The Myth of “Forced” Diversity in Comics

We examine why complaints about forced diversity in comics mischaracterizes the evolving comics industry in the 21st century.

There are several topics that can completely ruin a comment section. Whenever someone brings up possible sexism, racism, or any type of perceived bigotry in a popular medium there is going to be a visceral reaction. Popular culture and nerd culture in particular are expanding as the internet makes the world smaller. Globalism means that you have to adapt to changing norms, but there seem to be people who rail against any change of the status quo. The American comic industry, which a mere 20 years ago was nearly dead, has experienced a resurgence in recent years, and now companies that have been around since the 1930s have to adapt.

Whenever a creator makes a decision to change a character in some way, whether it is Jason Aaron passing the title of Thor to Jane Foster, or Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli creating Miles Morales, there are those who claim it is companies forcing diversity on creators under the guise of “political correctness.” I’m not going to say that this sort of thing hasn’t happened in the past but in the modern age, I feel like it is a false fear that people have created.

Comics may be art, but like all forms of entertainment, they’re still a business that must keep an eye on sales and demand from core consumers. There are always going to be people who fall outside that demographic—for example, women have been reading comics for as long as comics have existed—but mainstream superhero titles have spent much of their existence not catering to them. 

However, the internet, 21st century globalism, and the change in how we consume media has transformed those demographics. The American comic industry can no longer laser focus itself on males, age 11 and older, if it wants to survive. Marvel, DC, and all of the other companies had to embrace the digital age or their print stables would have perished in the changing times. This shift means that it is time to change some characters to appeal to new readers.

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There have been a lot of changes in comics over the last decade, but it’s within the last five years that things have really started to turn around. The title of Captain America went to Sam Wilson, a black man; Laura Kinney has taken the mantle of Wolverine; and Jane Foster has proven worthy of Thor’s hammer. All of these changes were met with trepidation from longtime comic fans, some of whom accused Marvel of forcing these changes on creators. Yet, Thor writer Jason Aaron told The Wall Street Journal in 2014 that Thor’s gender-swap “was all my idea. This was not about Marvel coming to me and saying, ‘We want you to change this character to a woman. Any woman will do.’ This was me having a very specific story in mind.”

This also goes back to 2011 when Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli created Miles Morales in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man. The change, which saw the mantle of Spider-Man passed from Peter Parker to Miles Morales, got a lot of media attention and accusations flew that Miles was just another marketing stunt.

“I know that sometimes things feel a little stunt-y, especially when something explodes like this, but I can tell you from my heart of hearts that it was story-first for years, and once we knew that we had something we were really proud of, absolutely we let people know, and if people want to jump on the story, great,” Bendis told Newsarama.

There aren’t invisible hands at Marvel forcing these changes on creators as much as it is writers and artists realizing they have the freedom to do more and be more inclusive in the process. The idea that inclusivity or diversity will somehow “ruin” comics makes no sense; it’s easy to rely on the same characters repeating the same stories, but to try and expand your audience will stimulate creativity—not stifle it. Far from being a stunt, Miles Morales became so popular that he has joined the main Marvel universe (where he now co-exists with Peter Parker as Spider-Man) and has joined the Avengers.

Such changes aren’t exclusive to Marvel. The success of series like Gotham Academy at DC or Lumberjanes at Boom! speak volumes as well. DC has seen success by shifting its focus to more of its female characters. Harley Quinn has become one of the premiere women of the DC universe and her book is consistently one of DC’s best selling titles. Characters like Batgirl got design changes to reflect the shifting perspective of women in comics while Wonder Woman’s outfit now reflects that she’s a warrior to be feared. Last year, the publisher launched the DC You initiative, which focused on expanding their roster of titles to include more women and minorities, on both sides of the page. 

The Marvel and DC universes are so expansive that there should be someone for everyone and the fact that historically there hasn’t been is the issue at hand. Shannon Watters, the writer of Lumberjanes, says that the solution to expanding diversity lies in hiring practices. “Hire more marginalized people to tell their stories,” Watters said in an interview with WatchPlayRead. “That is the number one thing you can do. Hire people of color, hire queer people, and hire gender non-normative people and differently able people, and hire people whose life and experiences are outside the ‘straight, male, CIS-gendered, white’ comic norm.”

