Race + Comics: When is Diversity ‘Contrived’?

By Arturo R. García. cross-posted from Racialicious.

Marvel Comics has spared no effort over the past few years to redefine its’ Avengers franchise as a cornerstone: even before Marvel Films launched the series of movies – Iron Man in 2008, and this year’s Captain America and Thor releases – to culminate in the team getting its’ own movie, the company has made sure the Avengers were at the center of its’ centerpiece stories like Civil War, Secret Invasion, Siege, and this year, Fear Itself.

“They’re the varsity. They’re the A-list,” Senior Vice-President of Publishing Tom Breevort told Comic Book Resources in an interview. “They’re the Man. They’re not about being super heroes because of demographics or ethnicity. They stand for something specific and occupy a certain role. If you don’t have some degree of that, then it doesn’t feel like Avengers.”

Unfortunately, an ensuing discussion of the criteria needed for a story to bear the Avengers brand went to some depressingly familiar territory.

Part of the interview covered failed pitches for Avengers stories. Brevoort explained that he had rejected ideas for a “1950′s Avengers” or a “Cosmic Avengers.” Another idea he shot down in two separate pitches was, he said, essentially “Black Avengers”:

It was “Let’s put all the African or African-American heroes together on a team for an adventure,” and in those cases too, there was nothing about the idea beyond “It’s a bunch of super heroes together” that said “Avengers” beyond the fact that “Avengers” is a term that’s salable. I think there’s something very specific about what “Avengers” means to the Marvel Universe.

Ideas based on retro and space-based teams have seen light at Marvel, in non-Avengers series like Agents of Atlas, Guardians Of The Galaxy and, more recently, Annihilators.And, as Breevort explained on Twitter, he has approved and edited at least one non-Avengers title featuring a group of heroes of color, The Crew.

But, as Marvel has taken pains to remind us, the Avengers brand is something else. So, could one assemble a 100% POC team – heck, let’s settle for 70 percent – that could suitably represent an A-list faction? For guidance, let’s use Brevoort’s reasoning for how the team featured in Secret Avengers “feels like The Avengers”:

Most of that is that the book was built around Steve Rogers, but also there are other characters like The Beast, who’s not associated with Avengers anymore, but he was for long enough where I can look at him and go, “Yeah, Avenger.”War Machine has never been associated with Avengers very much, but even in terms of his silhouette, he looks like he fits. Valkyrie is storied, having been around since the ’70s, so she’s close enough. She feels legitimate because she’s got history. Ant-Man may be a different guy in the suit, but the silhouette looks right. “Avenger!” There’s enough aggregate there that it feels like an Avengers group.

Hm. Let’s take Brevoort’s “aggregate” theory and see if it works with an Avengers-ish team featuring featuring heroes of color. Besides Cage and War Machine, you could feature:

  • Black Panther: One could use current Panther Shuri under the “surrogate” clause, or T’Challa, who has a long-standing association with the team.
  • Monica Rambeau: The former Captain Marvel was the leader of the Avengers at one point.
  • The Falcon: Long-time team member and partner to Captain America.
  • Patriot: The grandson of the original Captain America, as well as a member of the Young Avengers. If anybody was born for this kind of story, it’s him.
  • Storm: Before she married T’Challa, she was leader of the X-Men, and in canon, she’s one of the more respected members of Marvel’s superhero community.
  • Misty KnightColleen Wing: These NYC-based characters got some more attention in the Daredevil-centric Shadowland story, as well as the recently-revived Heroes For Hire series.
  • Living Lightning: A former member of the Avengers’ West Coast affiliate. The most underutilized gay character Marvel has right now.
  • Echo: Already featured in New Avengers under the guise of Ronin.
  • 3-D Man: Another ex-Avenger, the hero formerly known as Triathlon was given some shine during the Secret Invasion storyline, and will be part of the Agents of Atlas starting next month.

Easy-peasy, right? By Brevoort’s own vaguely-worded standards, there seems to be little reason a proper pitch featuring a PoC team couldn’t fly, right? Or, as blogger Son of Baldwin asked Brevoort on Twitter:

Here’s Brevoort’s response:

And where did this “law” come from?

