“Why aren’t there more mainstream titles that feature minority characters in prominent roles, and why don’t “black books” sell??”
Bill Rosemann: “A tough but necessary question. Is it because most comic book writers are white males, often ‘write what they know’, and so they choose to make their protagonists white males like themselves? Is it because the characters that are popular today and star in the most books (i.e. the superheroes that have been around since the 50s and 60s) just happen to be great characters, no matter what the skin color is beneath their masks? Obviously, companies would love to publish series with minority main protagonists (i.e. DC’s Steel and Milestone line, Marvel’s Black Panther and The Crew), but time and again, readership hasn’t been enough to keep them going. Basically, I don’t have an easy answer…but if readers want to try a book with a black protagonist–that also generates plenty of great reviews–then I humbly suggest they give Negation a try! No matter what his race happens to be, Obregon Kaine is just a cool character, and ultimately that’s what people want to read about.”
Alan Grant: “Most comic heroes are minority characters. Batman is in a minority of guys whose parents were murdered before their eyes. Superman is in a minority of babies saved from exploding planets. Lobo is in a minority of maniacs who destroyed their own world. Judge Dredd is in a minority of people dedicated to justice.
I’ve no idea why “black books” don’t sell. I’ve heard uncorroborated reports that DC’s “black” line of the 90s folded as much because of editorial profligacy as disappointing sales. I’m pretty sure “black books” sell okay in Africa (Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons began their careers working on Power Man for–I think–a Nigerian publisher).”
Terry Moore: “I can’t answer that question, but I’ve also noticed most comic shops are owned by white people and comic book conventions attendees are predominantly white. There’s a nice ethnic mix sure, but everywhere I go it’s mostly white. I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a room full of white people now it gives me the creeps… makes me feel like I’m at a Klan meeting or something. It’s just wrong, y’know? It’s not reality. So why doesn’t Strangers In Paradise have more African-Americans in the cast? Because most of the book is a satirical attack on conservative America from within the ranks. I think the barbs sting more if they come from within the ranks and not across race lines.”
Professor William H. Foster III, Comic Book Historian: “‘Why aren’t there more mainstream titles that feature minority characters in prominent roles, and why don’t “black books” sell?’
Actually these are two different questions so let me try to answer them one at a time, and as succinctly as possible.
The first questions asks why aren’t there more… And as a comic book historian who specializes in the image of African American in comics, my next question is “More than what?”
What would be the magical number of people of color appearing in mainstream books to be properly “visible” or “enough”? I suppose it depends on your point of view. For comic book readers who have always seen some characters of colors in their reading, and for comic fans from the Silver and Bronze ages of comics, the answers are going to be totally different.
I have a very long view, and look at how much things have changed since the beginning of comics to the present day. With that view, the number of characters of color in comics is very large, very diverse and still increasing.
The problem sometimes appears to be what kind of characters have been presented in the past. If people of a particular race or ethnicity are all represented as one-dimensional stereotypes, that’s a real problem. If all women are represented as brainless, helpless victims, all white men as kind-hearted and benevolent heroes and all black people as jive talking evil minded criminals, those are problems.
But in the various worlds created by comic creators where there are is a wide diversity of characters representing both positive and negative points of view, the numbers become less important. If there is only one black character in a comic book and he is a cowardly clown, I am quite naturally upset by that representation. But in a world where there are any number of characters presenting points of view pro and con, good and bad, intelligent and stupid, I don’t have a problem.
And let’s get real for a minute. Comic books aren’t immune to the taint of institutional racism or prejudice any more than any other segment of American society. We want everyone to feel that we are treating everyone the same, when we know that we don’t treat everyone the same. It is the cache 22 of racial politics. And yes, there are people who still think if we don’t talk about the racial divide in this country, it will go away. Guess again.
There are people who look on any effort to expand the scope of the diversity of comic book characters as communist inspired, and those who feel that more can always be done to change things up a bit. Such is life — get used to it.
And to answer the second question, actually black books do sell. I just received a message from a long-time African American comic book creator who sells almost exclusively at Black Cultural Fairs and he says he pushed an incredible number of units this past summer. And I have yet to appear at a venue where I am speaking about the history of Blacks in comic books without having a number of people stop me and ask where they can find the titles I spotlighted. My problem has been I can’t always readily tell them where to look. Even I have to look very hard to find titles.
