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Tim Stevens ’03 explores the history of diversity at Marvel Comics and DC Comics.
By Tim Stevens ’03
ssues of diversity at the Big Two comic book companies—Marvel Comics and DC Comics—are nothing new. In
some ways, they are baked into the design, which began in April 1938 with the birth of the superhero: Superman’s first appearance.
Arising from an era when mainstream pop culture was often homogenized and dominated by white faces (male in particular), comics reflected their environment. The heroes were typically men (with few exceptions), white and straight. The icons of the field—Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman—were set in stone more than 25 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Unlike in television and film, where the passage of time meant actors grew old and moved on, comic book heroes could be eternal. While other media often had to diversify to be more reactive to changing times, the immortality of superheroes made it more difficult to showcase a diverse “cast” of characters in the four-color medium.
Over the next 40 years, changes eventually took place. Women heroes, present from nearly the beginning, became more numerous and more varied. People of color were acknowledged as equal candidates for superheroes, not just relegated to roles as supporting cast members, villains or figures of intentional, often cruel, comedy. Even LGBTQ heroes eventually debuted, albeit much later.
Today, many fans have demanded more representation across the board—in gender identity and expression, sexuality, race, ethnicity and religion—and have taken their complaints both directly to the Big Two and to the internet at large. Others still reject the idea of any diversity.
Some critics insist that the white, straight, Christian icons they grew up with are being pushed out by this new diverse group of heroes. They bemoan what they feel is the defeminization of women characters, often explicitly pointing out characters’ breast sizes, hairstyles and less-revealing costumes. And while I will not dive into the talent side of the equation, this group often reserves its most hateful language and actions for comic creators who are women, trans, gay, bisexual, people of color or Muslim.
Of all the underrepresented groups, women superheroes hit the mainstream far ahead of any other set. Wonder Woman debuted in 1940 as the first woman superhero at DC or Marvel, and she remains one of the most recognizable heroes in all of comics. She looms large in popular culture beyond comic books, and she did so even before her solo feature film debut just over a year ago.
However, Wonder Woman’s initial role in the Justice League was as a secretary, a reflection of attitudes about what was “appropriate” women’s work during the post-World War II era. Moreover, women superheroes were significantly fewer in number, often overruled and overshadowed and, especially as comics “grew up,” dressed far more provocatively than their male counterparts.
HEROES OF COLOR would have to wait 31 years after the Man of Steel first bounded onto comic pages to make it to the Big Two—five years after the Civil Rights Act. While smaller and short-lived publishers had heroes of color as early as the ’40s, Black Panther’s first appearance in the pages of Captain America marked a first for both Marvel and DC. People of color in the Big Two, until that point, had typically been villains or “regular” people—sidekicks and friends of the hero. Often they were portrayed as blatant stereotypes.
Take for instance Whitewash Jones (yes, Whitewash), an adolescent character in Young Allies. The World War II–era book from the company we now know as Marvel featured a sort of child gang of characters ready to back up the likes of Captain America, Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner. Whitewash was the only black character at the publisher at the time, and he was drawn as a white child in blackface, complete with wide, garish, painted-on red lips. It is unlikely that a black youth of the 1940s would look at this portrayal and experience the same kind of inspiration and admiration that a white youth did seeing Captain America sling his shield.
Black Panther’s arrival could not change circumstances overnight. Black heroes who came after him often had some sort of criminal past. Given that many characters of color were introduced in the 1970s, they were often blaxploitation stereotypes (black characters) or martial artist masters (Asian characters). Additionally, like women heroes before them, the number of heroes of color lagged far behind that of existing and newly created white heroes.
The barrier to LGBTQ heroes was the last to fall. Comics had long featured coded gay characters and same-sex relationships, but it was 40 years after Superman’s debut that an openly gay superhero appeared on the pages of either a Marvel or DC comic.
Northstar, the first Marvel hero ever to state outright that he was gay—which he did by literally screaming it while the art depicted him seemingly flying out of the book—appeared in 1978. Creator John Byrne claims he had always intended Northstar to be gay. The character, though, did not reveal this for 14 years. Thus, the first true debut of a gay superhero belongs to the DC character Extraño in 1987. This means it actually took 49 years for a gay superhero to arrive.
Lesbian superheroes would have to wait even longer. The first lesbian superhero at the Big Two was Marvel’s Karolina Dean of Runaways, who debuted in 2003 and came out in 2005. At DC, it would take a year more. There, the newest incarnation of Batwoman, introduced in 2006, was stated explicitly to be a lesbian in the run-up to her first appearance.
DESPITE THE SLOW process of introducing greater diversity into the comic universe, the fringe audience believes comics have too much diversity. I took it upon myself to test this hypothesis. I focused on two weeks’ worth of releases from the Big Two—about 34 comics. Unsurprisingly, I found that you could read more than half of the comics in those two weeks and never read a title with a lead who wasn’t straight, white, cisgender and male.
This year, I have since looked at every title from the Big Two over three-month intervals. Over the first two quarters of analysis, releases featuring straight, white, cisgender male heroes went up 5.4 percentage points to more than 58 percent of all solo superhero titles published by Marvel and DC Comics. Not only are those complaining that diversity is “out of control” wrong, but it appears they might be persuading comic companies to buy into their argument.
I’ve loved comics for years, and this retrograde attitude is disheartening. Even as comic properties dominate television and film, comic books themselves continue to be a niche market. One cannot help but wonder if the publishers’ resistance to diversity might be part of that problem.
Conversely, those who oppose diversity insist that comics will do better if they embrace their whiteness, their maleness, their straightness. They may be right in the short term. Collectors and fans who share their opinion might buy more Captain America than, say, last year’s AMERICA, the book that featured a bisexual Latina woman. However, white, straight, cis male fans—including myself—are getting older and becoming a smaller part of the population. If comics cannot offer more diverse heroes for a more diverse population, how will they grow their base? I do not think they can.
Within that reality lies a strange sort of hope for me. It might not be the most high-minded or heroic way to get more diversity into superhero comics, but if DC and Marvel act like actual businesses and chase the almighty dollar, they will inevitably have to become more diverse to survive. I would like them to do it because it is right, but I’ll take an increase in diversity any way I can.
Tim Stevens writes for Marvel.com and comicsverse.com. His work can also be found at timstevensisungajje.com.