The comic book world has recently undergone a bit of a tummel over the issue of “diversity.” According to Marvel exec David Gabriel,
“What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” Gabriel told iCv2 after being asked what contributed to changes in customer tastes that led to a drop in sales in October-November. “They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.”He also cited economic reasons and Marvel’s release of “too much product” as other possible causes for the downturn in sales.
“We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against,” Gabriel added. “That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked.”
Jewdar would like to very clearly express that we are big believers in diversity in the comic book world. What we are not necessarily fans of is “Diversity.” We shall explain that soon, but first, let us suggest that Gabriel and comic books execs in general might do well to read the following explanation as to why comic book sales are not what they’d like.
- Cost—When Jewdar was a lad, comics were 60 cents—it went up to 75 the year we quit collecting. To put it in more basic terms, to a Midwestern teenager in the late ‘80’s, a comic book cost as much as a can of soda and a Moon Pie. Not too pricey, even if I were buying a bunch of titles. By contrast, a comic book today will run about 3.99—comics probably run right up there with college tuitions in terms of how high the prices have multiplied, but they don’t offer scholarships.
- Number of titles—When Jewdar was a teen, and wanted to know what was going on in the world of mutants, it was pretty simple—we read X-Men. Towards the end, we would also pick up New Mutants. But there wasn’t this panoply of X-teams, or Avengers with various adjectives to define them from one another. The decision to start reading a title today, therefore, may entail a rather significant investment in a whole range of other titles just to know what’s going on.
- Know your audiences—Let us assume, as is not unreasonable, that many of the people who buy paper comics, as opposed to digital versions, are readers, like Jewdar, of un certain age. We don’t want to see non-Bruce Banner Hulks, nor non-Tony Stark Iron Mans (which should be the proper plural). The readers whom they think might be interested in that are more likely, we imagine, to read digital versions.
But we stress the “think” might be interested. In their quest for some sort of idealized “diversity,” as opposed to simply a diversity that comes naturally from making great comics, Marvel has to a great extent forgotten what teenagers actually like.
So here’s a handy rule of thumb when creating characters:
- Characters that the reader can fantasize about becoming
- Characters that the reader can identify with because they are like them.
How does this apply in this circumstance? Let’s say you’re a teenager reading Iron Man. You are not a billionaire bon vivant inventor. But wouldn’t it be cool to be one? You can fantasize about that, because it would be something for the future. But creating an Iron Man who is a 15-year old super genius at MIT? If I’m a 15 year old, I know I am not going to be that; I don’t even want to be that. And in fact, that person would probably simply remind me of my own failures.
Which is why Marvel’s great teenage characters—including recent ones—presented characters who did not have it all. Miles Morales worked as Spider Man, not because he was black and latino, but because he was true to the spirit of the comic—a decent kid, with real problems, forced to become a hero. The same thing applies to the Ms. Marvel character (we haven’t read much of her comics, but we liked what we saw, for that reason). And that’s the thing—Peter Parker didn’t have to be white, except that he was written in the early 1960’s. And Miles Morales didn’t have to be black and latino. What they have in common is that they read as real kids, with real lives, good and bad.
Teenage Jewdar still collected Iron Man when Rhodey took over while Tony Stark was drying out. Adult Jewdar has no problem with black Captain America—lots of men have worn the uniform, and Sam Wilson makes perfect sense. Growing up when we did. Storm is as essential to X-Men as Wolverine. What we don’t like is the drive to “diversify” comics, simply for the sake of “diversity,” as opposed to making good stories. Not because we don’t’ want black, or latino, or female characters—but because we feel that when the point of the change becomes didactic, the writing is usually going to suffer. Would there be a “new Iron Man” if it weren’t to make a more diverse Iron Man? Or a new Hulk?
And more importantly, far from actually leading to newer, more interesting stories, “diversity” often becomes a way of not having to write more original stories, simply because you can now claim you’ve done something “fresh,” “new,” or “exciting” by making a “diverse” character.
But how “fresh” or “exciting” is it to have a storyline in which Thor, to teach him a lesson in humility, is replaced by a woman as God of Thunder?
Maybe we’re missing something, but it sounds an awful lot like when Thor, learning a lesson in humility, was replaced by an alien, Beta Ray Bill, as God of Thunder.
So if that’s the case, how do we mean that we’re in favor of diversity? Because as a Jew who always wanted to see Jewish characters, we get it. We don’t claim to be in the same position, because as a white guy, we could still see plenty of white guys to identify with or dream about being like, but we get it enough to want black kids or latino kids or gay kids to pick up a comic book and read stories about people like them.
Which is why we are huge believers in diversifying the range of comic book writers and artists (which can have its drawbacks, as Marvel found out when an Indonesian artist put in some hidden anti-Jewish and Christian messages, and then made some anti-Semitic remarks about it). Obviously, white writers can create great black characters, and vice-versa, but the more diverse experiences your storytellers bring to the table, the more diverse your stories will be.
We have no doubt that there are great stories out there to be written, and great characters to be created. And we suspect very strongly that if a diverse group of writers sets out to do that, they will find that many of those great characters are pretty diverse as well. In the meantime, if you want to read a great comic, with a great prominent Arab lesbian character, check out Fred van Lente’s Weird Detective.
And speaking of diversity, while we did get the little Jewdars their tickets motzei Shabbos, next, year, NY Comic Con, please don’t have your presale on a Saturday. Granted, Jewdar’s faith got us through, but we’d rather not face the temptation.