Robot 6

Culturally, are superhero comics following rather than leading?


“…like a medieval comic about female knights.”

NPR television critic Linda Holmes has spent the past couple of weeks tweeting from the Television Critics Association press tour, which ended with a panel on the PBS documentary Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle. Debuting Oct. 8, the three-part miniseries was directed by Michael Kantor, who was on the panel with comic book writers Todd McFarlane, Len Wein and Gerry Conway.

Holmes noted that the panelists asked about the lack of diversity in superhero comics, but unfortunately, the response to that question wasn’t very satisfying. She paraphrases four reasons cited by the panel:

  1. Hey, nobody is standing [in] your way saying you can’t.
  2. You can’t, because it would be like a medieval comic about female knights.
  3. Readers wouldn’t read it, so don’t blame creators.
  4. You can’t make the point of a superhero some kind of political message.

I’m pretty sure that a couple of those are demonstrably false and the other two are arguably so, but the telling part is what happened when Think Progress’ Alyssa Rosenberg asked (again, this is paraphrased) whether that means that, culturally speaking, superhero comics are stuck following rather than leading. The answer she got was, “Yes.”

To which Rosenberg replied, “That seems like a really unambitious position,” before setting down her microphone. And it does.

To be fair, we don’t know which panelists said what exactly, so I’m not casting stones at anyone in particular [Update: Rosenberg has posted her report on the panel and clarifies the speakers], but it’s a troubling point of view to hear soon after the “We publish comics for 45-year-olds” quote. Which, as a 45-year-old, I find pretty insulting because, not only would I love to read Paul Pope’s version of Kamandi, I’d also love to see a lot more diversity in superhero comics. I’d also love to read superhero comics that challenge the way I think politically, socially and a dozen other ways (and, in fact, I do, although they’re more rare than I’d like). And I’d sure as hell love to read a medieval comic about female knights.



Stunning response, especially given that Len Wein and Gerry Conway were at Marvel when they went from underdog to dominant publisher BECAUSE they provided more progressive stories.

THAT Marvel Comics was willing to take risks because they had nothing to lose, but fear breads conservatism, so these are the answers we get now. It’s sort of shameful.

By #2, I knew I was so done with all these people. Even if there were no historical precedent for medieval female knights (spoiler alert: there isn’t, women have always fought. Name a war, women fought in it, even the Crusades), isn’t that what makes the story worth telling? The novelty, the subversion of the tropes, the exploration of an alternative narrative? Rosenberg really hits it on the head with her “unambitious” comment.

To paraphrase Jane Espenson, what’s the point of creating new worlds if they’re just going to have the same rules as the real one?

I would pay good money for the child-focused Kamandi done by Paul Pope. This is why DC gets less of my money each month, well, one of the reasons.

And when you’re making art, even on the level of corporate superhero comics, you’re [i]never[/i] just following. You may not be leading anybody anyplace new. You may not be leading on purpose. But you are leading. There’s no way to make art and not lead. And the sooner these guys realize it the better off they’ll be.

What do they mean by diversity, exactly? There are a decent number of gay characters in comics and several heroes have come out as gay in recent years. There are lots of female heroes, black heroes, Hispanic heroes, etc.

There are no Mormon superheroes that I can recall at the major comic book companies. According to the last census, there are about as many Mormons as gay males living in the US, but I can name a handful of gay male superheroes, no Mormons (really there’s very few superheroes are even shown to attend church regularly, despite the fact that millions of people do). The same goes for superheroes living in poverty. How many of those do we have? But there are millions more people living in poverty in America than there are homosexuals.

So, when we talk about diversity, are we asking for a fair representation of all groups or just asking for more characters that pander to a few specific special interest groups?

Why the fuck do dorks like Jerzy refer to races, sexualities and genders as “special interest groups”?

It’s a snake eating its own tail. They can’t branch out because the majority of comics fans won’t buy it, and the comics fanbase is composed largely of people who won’t buy it because the people who would never saw anything worth buying. I’d really like to think that, with the rise of digital comics, we’ll see more fans looking for variety and more variety for them, but I really don’t know.

The superhero genre should be one of the most diverse genres out there. It doesn’t matter what age bracket, lifestyle, wealth, the source of your powers, etc: as long as you can do something others can’t and you use that ability to proactively help people, you’re a superhero. It kills me to see the genre choking on its own refuse because of the sheer mercenary nature of marketing.

There are books nobody reads them.

Demon Knights sold miserably,

The Movement by Gail Simone about a bunch of left wing activist superheroes made up heroes with different races, genders, and sexuality nobody reads it

Seems to me that quality art doesn’t have a point of departure ensuring that equal representation of races, religions, sexualities, etc. is met. I think it was Lincoln who said something about the impossibility of pleasing all the people, all the time.

If you want forced balance, watch commercials and sitcoms and standard cultural programming. Leave genuine quality to the professionals, instead of being Scarlet O’Hara and stapling your wrist permanently to your forehead while bemoaning the absence of a monthly Batgirl or Batwoman comic.

@Robert M: And movies about female superheroes don’t work because Catwoman and Elektra? It’s not about whether the extremely few representative examples did well. It’s about the fact that there ARE so few. With so small a sample, it’s impossible to suggest a trend.

