ALL THE NEWS THAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR …
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.
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.