Diversity in Comics Is Too Illusory to Be the Problem

Reading Time: 7 minutes

diversity in comics
Image: Marvel

Diversity in comics made the news again this week as Marvel’s Sales VP decided to inform the entire world that the brand’s sales losses come from their outreach attempts at diversity. So here we all find ourselves again in the brouhaha of why people don’t make these books. Once again, those who ask for representation are being called out as the culprits. There just isn’t the demographic for it.

I can go on and on about Marvel’s numbers. In fact, I’ve done so in other places.

None of this is about Marvel, at least not specifically. All of this is about being used as an excuse for writing failures. Looking at the target audiences, the demographics of readers, and the demographics of writers, there’s a huge gap in what’s being produced. These huge gaps relate to problems that come with writing “the other,” whether that other is a gender, race, or religion.

The Readership for Diversity in Comics

Finding a starting point for the data proves difficult. Let’s start with the potential demographic. After all, half of marketing lies in potential. Scouring the internet for any kind of methodology proved difficult. However, here it is. Over at the website Graphic Policy, author Brett runs a monthly review of comic fandom demographics on Facebook. This doesn’t include people who purchase, however, it gives a sense of what the market might look like in total based on people’s approach to information. As nothing else was available, it’s at the very least worth a look. Brett posted on April 1, 2017 creating a timely relevance which also proves important to this discussion. Most of the other demographic data, though more statistically sound, was dated 2012- 2015. So, let’s take a look.

According to this data, women represent 48.65% of the population and men 51.35%. Interestingly, an age pattern also occurs. While men in the age ranges of 18-42 outnumber women of the same range, once women hit 42 years old, the female demographic outnumbers the male readers. In addition, per this non-statistically verified analysis, African-Americans are 14.59% of the population, while Hispanics represent 17.3% and Asian-Americans represent 5.44%.

In terms of the discussions of diversity in comics not making money, let’s chat a minute. Look, when we’re talking about demographics, there’s something to be said for thinking about what your demographic wants. In terms of reading, the important thing to note is, well, reading. People like to read things that are good. In fact, if we’re looking specifically at the female demographics here, most the readers are older. There is a good chance that these women are also (and this is more a hypothesis than anything else) fairly well educated. This means that something else needs to happen for these books to do well.

Writing the Other, or How Diversity in Comics Reads

Just throwing characters into books as lead protagonists doesn’t make the writing “diverse.” Looking to education, Mary Stone Hanley and George W. Noblit note that in trying to empower marginalized groups,

Existing beliefs and practices are based in a wider logic of White supremacy. Changes need to be made broadly across the board. Some questions to ask include: Who are the key stakeholders? What can bring them together and what resources can they bring? What institutional arrangements need cultivated? How can educators be prepared to teach culturally responsive pedagogy? What policies must be changed and created? What practices are needed? What belief systems are necessary and which need to be challenged? What do the children and youth need to be doing?

Breaking down the academic jargon, this basically says that when we’re trying to help empower marginalized groups, in this study’s case African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans, people need to focus on how to negotiate the pre-existing cultural context. Looking at how there are institutionalized systems in place such as white privilege or male privilege need to be addressed and the stakeholders, a.k.a. the people you’re trying to empower, need to be engaged. It’s not just about giving people books that meet some diversity checklist. It’s about ensuring that those books meaningfully represent the experiences and help break down these pre-existing cultural constructs.

There’s more to this discussion than just “breaking the barriers.” There’s a level of how to break down those barriers. Diversity of subject is one thing. Giving readers female protagonists or people of color heroes meets the requirement of helping to make a broad change. However, whether it’s a question of authenticity or a question of appropriation, the authors also matter. Increasingly, marginalized groups want the authors of their books to also represent them. The idea of authenticity and voice come with their own set of issues.

Turning again to pedagogy some answers to this come from the research around teaching voices. For example, if the voices come from the marginalized group but the privileged group decides to champion a particular voice, as in the case of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, does that voice become less “authentic” to the extent that its champions are not the original group. In an article titled, “Dilemmas of Identity and Ideology in Cross-Cultural Literary Engagements from 1997, Ingrid Johnston explains,

In my own teaching and research, I have been struggling to articulate these issues of authenticity and voice, attempting, as Gerald Graff (1992) suggests, to “teach the conflicts” by considering questions of voice and narration and by making explicit the tensions, contradictions and ambivalences in the social construction of cultural identities and literary texts. Such questions have been raised in teaching such contrasting texts as Harper Lee’s canonized school text, To Kill a Mockingbird, with Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by the African-American writer, Mildred Taylor. These tensions and contradictions became particularly evident when I introduced grade 12 students in a large urban multi-ethnic school to Nadine Gordimer’s (1990) story of unequal justice in apartheid South Africa, “Happy Event,” together with an autobiographical story, “The Toilet”, written by a black South African writer, Gcina Mhlope (1988).

