Robot 6

Matt Fraction on FF, ethnic diversity and doing better

The rapid rise of social media has been both a blessing and a curse to the frequently complicated creator/fan relationship. Whereas a decade ago a reader might’ve followed a writer or artist’s occasional posts on Livejournal, or on rare occasion even received a response to a message-board comment, now there’s direct interaction on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Formspring. While those exchanges frequently go well, with an artist responding thoughtfully to a sincere and polite question, we’ve all seen our share of venomous tweets from readers and embarrassing Facebook meltdowns from creators.

When the subject turns to sensitive territory, like gender or ethnic representation in mainstream superhero comics, the chances of a social-media misfire increase dramatically. That’s why I was so pleased to read this recent exchange on the blog of Matt Fraction, writer of Marvel’s FF, Fantastic Four and Hawkeye. Asked (politely) why, when presented the opportunity to diversify the cast of FF, he opted for Miss Thing to be white — “Do you think FF would work with an African-American Miss Thing and why aren’t you writing that book?” — Fraction responded with a refreshing mix of humor, honesty and chagrin, and without the tetchiness you might expect from such a scenario.

“Y’know, I was gonna start this off with ‘I know how you feel,’ or, ‘I can appreciate your frustration,’ or some such but that’s a lie, isn’t it?” Fraction wrote. “I’m a white cisgendered male. The fuck do I know about not seeing my race represented somewhere? Dear Editors of JET I can’t help but notice we yet AGAIN have an African-American ‘Beauty of the Week’ WHEN will a bit of Anglo-Saxon beauty grace your periodical’s pages…?

After touching upon his experience with charges of tokenism, and the “baggage” that comes with creating characters in the Marvel Universe, Fraction asked, “Could it have worked? Yeah, absolutely, but I suppose that I supposed the ethnic, gender, and biological diversity of the cast was pretty pronounced as it was — even though some of those ethnic and biological classifications are wholly fictional. I could say until blue in the face that our central leading lady’s skin is green but I suspect that poor comfort to, say, the Latina wanting HER heroic image reflected in ranks of the Marvel U’s foremost family.

“I was going to ignore this, at first, because it made my ears sting when I read it, and it made me mad, and embarrassed. Because you’re right. I should’ve considered it more than I did. Even if I came to the same conclusion, I can’t tell you with a clear conscience that I gave it all the thought I should’ve. I’ll do better next time.”

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17 Comments

Baby steps. Fraction has three lead characters in FF and that’s a lot better than it’s been in the past. I was glad to see him acknowledge it when I saw the post this weekend and hopefully we’ll see some of that movement next go round.

*female characters. That’s embarrassing to have left out such a major detail.

Jason Rubinstein

December 10, 2012 at 2:00 pm

I’m the person who asked the question and I’m really glad to see that people are reacting positively to the discussion! (I certainly didn’t think this exchange would get picked up by Robot 6, awesome!)

Mr. Fraction’s response was thoughtful and honest and it means a lot that he heard what I had to say and really took it to heart. Women of color are criminally underrepresented in virtually all forms of media. Working in an industry run almost entirely by straight white men, it’s important that comic book creators are not just sensitive to this phenomenon but conscious of their power to change it. I feel proud that maybe I’ve helped one of those creators on that path if even in a tiny way.

I’m very much looking forward to reading FF and I know Mr. Fraction (and the amazing Mr. Allred) will not disappoint us in showing a myriad of unique characters and life experiences. I thank him once again for taking the time to read and answer my question, and I thank Robot 6 for keeping the conversation alive.

Fraction acted like a grown-up here, so I’ve got no beef with that. I’m not arguing with you either, William, but just… look. It’s 2012. Baby steps? We’ve been pussyfooting around diversity since Lieutenant Uhura, a decade before I was even born. How fucking long are people of color expected to hold their breath?

A writer shouldn’t feel that they one of the members of their cast has to be black/hispanic/whatever other visible minority just to satisfy issues of diversity.

If, when visualizing the character in his head, she was white, then she’s white. Changing that simply to satisfy the PC crowd or those crowing about diversity is creatively disingenuous and doing the work a disservice. Write what you want to write, create what you want to create, and don’t have that altered by external, political considerations, otherwise the work is less honest, less “you,” and probably less good.

Fraction has nothing to regret.

We got a black president. What exactly is the problem again??

“Working in an industry run almost entirely by straight white men, it’s important that comic book creators are not just sensitive to this phenomenon but conscious of their power to change it.”