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That isn’t to say the industry might not go too far. There are plenty of examples of stock characters with zero personalities that are just there to be there. However, if given a choice, I truly believe that I would rather have that rainbow coalition of companies trying too hard and to have some of them fail then re-read more of the same stories of the last 70 years. While Luke Cage was created to capitalize on the blaxploitation phase of the 1970s, he has since blossomed into a great character, because creators have been given the opportunity to let him grow.

This gives creators like Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson, and Adrian Alphona the opportunity to pass the title of Ms. Marvel to Pakistani teenager Kamala Khan, or Greg Pak and Frank Cho the opportunity to make Amadeus Cho the Hulk. This is an entire industry realizing that the world is changing, and they need to adapt as well. Kamala Khan is one of the best new creations to come out of Marvel in years because we are letting new stories get told.

Ms. Marvel #1 went on to have seven printings, and volumes one through three debuted on The New York Times bestseller list for graphic novels. We never would have gotten the fantastic Captain Marvel series if Kelly Sue DeConnick hadn’t given Carol Danvers her new rank and one of the most famous names in comics history (not to mention a brilliant costume redesign by Jamie McKelvy). This change has revitalized Carol Danvers as a character so much that she’ll be the first Marvel woman to headline her own movie in 2019, andshe is one of the main characters Marvel’s Civil War II event comic.

While some comic fans hate change, many of the original characters haven’t left. While Laura Kinney might be Wolverine, Logan is still in the Marvel Universe. While Jane Foster might be Thor, the original Thor still exists. The idea of sexuality, such as Bobby Drake/Iceman recently coming out as gay, is a little different because people needing years to come to terms with sexuality is common. Sam Wilson’s turn as Captain America isn’t agenda driven, it’s a case of a character who has fought at Captain America’s side for over 40 years getting his turn in the spotlight.

These transitions can mean the world to a younger generation of readers who are looking for more representation in entertainment. This sort of representation is important, which is something Rick Remender understood when he passed the title of Captain America to Sam Wilson. “For me it did come from a place where I wanted the first African-American superhero to take this mantle, and I wanted to tell a really exciting story and hopefully do what Frank Miller did for Daredevil, and flesh him out in a way that I haven’t really seen done,” Remender said to EW in 2014. “But if the side effect is that one kid feels that he’s reflected in society a little bit more, then all of the naysayers and all the negativity, and all of the ugliness that certain factions of society will want to spew are worth it.”

For the moment, sales seem to be backing up the idea that the industry is desperate for diversity. In addition to the early success of Ms. MarvelTotally Awesome Hulk with Amadeus Cho still sells over 30,000 copies five issues into the new run. The Mighty Thor #6, the second run with Jane Foster as Thor, sold over 50,000, and All New Wolverine, starring Laura Kinney, sold over 38,000. Spider-Gwen, a re-imagining of Peter Parker’s long dead girlfriend as her own hero, was so popular as a one-shot during the Edge of the Spider-Verse event that they have given her her own series (and her first issue sold over 250,000 copies). All-New All-Different Avengers, which brings together a diverse group of heroes including Kamala Khan, Miles Morales, Sam Wilson, and Jane Foster, continues to sell over 50,000 copies a month. None of this takes into account digital sales numbers, which skew heavily towards female dominated titles. 

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Change doesn’t happen overnight, and there are things within our culture that are going to take years to work out of our systems. As adult comic fans, we need to stop with this knee-jerk reaction to any changes in comics and understand that if the story doesn’t work then the sales will reflect that. Not all of these experiments are going to work. If we want the next generation of kids to love this medium as much as we do, we need to be open to change, whether it’s a character coming out of the closet or legacy titles being passed on to new people. The comic industry can’t survive if we don’t pass it along to the next generation, and those kids should absolutely have someone to look up to.

There is no agenda forcing political correctness. There are new creators bringing new ideas to appeal to an expanding audience. I want my nieces to love comics as much as I do, and I want them to have plenty of strong women they can look up to within the industry. I know that the change won’t happen right away, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.