For DC Comics, The “D” Now Means “Diversity”Posted: July 7, 2015
There is a lot of talk nowadays about diversity and representation in media, something that sometimes seems heightened in geek-centric pop culture that (more than most) has primarily only catered to straight white men/boys. And while there are many areas of geekdom that could still stand to improve in this area, one medium that is more and more leading the diversity charge is comics. The medium has seen a boom of diverse representation in the last few years, which in spite of the protestations of some hardline trolls is nothing but good news for both the artform and its audience. And while all of the major comics publishers have made great strides in these areas, perhaps the most stark change for me has been with DC Comics, who in many ways are running directly counter to what is expected of their brand to present diverse and original characters and series that everyone can (and should) enjoy. With San Diego Comic-Con set to kick-off on Thursday, I thought this would be a good time to appraise the comics industry for my fellow geeks, and DC’s diverse offerings seem like as good a starting place as any.
As much as the social pendulum has swung lately towards diversity and equality, there will always be those that fear the resulting change and how it will diminish their cultural influence. In the comics world it’s no different, and as far as DC fanboys go that means a fear that their white male GrimDark power fantasies will be replaced with books with “women” and “fun” in them. Yet despite having that core fanbase clinging to their product for dear life, DC has in the last few months introduced a wide variety of both new series and revamps of old ones that expand their storytelling brand in terms of both tone/style and diversity. For example, out of the 7 DC books I’m currently reading, there are four books with female leads, and of the three male-lead books, one is gay, one is bisexual and the other is black (one of the female leads is acknowledged as bisexual as well). And accompanying this diverse slate of leads — and creators too, it should be said — are wildly different creative approaches that allows each series to stand out on its own, compared to both the standard Superman/Batman fare and each other.
Batgirl (writers: Cameron Stewart & Brendan Fletcher, artist: Babs Tarr): Currently one of the gems of the DC lineup, the recent renovation of Batgirl is nothing short of a triumph. Tearing Barbara Gordon away from the tragic and omnipresent backstory of Alan Moore’s classic Killing Joke has breathed new life into the character, and has resulted in a comic that is as far from Batman tonally and stylistically as anything I’ve seen set in Gotham City. Combining an energetic, cartoonish art style from Babs Tarr with a much more modern, grounded (you could say Marvel-like) and youthful vibe, Batgirl feels very much like its own thing, without the shadow of Batman looming over it. It embraces and celebrates Barbara as the twentysomething postgrad with baggage that she is, acknowledging both her femininity and her flaws to make her a complete character who doesn’t feel like a knockoff of someone else. One of my favorite comics from any publisher right now, and one I will keep reading for a long time to come.
Black Canary (writer: Brendan Fletcher, artist: Annie Wu): Spinning out of Batgirl and written by one of that book’s writers, Black Canary has only just started but has smartly and quickly established its own voice. The road trip aspect and the music-centric background give a lot of definition to the series, and Dinah Lance is certainly a different sort of protagonist than Barbara Gordon. While Batgirl sees a hero trying to balance out her personal life with the heroism she chooses to pursue, Black Canary depicts Dinah as someone trying to strike out on her own, away from the costumed antics… but whose inner virtue keeps getting her into trouble whether she wants it or not, because it’s the right thing to do. Combine that with the hints of a supernatural Big Bad lurking in the shadows and the contained supporting cast yet to be fleshed out and Black Canary feels very singular as a series, and one worth exploring further.
We Are Robin (writer: Lee Bermejo, artists: Jorge Corona & Rob Haynes & Khary Randolph): Much of the diversity conversation in comics tends to revolve around gender, but race is also a huge area in need of improvement in the industry. Especially in light of events like Ferguson and Charleston, it’s important to recognize how essential representation can be in encouraging equality in society. All of that makes We Are Robin particularly timely, as it mixes an African-American lead (Duke Thomas) with an ethnically-eclectic cast in a very fresh take on Robin, reimagined here as a collective of social-media-enabled teens trying their best to protect their neighborhoods. This blending of modern protest movements and classic superhero sidekicks makes for a very different story than you’ve ever seen in a Robin comic before, and one that adds a great new collection of characters to the annals of Gotham history. Not to mention it depicts the ethnic mix that a major city like Gotham would obviously have but has never been seen here before, the sort of addition that every comic book would benefit from.
