I’ve never been a comic book person. Like, never. Not even graphic novels. I didn’t like seeing what an illustrator wanted me to see–I wanted to imagine the characters as I saw them. Plus, every comic I saw (which, granted, was not many) featured white, muscular men or white, sexualized women. Neither of which I could relate to or liked. They all felt the same to me, and as a child, I wasn’t allowed to read comics because of the violence and because my mother didn’t approve of the way women were portrayed. As I grew older, it wasn’t just that they were scantily clad and in ridiculous armor that provided no protection, but that the illustrations made it appear that the women’s sexuality was their most valuable asset. Not whatever superpower they had, not the people they saved, not any of the other awesome things about them. Their huge boobs, tiny waist, big but, and cocked hips were their defining traits. If I had read any of the comics of any female superhero perhaps my opinion would’ve changed, but I was immediately dismissive because I had no idea what the womens’ superpower was other than their sex appeal.
None of that is to say that women can’t be sexy and powerful because women, real and fictional, can be both. But many of the covers don’t make it obvious that the woman have any sort of super powers, especially when compared to their male counterparts. Many covers of Thor feature him with Mjölnir, often with lightening crackling out of it or lightning on the cover somewhere. Even if nothing else is known about him, the covers immediately let anyone looking know that this man has some awesome, supernatural hammer. Many Wolverine covers show Wolverine with his claws out. Superman is often flying. Gambit flings cards on one cover. Green Lantern shows off his ring. Green Arrow has his bow and arrow in his hand. None of this is to say that are are not exceptions to the point I’m trying to make. A quick Google image search shows Wonder Woman demolishing some bad dudes. Rogue and Storm have some cool covers too, but still. This was how I saw them and it is not entirely inaccurate. The mistreatment of female superheroes is nothing new and neither are my issues with them.
So, you’re probably wondering by now when I’m going to start talking about the stuff I like. I promise it’s coming.
Let me start by saying how I started getting into comics earlier this year, sometime in January or February I think. It all started when a friend shared an image on Facebook of the new Serenity: Leaves on the Wind comic she purchased at a local comic book store. I’m a HUGE Firefly fan, and I went the next day to buy the comic and get put on the pull list for it until the series was over.
Then, I started browsing and realized how many stories were out there, how many worlds I could visit that I never considered before. But something else important happened during this time.
Marvel announced its new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, who would be Muslim American. At the same time, many of the book blogs and library blogs began talking about diversity and the lack of it, and I began paying attention to the racial demographics of the people who walked into my library.
In the city I live in, approximately 91.25% of the population identify their race as White Alone, according to the 2010 census. The diversity in my city? It’s severely lacking, which is why I think I’ve been drawn to books that have characters who don’t look like me. If I didn’t read about non-white characters, non-American characters, as a kid I wasn’t as likely to encounter someone who didn’t look like me.
All this was before working at the public library. I’ve been in this job for about a year now, and the population of people who come into the library do not reflect the number in the last census. This is obviously informal statistics based on me taking note of the apparent race of people coming, but on a daily basis the race seem to be split into about half being white and half being non-white. As a note, these observations could be wrong especially as race is sometimes not easily identifiable because of the multitudes of races one person can be. But the fact remains that the people coming into my library are not as overwhelmingly white as the population was about four and a half years ago.
By having books with only white characters, by authors writing books with only white characters, and publishers paying more attention to these books, my library is not serving its patrons as it should. The book industry has not been serving people as it should. The lack of diversity in children’s book is something discussed here and here by Walter Dean Myers and his son.
But now? If I have a girl wanting an awesome superhero, I’m immediately going to recommend the new Ms. Marvel with no caveats. There will be, “but you might not like x,y,z” or “but, she’s not x,y,z.” For those wanting a superhero, Ms. Marvel is it right now. At least, for me she is. I’m ridiculously excited to see where this series goes and waiting for the new issues is torture. I only started reading it because it was a brand new series (no reading dozens of back issues to make everything make sense) and because Kamala isn’t like me. She lives in Jersey City, completely different from my small town in East Tennessee. She’s Muslim to my Christian. Brown skinned to my pale skin that burns in fifteen minutes. I read to go places I can’t go to in real life, to have awesome characters who aren’t like me because I know plenty of people like me. I know me. I want to read about someone who appears to be completely different from me, but the even more awesome thing about Kamala? She’s a lot like many teenagers and young adults. She’s trying to discover who she is, with and without superpowers, while balancing her family’s expectations of her and what she wants out of life.
I can only hope Marvel’s more diverse characters will soon transfer over into their movies. Some hope a female lead is soon to come while others think it may never happen. I think Marvel needs to do a female led movie. If the success of Guardians of the Galaxy has proved anything, it’s that storytelling and creating a character connection is more important than physical characteristics. If Marvel can make me love a humanoid tree, I can love any female superhero they can dream up. There really aren’t any excuses for a female led movie. I don’t know anyone who watches Marvel movies or reads Marvel comics (or any comics) who wouldn’t see a Wonder Woman movie, or a Black Widow movie, or a Ms. Marvel movie. I won’t even get into the female options presented in X-Men alone, and I know I’m missing all the other female comic heroes.
Plus, Sony recently announced its plan to produce a female-driven super hero Spider-Man spinoff movie for 2017. Marvel is now doing great things in their comics and it’s put together well in this image floating around the web now. If we can have such awesome things in the comics, Marvel needs to start making some plans to expand this diversity (that pretty much no one has complained about) into movies. Not only will it draw comic book fans in, but it will draw in those who only love the movies and could even encourage them to read the comics.
If Marvel makes it, they will come.
And this extends beyond Marvel. This is for all publishers and writers and creators. People are craving more diversity in books and diverse characters in media is especially important for towns and cities like mine where the majority of the population is one race or one religion. Because if it isn’t in a book or a movie or a drawing or a comic, it’s unlikely to be encountered, and leaves space for negative stereotypes and invisibility. Even when the central characters are white, books have been shown to change people’s perceptions as was reported with the Harry Potter series making children more tolerant toward minority groups.
If you’re a creator and you’re only creating white characters, I want you to question why all your characters are white. Over a year ago, one of my friends posed a similar question on Facebook when I was in the early stages of writing a Sleeping Beauty re-telling. I realized all my characters were white and tried to justify it to myself. “I’m being true to the originals. It’s historically accurate for their positions.”
Then, I realized I had dragons in the book. Dragons are not historically accurate. They never existed (as far as we know, but I’m holding out hope we’ve just not found the fossils yet). If its perfectly acceptable for me to have magic and dragons, I can have freaking characters from an alternate Japan, Ottoman Empire, and Kenya. It’s my made up world, and if I want to change their race I can. There’s no rule that my characters have to be white in a fantasy land where their magical powers and fighting abilities are more important than their skin color.
But diversity of more than skin color. It’s gender identity, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, disabilities and so much more. For more information about diversity check out the We Need Diverse Books tumblr and for more information about writing from a different racial POV check out Malinda Lo’s thoughts on the subject.