Color (or the Lack of It) at Comic-Con…And Beyond

The Comics Industry Continues to Struggle with Diversity

If I had to sum up the idea behind the huge pop culture Comic-Con convention of this past July in one word, it would be “diversity.” At least, this was certainly the undoubtedly noble goal that the comics world and its followers, from fans to experts, claimed to embrace.

As in most other creative industries, comics arts, and their derivatives in film, television, science fiction and gaming have been showing the signs of a culture dominated by a white male elite. From the comic book publishing industry to Hollywood and niche areas in entertainment, a uniform (read: white) group mans the gates and makes the top decisions. As a result, the content produced by the industry reflects that group’s likes, dislikes, and concerns, and leads to complaints over the lack of non-white heroes, heroines and role models in stories and on screens. In the national debate on race, the latter issue comes into play year after year.

Now that Comic-Con is celebrating its 40th birthday, the clamors for the Comic-Con committee and the industry at large to address the issue of diverse racial representation in its panels and media offerings, respectively, have become more strident. As a result, the word “diversity” peppers the press publications and program schedules for this year’s Comic-Con.

In response, messages from the Comic-Con management in the souvenir book Comic-Con: 40 years of Artists, Writers, Fans and Friends stress their efforts in this sphere. The book touts, ”the variety of interests,” of guests and emphasizes an “extensive and diversified program schedule” along with the “variety of Comic-Con” that “provides a diversity in programming and in items and sights in the Exhibit Hall that has no equal.” All in all, they claim to provide “an atmosphere that is welcoming and inclusive.”

Add to this the much-trumpeted notion of the Internet and its online social networks as a great equalizer, giving a voice to all, and it is easy to see how the still pertinent issue of race in entertainment can be swept under the rug with the message that “all is well, diversity is in good hands.” This line of thought seems to have been reinforced by the election of an African-American president and high profile appointments, such as Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, with some circles calling for a stop to the “obsession with race.”

Yet, when it comes to race, all is not well in Comic-land and in the entertainment world it inspires — a fact I was reminded of at Comic-Con at every turn. It was clear that some great minds are hard at work on improving the situation, but evidence of concrete change was hard to come by. Just take that very Souvenir Book and count the featured non-white “past Comic-Con office-holders and supporters” who have shaped the past 40 years, and you will see that one hand largely suffices.

As MIT Comparative Media Studies co-founder and 2009 Comic-Con attendee Henry Jenkins noted in a recent e-mail interview, progress in introducing diversity is being made, and the Comic-Con participants and attendees are more racially diverse than those at most of the fan conventions he attends.

“There were many small minority publishers in the dealers room though few of them will get broad distribution,” he wrote. “There are some significant recent efforts to foreground minority perspectives — see for example the Secret Identities collection of Asian-American superhero stories, or Bayou, which is a high profile project by an African-American creator dealing with black history and culture. In the mainstream, there has been a revitalizing of Marvel’s Black Panther franchise. But these are really token gestures in what remains an overwhelmingly white and male industry at least on the level of key creative decision-makers.” He does, however, note that an “increased number of the artists are Asian or Latin-American.”

The debate on diversity is cyclical, he concludes. Comics are neither more nor less open to minorities than other commercial media spheres.

Ethnic Caribbean actress and Star Trek star Zoe Saldana puts the lack of diversity more bluntly: “There aren’t enough African-American superheroes. Or Asian-American superheroes. Have you ever met a superhero named Juan Gonzales? I would kill for that.”

Perhaps part of the reason the world of comics is devoid of African-American and ethnic minorities is because as form of entertainment, comics do not come cheap; a single title retails from $15–18 in bookstores. The argument that the Internet and mobile media have increased access for all fails to factor in the cost of the expensive technological devices that many people cannot afford in the first place.

Judging by the entertainment and fandom-focused crowd at Comic-Con, it was clear to me that the comics world speaks to a privileged segment of society, reminiscent of the “closed golden cocoon” that Gary Shu G attributes to Ivy schools and privileged city enclaves in his August 5 Tech piece. On the plus side, this is a blessing for the comics industry, as only distant echoes of the current recession were audible at Comic-Con and the mood about the industry’s prospects was generally upbeat.

Suffice to say that the still muffled debate on race in comics is part of a larger nascent discussion on diversity in the creative popular arts that includes the representation of women, gender identity and sexual orientation. In all these areas, much still needs to be done.