Catwoman (writer: Genevieve Valentine, artists: Garry Brown & David Messina): Much like Batgirl, Catwoman is a veteran, having begun this new creative direction around the end of last year. This new spin on Selina Kyle sees her seizing control of one of Gotham’s old-school mob families and attempting to direct organized crime in a way that will actually benefit her city. It’s an interesting approach to the traditionally morally-ambiguous Catwoman: have her commit to doing the right thing for Gotham, but also embrace the criminal side of herself in order to do it. This is a Selina Kyle that is less concerned with the costume and the whip and more concerned with making things better for others, even if it will cost her soul. And besides exploring Selina’s (now-bisexual) love life, writer Genevieve Valentine also acknowledges her femininity in the face of the brutality of organized crime using historical passages about women such as Elizabeth I and Lucretia Borgia. The Gotham underworld might ultimately be a man’s world, but Catwoman is unafraid to face it, fight it, and turn it towards her own ends; I’m excited to see where her journey takes her next.
Midnighter (writer: Steve Orlando, artist: ACO): Midnighter is notable for being (I believe) the first gay superhero to lead his own series, though thankfully this most recent volume of his adventures gives far more depth to him than that. On a character level, the series is mostly exploring the dichotomy between Midnighter’s enthusiasm for professional ultraviolence and his unease with and detachment from other people. The fact that Midnighter is gay is treated as inconsequential and depicted very matter-of-factly, much as the sexuality of straight heroes is treated in most other comics. It normalizes Midnighter’s sexuality instead of overplaying it, which is helped along by the otherwise heightened reality of the series overall. In reading the series, you find yourself following the story of an emotionally-unavailable, sexually-open, peerlessly deadly superhuman anti-hero. What genitalia his lovers carry is perfectly, thankfully irrelevant to the actual narrative, and that’s really how it should be.
Constantine: The Hellblazer (writers: James Tynion IV & Ming Doyle, artist: Riley Rossmo): There was something of an uproar a few years back when DC cancelled the long-running Vertigo Hellblazer series so John Constantine could be moved into the DCU proper, but with this new take on the classic occult expert fans both new and old should be happy. In just one perfect issue we cut to the core of who Constantine is: a tortured and bitter guy who tries to do the right thing, even if his particular methods leave everyone around him either dead or betrayed. The art here is a huge factor too, as it captures the dingy and haunting atmosphere one would expect to find around the likes of Constantine. And on the diversity front, they’ve taken the vague past references to Constantine’s bisexuality and embraced it fully. As in Midnighter, it’s depicted very directly and without fanfare; it’s a seamless part of Constantine’s character, someone who appreciates what (momentary) beauty and comfort and release he can find with another person, be they man, woman or demon. Constantine promises to be the darkest book of the bunch, and all the better for us that it is.
Prez (writer: Mark Russell, artist: Ben Caldwell): This series is a very odd duck in the DC lineup, primarily because it doesn’t actually take place in the DC Universe. Prez is a revamp of a cult DC series from the ‘70s about a teenager becoming President of the United States. In this new iteration of the concept, we see 17-year-old Beth Ross elected President by Twitter after she features in a viral video. The series seems to be a classic bit of over-the-top science-fiction satire, with internet culture, Anonymous, corporate personhood and more being laid to waste just in the first issue. It’s also worth noting that in this not-too-distant future, the fact that Beth is a girl isn’t even the shocking, nonsensical part of the story. Prez focuses purely on her age and the circumstances of her celebrity as the points of absurdity in the story, even though by the 2030s during which this series takes place there still might not have been a female President. Prez is a very random inclusion in the DC lineup but also a very welcome one, that brings an incredibly sharp political edge to a collection of books that are already more than a little progressive in their composition.
It occurs to me that there must be a reason I’ve been drawn to such a diverse and non-status-quo selection of books, and while some of it just comes down to the creativity in each book’s concept and execution I do feel there’s more to it than that. I wonder if maybe, after reading so many years’ worth of Batman stories (featuring a straight white male protagonist that I can easily see as a power fantasy for myself), I’ve become bored by that particular take on the archetype. Maybe I want to see stories that are not just different on a conceptual, elevator-pitch level, but that also provide different perspectives and different appearances into my artistic wheelhouse. These sorts of considerations are something that some of my fellow geeks would do good to embrace, rather than fight, because in their stubbornness and insecurity they really don’t know what they’re missing.