Comics: @DCComics and @Marvel Will Not Hire Black Writers. You Know Why! [@hannibaltabu]

ALL THE NEWS THAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR …

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To paraphrase Kanye West, “the comics industry doesn’t care about Black people!”

To the casual observer, that might seem the case. Books with Black leads are embarrassingly rare, or filled with cultural land mines that rob them of authenticity. The common perceptions of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, be they from the Mouse House of Ideas or from (as Bill Jemas once called it) “AOL Comics,” are almost uniformly white (neither Martian Manhunter or John Stewart count, despite heroic work by Carl Lumbly, Phil Morris and the late great Dwayne McDuffie to make us believe otherwise).

This is not news, nor is it a secret. Marvel executive Tom Brevoort is famously quoted talking about why comics are so lily white on the page (even as people like Spider-Woman ended up on panel despite not being “traditionally” considered “Avengers”). In a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, when asked what happened to the post-Grant Morrison New Gods, who were all Black at one point but then became slowly paler, writer Brad Metzler said, “Sometimes artists just draw white people.” Quick note: DC and Marvel represent 70% of the comics sold in the United States, sold to the audience with more disposable income than any other in the world, therefore a bonanza to advertisers and licensing professionals everywhere.

What is, apparently, becoming news is a behind-the-scenes issue: hiring. A Black History Month article by Joseph Hughes at Comics Alliance spotlighted the fact that there are no Black writers working in “mainstream comics” (defined “DC and Marvel,” home of the world’s most recognized comics characters). Unlikely inspired by this slightly earlier blog from writer Cheryl Lynn, Hughes’ piece led to coverage at The Beat and from various others. It became message board and comment thread fodder, with conjecture and inductive reasoning positing one viewpoint or another.

Let’s run some numbers here. The last Black writer at Marvel was Reginald Hudlin, who left without fanfare in August 2009. The last Black writers at DC were Eric Wallace and Marc Bernardin, two television writers who were unceremoniously dropped in a slate of cancellations (Bernardin even commented on the struggles of Black writers in comics). Before Hudlin, screenwriter and actor Kevin Grevioux contributed The Blue Marvel to the canon, a character so ridiculously powerful that it’s hilarious to have him on the sidelines through most of Marvel history, and then … years of nothing. DC briefly had screenwriters Felicia Henderson and Angela Robinson, but neither lasted very long. These numbers may seem spurious, but luckily there’s always hard data, thanks to this Google document showing that only twenty Black people have ever written more than one issue for, again, seventy percent of the marketplace.

Not “twenty Black people in the last ten years.” Not even “twenty Black people in the last twenty years.” That’s twenty Black people ever. Sure, you can bring up segregation for part of that period, but still. Even the ones who have gotten hired have not exactly had the best experience.

The response from DC and Marvel to this flurry of pointed fingers and bad press? Squat. Their shareholders are silent on the issue of hiring diversity. Their revenues, buoyed by event-driven publishing and curious audiences from recent cinematic successes, are at a level they don’t need to panic over.

A NEW HOPE

Now, let’s not believe there’s no Black people working in comics (and by no means believe that this will be a comprehensive listing). Dark Horse’s eight dollar anthology, Dark Horse Presents has published more Black people in the last two years than the rest of the industry has done in the last ten. To whit …

  • Television writer Geoffrey Thorne and his creative partner Todd Harris on Journeymen
  • Actress Erika Alexander and her brother Robert on Concrete Park
  • David Walker and Robert Love on Number 13 (now its own series)
  • Sanford Green on Rotten Apples (also a standalone now)

… plus likely more in the works, as the word has gone out that Dark Horse is listening to voices of color.

Likewise, Image comics has one-man franchise Jimmie Robinson, with his ongoing set of villain-based mini-series Bomb Queen, while Enrique Carrion’s Vescell tells a story of magic and science mixed with noir. Image brought out Mario Gully’s Ant as well.

DC’s “art house label” at least has opened the door for the hip hop retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Prince of Cats, graphic novels Sentences and Incognegro and a brief run for Selwyn Seyfu Hinds and Denys Cowan on Dominique Leveau, Voodoo Child. In the 1990s, DC was, of course, the home of Milestone Comics, which brought the world Static Shock.

This is without even getting into the “independent” comics world, with brilliant work like “Thundercats” writer Brandon Easton’s vampires-meet-mecha graphic novel, Shadowlaw or IDW’s Jinnrise alongside many more.