Back in the 1990s when Milestone and DC Comics teamed up to produce racially diverse titles, I was told by some of my friends who own comic shops that they weren’t sure how to market the titles. So they do sell, it’s just that, well, there are some problems to work out.
As I stated earlier, I am very optimistic about the variety of characters of color in today’s mainstream comic books.”
Lee Dawson: “I think it’s just a question of who’s making the comics for who. Most comics creators are young (or not as young as they used to be!) white males. Most comics readers are young white males. I think if there were a more diverse creator base creating comics reflecting their unique experiences and perspectives then the audience might also reflect that diversity as well.”
Brandon Thomas: “Because people are afraid.
The problem begins with the nonsensical classification that is the “black book”, presumably meant to signify a title in which either “black things” are more likely to occur, or one that chronicles the exploits of a number of black characters. Following this train of logic, Superman, Batman, and the Avengers should be appropriately branded as “white books”, but between you and I…that doesn’t make any sense does it??
Instead, the label only creates a heightened sense of awareness that creates books that often play at the most obvious of stereotypes in the hopes of addressing a need for authenticity that is not only completely irreverent, but clearly unattainable, as it doesn’t exist. Either that or the books’ defining characteristic is that it’s filled with minorities, which can also serve as a statistical kiss of death, regardless of inherent quality. Pardon my usage of the terminology, but often too much time is spent being “black”, and not enough time being “books”. Instead of publishing accessible material driven by minority characters, we get tired approximations of things that companies think “black” readers would respond to. So white readers are completely alienated, and what little black or non-white readership exists, groans collectively because someone is under the impression that by slapping a bubble vest, gold teeth, and Timbs on it, it automatically becomes “black”.
Things remain this way, because there are not enough creators working in comics with a personal and emotional investment in correcting it. It’s no one’s fault in particular, and reversing the tide isn’t enormously difficult, because someday (hopefully sooner rather than later), a writer will sit down. After he/she sits down, they’ll begin creating this fully realized environment populated with characters of layered personalities and emotions, the kind of fictional 3-D world that a great majority of readers will find at least something relatable…
…and then they’ll turn everyone black.
Stereotypes will be assaulted, expectations will mean nothing, and finally, FINALLY, there will be no such thing as “black books”, just books with black and minority characters, that aren’t defined by their ethnicity, or playing into a routine meant to establish a “realness” that ensures they’re speaking to no one. The industry just needs someone to care enough to make it happen. Do you??”
Fredrik Strömberg: “As I have stated several times in my book “Black Images in the Comics”, I think that sadly, most Black characters in mainstream comics are created, and treated, as representatives of all Black people. This symbolic nature, of course, makes them rather limited as characters. Also, considering that this question really is about matters in the USA (even if this is not stated), it seems to me as a European that the fact that your comics are sold in speciality shops, and thereby only reaches the fans and not the general audience, is another important factor. The comic fans in the USA seems to be mostly white boys, a fact that works as a catch-22 to make sure that other groups like for instance female readers and creators for the most part are locked out of the action.”
Craig Lemon: “Why aren’t there more black-superhero books? Because they don’t sell. Why don’t they sell? The same reason that female-led superhero books don’t sell very well. Because the primary audience for superhero is white males. And the main way you can get female-led superhero books to sell is to plaster them with cheesecake art – step forward Greg Horn and Michael Turner. I also believe that most white males are closet racists – even if just subconsciously…oh, you could argue that someone reading a superhero book puts themselves in the place of the hero, and white males cannot identify with black heroes for some reason…I would venture that that reason is racism. Why are there few arabic superheroes in US comics? Why are there few hispanic blah blah blah? The answer is the same.
Why are there no black superheroes fronting big-name books? Because all the iconic heroes in existence today (with the exception of Wolverine) were created between the 1930s and the 1960s, when black characters were taboo, or poor caricatures at best (see the early stories of The Spirit to see how even Will Eisner didn’t escape this attitude). There have been pitifully few successful superheroes created in the last twenty years, black OR white. So new books with predominantly black casts don’t sell…but neither do new books with predominantly white casts…it’s not just The Crew that was cancelled recently, but The Eternal too.
