Normally, when something you like gets nominated for an award, that’s a good thing. Normally, when something you like gets nominated for an award that is important to a cause or belief that is important to you, that’s a great thing.
But recently, seeing that one of my favorite stories was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award in the category of Outstanding Comic was absolutely infuriating. Why? Because, last month, Marvel canceled America – and the other two comics (Iceman and Black Panther: World Of Wakanda) that were nominated for awards.
I’d like to pretend that this news was meet with a jaded sigh. I often refer to myself as an “old queer,” after all. I came out in the early 2000s; civil unions were barely a real national conversation, marriage equality was a fringe left position, we weren’t really sure yet that the benefits of AZT and other antiretrovirals were going to work long term for AIDS, turning the virus from a death sentence into a chronic illness.
Melissa Etheridge, Rosie O’Donnell, and Ellen Degeneres were not publicly out. We knew, but they didn’t say it. I knew of exactly one Young Adult writer who wrote about lesbian teens without having one of them die at the end of the book. Tara, one of two lesbian or bisexual characters on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer had already been killed off, with creator Joss Whedon tremendously confused as to why we were hurt by his choice.
The GLAAD Media Awards Usually Give Me Something To Celebrate
But I didn’t meet this news with a jaded sigh. I didn’t cry, not much, but I spent some time feeling both heavy and empty.
And then I reached for my copy of Batwoman by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III and reading ‘Elegy.’ Written during the days when Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) was the “solution” to gay service members in the armed forces, this book has a story that has resonated with me for years.
After being seen kissing a female fellow cadet, Kate is told that her future in the military rests on one thing: saying that the observed kiss was a mistake and that it will never happen again. Kate refuses to do so because it would be a lie, and the honor code – the ideal of service – means more to her than the specific job she’s wanted to do throughout her life.
Kate then goes home to tell her father what’s happened. She cites the code she violated; Jacob recognizes it as the code which refers to homosexual activities. He asks why Kate didn’t explain that a mistake had been made; Kate tells him that saying so would have been a lie. The art, the long pause between them, makes it very clear that this is Kate’s coming out to her father.
The moment passes, and then Jacob says that she has maintained her honor and integrity, and that’s what matters. I needed this scene to cling to, old queer or not, as I was once more reduced to ‘not enough’ for comics.
Why Does Marvel Keep Canceling Diverse Titles?
There’s a whole article to write here about how franchises build successful characters and what Marvel is doing wrong with the press as they launch new books, and how the pre-order system makes it fundamentally impossible for books to get off the ground, causing titles to be canceled before they start.
There’s more to write about how insular comics are, and how new creators writing these types of stories can’t get their toe in the door because even if they’re successful in other realms, they are mocked and derided in the world of comics.
There’s even more to be said about comics culture as a whole and the particular mindset that justifies refusing to let new stories to be told as if that will cause the previous ones to stop existing.
Today, however, all I can talk about is this: it is absolutely ridiculous for Marvel to have canceled three titles featuring lesbian and gay characters just weeks before the GLAAD Media Award nominations came out. Absurd. Beyond incomprehensible.
GLAAD Media Awards Nominations Give Media a Boost
The nominations are announced every January. Three comics with representation that’s being praised up and down, and Marvel couldn’t manage to hold out for two more issues to see if any of their books would be pointed out? Yes, issues are completed a couple of months in advance, but I would have even tolerated a skipped month or a hiatus if they were on the sales bubble, if it meant that the comics were given a chance.
When explaining about books that are canceled, Marvel likes to cite readership issues, suggesting that the books just haven’t connected with an intended audience. While I detest the idea that certain media types get segregated as Black or gay or girly, the fact is that they are. Many of those people – Black, gay, girly people – tend to stay away from comics because comics as a medium has, historically, not been incredibly inviting to them. In fact, they have often been downright harmful.
I know that because I’m no stranger to being disappointed by queer (and female) representation in media. I’m no stranger to having things about characters like me, stories I connect with, being considered too fringe, insufficiently mainstream, and knowing that they will be carefully segregated from all other media so that other books, movies, and stories don’t get the gay on them.
Since Marvel can’t manage to promote these characters without pointing out how they’re REALLY DIVERSE NOW WITH DIVERSE SAUCE AND NEW AND IMPROVED DIVERSITY DRESSING, they often don’t gain a foothold with insular readers who are showing up every month for Thor and Superman and Captain America.
However, the sort of attention that can come from something like a GLAAD Media Award nomination does have the potential to catch the awareness of those very people for whom these comics can be life-changing (I’m not exaggerating; books that told me I wasn’t broken for being queer and autistic saved my life).
The Canceled Titles Were Phenomenal.
America, for example, is the story of a teen girl who has been transported from another dimension. She can’t return to her world, and her parents are dead. She’s making the best of it here, using her interdimensional punching powers to make small changes where she can. Sometimes she takes on galactic supervillains with the Young Avengers; sometimes she road trips with Kate Bishop (Hawkeye, also recently canceled); sometimes she punches Hitler. She wants to live up to what she believes her parents would have wanted from her. She finds family with her Grandmother – who shares her interdimensional punching awesomeness – and learns about her parents. There’s no reveal of a deep dark secret or hidden past; her parents loved each other, and they loved her. They made her want to be better, and she never ever stopped trying to be.
It’s a great book, and I didn’t once have to use the words “lesbian” or “Puerto Rican” to tell you why. Those words are important for some, those who share these identities and are looking for that representation, but that’s a part, not the whole.
What would Marvel have lost by letting the comics run for a few more months so that they could see if the trade numbers and the nomination announcements might have given these books a boost? If they really and truly couldn’t afford to publish them for those extra months, why not time the publication so that issue #6 – the make or break point for a lot of these books – comes out around March, the same way that artsy movies are timed around award season?
What would they have lost, and what could they have gained? Why didn’t they take that into consideration? Why weren’t we worth taking the chance?
So What Should Marvel Do?
There are honestly a million solutions to this problem – I would personally recommend using miniseries as ‘pilot’ programs, rather than declaring them failures at six issues – but a company committed to reselling the same old stories to its same old audience isn’t going to find any of them.
Which is fine, I suppose. I’ve got Kate Kane in mainstream comics to keep me going. I’ve got a bunch of new titles to check out from Boom! Studios. I’m not spoiled for choice when it comes to books that focus on a queer audience, but the number is growing.
God, no matter how hard a positive spin I try to put on this, even though it’s getting better, I can’t help but see myself as being grateful for scraps. But when you’re starving, scraps are better than absolutely nothing – like it or not – so I’ll keep supporting the books that I have. Marvel seems to be committed to cultivating great ideas, then letting them die on the vine. If they continue on this path, they will, over time, meet the same fate as all of those who insist on looking backward instead of forward: they will descend into irrelevancy.
If they can’t manage to make even a little bit of room for people like me, that descent can’t come soon enough.