Building an audience outside of the “big two” seems the smartest move for people of color, escaping the hegemony of Diamond Comics Distributors and the curation of ComiXology. Stores like Los Angeles’ Eso Won Books or Houston’s Shrine of the Black Madonna won’t make Diamond’s minimum orders, so you won’t see “mainstream” comics on their shelves anyway. Begging for a spot at Marvel or DC’s table doesn’t only seem quixotic, it hasn’t borne much fruit for more than the twenty.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Don’t get the wrong idea: Black people are just elated that more white people are finally recognizing something Black writers and fans have known since … well, pretty much forever. Waiting for “The Black Panel” in San Diego, over drinks at The Nappy Hour, at ECBACC, in Facebook groups, heck all the way back to MySpace blogs, Black writers and fans have noticed not getting hired, wondered about not being hired, asked each other why hirings weren’t happening, argued about how to get hired or why it wouldn’t happen and so on. The idea that somebody else is tuned in, well, that’s just plain ducky. However, most Black people are realistic enough to know that won’t lead to Dan Didio or Axel Alonso approving any new vouchers heading to the south sides of most cities and towns anyway. So, thanks?

At the end of the day, as this writer’s grandfather used to say, “white folks gon’ be white” (which doesn’t have to be a bad thing) and while there is merit to the idea of speaking truth to power to demand equity (even, as far as some have suggested in maybe even using legal pressure to get the companies to apply the Rooney Rule), it’s just as smart to have a plan that doesn’t rely on the largesse of others for one’s own success. For fans, the type of “don’t buy where you can’t work” campaigns that newspapers like the Los Angeles Sentinel and the California Eagle put forth might not have an immediate impact on who’s behind the word processor, but it can at least direct more of those monies towards independent venues where you know they value hearing voices of every shade.

Sure, “the comics industry doesn’t care about Black people,” but given how things go in so many other places, it might be better to be invisible than insulted.

We shall overcome.

Someday.

Hannibal Tabu is, at best, a raving jackass. Father, fan, son, published poet, husband, journalist, brother, web producer, weekly comic book reviewer since 2003, author of the novels The Crown: Ascension and Faraway (both just five dollars) and all around internet gadfly. For more information, visit his virtual clocktower, The Operative Network.

[Source: Kickstarter, Wikipedia (animated series and comic strip), Teletraan 1, ComicMix]

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Comments

  1. Writing style question: why do you always capitalize Black and not white?

    • Habit?

      • Hannibal…Habit? priceless! I mean of all the things brought up in this article, to ask that question is hilarious.
        But on another note, I am not sure how to feel about this. The very idea that white people won’t watch black people or listen to or read what black people produce in the fields of entertainment has been debunked many times. If not for suburban white kids and their parents, there would be no hip hop industry as we know it today or NBA, or NFL,or MLB and I could go on. I mean, Justin Bieber is the new age version of Elvis Presley. The black cultural aesthetic sells because it is still stupidly considered to be exotic, slightly dangerous and different. Oh yeah, it’s also pretty damn good. If as wellokthen believes, they are afraid of portraying black people in a bad light, in 2013, they are simply impossibly lame. I watch Family Guy and Cleveland and so do plenty of black Americans and other colors of Americans do too. Those shows take plenty of chances shaking things up risking insulting people of color. Family Guy is especially good at. Tell me again, what’s Marvel’s and DC’s excuse.

        • I don’t believe they’ve bothered to offer one.

          The Black audience is not even important enough for them to do so, despite being confronted with this question, in person, at conventions FOR YEARS.

  2. ThePaleKing74 says:

    “Their revenues, buoyed by event-driven publishing and curious audiences from recent cinematic successes, are at a level they don’t need to panic over.”

    True, but comic sales have been bleeding since the 90s, and if Marvel and DC followed the rules they set for sales pre-internet, most of the books in their lineup would be cancelled. I think the ending of your article hits the nail on the head: it’s just a matter of time. Most of DC and Marvel’s current crop of writers they poached from indie projects over at Image or some other small press (Hickman, Fraction, Layman, Lemire…to name a few), so the fact that black writers are finding work at Image or Dark Horse means it’s just a matter of time until these current writers cycle out of the big two for more lucrative deals with Image (which is finally becoming the powerhouse company it aspired to be when it was founded 21 years ago). Then again, Marvel and DC have always been incestuous, old boys networks: Bob Harras especially, considering he’s hired alot of people that worked under him at Marvel in the 90s, when superhero comics hit their nadir. So who knows?