Why are there no successful black characters in “mainstream” (i.e. Marvel & DC comics)? But there are. Look at 100 Bullets. Look at Gotham Central. Minority groups represented in quality comics, bought by a vast range of purchasers. And why do these work – because of the Star Trek factor…they feature an “ensemble”, a large group of characters from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
You could say why are there no major supporting black characters in Spider-Man? But I think you’d find that beyond the original set of characters created in the 60s, there have been no NEW supporting characters of any colour for a consistently long period of time. It’s the same with Superman, with Batman, with whoever…superheroes created in 1960s and earlier had no black characters due to the situation that existed at that time (which is where the racism angle comes back in) and these superheroes haven’t changed in the intervening time – the supporting casts have remained the same throughout the decades.”
Kyle J. Baker: “Why aren’t there more mainstream titles that feature minority characters in prominent roles, and why don’t “black books” sell??”
Doesn’t the second question answer the first one?”
Alonzo Washington: “Why aren’t there more mainstream titles that feature minority characters in prominent roles? The answer is quite obvious.
RACISM!!!!!!!!! Although, the attitudes are complicated to explain. Most White people are uncomfortable with people of color gaining power. That’s why affirmative action & immigration are always controversial topics in America. Therefore, the concept of a super hero of color is an uneasy thought to most White Americans. Moreover, the image of a super hero is one of perfection & morality. For years the mainstream media has always force fed the American public with the most negative & immoral images of Black people (murderers, gang bangers, thugs, pimps, video tramps, whores, rapists, gangsta rappers, criminals, etc.). Therefore, the concept of a Black super hero is almost a joke in the minds of most White people. That’s why a number of Hollywood films are made with a Black super hero as a comedy release (Under Cover Brother, Meteor Man, Pootie Tang & Blank Man). I have turned down a number of Hollywood producers who want to make a MOVIE WITH MY BLACK SUPER HEROES AS A COMEDY. Moreover, most of the creators in the comic book industry (not all) are White nerds. What do they know about Black people or any other people of color? These guys are creating a fictional world where they are all powerful and quite frankly they don’t want Black people in it or anybody who is not White. Have you ever wondered why the two most popular super hero icons (Superman & Spider-Man) are former nerds in their secret identities. Most of the time when a Black character (The Falcon, Storm, Green Lantern, Agent J, Captain Marvel, Cyborg, Pete on Smallsville, etc.) emerges in the world of mainstream comic books he or she are simply a watered down side kick or a modern day slave to the White characters in the comic book. The Black characters have no agenda of their own. Storm in the X-MEN movies might as well had been a maid with the few lines she received. The Black characters that stand on their own are normally super stereotypes like Power Man (Cage) the ex-con or the monster heroes like Blade & Spawn. Most White comic book creators & collectors like monsters more than people of color. Comic Books are filled with monsters and barely people of color. The comic book community is basically White. I attended Comic-Con this year with my wife & six small children. Everywhere I went security hounded us like we were not supposed to be there and our passes were clearly displayed upon us. They acted like I could put the Comic-Con in my pocket. I think it is the same scenario exists for Black super heroes & super heroes of color in mainstream comic book titles. Many White creators don’t feel like they are supposed to be there.
Why don’t Black Comic Books sell? Most White people don’t want a Black savior. Super Heroes are saviors. Unlike African Americans & other people of color who accept White super heroes as their own. Most White people think a BLACK SUPER HERO IS ONLY FOR BLACK PEOPLE AND THAT IS RACIST. I remember I was doing a presentation at the public library and a White kid asked me if my Black character (Omega Man) was for people like me (Black). I answered his question with a question. I said “is Super Man & Bat Man only for people like you”?
Black titles don’t do well in comic book shops. However, I have made a great living selling Black independent comic book titles for eleven years. Most of my customers are Black or White people who want to see another image of super heroes. Another reason Black mainstream titles don’t sell is because most of the characters are crappie. White creators always seem to limit their Black super hero creations. Even the cool Black heroes (Blade & Black Panther) struggle to appeal to White readers. Racism is hard to overcome for most White comic book fans. Spawn is more a monster than Black. Moreover, his mask & burned flesh helps White readers forget about his race. I challenge all who read this article to read a real Black super hero comic book. Check out Omega7 Comics. Don’t let race pick your super heroes.”