Well then, speaking as a straight white guy, why don’t we just take those same chumps who do run the industry and boot them out?

Alex – while that’s true in the individual case, it can be a trap over time. It’s very easy for a new character to always default to one’s own ethnic/social background unless the story NEEDS it to be something else, and it’s not until you look at the whole cast that you realize that there’s an awful lot of straight, middle-class white people in it. It’s an easy blind spot to have, especially since no one example like this one is really evidence of less-than-good intentions.

I don’t even ask that question no more. I just don’t read the stuff that comes out of Marvel or D.C. There plenty of comics out there with black protagonists that is just begging to be bought. Why wait on the big two to do it.

Jason Rubinstein

December 10, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Alex,

My intention was not to shame Mr. Fraction or make him regret his creation. My intention was to make him aware of his power as a writer to address racial imbalances in media representation. Neither was it my intention to mandate that comic book creators start diversifying their work just for the sake of diversity. If Miss Thing was conceived as white, she is certainly and invariably white, and trying to change her would indeed be a huge artistic disservice. But if you are not conscious of a wrong, how can you possibly try to right it? And if you’re a “white cisgendered male” whose great privilege it is to never have to think about race, and you work in an industry of almost exclusively similar individuals, it helps to be reminded.

I’m going to assume from your use of the term “PC crowd” that you too are a white cisgendered male. (If I’m wrong, I apologize). I implore you to really think about the fact that the vast, overwhelming majority of comic book characters look like you and identify themselves they way you do yourself, and as a result your “political considerations” are automatically and systematically “satisfied”, whereas the rest of us have to actually be proactive in working towards a world in which we feel represented, and more than that, a world in which we feel welcomed.

As for Dave, I’m going to assume you’re joking, otherwise I just feel sad for you.

Jason Rubinstein

December 10, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Doug,

You bring up a very interesting point. As consumers, we ultimately have the power and should be choosing products that reflect our values and what we want to see on the stands. The problem lies in that, just like the majority of people making comic books are straight white males, the majority of people buying comic books (at least in the U.S.) are straight white males. Additionally, if we don’t demand that the Big Two diversify their offerings, titles which do feature minorities will remain in the ghettoized categories of “Indie” or “Alternative” comics, and that isn’t true progress towards equal representation.

@Jason

I simply believe that there’s something creatively dishonest about changing the race of a character to fill an imaginary quota. It smacks of the creative equivalent of affirmative action, something which I will also admit to not being a fan of. If a creator envisioned something a certain way when he or she conceived of the character or the plot, that’s what I want on the page. I don’t want that creator envisioning something a certain way, then suddenly “thinking of the black people” and changing the character’s race simply to satisfy others. Similarly, if the purpose of a work was never to take a stand for diversity and minority rights in comics, that shouldn’t suddenly be shoehorned into it.

So honestly, I’m not seeing your argument. On the one hand, you seem to agree with that: if Miss Thing was conceived as white, let her be. But wait, we need to fight against the great evil of non-diversity in comics, so….? The two points don’t jive and as it stands, I’m just not a fan of creative affirmative action since it feels, as I said, utterly disingenuous. I’m just not comfortable with the idea of a writer sitting down with the sole intention of coming up with a “black character” as opposed to just sitting down and coming up with “characters.”

Also, I’m not white, I’m Asian, so I suppose that I have even fewer heroes to “identify with.” Somehow that’s never stopped me, however. Nice try with the assumption, though. But I just don’t see the world the way you do – I don’t struggle to identify with Caucasian heroes. Hell, Matt Murdock, an extremely white, Catholic ginger, has been my favourite superhero since I was a kid. In fact, I’m an articling student for a major law firm, and that’s probably no mere coincidence. I never felt alienated from Matt Murdock because his skin wasn’t yellow enough.

As an aside, I actually found it beyond stupid when Fraction (I think?) turned Psylocke Asian just because he didn’t have enough minorities on the team. I didn’t feel “embraced” at all. It felt more like cheap pandering.

Jason Rubinstein

December 10, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Alex,

I think you’ll find we agree more than you think on this subject. As I said, I don’t think Mr. Fraction should have made Miss Thing anything other than what he originally conceived her as, nor am I advocating for any sort of racial quota system. My point was to bring up a discussion about race representation in media, which it seems I’ve succeeded at doing. I too feel uncomfortable with the idea of Mr. Fraction sitting down and saying “I need to add more color to the Fantastic Four!” instead of just writing the book he wants to write. However, I hoped that in my bringing it up, the next time he would decide to add a character to the cast, he might even UNCONSCIOUSLY just make her non-white, and wouldn’t that be something?