  3. P. Scarnel says:

    Unlike virtually all other mainstream media, comics are still largely written by throwbacks and neanderthals. With women, they can get away with their antideluvian attitudes and insulting portrayals and they delight when the blogger girls get all outraged and chew them out on Twitter. With African-Americans they figure they’ll get their asses kicked. So rather than risk bad, culturally offensive portrayals you get no portrayals.

    • wellokaythen says:

      I think there’s something to this. These companies may be oversensitive to charges of racism, so they may try to avoid portraying African Americans, because almost any portrayal could be interpreted as racist in some way. There’s a lot less outrage directed at a non-portrayal than at a negative portrayal. Hire a few black writers/artists, and then you’ll also be accused of tokenism.

      The good news is that even though Marvel and DC/AOL/Time Warner/Disney/Microsoft/General Motors/Pepsi/ExxonMobil are still powerhouses, they are not the only game in town.

    • @ P. Scarnel you haven’t the slightest clue as to what you’re talking about but I’m guessing you must be very proud of how self righteous you sound. I haven’t heard a man this arrogant about his ignorance since George Bush left office…Bravo sir.. Bravo.

  4. Nerdbattleraps says:

    The DIY fringes is the only place to look for minority writers. If I may give a shout out, my favorite web comic book, Geek Zodiac is written by James Wright, a talented black writer. Thegeekzodiac.com

  5. wellokaythen says:

    This’ll sound like a silly question, but please consider it: How do you know whether a writer is Black or not?

    Is it just by looking at all the photos of all the faces of writers and seeing that they look “white,” whatever that means? Is it just one of those things where “it is known, khaleesi”? Is it the fact that there are so few dark-skinned comics characters?

  6. Tony Bedard says:

    As a 20 year veteran of the industry, I was going to write a thoughtful reply to your article until I got to:

    “white folks gon’ be white” (which doesn’t have to be a bad thing)

    Thank you for pointing out that the color of my skin doesn’t HAVE to be a bad thing. I had almost given up hope.

  7. I meant no offense, especially to you, as I’ve enjoyed your work since you were at CrossGen.

    I was often told this Malcolm X quote: “All of them aren’t guilty. But most of them are.” I know lots of fantastic people of every shade and ethnicity in comics. None of them are in a position to hire anybody, white, Black or plaid. Some of the people in question here … well, they are what my grandfather (a man who’d lived through a world war, segregation, integration, seen lynchings and more) wanted me to be careful about. Stranger danger, as it were. I was not, and would not, think such a thing of the man who gave me Obregon Kaine.

    I sincerely apologize if you were offended, sir.

    • Instead of making theses subliminal racist comments at “white folk” mixed with overt threats of boycotts, how about focusing more on promoting your product instead. Maybe you should try taking your appreciation for these writers on to YouTube like Grace Randolph or Comicbookgirl19 did for female centered story lines.

      Your job is to make escapisms that transcends race, and not to brow beat your future customers because the moment they start to roll their eyes at your lectures.. well guess what? You’ve lost their business and they are not coming back. Even if you do believe that the industry is fundamentally unjust it’s your responsibility to build relationships with the powers that be by projecting some semblance of what a mutually beneficial business strategy would look like for black writers and the big2.

      Salesmanship, Tact and Optimism: 3 characteristics of good writers that were desperately missing from this article. From one black man to another you need to let that defeatist mentality go.

  8. David Atchison says:

    This “Actress Erika Alexander and her brother Robert on Concrete Park” is inaccurate. The book is written by Tony Puryear. Not only is he Black, but he’s also the first Black Screenwriter to cross the 100M mark for a film. He’s probably the most successful Black Writer in Comics today if we’re talking money made in all mediums of writing.

  9. There is a pattern, easily discernible and wholly consistent over the last 70 odd years of superhero comics as made by the so-called BIG TWO.

    Marvel wins on diversity in its output. DC has years, a good couple decades at least, of climbing out of the sewer it dug for itself vis a vis non-whites, homosexuals and females in their product.

    In terms of hiring, they both get a big fat F multiplied by 70 years.

    No matter what anyone SAYS, what they do is what matters.

    In their history they have, together, hired roughly 20 black writers. EVER. That’s a gut-wrenchingly awful ratio and everyone in charge of not changing it should heartsick and ashamed. But they aren’t. Not even close. They would rather not be bothered with silly questions of diversity. They would like us all to just shut up and buy. And, frankly, that’s exactly what most comics fans do. Black or white. Gay or straight. Female or Latin. Asian or native. And so there’s no reason for the status to stop being quo.

    Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The other half of the industry, the so-called “indies,” can’t afford to operate like a good-ol-boy fraternity. They have bills to pay and no multinational conglomerates to underwrite their failure to actually compete.

    A flat field serves the best runner. So, while I understand the need for the youngsters who desperately want their chance at Thor or the Bat, if those kids are black and they write, rather than draw, I’m telling them not to waste their time.

    “Come over to where the track is less bumpy, kids. You don’t need them and they don’t want you.”

    Seems like a win-win if everybody just acknowledges that fact and gets on with what they do leaving each other alone.

    And it is a fact.

  10. David Atchison says:

    No worries, Hannibal. FYI, Tony and Erika are married ;-) They write together as a team on some projects. So she didn’t like. She did write it.

  11. Good article Hannibal, glad you’re talking about it and glad we’re all talking about this. It shouldn’t be for just this month but every month.

    For the record, I write, draw and color Concrete Park. My wife, Erika Alexander and her brother Robert Alexander, two talented writers in their own right, co-created the series and Erika has co-written installments of CP in Dark Horse Presents.

    You’re right about the indies, Hannibal, they have to compete, they have to try harder, and their results vis-a-vis diversity, while not great, still put the big two to shame.

    I’m a big believer in affirmative action to change the complexion of big institutions, whether it’s baseball, colleges or whole businesses. Big institutions don’t change on their own. They must be persuaded or forced to take positive steps. Mainstream comics will change when people of color and women are an integral part of an active recruitment effort to find more diverse voices. When a Marvel or a DC says “we just don’t have that many black women coming through the door”, it’s our job as consumers and fans to make sure the big two go out and LOOK for them.

    I want to emphasize that affirmative action means US, too. Those of us reading this article and writing these comments have a role to play, too.

    As a black comics creator, I believe it’s incumbent on people like us to speak in high schools and colleges,to hit ‘em where the big two aren’t looking, to meet, influence and encourage young comics creators of color. Team Concrete Park just got back from the Central American nation of Belize. Though Belize is poor, it’s an incredibly beautiful place with a colorful, ethnic gumbo of a population. We held a series of comic book clinics and sponsored a nation-wide comics competition there. The First Prize in the competition went to a shy, 13 year-old girl of African-Belizean descent. The Second Prize was won by a high-school-age young man who emigrated to Belize from China only a year ago. Third Prize was won by a trio of high school girls of Mayan descent. Talk about a gorgeous mosaic. I’d hire any of these kids, their entries were that good. And this in a country where they don’t even SELL comics regularly.

    I mention this all because I believe the talent and the desire is out there. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in schools both here and overseas. We will have to make the big two do more to reach out to diverse new voices. We will also have to do more ourselves.

    Who’s down?

    • “Big institutions don’t change on their own. They must be persuaded or forced to take positive steps”

      There is so much wrong in this statement… Will the purchasing of the end product be done by force too?

  12. Tony…What you say has merit,however,this is a new age that may require multiple approaches to solve this problem.As you say there are some talented people out in the world that just lack a voice and resources. This industry is dark and ready for a new light to shine,for new stories to be told,for a page to be turned.There is The Rock,Vin Diesal,Rihanna,Beyonce and other cartoon like, larger than life characters that are templates for other yet to be developed characters.The seeds have been planted,America is ready.Will Smith and son’s sci-fi movie will be a barometer of Americam= acceptance of “colored” fantasy heroes.

  13. Tony…What you say has merit,however,this is a new age that may require multiple approaches to solve this problem.As you say there are some talented people out in the world that just lack a voice and resources. This industry is dark and ready for a new light to shine,for new stories to be told,for a page to be turned.There is The Rock,Vin Diesal,Rihanna,Beyonce and other cartoon like, larger than life characters that are templates for other yet to be developed characters.The seeds have been planted,America is ready.Will Smith and son’s sci-fi movie will be a barometer of America’s acceptance of “colored” fantasy heroes.

  14. You can’t make them do anything. Period. It’s a pipe dream.

    Seriously. There is NOTHING the public can do except hit them in the wallet, which they- black, white, gay, straight, whatever- will NOT do. We know that because this issue is older than ALL of us and I’m middle aged. If anything was going to be done, it would have been. The fans- black, white, gay, straight, whatever- have made their collective decision. They do not care about this, not enough to do anything real, and thus the Big Two need not care either. So they don’t.

    This is big kid time: time to face an ugly reality which you cannot effect and make grown-up decisions about how to proceed. Hint: It is not towards the Big Two.