Alan Donald: “I’ve spent two weeks thinking about this answer and still I’ve gotten nowhere. I’ve seen the Panellists answers coming in and I agree with most of them. Racism is a big factor and so is simple economics. What is being done to address these problems would be an interesting question. There must be many black comicbook fans out there who are being fed an incredibly homogenous image of large US cities. I’m not calling for Superman to ‘go black’, a good character is a good character irrespective of colour. The backdrops in the comicbook universes need to reflect the real world more. Writers need to request a realistic mix of people in the books and artists need to use their initiative if no race is given for a new character in a book. On the other side of the coin everyone should give new characters a chance and judge them based on the quality of the tale rather than the colour of the protagonists skin.
We’ve got a few coloured heroes now. We’re starting to see a wider mix of background characters (take Batman for example, there are several African-American cops (including the Commissioner), there’s Rennie Montoya and…um…wait, couple more, Batgirl is of an unknown Asian origin and Dick Grayson is Romany) but Milestone has gone and Steel was cancelled a while back.
What of the creators? It’s a vicious circle. I hardly ever see any non-white faces at my local comicbook shop but then again I hardly ever see any non-white faces in this part of the country, it’s a pretty sad state of affairs. I do see more and more people from various ‘ethnic minorities’ at the Bristol comicbook Festival and I have seen several black artists having their portfolios very seriously pored over by DC and Marvel so perhaps thing might change soon.
This question has made me examine several things in my life. I hadn’t considered just how white comicbooks are. I didn’t have a clue which creators were black, white or whatever. Not being racist is not enough. Complacency is a terrible sin. The current situation in the comicbook industry is wrong and definitely racist. We should think about this, we should examine it and we should act. It doesn’t stop there, the industry is homophobic, very sexist and it is generally prejudicial. Think about it. Act.”
Summary: This is a very difficult one to summarise. Racism and economics seem to be the most basic factors when one boils it all down. One thing is clear and that is that the current situation is intolerable.
This Week’s Panel: Bill Rosemann (Publicist, CrossGen), Alan Grant (Judge Anderson, Batman), Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise), Professor William H. Foster III (William H. Foster III has been a writer since the age of eight and published since age twelve. Poet, essayist, playwright and editorialist, he has written ten books and seven plays. He is presently an Associate Professor of English and Communication at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Connecticut. Professor Foster has a BA from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, MA, and a Masters degree from Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. A long time comic book collector and researcher, Professor Foster has been an expert commentator for both CNN News and National Public Radio. He was a consultant on the history of Blacks in both comic strips and comic books for the Words and Pictures Museum of Fine Sequential Art in Northampton, MA. His exhibit on the “Changing Image of Blacks in Comics” has been displayed at a variety of venues across the country, including Temple University’s Paley Library, The 1998 Comic-Con International/Comic Arts Conference, and the 2000 Festival of Arts and Ideas. He also has presented his research at the 2001 bi-annual conference of The International Association for Media and History in Leipzig, Germany and most recently at the 2002 Conference on Analyzing Series & Serial Narrative at John Moores University in Liverpool, England), Lee Dawson (Publicist, Dark Horse), Brandon Thomas (comic book writer and SBC Columnist), Fredrik Strömberg (Editor Bild & Bubbla Scandinavia’s largest, and the worlds second oldest magazine about comics and author of Black Images in Comics), Craig Lemon (Boss type person here at SBC, 1 step from the top), Kyle J. Baker (top comicbook creator) and Alonzo Washington (Founder Omega7 comics and toys).
Next Week’s Question: ” Why don’t chicks dig comics? Why aren’t there more women working in the comicbook industry?”
Big Shout: The Panel need your questions so email them into me at: [email protected] And check me out in All the Rage come Sunday…yep they’ve talking me into going back for one last week.
Previous Questions: Check out the message board where I’ve put up a list of every question the Panel has faced so far (neatly linked to the column it appeared in) to inspire you and let you know what to avoid.
SBC reserves the right to edit questions for reasons of consistency and inclusivity.
