Could blame it on being young and somewhat stupid, but even given that…there’s really no excuse for this…
Back in 1992, the only comics I’d ever encountered were that little three book ashcan set that came from sending in box tops from Batman cereal, a couple Ninja Turtles books, and a small handful of things that my father brought home from a newsstand, following an afternoon of jury duty. He’d been a huge comic fan in his day, using money from a paper route to buy several of the major first issues from Marvel, so around May of that year, he decided it was time to bring me into the fold, and take me to my first comic shop. Place was called Fiction House, and looked to me like it was actually made of comic books, with long, packed shelves that stretched down both sides of the store, and high priced back issues attached to the walls. Fighting off that initial sensory overload, I was immediately drawn to the more popular characters (Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men) and snatched up almost everything that had them on the cover. Along the way, my father is over the shoulder, making suggestions and adding things to the little pile I’m quickly working up, books like Iron Man, FF, and Green Lantern, which the twelve year old me instantly deems “old school,” just because my dad liked them.
Despite some reflexive eye rolling at a few of his favorite books, that constant nudging was the main reason we ever came home from the shop with anything new. Some of it I think was the collector in him talking, the kid that didn’t take good care of his own comics, which surprise, surprise, were now worth a small fortune, but he also understood that there’s nothing cooler than watching something develop from the ground floor. Least that’s what I assume was on his mind, when he pointed out the number one issue of some strange looking comic called Spawn, before tossing it into that first stack. But convincing me that Batman, Spidey, and the X-Men weren’t the only characters with decent books was a continuous process, and it would be several years before I could even be considered “knowledgeable” about comics, and what they offered. Then again, maybe I’m just making elaborate excuses for the whole point of this particular column…the true story of my initial response to the Milestone Comics imprint, and why I didn’t support it when I had the chance.
Can’t remember exactly how DC pitched it to retailers, largely because I didn’t know anything about the mechanics of the direct market, but in the spring of 1993, Milestone Comics hit the stands. Not only did it provide the industry an entire new universe of superheroes, but it was also engineered to alter the perception and scope of the entire game, by casting racial minorities as the principal characters. The very simple idea of Blacks, Asians, and Latinos becoming heroes in any sort of large number, probably shouldn’t be as progressive and necessary as it was, and still is really, but Milestone was out there doing it, pushing the boundaries of the medium. If something even remotely like this were to hit today, I’d be all over it, but the incredible significance of Milestone was lost on my immaturity, and I ultimately viewed the books with the same hesitant eye I greeted most new things with, seeing them as threats to whatever Bat book I was chasing down.
Pops understood it of course, his childhood love of comics having started this whole thing, so he made sure that the first few issues came home, and I remember liking them as much as I liked anything else that I didn’t immediately recognize, but after the initial push, I never stepped up and gave them that same love I was feeding the established franchises. That stands as one of my biggest regrets, because those books deserved more from me, as I’m assuming Milestone was specifically created for that little boy, anxious to see people that looked like him given the prominence and consideration they deserved. I just didn’t have the perspective to appreciate how uncommon something like Milestone was, because in those days of relative excess, everybody seemed to have his or her own book. Minority comic characters weren’t nearly as endangered as they are today, and anytime I think about the small handful of Milestone titles sitting in a longbox somewhere, I feel sick.
Then I consider the position I’m in now, one part fan, one part professional, and once again making a case for an educated, responsive change in how we approach and address cultural diversity within the industry, and it’s hard not to view this as slightly karmic. Penance one might say, for missing a very critical opportunity, and being left with a dreadfully small number of minority characters to get behind, and the sensation that no one else even notices, and on the off chance they do, knows or cares enough to do anything about it. And I have to say something about it, because I’m not twelve years old anymore, and neither are you. Truth is, that the common observation that mainstream comics today appear determined to exclusively service the very same fan base and demographics that it always has, is about much more than line-wide company crossovers, and the re-emergence of variant covers. It’s about not even having opportunities to miss, and that needs to change, as we move forward. Because if not that, then the opposite is happening, and clearly, that’s unacceptable.
This has all come to the forefront again, largely from spending the last couple weeks re-reading Priest’s Black Panther run, and trying to critically examine what those 62 issues really meant to the environment they were released in, and what kind of benchmark and statement it sets for the future. That’s the true role of any great piece of work, and after exposing myself to it yet again, it felt even more relevant and notable than I initially gave it credit for, which is a lofty statement, given my well-documented love for the material. Even went and had the original single issues bound into a set of custom hard covers, for good measure.
Read that one of the main reasons for Milestone’s eventual creation was an attempt to diffuse the “one size fits all” paradigm, that’s often applied to minority characters. Their relative scarcity prevents them from actually functioning as well-developed characters, instead positioning them as a sort of racial representative, their existence approximating an entire culture, for the lack of any alternative. With no contrast, it’s too easy for him to become all black men, for her to become all Asian women. The very obvious remedy for this is to consistently introduce more minority personalities into the respective universes, so there isn’t such a dependency on the treatment of one or two characters. The other possibility is that both company and creator approach what few examples of diversity they have with a bit more… caution is probably the best word. And yes, I realize exactly how that sounds, that character development should be in some way sacrificed for a presiding notion that because of their infrequency, certain characters can only function as shining beacons of morality and purity. Even I’m uncomfortable with an edict like that, but let’s speak in hypotheticals for just a few moments.
