The insular world of comics

Illustration by Carl Robinette
Illustration by Carl Robinette

A key element in finding one’s love for comics has to be identifying the one character you relate to, one you aspire to and let them grow with you. As a double minority, I have had the honor of DC comics practically making it impossible for me to find a character or group  that speaks to me and other individuals who love comics but aren’t heterosexual, Caucasian males.

Since the mass reboot of the DC comic universe in August of 2011, fans have been divided on the treatment of minorities and women in the new fictional frontier. The reboot saw the cancellation of several monthly comics, and the introduction of 52 new comics featuring classic characters.

Nicknamed the DCnU, the reboot disrupted continuity by wiping away the majority of the last 20 years of character development across the company’s character stable. Superman, for instance, switched from a 30-something-year-old married journalist into a green reporter fresh out of college and single.

But, to be frank, I never cared about Superman. The “Man of Steel” has enough fanboys defending his marriage status and missing crows feet.

What I do care about is the white-washing and gimmicky traits that DC perpetuates in this new universe and the apathy held by many of its consumers.

“In the beginning I didn‘t see how…they would give a title to a secondary character like Mr. Terrific, just because for every 10 white guys in a title, we need one person of color,’” said Michael Freedman, owner of Comic Smash in Studio City, California. “The majority of my customers are young caucasian males and they weren’t as interested in reading about Mr. Terrific fighting crime.”

Freedman discussed Mr. Terrific, a black superhero, who is a stand out in the comic universe because of his status as one of the few genius supers of color. The character had been a favorite of Freedman for years, but even as a fan, the choice had thrown him for a loop.

I’ll give it to DC–Mr. Terrific is proof that DC isn’t completely blind to its minority clientele, offering to tell a story of a character that typically would not be featured. But by refreshing their universe, the company had a chance to tap into a little-explored market that could potentially tell a great story without the Caucasian hero hegemony.

It seems, however, that introducing one major character of color in the companies comics gave DC a reason to wipe away non-mainstream characters and alter defining traits.

“In the last three to four years, I’ve seen many minority characters killed off in favor of white, usually male, replacements in comics,” said Darren Thomas, manager of Earth-2 Comics in Northridge. “The creators seem to think that there is some sort of nostalgia for the originals, the ones that were created in the 1950s, and unfortunately they don’t reflect the present since all of them were white.”

DC universe characters that previously represented marginalized experiences are now being changed into the norm; Batgirl regained the use of her legs, despite a 20 year history as a paraplegic, and the Flash is no longer in an interracial marriage.

The portrayal of women in comics is also questionable. The already tiny number of female characters typically become victim to sexist tropes, such as unnecessary tragic events leading to a disability or death, typically to advance a male character’s story arc.

Having bought comic books for years, I have had female friends that show brief interest in comics, but instantly lose it after one bad experience at a store or a book that repelled them.

“A few years back, I  went to a comic shop looking to buy a paperback,” said Sarah Darnell, a registered nurse. “I got out after five minutes since the cashier ignored me when I asked questions and the one nice guy in the store suggested I buy a comic about a female villain called Bomb Queen. The character was allergic to clothes. I think the guy was making a joke.”

For Erika Baron, a senior biology major and member for the Matadors for Equality, comic books have been a enormous part of her life, though she acknowledges the mistreatment of ethnic minorities and women.

“Why do they have Wonder Woman dressed in a bikini? Why change her origin into a mess that relies on old sexist tropes?” Baron says. “When did it become okay to change her origin nearly seven times in her history while Batman and Superman remain the same?”

Baron refers to the most recent reboot in Wonder Woman’s history in “Wonder Woman Number Seven”, released this month, which twisted her origin story enough to make William Moulton Marston, the creator, spin in his grave.

Originally born into an isolated tribe of peaceful Amazons in the island of Themyscira, the latest issue depicts the tribe as women who raid passing cargo ships to seduce and kill all men on board. Pregnant, the Amazons keep the female children while offering the male counterparts to hell’s inhabitants.

It’s these quirks in the companies stories that set me off. While they may take a step forward with one character, they take a dozen steps back with an entire series.

Minorities still play second fiddle due to white consumer and production apathy, fulfilling only stereotypical or cliche roles in their own books at times. Female characters still seem to rely on gendered gimmicks to stand out, sporting stereotypical powers and impractical costumes.

Progress in the DC universe for minorities or women is receding in a world that wants a bit more than a interracial kiss or another worn out stereotype.

  • David the small-L libertarian

    I think what makes comics “insular” is that most of their adult fans are relegated to their parents’ basements.

  • Billyproctor

    While I agree with the majority of the argument – i.e, Superheroes=white, heterosexual males while the female heroes are scantily clad and hyper-sexualised – it is rather more complex than that. We have Midnighter and Apollo, hypermasculine homosexuals, Batwing, who is the first African to wear the bat mantle, and Batwoman, who is a strong lesbian female who does not wear a costume designed to thrill men everywhere. Minorities are represented in a minor way which may offer some rationale to why books like ‘Mr. Terrific’ have been cancelled: it always comes down to the bottom-line. Please don’t think that I am a right-wing ideolgue – I am a Marxist and strive for equality in all aspects of life and art. But I do think that DC have made a move in the right direction: Static Shock, Batwoman, Stormwatch, Teen Titans, Mr. Terrific, Batwing, Blue Beetle – these all represented ‘minorites’ like never before in the History of Comics. I agree, we ahve a long way to go, but it it a step forward. Oh, and by the way, completely agree with Dicke about Batgirl. What a waste of Oracle!

  • Hello, I am the fabulous Dickie and I must say, you are spot on about Wonder Woman’s rebooted origin.  I am a strong feminist and yet, as much as I am a fan of the powerful Wonder-Woman, her bikini outfit is the one thing that’s preventing me from purchasing an issue of hers, sadly.  I’m also bummed out about Babs as the original Batgirl out of the wheelchair, only because she incredibly stood out MORE as a paraplegic who didn’t let that itself or ANYTHING stop her and carried on as an ICONIC SUPERHERO!!!!!! Like, how can you get any more kick-ass than that?  To me, Babs as Batgirl is just “another one” now… As for the minorities, don’t get me started!

    I’ve released another VLOG about more recognition of LGBT superheroes, which I think is quite progressing in that rainbowlicious area! Here’s part two, if you’re interested! :D

  • In DC New 52’s Teen Titans, there is a gay superhero named Bunker who happened to be effeminate Mexican. While some of the progress in DC’s new comics is not very forwarding (such as removing Wonder Woman’s pants), it seems that as for gay & lesbian superheroes — there is tremendous progress. Check this video on LGBT Superheroes by my good friend @DickieHearts:twitter at 
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehvu7m_QTlc&feature=youtube_gdata_player and look out for his 2nd & 3rd videos on the same topic!