Changing Image of African Americans in Comics;
List of Speaking Engagements
CNN National News, expert commentary (New York, NY) ’94
Wesleyan University Reunion Weekend (Middletown, CT,) 6/96
Keynote Speaker, Community College Humanities Association
Regional Conference (Philadelphia, PA) ’96
Panelist, Forum on Diversity in Comics, Naugatuck Valley Community College
(Waterbury, CT) ’96
New Haven Free Public Library (New Haven, CT), 2/97
Big Apple Comic Convention (New York, NY), 6/97
Connecticut Historical Society (Hartford, CT), 10/97
Paley Library (Philadelphia, PA), 2/98
Featured Commentary, National Public Radio ’98
Panel Organizer, The Graphic Novel; A 20th Anniversary Conference
University of Massachusetts (Amherst, MA) ’98
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Headquarters, (Washington, D.C.) 2/99
Comic Con International/ Sixth Annual Comic Arts Conference (San Diego, CA) 8/99
Education in the Humanities Conference (Jacksonville, FL) ’99
Panelist, Regional Conference, National Association of Black Journalists
(Hartford, CT) ’99
Bookfest ’99, Celebration of Children’s Literature (Springfield, MA) ’99
5Con Science Fiction Conference, Smith College (Northampton, MA) 4/00
Manson Youthful Offender Facility, (Cheshire, CT) 6/00
Popular Culture Association, National Conference (New Orleans, LA) 4/00
Moderator, Diversity in Comics panel, NVCC, (Waterbury, CT) 11/9/00
Popular Culture Conference, National Conference (Philadelphia, PA) 4/01
International Association for Media and History Conference (Leipzig, Germany)
Writers’ Conference, Naugatuck Valley Community College, Panelist (Waterbury, CT) 11/01
Smithtown Arts Council (St. James, NY) 2/02
Leap Program “Guest of Honor” Fundraiser Event (Hamden, CT) 2/02
New Haven Free Public Library (New Haven, CT) 2/02
Norman Rockwell Museum (Sturbridge, MA) 3/02
Branford High School – Diversity Week (Branford, CT) 4/02
1st Annual East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention – Panelist (Philadelphia, PA) 5/02
Indigo Café & Books – Blacks in Comics event – Panelist (Brooklyn, NY) 6/02
John Moore University – Key Note Speaker, (Liverpool. England) 11/02
Blacks in Comics presentation, The Huntington House Museum (Windsor, CT) 2/03
2nd Annual East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention – Panelist (Philadelphia, PA) 5/03
Comic Arts Conference, International Comic Con – Panelist (San Diego, CA) 7/03
Changing Image of Black in Comics
1890s – 1990s
List of Exhibit Appearances
Belden Public Library (Cromwell, CT) 1992
Russell Library (Middletown, CT) 1993, 1994,
1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000
Words and Pictures Museum
Of Sequential Art (Northampton, MA) 1994
Black Age of Comics Convention (Chicago, IL) 1995
Association of Humanist
Sociology National Conference (Columbus, Ohio) 1995
Quinnipiac College (Hamden, CT) 1996
Naugatuck Valley Community
Technical College (Waterbury, CT) 1994, 1995, 1996, 2002
Alumni Reunion Weekend (Middletown, CT) 1996
New Haven Free Public
Library (New Haven, CT) 1997
Big Apple Comic Convention (New York, NY) 1997
Connecticut Historical Society (Hartford, CT) 1997
Temple University (Philadelphia, PA) 1998
Comic Con International/
Sixth Annual Comic Arts
Conference (San Diego, CA) 1998
4th Annual International
Comics & Animation Festival (Bethesda, MD) 1998
Central Intelligence Agency HQ (Washington, D.C.) 1999
The Stetson Library (New Haven, CT) 1999
Sankofa Cultural Arts Festival (New Haven, CT) 2000
Fund Raiser for African American
Arts Museum (New Haven, CT) 2000
Southern CT State University (New Haven, CT) 2001
New Haven Free Public Library (New Haven, CT) 2002
Wizard Con Philly (Philadelphia, PA) 2002
2nd Annual East Coast Black Age (Philadelphia, PA) 2003
of Comics Convention