What Brevoort doesn’t mention is that a comic-book company is perfectly suited to run a course-correction on whatever attitudes came from those “less-enlightened times,” because it deals with universes and characters of its’ own creation. For characters like Luke Cage, who was inducted into the franchise in New Avengers, that “something specific” Brevoort alluded to can be boiled down to the support of Brian Michael Bendis, who has been the primary Avengers storyteller since the Avengers Disassembled saga of 2005. Cage had been featured as a a supporting player in Alias, a mature-readers title about Cage’s eventual wife and teammate, Jessica Jones.But, because Bendis saw something worth exploring with the character, he wrote him to be recruited by Captain America and Iron Man, and developed into the leader of both his own team of Avengers and another team, the Thunderbolts.

So, Brevoort’s claiming history as a handicap, when his industry has been clinging to code words like “iconic” and characters who in some cases pre-date the Civil Rights movement, fails to inspire much sympathy – especially when one compares his saying that Marvel’s “mandate” is telling, as he put it:

With this response, posted less than a month ago, to a reader question about “people so concerned about lack of diversity in a comic”:

I don’t know who you are, obviously, but just based on your question I would posit that you’re a white male. I think you cannot overestimate the power that readers, especially younger readers, seeing a heroic character that resembles themselves, can have. For white guys like me, that’s easy–there are hundreds of them. Not so for almost any other demographic you might choose to name. That’s why, I think, people are supportive and even delicate with any character of a particular race or orientation or background. It’s a diverse world out there, and any time we can reflect that diversity in a meaningful way, it’s worth doing.

Once again, when it comes to diversity, it appears the “contrivances” appear when they’re most convenient for the comics industry, as it does for so many others: there’s not enough qualified candidates; the market won’t support it; that’s not our job. Which is why we keep getting line-ups like these to represent “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”:

Which Earth? Certainly not our own, no matter how much Marvel tries to convince us its’ stories “reflects” it.

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  • hcduvall

    Just because he’d be more likely to see it, I think that quote should be tweeted back to Brevoort.

    I don’t know if he’d hang with the Avengers, but Amadeus Cho is one of Marvel’s best new characters in years.

  • Andrew

    This Dwayne McDuffie interview on race and the make up of the super hero team is a must see.. He absolutely nails the “contrived all-white team vs. contrived PoC team” logic.

  • While I’d love more diversity brought to the forefront of the industry’s flagships, I also understand the trepidation therein. Certainly, arguments can be made towards either side of the aisle: the US (which is the largest audience for American comics) is predominantly white. Despite this, the music genre of rap is generally observed as an African-American product, supported by what I believe is most of those successful in this genre being black, the majority of rap music’s audience is white. However, because comic books were so chiefly stunted in the 50’s due to the ridiculous deviancy trials and that Americans are generally too narrow-minded to think as animation beyond kid’s stuff, the comic book audience is extremely small. Further, this audience is avidly against change. In other words, despite concepts coming from “less enlightened times,” fans generally want it to remain thusly.

    Of course, initiatives have been taken to alter this course but rarely have they been successful. Milestone comes to mind immediately, which despite the success of Static after its demise, it nonetheless died a horrible death. In the wake of Infinite Crisis, the League tried to become more ethnically diverse. However, this failed but the reasons are so numerous, it’s hard to distinguish the largest factor. Simply, many comic fans are paranoid and hate when writers try to push an agenda (at least in the wake of comics take on drug abuse in Spider-Man and Green Lantern/Green Arrow). McDuffie’s League had several members of color which caused the ire of fans that believed he was somehow trying to subvert the group’s image (laughable as that may be). Was that the reason the book failed? Maybe. Of course, it could have been the fact Dwayne was forced to take on whatever crap editorial forced him to put in the book which turned the audience off. However, much like movie execs, a maybe is powerful enough to change everything (especially now that the big 2 are controlled by gun shy companies that make a hefty chunk of business from films).

    At this point, comic companies seem to be taking steps backwards. After being burned on Rawhide Kid, Marvel seems to have no interest in putting gay characters at the forefront. DC, deep in their nostalgia kick, has been viciously murdering any changes in diversity, James Robinson seemingly their hitman- any growth for Lady Blackhawk and Huntress was thrown away to make Hal Jordan a greater stag, Tasmanian Devil turned into a throw rug, Jason Rusch is now paired with the original Firestorm, and Ryan Choi got a sword in the heart (the list goes on).