Pull Up a Chair is an opinion post where I discuss different things about comic books, culture, and the industry.
Some argue that while people may talk about inclusion, and against sexual objectification, it’s how the general public spends their money that tells the truth of how they really feel. This argument is often expressed as a question, “Why aren’t books with more realistic, strong female leads, and people of color, flying off the shelves if there’s such a high demand?” It’s a legitimate question, and one I’ve thought about a lot lately. However, I’m no longer convinced that the question represents the truth of the situation. In fact, I believe the argument is fundamentally flawed.
Everything we have today was built upon the decisions made in the past, when the comic industry was first being formed. The choices made all those years ago set the foundation of what we have now. That’s important understand because the era in which comics were founded, was a very different time than now. Diversity wasn’t even a thought decades ago. Thus, when designing the strategies of the early comic marketing and advertising, the core demographic of that time period, which was straight white men, was the focus. Everything they did had that single audience in mind. A characters ethnicity, background, or lineage was all wrapped up and around this audience they were attempting to reach. Thus, in it’s early stages of becoming the multi-million dollar industry it’s become today, non-white, non-straight, non-males would find very little to connect with in this burgeoning business. Why? Because comics weren’t trying to reach them, their audience was the young straight white male.
This is important because people generally gravitate toward their own culture. It actually takes a conscious effort to see someone who is both visually and culturally different, and accept them blindly. Usually, commonalities must be established in order for acceptance to take place. Think of all your friends, I’m willing to wager that there’s some connective tissue upon which that relationship was originally established. It may have been shared opinions, hobbies, culture, family background, or even lack of options. Whatever the case, there was an initial commonality that established a bridge for the two of you to meet.
I speak of this relationship because it’s very similar to how businesses build fanbases. Their product needs to connect, or bond, with us on some personal level. It can be through a need we have, desire we want to fulfill, or escape we want, whatever the case, businesses must make that connection to create a loyal fanbase. Also, the more this connection is felt, the stronger that relationship becomes. People will often only purchase certain brands of soap, certain brands of food, all based on this relationship. What starts off as a mild interest, if that connection remains and grows, can transform into a deep fanatical commitment. Now, lets go back to how comics initially only targeted straight white men.
The majority of comics produced today are about straight, white guy heroes. Why? For the same exact reasons that dog food manufactures produce dog food for dogs and not cats. Their interest, their entire demographic, is focused on people who purchase dog food. The comic industry has that same focus, and understands that people form quicker connections with other people from their culture. Therefore, if nearly all superheroes are white males, then the audience of white men will find, connect, and purchase those products. This is why understanding the era in which comics were founded and grown, is extremely important. Racism and sexism were common, and please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying anyone was being intentionally racist. What I am saying is that because the culture was wildly different, an entire audience of people have now been left out of the industry for decades.
Unfortunately, by neglecting entire people groups year after year, comic’s have dug themselves a hole, crawled into that hole, covered their eyes, and rocked themselves to sleep for far too long. Now, an entire new audience is emerging, albeit smaller than the foundational audience, but they want to join the party none-the-less. Understand how important that is, because it means everything.
Groups of people who were intentionally excluded all those years ago, during comic’s earliest years, have somehow, against all odds, connected to comics in someway. Now, they not only want to be apart of this industry, they’re willing to fight for it.
They don’t have the numbers like the target demographic, but how could they? This new audience hasn’t been cultivated and cared for over decades and decades. They haven’t even been given a chance to develop and grow. Why? Because the focus is still on the original audience.
That’s why I believe sales numbers can’t be the only factor for determining what, and where, changes need to be made. The newer audience can’t produce the numbers the old audience can, because no one is making any real efforts to grow that audience. Who knows how books with a non-tech-savvy, Asian hero, who doesn’t wield a sword would do? The time, effort, and money it takes to build that audience hasn’t even begun.
I understand how dangerous it is to explore new markets, and new audiences. Even within these new groups of fans there’s a diversity in what they want to see. Also, attempting to become everything for everyone is an impossible task. While at times it feels like that’s the request, I only believe its the case because of how little options are available to people. Regardless of the dangers and near impossibility of the task at hand, changes need to be made.
So what can we do? I believe the comic industry needs to reevaluate their entire collection of products. There are, quite literally, hundreds of heroes who become better characters by changing them to a different ethnicity, thus introducing an entire new culture to a classic character. Culture plays a massive part in everyone’s identity. It also serves as one of the strongest bonding elements available. By adding these new cultural depths to classic characters, storytellers can now play with entirely new sets of tools to widen and grow iconic comic properties.
White is no longer always right. If it plays an actual part in forming who the character is, fine, leave it alone. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with being white. However, if the character’s original ethnicity adds nothing, and remains that way just because that’s how it’s always been, we’re actually accepting a lesser product. By adding new cultural depth, we open paths for that character to explore.
The possibilities created by adding both diversity and depth to the many characters available is uncharted territory. Who knows where creatives could take a Native American Dr. Strange, or a Hispanic Hawkeye, but what I do know is that the addition of culture to those characters gives them more substance and allows them to connect with an entirely new audience without sacrificing anything from the core of the characters. Culture is one of the most influential aspects of any person’s life. Just as our culture adds to our individuality, so it adds to the characters we love. Fighting against change, at this point, is fighting against a greater depth, original ideas, and better stories being told in the products we buy. Thus, instead of fighting to keep things the same, why not ask for real, connective, cultural bonds to be established within the things we love. The end result of which gives us, the comic fans, better better books to read, it grows the audience of comic readers, and allows deeper and more meaningful bonds to be formed with this industry we all love so much.
This is Part 2 of “A Need for Diversity in Comics.” You can check out Part 1 HERE.