Race + Comics: When is Diversity ‘Contrived’?

By Arturo R. García

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 crossover 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 Knight & Colleen 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.

  • http://twitter.com/Kingofhearts Rex DeLaCoeur

    Lets not pretend that the Avengers haven’t had less-than-A-List characters before. Spiderwoman? Antman? Wonderman? Moon Knight? Even Ironman wasn’t A-List when he was put on the Avengers….

    If we use Brevoorts “silhouette” logic or even just a character replacement standard…the team works.Black Panther is your Wolverine. Patriot/Captain America. Storm/Thor. Luke Cage/Hulk. War Machine/Iron man. Echo/Hawkeye. And that’s just a basic power/similarity line up. Accounting for difference in personalities and characteristics associated with those powers makes for a different story telling than the main Avengers titles (i.e. Patriot is the rookie versus Cap being the leader. Panther and War Machine switch places as the genius and browler when compared to Iron Man and Wolverine)All of Marvel excuses are invalid. Avengers has always had a revolving door and they have not all been A-List characters or Heavy hitters. Yea, the Cap/IM/Thor teams appear more stable, but the point is that the team worked together with their differences to make it work.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jarronnelums Javan Nelums

    You know instead of having an all black cast…should add some other people of color.

    Like: Nico Nimoru from the Runaways and Dust from X-men

  • Anonymous

    @3ad35bde86d4656c91e8611353f55d33:disqus In canon, you’re following standard Marvel logic. But what I’m saying is, Marvel has had every opportunity to develop more characters of color to become A-Listers. And chose not to do so.

  • Pingback: Race + Comics: When is Diversity ‘Contrived’? « PostBourgie

  • x4

    There’s also Victor Mancha of the Runaways.

  • http://365DaysofComics.com Dom

    Does it make me racist if the only character I like, that you mentioned, is Luke Cage? 1 out of many isn’t a good ratio in terms of liking black characters.

    I do like Deathlok, but to be fair…he’s half robot. And I’m sure that half was made by a white dude.

    • Anonymous

      Actually, arguably the most famous incarnation had
      a black man
      as the human half.

    • Anonymous

      Yes. Really, though? You don’t like Patriot or War Machine? Even Misty Knight? Everyone loves Misty Knight. 

  • http://twitter.com/palaverer_s Palaverer Smalltalk

    The Crew! My all time favorite killed too soon comic was The Crew. Priest more than any writer deserves more attention and work. I have the old comic books–don’t even know if it’s been anthologized. Pimp this comic!

  • http://twitter.com/SonofBaldwin Son of Baldwin

    Thanks, Arturo, for writing this.

    One of the watershed moments for me during my conversation with Tom Brevoort was when he asserted that adding/creating so-called minority superheroes was, on its face, indicative of an agenda. And because he deemed it an agenda, it was an inherently wrongheaded practice.

    When I responded that any media creation that is 99% white heterosexual male, PARTICULARLY in 2011, is, also, indicative of an agenda, and why was one agenda okay, but not another, he didn’t respond.

    I can only assume that from his lens, “white heterosexual male” is normal, default; contrivances and agendas only exist when the undesirables believe they deserve equal representation.

    White heterosexual male privilege is a helluva drug.

  • Geoffrey Thorne

    Okay. I’m currently boycotting DC comics because of its crap racial policies (except Gail Simone and JMS’s Wonder Woman). Their aryan nation approach finally finished me . DC comics is over as far as I’m concerned. As opposed to the DC heroes as depicted on TV. Somehow the cartoon guys get it right while the comic book guys keep screwing it up. Go figure.

    Marvel has a MUCH better track record, overall, than DC ever has, creating and showcasing more black heroes, more often than its competitor. While I think Mr. Brevoort’s remark is foolish and, worse, lacks any hint of creative spark on the subject, I would hesitate to paint the whole company with this broad a brush. There are simply too many writers and artists there who’ve taken pains to include not only blacks but other “minorities” as well over the years.

