered” for Spider Man because I’m a comic book fan. Really when you say things like that you’re just a dick.

Besides, getting angry about how many black people are on the Fantastic Four is the wrong thing to be mad about.

You should be angry about how many black people are writing the Fantastic Four.

 Where is the “Next Dwayne McDuffie”

029In 2013, there were no black writers at either Marvel or DC. There aren’t that many now in 2015. When an 11 year old girl can observe exactly how deficient DC is in it’s diversity, there’s a problem. A serious one. The biggest way we’re disrespecting the dynamic force that was Dwayne McDuffie, is that the Big Two have not done the leg work to help someone take the reigns from him. Three years after his death, there is still no Dwayne McDuffie.

That’s, ironically, a bicultural issue because the Big Two haven’t done enough to get ANY new writers into superhero books. It’s not as bad as the early 2000s when the number of writers at Marvel and DC were basically Brian Micheal Bendis, Mark Millar, Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis but things are still too tight. Certainly too tight to let people take chances on books and bring fresh perspectives. There was a time when there was an explosion of talent in this industry. A wide range of perspectives and dozens of voices.

It’s certainly less true today when, as  other bloggers have pointed out, there is even less diversity in super hero talents than in 1993 when Milestone was founded. DC and Marvel, purposefully or not, is still a big white corporate wall. 

I never met Dwayne McDuffie, never wrote him a letter, he never knew my name but his writing touched me as it touched millions of people and I have to admit that I was saddened by his loss three years ago. He was a great writer and a funny guy. His death was sad.

You know what is even sadder? That his life long struggle to let us hear other voices in the comic book industry still appears to have perhaps been in vain.

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Dwayne McDuffie

1962 – 2011

 

Daniel Monaco