5 ways the comic industry could have done better than Iron Man

 

 

Marvel announced recently that the new Iron Man would be a black woman

 

In the past couple of years there have been a number of dramatic changes in the Marvel Universe.  As part of, what appears to be, Marvel's attempt to be more inclusive of gender and ethnic minorities, they have made some major changes to a few of their franchises.  The most recent of these franchises is "Iron Man".  Mainstream media and nerddom alike was inundated with chatter about the change.  Opinions ranging from pure delight to racist and sexist vitriol filled the fan pages and comment sections of periodicals.  My initial reaction was deliberate indifference.  I've gotten more and more out of the habit of reacting to such things as they happen, mostly because there is always a story behind the story.  I read through several articles on the topic and listened to all of the diversity champions on the topic, and I have to say, I was disappointed.  This gesture, at best, is a token one.  The new Iron Wo(Man) is the brain child of Brian Michael Bendis an acclaimed veteran comic artist, and a white man.  Which is not to say that black characters cannot be conceived of by white men, that's been happening for decades (Jim Rhodes, Power Man, Captain Marvel), but no details were offered about the art or writing team that would be working on this iteration.  It would be a little off if there were no artists of color working on this particular franchise now, if for no other reason than to avoid the "tone deafness" pitfall in any of the story.  And complete avoidance of this potential pitflall means, essentially, stripping out every aspect of a black representation except the skin color.  I agree with having positive representations of African Americans in various media, but part of the problem exists in the lack of representation within the means of production.  The absence of such gestures has me wondering why people are so happy about this announcement.  To my mind there are far more meaningful ways to achieve diversity in comics.  I've listed a few below:

1) Outright purchase of small market presses is not the most ideal way to go about increasing diversity in comics, but I am sure there are more than a few who would be interested in being bought.  This increases market presence in underrepresented markets and will increase readership for quality comics without sacrificing existing readership for existing franchises.  Further, it makes doing crossover issues less of a problem since all of the intellectual real estate is under one roof.

2) Hire artists from small market presses:  There are tons of talented artists working on their own publications. Many of them, largely, because they could not find work in any of the larger shops.

3) Hire writers that more closely resemble the characters you are trying to portray.  I am not going to say one way or another how people of other cultures are portrayed in comics, but generally pretty generic.  Why not remove the landmines by hiring people who represent the cultures you wish to portray.  It isn't a hard and fast rule, but the number of illustrators of varying ethnicities has grown exponentially in recent years. Back in the day comic art was not taken very seriously even by mainstream and people of varying ethnicities didn't participate much in the industry.  That has changed.

4) Actively yet quiety scout small press expos and book fairs- There are tons of comic fairs and small press events every years in the US.  Some of them move from state to state so there is always some local talent represented at these events.  I have been to the DC small press expo every year for about the last five years.  There are dozens of comic conventions where some of the more enterprising small press comics have tables set up.  I don't know if any of the large comic companies bother with this, but it doesn't seem so since I haven't seen much new stuff in recent years.

5) Do crossover events with small press characters.  There is some real effort involved in something like this, but if Marvel and DC and do a crossover with Image Comics, then they can do a crossover with almost anyone.  It spreads the wealth and good will to small press comics, and potentially creates an interest in a character that could become part of the larger stable for a big company.  

The point is not to be overly critical of Marvel for the step it has taken.  I do intend to be critical of people who appear to be so happy with this paltry move.  A lot of women were happy about the casting of the new Ghostbusters.  I was ok with it until I discovered that they were literally redoing the original story.  Then it felt like a hand me down.  I felt like I was getting duped because I would effectively be paying to go and see a film I already paid to watch a hundred times already.  Instead of being insulted by Hollywood's apparent lack of faith in their ability to carry a completely new franchise, or even storyline, they were offended by men's resistance to the idea of a Ghostbuster's rehash.  It didn't occur to most that Hollywood was hedging its bets by enshrouding them in a franchise whose success was intended to be built in.  Which is not to say there wasn't a lot of sexism being thrown about on the web, but most people, regardless of what side they were on, had some pretty misdirected anger.  

Having said that, isn't the same dynamic at work in the "Iron Man" franchise?  What about "Thor"?  Thought the gender swap in "Thor" was appropriate for historical and mythological reasons, nothing in the rollout told me that either the authors nor the readers understood why.  Shouldn't people (particularly women) be upset that a character is taking over an established franchise rather than having a new one created?  "Ms. Marvel" has been wildly successful.  I used to love watching Rogue, Psilocke, and Dazzler, in action in the "Uncanny X-men" and always hoped one or more of them would get their own comic.  Sometimes I even hoped that they would simply break off and form their own group.  Shouldn't everyone, men and women, be annoyed that Marvel has expressed so little faith in their audience?  Perhaps a day will come when diversity is encouraged as much behind the scenes as on the page.  And when it is on the page it is on fresh pages with fresh characters not a character being cynically used by Disney to reinvigorate a tired franchise.