When I was 10 years old I loved the X-Men. I devoured the comic books, covered my room in character-themed curtains and a bedspread and watched the cartoon version every Saturday morning. The entire concept fascinated me and while other superheroes felt over-the-top and ridiculous, I believed the X-Men were real. I indulged myself in deeply intricate fantasies about discovering my own hidden powers and being rescued from my boring and isolated life. I never managed to keep real friends and so the characters in the comic became my companions and confidants. I identified most with Rogue. I always found her story fascinating and sad. Unable to be touched, she had no other power of her own. She only absorbed the powers of others.
Later as a teenager I sat fixated on the giant screen in a movie theater next to my dad and watched what I believed was a reflection of my own life. The first X-Men movie, 2000, was exciting and deeply impactful all at once. The storyline featured people born into regular families and discovering around puberty amazing powers often frightening everyone around them. Those that could hide did, the others ran away and joined underground communities where they could be themselves. A scientist with a mutant son discovers a ‘cure’ and offers it to the public. Mutants line up around the block to receive their cure while others loudly protest.
The theme was about the battle between accepting who you are despite the world fearing and despising you or hiding in the shadows or worse, trying to change everything about you to fit in. At that time in my life, nothing was more emotionally powerful to me. Other gay people have this same memory as I do, and I have run into many who shared it with me with some surprise. Most other people I have talked to about this experience have reacted in confusion at that interpretation. It seems being gay so dramatically altered my worldview that I was capable of watching an entirely different movie from everyone else and not even realize it.
In the last few years the comic book industry has become obsessed with the notion of shining a light on the most diverse characters imaginable. In what has been a religious crusade to spread the good news of diversity, they have been completely unwilling to listen to their own fanbase. When Marvel’s Vice President stated in April 2017 that, “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity,” and backed up his claim with declining sales, the media exploded in outrage. From arguing that the decline was the result of a lack of diverse creators, to accusing Marvel of racism, the underlying reality of the situation was lost.
Gabriel, Marvel’s VP, stated, “We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against. That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked.” To which The Nerdist, responded, “When it’s time to blame someone, go for anyone who isn’t a straight white man.” But, of course, the actual issue is far more complicated.
To begin with, the progressive idea of ‘diversity’ is little more than cosmetic, symbolic and often, stereotypical. It is rarely that a character is revealed to have a unique backstory as much as their minority status is the story itself. As the pop culture site, Cracked, described it, “Hey, it’s not all white dudes! Isn’t that swell. Yay, diversity! You did it, slugger. You’re progressive now… The Law of the Office Stock Photo dictates that people should be happy just because diversity is there on the surface level.” It is the notion that lacking the visual representation of various minority groups is, in effect, excluding those minority groups intentionally. In order to be inclusive, you need representation.
Strangely, those claiming comic books lack diversity seem to have ignored the last few decades of actual comic books. The X-Men, for example, featured characters from across the globe, each with a unique and fascinating power to contribute to the overall story. My second-favorite character to Rogue was Storm, born to an African princess with the power to control the weather. The Marvel universe was profoundly diverse in both ethnic and character backstories. The difference was, back then we did not care about the racial make-up of our favorite heroes.
In the same way, female characters occupied as much space in the comic books as male characters did. They were not mere eye-candy either. Each had a unique story, power and strong personality and will. As a child it never occurred to me that gender played any particular role in the story at all. The characters worked as a team, were complicated, often both good and evil and were generally confident and funny. Nearly all characters, male and female, had impossible bodies with overly sexualized clothing.
The difference between a traditional female character and a modern female character is that the modern version’s purpose is she is female and that alone is supposed to sustain interest. We are supposed to view a female character as empowering, inspiring and fascinating based solely on her gender and the sheer audacity of her being put in the comic in the first place. Race is viewed the same way. When feminist Roxane Gay’s Black Panther series was canceled by Marvel, Alex Abad-Santos of Vox reacted by saying “The decision to cancel both of these titles will no doubt ignite the perpetual debate over Marvel’s commitment to diversity in its stories and comic books. Canning two books that feature black characters seems egregious…” The real reason was dramatically poor sales.