So your solution to low-selling books starring female heroes is to make the market full of them when it won’t even support one? Good luck on that, but I wouldn’t want to be your accountant.

@Dave, it’s interesting that you mention Scarlett O’Hara. In that she’s the main character of the highest grossing film of all time AND a woman.

All I know is that I’m growing less and less interested with what DC and Marvel publish these days, and I’m a 36-year old male who just assumed I had grown out of superhero comics and their constant re-hashing of the same storylines over and over again. But according to them, I’m not old enough to enjoy them apparently…

@APoehler: Are you really saying that there’s not a single successful comic starring a female character?

Why is she asking this question of Len Wein, Todd McFarlane, and Gerry Conway? Last I checked Wein and Conway had become TV writers and McFarlane mostly runs his toy/licensing business. Have any of them been more involved in the comics industry other than the occasional mini-series for the last 10-20 years?

This question would be better posed to current company guys like Didio, Quesada, Harras, Bendis, Johns, etc.

Female Knights…. Joan of Arc comes to mind.
This Wikipedia entry gives several dozen good examples.

Scarlett O’Hara didn’t staple her wrist to her forehead and bemoan her fate. If you actually paid attention to the story, she was the only person strong enough to run a large farm, and then run a successful lumber business, saving her family and its fortunes during Reconstruction. So, dude, way to miss a point.

Len Wein whines about how he is such a diverse guy creating such diverse characters, and how he doesn’t deserve the criticism for his comments. That doesn’t make him a good person in real life, nor does it make him supportive of woman and women creators. Lots of enabling of bad behavior among old school types like Len “Cripple the Bitch” Wein and his ilk.

My responses to the responses:

1. Response #2 proves this wrong, empirically.
2. With the right creators and the right hook, I would totally read that comic.
3. People have said this about just every best-selling product in history, up until someone else tried it.
4. You totally can. It’s been done plenty of times before.

Dave: It is so cute that you think there’s any kind of balance in commercials, sitcoms and “standard cultural programming” (whatever that is).

@Charles…I said nothing of the sort. Why do folks like you resort to insults and poor reading comprehension rather than explain why “diversity” means that certain groups of people should be featured more while other (even more populous) groups are not represented at all?

@Jerzy: because no one ever said that representing one group meant entirely cutting out another. Yes, there have been Mormons in comic books. See Mike Allred and his work.

I’m a straight white male, so I probably can’t understand the frustration that some people must feel when they read superhero comics that don’t feature protagonists they can identify with… but I’m going to say some stuff about this piece anyways.

1. Gerry Conway and Len Wein haven’t written anything good in ages, and Todd McFarlane has NEVER written anything good, so I don’t think one can really take their views as representative positions of the current comics industry.

2. The whole “this character isn’t in my demographic, so I can’t relate to him/her” argument seems a little flimsy to me. Again, maybe I can’t really understand that situation, but I think that a good story is a good story and as such its themes are pretty universal. I really liked the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” even though the main character is an eight-year-old African American girl who lives in poverty. That didn’t hamper my enjoyment at all, because while the movie touches on what it’s like to be young, black, and on the very fringes of society, I could take away its central theme about growing up – that’s something everyone can relate to.

3. On a related note, “leading society” shouldn’t be an artist’s priority. Making good art should be their number-one goal. I’m looking at stuff like Ayn Rand’s novels – The Fountainhead was certainly ahead of society, but it’s a piece of crap as a book. Maybe others don’t share my view, but I think contemporaneous novels like “Double Indemnity” are worth a ton more because they tell good stories and feature good writing even though they are “just” detective stories. If comic book writers simply focused on their craft, they would create more memorable works irrespective of their breaking of social ground. If they tend to lead society, that’s ideal, but even if they tell straightforward stories that are good, there will be a perpetual audience.

As a straight white male you never have to consider the argument, because as a straight white male, you never feel the lack.

It’s interesting you’d mention Beats of the Southern Wild as a film with a protagonist you got to see and enjoy. Because in comics. a protagonist like that is rare. Which is the central point.

The Fountainhead wasn’t ahead of society; it was about three centuries behind.

You’re right that I can’t really know what that lack is like, but I used Beasts of the Southern Wild as an example of how a well-told story can make one relate to characters you may be fundamentally different from. I suppose that my thesis is that most stories in superhero comics these days are pretty bad, and that’s a huge problem that ambition for social change alone can’t fix. Conversely, if writers were more conscious of the quality of stories they were telling, they would eventually realize on their own that they need to make their fictional worlds a little more well-balanced and a lot more ambitious in order to remain on the cutting edge.

Ms. Holmes was right to be indignant based on the actual quotes I read in the link, though.

@ Peter Yes, those are valid comments. I agree. If the writers were better quality, they’d be more inclusive as a matter of course.

Jake Earlewine

August 8, 2013 at 9:54 pm

Asking Todd McFarlane, Len Wein and Gerry Conway about the current state of comics is like asking Calvin Coolidge, Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover what they think about the current state of world politics.

“Why, when I was a young whipper-snapper…”

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