Literary pedagogy has advanced greatly in the last twenty-one years. Indeed, society has done the same. However, these questions of authenticity plague authorship in general.

For those voices that have been silenced for so long, publishers and the public must delicately determine ways to negotiate these representations. In this way, many of the comic books that Marvel argues “failed” suffered from a voice and authenticity problem.

The Authenticity Problem: How to Write Diversity in Comics

Sometimes, authenticity comes directly from the writer’s experience. Bringing in Ta-Nahesi Coates and Roxane Gay to work on the Black Panther series was brilliant. Both writers have histories of being well regarded within the African American community. Both writers come from specific backgrounds. Both writers seek to push the boundaries in meaningful ways. Both books are gorgeous and hefty.

These books meet the challenge of finding authentic voice by using representatives of the characters whose experience the books seek to promote.  By choosing these authors, Marvel hit an authentic voice home run.

However.

As a white woman, I speak for myself when I say, while there are several men whose writing matches my experience, this is not always the case. Authenticity comes from more than having breasts or a vagina. Wally Lamb created an entire career by writing in an authentic female voice. The problem is that to write the other, the writing needs to be the focus.  During a Tweetstorm on Sunday, Tess Fowler noted,

diversity in comics
Image: Karen Walsh

And herein lies the Achilles Heel to the Marvel offense of “diversity in comics doesn’t sell.” The problem is that bad writing doesn’t sell.

First, let’s look at the women demographic. Age 42 and up, women are the larger percentage of the interest category. If that proves true for the buyers, then there is a good chance the readers are more educated and looking for writing that matches their educational backgrounds. Even more broadly, regardless of gender or age, we live in a society that is more educated than when comics were first written. This greater education indicates people who are more discerning about their reading. Second, marginalized groups have become far more willing to call shenanigans when they feel those in power continue to shunt them to the side.

In this way, people are refusing to accept any writing provided them. They want good stories by good writers. If you’re going to give women books written by men, then those men better be writing good books. It’s that simple. I won’t require women to be the writers of my experience, but I do want the men who write them to do it well. However, if we’re looking at the numbers of female writers, that number is still particularly bleak. A Bleeding Cool article from March 14, 2017, notes:

In January 2017, DC Comics released 84 new comic books featuring 765 credited creators, 627 men and 138 women…. In January 2017, Marvel comics put out 92 new comics with 847 credited creators, 711 men and 136 women.

What this means to the “diversity in comics” argument is that while there may be more female characters, women creators still lag behind male creators in a particularly huge way. In a world where women and men make up almost equal numbers of the population and where there seems to be an almost 45/55 ratio in readership, we’re still seeing female creators at somewhere between 16% and 18% of those credited.

This still doesn’t tell the whole story, however.  An article by FiveThirtyEight noted that despite an increase in female characters, the numbers showed that these increases weren’t as huge as The Big Two would have the public believe. According to the article, “Comic Books Are Still Made By Men, For Men And About Men,

You’ll see that — despite public attempts to pivot toward diversity — neither Marvel nor DC is introducing female characters at a rate approaching gender parity. While each publisher is certainly beating earlier ratios, new characters introduced still don’t reflect reality,16where men and women each make up about half the population.

This lack of parity, then, means that once again the “diversity in comics doesn’t sell” argument falls short. It doesn’t sell because it still doesn’t really exist.

It’s not that the diversity in comics doesn’t sell. The problem is that the diversity is illusory. The increase in marginalized protagonist led stories may have increased, but those increases weren’t nearly the bill of goods readers were sold. The diversity may have been on the page, but that diversity doesn’t pan out behind the page. That means that while the Big Two are singing a song of diversity, they’re really just lip syncing to a pre-recorded track. While there may be authentic male voices or white voices who can write these female or PoC stories, the number of representative creators falls far below the number of books. Ultimately, these issues of authenticity and voice, coupled with writing issues create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Then the companies tell everyone the books didn’t sell because diversity doesn’t sell.

The Big Two have been selling a line of increased diversity in comics that tells less than half the story. It seems to only tell, well, somewhere between 16% and 18% of the story.

Johnston, Ingrid. “Dilemmas of Identity and Ideology in Cross-Cultural..” Canadian Ethnic Studies, vol. 29, no. 2, June 1997, p. 97. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=537874&site=ehost-live&scope=site.