To be fair, there were plenty of positive signs, which with nurturing have the potential to produce meaningful progress. Several Comic-Con panels were entirely devoted to the issue, such as “Four Color Reality: Making Comics Relevant to Readers Across Cultures,” which questioned whether the decline in sales of traditional-format comic books might be due to the divergence between the straight, white male American mainstream comic icons and an increasingly culturally diverse audience of readers. “Bridging Cultures through Popular Media” explored how comics’ stories can help break down misunderstandings between cultures, races and genders.

And as expected, manga, anime and other Far Eastern Asian cultures were strongly represented, as these genres have been enthusiastically embraced in Western popular arts. These become especially interesting when mixed with other cultures, such as the Japanese-Mexican love story of Ari Carrillo’s children’s film La Cecilia. Mexican and Latin American artists were also a significant presence, with Brazilian cartoonist Fabio Moon and Mexican comics legend Ramon Valdiosera among the guest speakers.

It was certainly encouraging to see a non-white figure among the judges of the Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival 2009 — Marc Bernardin. Among the upcoming offerings, of note is “The Cleveland Show,” the new spinoff from “Family Guy,” which now stars an African-American family. And Peter Jackson’s new science fiction film District 9, which focuses on a world in which extraterrestrials have become refugees in South Africa, should be very interesting for its overtones of Apartheid. Black Dynamite, to be released in mid-October, is intriguing for being a spoof of the “blaxploitation” film genre, itself a response to the “exploitation films” of the 1970s.

However, for all these islands of diversity, there are some worrying trends. Tripwire, Britain’s premiere comics culture magazine, compiled their 2008 “Power List,” containing the 25 people with “the greatest power to affect the genre industries as a whole:” “thought leaders” who “can make a difference” and “alter perceptions inside or even outside their markets.” The list is entirely white, with all but one male.

In the same vein, this year’s Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards made it clear who holds the power in the industry. Watching the presentation, I remember spotting on stage a lone African-American author. The rest was an entirely white affair.

In its program, the Eisner Awards described Comic-Con as an organization dedicated to comics and related popular art forms through events that “celebrate the historic and ongoing contributions of comics to art and culture.” Yet, aside from the “Best U.S. Edition of International Material” and “Best U.S. Edition of International Material — Japan” categories, diversity in ethnic cultures was ignored here, especially when considering that the vast majority of nominees and recipients in all categories were — with the exception of Japanese — representatives of Western culture.

Back at Comic-Con, The Cultural Shift panel, which covered strategies for teaching a course in comics, saw concerns raised over the lack of role model characters of African descent in the curricula texts. The response? “We are aware of the problem.”

Additionally, take the Black Panel, one of the main events dedicated to blacks at Comic-Con. As “Comics Waiting Room” columnist Vince Moore wrote in a searing review, the panel is but a shadow of its former, much more interesting self.

Initially, he wrote: “It was a gathering of a number of black comic creators and the panel itself was designed to speak to those fans of African American descent, to allow them an opportunity to speak with creators of color and learn the hows and whys and whats of creating comics.”

But over the years, he said, real debate has been replaced by flashy multimedia presentations, the sound of hip hop songs, and the questionable contributions from rappers and other guest music stars, with hip hop and rap becoming the sole reference points of African-American culture — as if contributions to other arts were nil. Moore also criticized African-Americans as too ready to oblige and conform to “white” cultural expectations.

One wishes that such nuanced issues of the race debate, in entertainment and popular arts as elsewhere, could be resolved with a chat over a beer in a rose garden. But I suspect it will take more arduous work from all sides to conduct this thorny conversation productively. It has certainly started at Comic-Con, but let us hope that it is not thrown in for good measure, then cyclically brushed under the carpet and forgotten until the next hand-wringing discussion on diversity.

So if the Black Panel organizers are keen to include hip hop in this comics convention, perhaps they could consider showing extracts from Snoop Dogg’s 2008 feature-length animated film The Adventures of Tha Blue Carpet Treatment, with himself and his partners-in-crime characters brought to life in funky graphics, music from the album, and cameos and guest voices from some of hip hop’s top stars — proof that African-American culture has creatively embraced comics material and the Comic-Con spirit as well as any other.