    You aren’t dealing with the US government. This isn’t a civil rights struggle. There’s no law being broken. No shame being felt nor empathy. There isn’t even sound business sense at work because it isn’t required. Closed loop with us outside. For nearly a century. Get the message. It’s fairly clear.

    You, we, have ZERO leverage to exert on either DC or Marvel and it’s ridiculous, after all this time, to pretend we do.

    Wake up.

    And rise.

  15. I never knew the skin color of anybody who wrote or drew any of the comics I read. Nor did I care.

    Still don’t, and don’t see any reason to. I also don’t seek out movies directed by Asian-Americans, or fantasy anthologies edited by women, or TV shows directed by homosexuals. I don’t avoid them, and I don’t do research to find out which ones are or aren’t. It simply doesn’t matter.

  16. Chriscross says:

    The best way to make a dent and make a mark that gets the big 2′s attention is simply to come up with a concept that grabs their attention so much that it starts to affect M and DC’s wallets. That has to be a combination of marketing acumen and great concept. No one is ever going to boycott them unless they are horribly offended.
    Sooooo….

    Lets get to work on that, my bruvvuhz.

    /:-)

    • Alex de Campi says:

      Yeah, I agree with Chris Cross. The big two aren’t going to do shit until they see writers coining it like Kirkman. But Hannibal: great article.

  17. The comments for this article are so far, for the most part, a good supplement to the article itself.
    A lot of good ‘eff Marvel/DC’ and ‘don’t waste your time trying to eff Marvel/DC’ points, here.
    I love comics, and I hate racism almost equally. That’s a lot, so I’m struggling with how best to contribute here.

    My first impulse is to vent, to remember that the early 90s was not where I learned that comics could be cool, but where I learned that white people were lame, comics were lame, and that lame white people read comics. I want to move forward from that, I do, but it would be dishonest not to start there.

    It would be dishonest not to admit that I, like a lot if not most white 80s kids, still tense up around black people, not because they don’t trust them, but because they don’t trust themselves not to offend them. Tense when they show up, relieved when they leave, that’s the same result for the opposite reason. Worse, and I’m guilty of this to, is that, even if you trust yourself to treat them respectfully, you still don’t assume you can treat them equally. You read the statistics, that black people are still disproportionately ‘ghetto,’ you know it’s wrong, you know something should be done, but you also assume that the next black person you see won’t be able to talk about anything but sports or partying. You assume you can’t criticize them too much because they had to work harder for less.

    I don’t want sympathy for this position, not even empathy. I want other white people to suck up their guilt and stop spitting out pity. I want black people to read and make comics because I want EVERYONE to read and make comics because comics are the best.

    I don’t want anyone to pay for marvel or dc comics because that money is better spent elsewhere, even when they manage to bring in writers that are too good for them (I’m guilty there, too, and I’m sorry.). That the top brass at the big two are greedy cowards is not news, but it never hurts to refresh the resolve of the independents. 30% spread a million ways is terrible, but it’s better than the nothing we had until just a few decades ago.

  18. wellokaythen says:

    There’s probably no economic feedback that the Big Two are getting that tells them they need to hire more black writers and have more black characters. If black readers keep buying superwhite comics and keep talking about their comics and keep going to the comicons and keep the buzz alive, then there’s not much incentive to change. An organized boycott, combined with some marketing figures, might get them to change their tune. As would some high-profile fandom of black-produced comics from outside the U.S. (Some African immigrant artists in Europe are doing good work, and probably some good comic stuff going on in the Caribbean, Latin America, etc.)

    There just doesn’t seem to be the social pressure there was in the early 1970’s with the Black Power and Black is Beautiful movements, embodied in Power Man, The Falcon, etc.

  19. The thing is, if you did it well enough to blow up like Robert Kirkman, what the hell do you need Marvel or DC for?

    I honestly don’t understand the need in so many writers to focus their efforts this way. Artists, yes, because THEY can and do work for both companies regardless of skin color, gender or gender pref.

    But writers? Why in God’s name would you try to climb that mountain of razors only to find out you never had a shot in the first place?

    The best SUPERBOY story EVER written is INVINCBLE, an IMAGE comic owned by its creator.
    The best SUPERMAN stories ever written were in the SUPREME run by Alan Moore. Also Image.
    More films based on comics are based on INDIE comics that those of the Big Two.

    Dream bigger than being just one more person to do a few Superman stories.

    Write your OWN things. OWN your own output. Build your own house.

    And LIVE in it.

  20. wellokaythen says:

    Anything is possible in comics. If the industry can produce an Archie/Punisher crossover comic, it can do anything…..

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