Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Let's Talk About... Diversity in Comics

Let me tell you a story. At Christmas, I decided that my nieces had quite enough princess-related merchandise, and needed a bit more superhero product. I spent a day looking around toy-shops for age appropriate toys that represented Marvel super-heroines. Eventually, I found a range of DC figurines aimed at younger girls - although Supergirl's skirt was a bit too short for my liking - and managed to introduce them to the medium that provides me with material for academic research. 

I just wanted them to know that comic characters weren't just for boys, and that Ms Marvel is a better role model than that one off Frozen. Marvel don't share my ambitions, so I am not taking their current interest in 'diversity' that seriously. If a ten year old boy fancies some super-hero toy action, there's Iron Man, Hulk, the whole gang. The ten year old girl is not so lucky.

But, apparently, the attempts by Marvel to write inclusive comics has led to their financial decline. Apparently, their cack-handed attempt to introduce female and minority characters (words used advisedly) has reduced sales. 

I think this is a video featuring a butt-hurt fan getting annoyed about it all. 

So, leaving aside the controversy around Ironheart (a teenage girl takes up Iron Man's comic only to be represented in an overly sexualised manner), or that business with Spider-Woman, Marvel has apparently been trying to introduce a diverse range of characters. I think that I was about fourteen when I noticed that an alien or an android was more like to be made a member of The Avengers than an African-American or a woman, so I am glad the company has caught up with me. 

You know, I'm not interested in defending the importance of diversity. There are other people doing that. But I am pretty sure that there are two reasons that contribute to bad sales more than having a Muslim Ms Marvel (which is one of the few comics from Marvel that I have appreciated in recent years).

The convoluted continuity of the Marvel Universe makes casual readership impossible, and is boring even for long term readers. 

Bad writing has blighted comic books which, while they long to hit a mature audience or tone, seem to retain a childish fascination with over-exposition and... just shit dialogue. For example, I stopped reading Avengers when I realised that every character was speaking in the same tone. 

Funnily enough, one of Stan Lee's innovations in the 1960s was to give each character a voice that reflected their personality. That's why Thor got slagged by Iron Man for sounding like Shakespeare in the Park, why Johnny Storm spoke like a cut-price beat poet and Mr Fantastic made no sense when he tried to explain science to The Thing. Brian Michael Bendis made every Avenger sound the same. 

Other people can defend the diversity, or point out that Marvel are merely observing the inherent conservatism of their fandom. I'd prefer just to say that maybe upping the quality of their work is a better step than blaming the minorities for their problems.

But hey - I want to be positive. The introduction of a comic book dramaturge would doubtless help them get their act together. If only we knew someone who could combine a deep academic knowledge of dramaturgy and the history of Marvel comics... say at a 'candidate for a PhD' level?

Waiting on your call, David.

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