Say you’re a young comic fan, completely obsessed with Marvel Comics, have been for years now, with a small crew of friends that are equally into comics. One of the friends is all about DC, and wouldn’t touch a Marvel comic if you paid him, but his boy has been bugging him for months about reading this book. It’s called Runaways, and one of the main characters is a young black kid named Alex Wilder. Now according to his Marvel inclined friend, Alex is the only member of this teenage supergroup without any noticeable powers, but he still serves as the point man of the group, with the trust and ultimate confidence of his friends. He’s not some super cool dude like Luke Cage, or half vampire like Blade. Hell, he doesn’t even come from the future, or have some dope ass mutant power like Bishop. Alex is just smart, incredibly resourceful, and respected among a group of kids that have a sorceress and an alien among them. Then, in the last of a sequence of excellent cliffhanger endings, it’s revealed that everything we thought we knew about Alex Wilder was an elaborate lie.
Alex Wilder is really one of the bad guys, and not only that, but the worst kind, one that hid and lied and deceived, while in the company of people he only pretended to care about. A completely unredeemable offense, even if his own treachery hadn’t gotten him flash fried by supervillains far more capable than he was. Now, DC Kid was actually feelin’ this book, and has followed it as things matured into a second volume of adventures, but some of the excitement isn’t there anymore. The guy he could most relate to is gone, and not just because they had the same skin color, but because they had the same interests, that made him an outcast amongst anyone who didn’t share them. This kid actually WAS Alex Wilder, and to make things even worse, Alex went out like an absolute punk. Now, dude is resigned to return to his DCU books, and hope like Hell that the new Firestorm isn’t replaced with Ronnie Raymond before the book can even reach its second year.
Now, obviously, the above isn’t intended to question the integrity of writer/creator Brian K. Vaughan, who I’ve got mad respect for, and who has entertained discussion with me on this very subject, when I expressed my disappointment directly to him. I don’t believe that any of this was malicious, and I can’t deny that the revelation wasn’t completely unexpected, and yet so obvious, but over seventeen months, I was very appreciative that a character like Alex Wilder was introduced into the Marvel Universe, and his presence was one of several things that made Runaways a special project. I think in the end, Vaughan probably didn’t even realize that including a young, intelligent, relatable black character in a mainstream book was probably the most shocking plot twist of all.
You think I’m being dramatic, but look over at Young Avengers, where it was just revealed that Patriot gained him superhuman abilities from taking drugs. If I wasn’t reading the book primarily because of that character, or if there were actually more than a couple dudes scattered about the MU that fit a similar mold, you think I’d be considering dropping the book altogether?
I’m not nearly naïve enough to believe the preceding holds the same emotional weight for everyone else, as it does for me, but this is just an attempt to find the bigger picture. There is a noticeable atmosphere of ambivalence throughout the industry about this, as everyone peeks out the door, waiting for someone else to make the first awkward move. I place the onus on the larger companies, because if anyone stops being uncomfortable long enough to make real things happen, it needs the visibility to survive. People have to see it, they have to feel it, and with the increasing dominance of the Big Two in terms of market share, that’s the only place they will. Consider it a long-term investment, if that makes you feel better, but step up and commit at least some resources to increasing the number of non-white characters populating these books. Dozens and dozens of books are solicited every month, and you can count on one hand the titles that have any chance of tapping into a broader demographic.
This isn’t something that can be solved by three books, fired into the marketplace like magic bullets, in the hope they actually hit something out there. Then what happens, because no one will really acknowledge what they were aiming for in the first place, we turn around and use their failure as yet another example that “black books don’t sell.” Repeat that enough, and people actually start believing it, and ignoring a much more obvious conclusion. Books without promotion don’t sell. Books without “hot” creative teams don’t sell. And we all know this. If some message board knows it, you think the big boys don’t? So, given that realization, what’s really going on? You know what, don’t even say nothin’, I’ll just tell you what it looks like…
It looks like the word diversity, and that phrase “bringing in new readers” is just something we like to use as a conversation piece, and nothing else. It looks like Priest’s Black Panther was the longest running title of the last several years, to feature black characters in any sort of prominent roles, and that was canceled two years ago. It looks like we’ve got legendary creators tossing around racial slurs, and pretending not to understand why it might offend anyone. It looks like we’re content to deliver the same book, with the same characters, in the same packaging, until the balloon bursts again. It looks like for all of the great thinkers, that make comics such an attractive medium for creators both inside and outside the industry, this is the question with no answer. I have to wonder why that is.
I’ll make it really easy for you…just drop me a line and tell me the honest truth. Just say, “Brandon, you’re the only one that cares about this stuff,” and you’ll never waste five minutes of your day reading another column like this. What do you think is the explanation? Have I just made everyone terribly itchy by even bringing this up? Write me and tell me straight, so I can stop screaming into this empty room, and get back to commenting on stuff that real comic fans want to hear about.
There was a time when comics were all about whatever new Spider-Man or X-Men book I could get my hands on, but we’re quite beyond that. In more than a decade, no one has even attempted to seriously address this, and either it’s from lack of understanding, or lack of interest. And clearly, one of those is a bit more forgivable than the other. Some of the most creative and forward-thinking minds belong to the comics industry, and they’ve gotta have more to offer, than ways of building a better crossover.
I might’ve missed the whole Milestone movement, because I didn’t know any better, but honestly, I was some goofy ass kid with big glasses and a Batman fetish then. Now, I’m a guy with a long-running column that’s asking you a very serious question…when it comes to the almost complete lack of non-white representation in our mainstream comic universes…
…what’s YOUR excuse?