I apologize for assuming you were white! I really do. Also, I’m white! So I wasn’t saying that it’s impossible for me to identify with Caucasian heroes, because honestly it’s probably easier. But Jay Seaver brought up a good point about trying to look at the big picture and overarching trends, and realizing that unless you are consciously promoting diversity, your cast of characters starts to look incredibly similar, and that’s not even realistic, to say nothing of it being irresponsible. I think having this discussion, even if it doesn’t result in any immediate change, helps the collective zeitgeist grow for the better. I mean Fraction already said he’d do better next time! And while some might see that as pandering, I see that as being inclusive.

And real quick about Psylocke; he didn’t turn her Asian, she was already in an Asian body. During the storyline that brought her back to the book, her British body was also brought back to life, and fans thought Fraction might use the opportunity to restore her to her original, Caucasian body. He didn’t, so it wasn’t like he necessarily “added an Asian”, cuz she was coming back anyway, but rather he chose not to add another white character, if that makes sense. Also, Psylocke and her body swapping is one of those things that makes comics look ridiculous and I feel a little silly having typed all that out.

Alex,

I wasn’t trying to make any assumptions with the use of “you” there; I just used it because it seems less formal than “one” and I was trying not to make the comment about anybody specific, whether it be me or Fraction. My point was – and I think it’s what Fraction was acknowledging in his blog – that a lot of times, when one is not thinking about race specifically when creating characters, it’s very easy to wind up with a cast that is less diverse than one would like. Especially in comics, where the writer might come up with “this character is a young, petite, kind of pampered and flighty pop star who can barely see out of the power suit she’s wearing” – a description that’s not specifically white, black, latina, asian, skrull, etc. – and she winds up white not so much because she was conceived as white but because she wasn’t conceived as not-white, and at some point everyone in the writer/editor/artist chain just makes that assumption.

It’s the difference between being biased and prejudiced, I think – we’ve all got a natural bias or two, and when creating characters, it’s common for that bias to be “like me unless otherwise necessary”. And while tokenism is something one really should try and avoid, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to make an effort to counter one’s unconscious biases, even if the result winds up being something different than what was originally conceived.

“Also, Psylocke and her body swapping is one of those things that makes comics look ridiculous and I feel a little silly having typed all that out.”

It’s super hero comics, you should never feel ridiculous describing that kind of stuff. Switching bodies is no worse than cosmic rays giving people powers, a gamma bomb making a man into a monster, and so on…

On the question of diversity in characters, I grew up loving the All-New All-Different X-Men when they featured a black woman, a Jewish girl, and an international group of men (including a Russian! In the Cold War era!). I realize now that the origin of the team was to appeal to a bigger market but the team never felt forced in a politically correct way so it CAN be done. On the flip side, I’ve seen writers taken to task of their portrayal of minority characters. You have to be careful not to offend the people that you’re trying to include.

If Fraction’s work on IRON FIST (with Brubaker) in “The Last Iron Fist Story” is any indication of how he handles ethnic diversity, then it’s best that he didn’t make Miss Thing African-American or Latino. EVERY line of dialog by Misty Knight and Luke Cage seemed to have been cribbed from CLEOPATRA JONES and SHAFT. Yeah, I know those characters were created in the ’70s, but must he and Brubaker characterized them as if they were stuck in the ’70s?

I know that some white male writers CAN semi-effectively characterize non-whites, it’s rare that it rings true in the vibrancy that is given to white characters.

Fraction, while an inventive and talented writer, has this deficiency and he has self-deprecatingly admitted that he never thinks about racial representation in his fiction.

“If a creator envisioned something a certain way when he or she conceived of the character or the plot, that’s what I want on the page.”

The problem is, a white writer is most likely to default to a character being white. A male writer is most likely to default to a character being male. This isn’t really the same thing as artistic intent, because they aren’t actually making an active creative decision. That is the distinction here; if the character has a specific reason that they need to be white, then it’s built into the character. But if every new character you come up with just happens to be white, and it doesn’t matter at all to the character (and it’s pretty rare for a character to have to be white, whereas all minority characters are specifically defined as MINORITY — Black Panther *has* to be black, Luke Cage *has* to be black, because that’s what they were invented to be), then your imagination is at fault, and you should be criticized for it.

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