DC Comics’ Diversity Crisis: Why the Status Quo Rules by Liz Watson
Despite what the knuckle-draggers in comment sections would have you think, America is beginning to care about diversity in comic books. Look at the media explosion which erupted this week when Marvel Comics announced that both Captain America and Thor would undergo some radical changes as part of their new Avengers NOW! series. Sam Wilson, an African-American hero also known as Falcon, will be taking up Captain America's mantle after the Captain loses his super-soldier abilities. And when Thor Odinson is deemed unworthy, his hammer (and the Thor title, it seems) will pass onto an unnamed woman.
The Internet erupted into a chorus of fanboy kvetching in the wake of this news, with some fans up in arms over “political correctness gone mad.” Others applauded Marvel for providing some much-needed variety to their stable of white, male heroes. As superhero juggernauts DC and Marvel enter the 21st century, the debate over diversity in comic books is picking up steam. A black Captain America and woman Thor are just a few of Marvel's many triumphs in what's been a banner year.
So why is DC lagging behind?
It's not as if DC isn't trying. They've vocally espoused a commitment to diversity, and made headlines in 2006 when they announced that their new Batwoman, Kate Kane, was an out lesbian. However, in recent years they've come under fire for racial and gender homogeneity both on their creative teams and within their comic books. The missteps range from white-washing characters of color during Black History Month to refusing to allow Batwoman to marry her fiancée. This last decision resulted in the resignation of Batwoman editorial team J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman, one of the most critically-acclaimed partnerships in DC’s history, and seemed to cancel out any remaining goodwill the company had earned.
DC’s reputation for boners (as the Joker would say) is so widespread that keeps a daily tally of the company’s offenses. As of today, DC is celebrating eight boner-free days.
Meanwhile, Marvel is setting the gold standard. A year before DC dropped the ball on the Batwoman wedding, Marvel’s Northstar married his boyfriend in Astonishing X-Men #51, complete with a splash cover featuring the two men embracing. Titles like Ms. Marvel, which features a Muslim teen girl hero, are critical darlings and best-sellers. Marvel Editor-in-chief Axel Alonso has confirmed the company’s commitment to expanding its fanbase, saying, “While we don’t have any market research, the eyes don’t lie. If you go to conventions and comic book stores, more and more female readers are emerging. They are starved for content and looking for content they can relate to.” And instead of choosing to drop the Thor bombshell at the upcoming San Diego Comic Con, Marvel revealed the change on The View. When you think of a stereotypical comic fan, Whoopi Goldberg probably isn’t who you had in mind.
Comic books are a fundamentally stagnant medium. Any slightly unconventional decision—from casting Heath Ledger as the Joker to putting pants on Wonder Woman—is met with a level of feverish debate normally reserved for schisms within the Catholic Church. When Avengers NOW! launched, the Internet predictably collapsed into a flurry of venomous pearl-clutching. Some wondered if a female Thor now meant that “feminists” would try and also rewrite Jesus as female. The equivalence between comic books and scripture is telling of how seriously canon is taken by these fans. To violate the status quo is akin to sacrilege.
The irony is that a format characterized by the boundless scope of imagination is ultimately extremely conservative when it comes to risks with character or story. Major developments like deaths or marriages are almost always undone, via fantastic contrivances ranging from deals with the devil to time-travel. Characters are de-powered, murdered, raped, aged up and down, and yo-yoed between universes with an alarming lack of fanfare. It's the same problem suffered by long-running soap operas, where catastrophes are regularly smoothed over or forgotten in order to keep the premise going. At least on soap operas, actors leave over contract disputes or pass away. In comics, the stories can go on indefinitely. As such, the limitless nature of comic book fantasy is used, by and large, to keep limits in place.
Both companies understand this—and handle it differently. DC Comics uses a slavish adherence to the status quo to prevent anything socially-progressive from taking place on its pages. Co-Publisher Dan DiDio insisted the Batwoman wedding controversy wasn’t homophobic. The wedding was barred because DC heroes couldn't have “happy personal lives.” Apparently, audiences will believe a man can fly. They just won't (or can't) believe two women can be happily married! Policies like DiDio's are not only detrimental to character and narrative development—they also make the company seem backwards and out of touch.