    Yes, there was an atmosphere of “soft” racism and sexism there right up until the mid-1980s (maybe into the 90s) but things have been changing on that score too. Context is everything when talking about this stuff.

    Mr. Brevoort is wrong about the “contrived” nature of any all or mostly black team. Wrong. Backwards. Thick. Absolutely. We’ve seen all-female teams from time to time. We’ve got stacks of all-mutant teams. Obviously we’ve got all-white teams. We’ve even had all-extraterrestrial teams. I can think of, without trying at all, a minimum of three story arcs that not only use an all or mostly-black team but require one, without any hint of contrivance in sight.

    Todd and I (Genre 19) can whip that up for him, no problem, as could any number of creators or creative teams. But, because you still have a bunch of guys in their 50s and 60s driving the bus, as liberal as most of them surely think themselves to be, there are still going to be holdover notions from years gone by that shape their perceptions. On some fundamental level they still see us as “other,” a world of white people and Everybody Else.

    All of us “minorities” live in a multicultural world and ALWAYS HAVE. The white majority is playing catch-up on that score and it’s going to take some of them longer than others to grasp and absorb the fact that the world’s axis isn’t set on them anymore (and mostly has never been).

    So, yeah, I agree. Hold Mr. B’s feet to the fire over this stupid and short-sighted remark but, don’t spread that over to the entire company. Marvel is actually stepping up lately. My two cents. Mileage varies.

    • http://twitter.com/palaverer_s Palaverer Smalltalk

      Gail Simone is excellent. I take it you’ve read Welcome to Tranquility? One of the best series in recent memory.

      • Geoffrey Thorne

        If it weren’t for Gail I wouldn’t be reading DC comics. I’ve had it with them. There’s a world of comics and comic book makers out there, including Marvel, that know people come in many colors, shapes and persuasions. When I see these conversations popping up, and they do pretty much every few months (for decades. wake up, folks.) I realize we’ll have to wait for some of these guys to die before any real change to occur. By then the fans they believe themselves to be serving, also aging hidebound straight white guys, will have largely died off as well. Sad really. By trying to protect their boyhood ideals of what makes a comic book hero, they are killing the industry they love.

        • Geoffrey Thorne

          re: typos. sorry. i’m actually a professional.

  • Ike

    Tom Brevoort should change his Twitter handle to ShitTomBrevoortSays, because that’s all he has to add when it comes to moving comics into the “new” millennium.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jarronnelums Javan Nelums

    this is what i had problems with the runaways comic

  • Jack

    (cont.) This also touches on the difficulty of replacing a so-called “legacy” character with a new interpretation. … Like, for example, DC killing Ryan Choi as the Atom so that they could revert to the original white guy? I’m still amazed that they’ve allowed Jaime Reyes to remain the Blue Beetle as long as they have. *Someone* made a conscious decision and followed through to keep him there.

  • Jack

    re “a comic-book company is perfectly suited to run a course-correction … because it deals with universes and characters of its’ own creation”: Yes! I’ve been arguing this position since I was in junior high 30-odd years ago! Why is it so &%$#ing hard for people to set aside old rules and make something new? — ESPECIALLY when we’re dealing with fantasy worlds that wouldn’t otherwise exist except for our input?

  • http://rvcbard.blogspot.com RVCBard

    I believe it was Dwayne McDuffie (RIP) who said that 3 or more POCs constitutes an agenda as far as the comics industry is concerned.

    • http://profiles.google.com/jarronnelums Javan Nelums

      It’s not just the comics industry, It’s games, movies, television, and etc. People of power are ignoring the social changes. If they don’t adapt to it, the industry itself will fall. That’s why Manga (Japanese comics) are doing better than the American Comics. People are getting tired of the same stories, “white saves day”

  • miga

    Well at least they have a girl in there /sarcasm/

    • Anonymous

      Haha! Token vijayjay for the win /sarcasm/.