Fun and Frustration With Marvel’s ‘Diversity Issue’
This week’s column didn’t really start with any real theme; I kind of wanted to talk about Kamala Khan, but I ended up feeling like I needed to say a few things about the “diversity issue” at Marvel. Since my feelings are decidedly mixed on the matter, it just kind of became a rambling thought piece. Hopefully, it’s an interesting enough read.
Creating something new in the modern comics environment is not easy. The comics industry has been in a steady decline ever since the speculation bubble burst in the 1990’s, and despite the fact that the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood these days are based on superheroes, this hasn’t seemed to have a dramatic change on the sales of actual comics. If it did, Iron Man would sell a hell of a lot more copies than it does.
There’s many reasons for why the industry is in a slow collapse. Readers usually spend more money to get less story, which makes it an expensive hobby. Comic sales mostly takes place in comic book shops, when they used to be in every magazine rack. There are fewer younger fans coming in, and Marvel and DC don’t seem to care about trying to reach them in meaningful ways. Would it kill them to run TV commercials? I don’t think so. Unless you’re already a comic book nerd, it’s hard to get into the actual comic books, especially since a sizable number of adult comic book fans don’t seem to be welcoming to new readers.
My point in saying this is that the primary customer base for comics is men from 25 to 45, primarily interested in preserving their nostalgia. As a group, they tend to stick with what they know instead of trying anything new. When’s the last time Marvel or DC actually put out a new book with a new hero with a new name and had success with it? Sure, Miles Morales has established a fanbase, but let’s face it; this isn’t new, it’s the old Spider-Man stuff with a new coat of paint. Would Miles have taken off if he wasn’t a legacy character bearing the name of Marvel’s most marketable hero? I don’t think so. The concept of Spider-Man is great, it’s something people want to be. Of course Miles was going to work, and of course Spider-Gwen was going to work. New spins on proven material usually do.
Speaking of new spins on old material; Kamala Khan. The new Ms. Marvel is one of my favorite characters to come along in decades. I loved getting to know her from issue #1 and was fully invested in her stories. Kamala very nearly qualifies under that “totally new” question, were it not for the Ms. Marvel name. She’s a Pakistani-American who struggles with balancing her family and friends, and her religion with being a 21st century American. And she’s a fangirl; any young reader is going to identify with the way she relates to superheroes because we relate to superheroes in the same way. She feels authentic and fully realized. But, at her core, she’s a young kid with an alliterative name who happened to get superpowers and has to balance being a superhero with her everyday life. Sound familiar?
I firmly believe that the main reason Kamala Khan worked so well is because of G. Willow Wilson. Kamala comes across as authentic because Wilson knows what life is like for Muslim American women, and is a very talented writer who knows her audience. Essentially, Ms. Marvel is what happens when a talented person with a unique point of view gets to write a book that reflects what they want to see in the superhero genre. It’s the same philosophy that kickstarted Marvel when Stan Lee got to create The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man.
The success of Kamala Khan and Miles Morales is, unfortunately, sort of the symbol of controversy in Marvel comics. There’s a lot of pushback by certain fans of Marvel’s push for more diversity in their comics. My opinions on this are somewhat mixed. If you’re the type of person who gets pissed just because there is a black Captain America or a female Thor, then I think you’re ridiculous. Sam Wilson as Captain America has been a good thing for Sam and for the Captain America brand, especially since Steve Rogers is still stuck being a sort-of-but-not-quite-maybe Hydra agent. When he reverts back to the Falcon, I believe he will be better for having been Cap in the same way being Batman was good for Nightwing.
That said, if you’re like me and don’t care for Riri Williams because having a fifteen year old child genius as “Iron Man” completely undermines the thematic point of Iron Man comics (the perpetually irresponsible and self-destructive man child trying to fix problems of his own making), I totally get it. Thematic overhauls can work (“Totally Awesome Hulk” is a lot of fun), but I don’t see Riri working in the long term. She’s just not that interesting at the conception phase, and really does seem like someone who’s around just so Marvel can have one of those “we value diversity” posters you see at work. This is when the push for diversity becomes annoying to me. Change just the sake of change is aggravating, especially if it comes at the expense of characters who aren’t stale, like Tony Stark.
For me, diversity is an admirable goal, but it requires more than just surface level “diversity for diversity’s sake”. Bendis having Iceman suddenly be gay doesn’t matter if that part of his identity doesn’t have an impact on his stories. Perhaps his new solo series will make this a worthwhile change, but for now it just seems like pandering. And pandering is annoying. If you’re going to have a character who is supposed to truly diversify your comics brand and provide new experiences, look at comics like J.H. Williams’ Batwoman, Ms. Marvel and the current Black Panther series. These series aren’t empty pandering; they are providing new, meaningful experiences for readers. Good storytelling will almost always win out; clumsy, half-baked ideas rarely do, no matter how well intentioned.
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What are favorite and least favorite aspects of Marvel’s push for diversity? What has worked, and what hasn’t? I encourage you to vent your frustrations in a respectful, thoughtful manner.