Another example of attempting to force diversity came in a transgender superhero named, Chalice. Chalice’s power seems to be his ability to transform into a female superhero who can control gravity. Gizmodo introduced the character saying, “Although superhero comics are getting better at representing heroes of all creeds, there are still so very few transgender characters in comics, whether that’s in supporting roles or as heroes themselves. AfterShock Comics wants to change that for the better with the introduction of Chalice.” Sadly, transgender activists slammed the comic for failing to represent transgender characters as they preferred and for not having a transgender creator or writer.
In an article titled, Every Single One of Marvel’s GLAAD Award-Nominated Comics Has Been Cancelled, Gizmodo lamented that several comics featuring LGBT main characters was being canceled. As quoted, “This year, a number of Marvel’s comics were recognized for the contributions they’ve made to queer culture, but those nominations were bittersweet for one incredibly disappointing reason: They’ve all been cancelled.” The article admits that the reason behind the cancellation is purely business related. The comics themselves were simply not making money for the company. But argues they should have been given additional time to thrive based solely on their ‘contribution’ to ‘queer culture.’
Vox argued, “There are also a lot of bad books featuring white male characters that live on the bottom of the comic book ecosystem, but retailers don’t up and tell Marvel to stop making white male characters because their books don’t sell.” Complaining that book sales and fan interest alone shouldn’t determine a comic’s success, Vox stated, “There needs to be an honest conversation about balancing the sales potential of diverse comic books and the value of said books.”
Finally, in another article, Vox argued that the real problem is in how people buy comic books in the first place. It seems publishers value pre-orders far more than purchases online or in a store. Vox stated, “There’s no question that Marvel could do a better job of promoting its lesser-known, more diverse comic books, and of educating its massive fan base about the existence and importance of preorders.” In order to make a book appear more popular those dedicated to supporting diversity must manipulate the system. It is all so irrational.
Obviously, there are two major problems with this mindset. When catering to a very specific niche of the population, it will be much more difficult to obtain mainstream appeal. The complimentary problem here is the belief that convincing the mainstream to buy and appreciate niche markets for the sake of diversity is itself a primary goal. Those arguing for more diversity are really demanding acceptance and validation from what they believe is the majority. It is not enough that the niche market book or character exists, it must be praised, awarded and widely popular.
Looking back at my childhood interest in comic book heroes, I recognize that it was not myself I was looking for in the characters that fascinated me. The dominant message today is that children require mirror images of themselves in all forms of entertainment in order to feel validated and included. In truth, it was the story itself that I connect with; not the physical characteristics of the heroes or their specific histories.
The most obvious aspect that is ignored is that comic book heroes, by their very nature, are profoundly diverse. The superhero is an outcast and is an individual different from all those around her. She finds connection with others who share her similar experiences of being isolated from the world and rises above it to save those who have rejected her from certain doom. The characters are designed to speak on behalf of all who wish to be more than they are and long for a place of their own.
The problem has never been a lack of diversity in comics. It was always there. The problem is in the progressive Left’s obsession with superficial characteristics and their belief in the absolutism of minority perspective. It simply never occurs to them that a black or gay or female character could be interesting to average readers outside of being a strong black, gay or female voice. Comic book fans did not reject the comics because they had racially diverse, LGBT or female characters. They rejected the comic, its premise and its story. The reality is that with the ever-demanding need for more diversity, comic books featuring highly specialized characters become nothing more than manifestos of progressive thought. Each issue drones on about social issues and liberal theory until the readers simply lose interest.
The Left wants everyone to be as obsessed with identity as they are and views anyone who rejects their narrative as bigoted or uneducated. Of course, this attitude is going to turn off readers, especially those who would prefer to simply enjoy a fantasy adventure and not a lecture. Far more importantly, the progressive Left has convinced an entire generation that they need to be catered to in order to be valued in society. Whereas I looked to comics for adventure and imagination, young people today look to comics for who they are.