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What Marvel's Push Toward Superhero Diversity Really Means

The Marvel universe is changing in inclusive ways, including a female Wolverine and an all-female Avengers. Is this a cynical bid for sales and attention, or something more?

by Giaco Furino
Jul 15 2015, 4:35pm

All images courtesy of Marvel Comics

Recently Marvel Comics unveiled their entire lineup for the fall. These new comics, coming after the current Marvel universe effectively self-destructs, feature some bold new choices. Once relegated to what-if scenarios and alternate-universe storylines, people of color and women are now taking center stage in the upcoming Marvel reboot. With over 55 issues restarting at number one, Marvel's taken a look at the world around it and made some major changes to places like Asgard and the Negative Zone. But are they inspired by an honest drive to make their titles more progressive and representative, or simply following consumer trends?

This time last year, Marvel unveiled their new, female Thor on The View and Marvel's chief creative officer Joe Quesada announced that the new Captain America was black on The Colbert Report. Since then, there's been a steady push for Marvel toward diversity. Of the 45 new covers revealed, 15 directly feature a female protagonist or a person of color. While that number may not seem huge at first blush, the slate of comics is a Benetton ad when you compare it to the medium's history history. Of the more than 35 comics released by Marvel in 1990, only one, Sensational She-Hulk, featured a female protagonist, and only one four-part miniseries, Black Panther: Panther's Prey, featured a protagonist of color. The Marvel universe is changing in newly inclusive ways. Ms. Marvel stars a young Muslim-American from Jersey,City; Hawkeye and Wolverine are both women now, and there's even an all-female Avengers team.

Of all the big changes, people seem to be talking about the introduction of Miles Morales as Spider-Man in the main Marvel universe the most. Morales, who has a black father and a Puerto Rican mother, was previously the Spider-Man in the Ultimate universe, which was where Marvel tried out new ideas and told different stories without committing to making the changes in their big-deal "main" universe. But now they're bringing this Spider-Man of color into the foreground of their franchises. As Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis explained to the New York Daily News: "Our message has to be it's not Spider-Man with an asterisk, it's the real Spider-Man for kids of color, for adults of color, and everybody else."

This, of course, isn't the first time characters have changed genders or switched ethnicities. In 2003, before there was today's cultural cache in diversity, Marvel put out the limited-run series Truth: Red, White, and Black, which featured a black Captain America. But that's the exception that proves the rule: Women and people of color have never really received a fair shake in comics. (For proof of this, check out a Tumblr called The Hawkeye Initiative, where fans re-illustrate famously problematic comic-book depictions of women by swapping out the heroines with male superheroes.)

Featured or not, gender-swapped or not, the problem until now has been the staying power of diverse heroes. We had a black Captain America for little more than a year before Marvel reverted back to the original blond-haired, blue-eyed Steve Rogers. And even though DC Comics gave us a black Green Lantern back in 1971, he's often overshadowed by the flashy Hal Jordan. With this new batch of diverse superheroes, I have to wonder: Will they stick around?

The impetus for diversity has always been tied to an awareness of the bottom line. In a recent interview with NPR, Dan DiDio, co-publisher of DC Comics, explained that their push for different types of characters came after half a decade of flat sales.

"We realized that our characters were created 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago," he says in the interview. "The world has changed, and we've got to change our characters along with them and diversify our cast, our voice, and really be able to connect with as many of our readers as possible."

And then there's the unavoidable fact that these diverse comics receive much more amounts of press and attention than is usually lavished on comics. When the female Thor was announced, numerous mainstream publications rushed to cover it. Suddenly, inclusion is buzzworthy.

Looking at this big diversity push—and the coverage surrounding it—it's hard not to feel a little wary. After all, if DC could kill off Superman for a year to drive up sales, couldn't Marvel give us a female Wolverine through November for similar reasons?

In conversation with A.V. Club, Ms. Marvel writer G. Willow Wilson took a less cynical view. "I think we are at a point in comic book history where there is unprecedented openness to diversity," she said. "And we have the fans to thank for that. We've talked a lot about top-down inclusivity from the publishing side, but really, this conversation is being driven by fans."

For Marvel, these fans have been coming out in droves. According to the Los Angeles Times, the first issue starring a female Thor sold more than 200,000 copies and Spider-Gwen #1, which took Spidey's old girlfriend and turned her into a superhero in her own right, moved more than 250,000 units. Ms. Marvel #1, which follows the brand-new teenage hero Kamala Khan, was a New York Times bestseller and has been nominated for six prestigious Eisner Awards.

So the big question is: Are comic-book makers progressing with the times, or simply adapting to the market? I think the answer, really, is both. Which raises a second, trickier question: Should we applaud a company that makes a push toward inclusion if that push is in pursuit of sales? And how do we reconcile intent versus outcome? Because whether or not Marvel's acting the supervillain, they've now got more comics featuring diverse characters than any other major publisher.

And these comics that include diversity are pretty damn good reads, as far as I'm concerned. The stories are richer, the struggles are more interesting. From Kamala struggling to reconcile her religion with her vigilante lifestyle to our new Thor punching a dude in the mouth for "saying 'feminist' like it's a four-letter word," it appears we're almost done worrying about whether or not the white guy's girlfriend will get kidnapped.

I can't speak to the issues and series that haven't hit shelves yet, but as far as female Thor, Ms. Marvel, and Spider-Gwen go, these comics are some of the best I've read in years. If we want our superhero stories to stay diverse, quality is going to be key. If the books are good, and sell well, we'll keep our female Hawkeye. Is it too much to hope that the lily-white, dude-centric Marvel movies will one day follow suit? If the sales numbers and buzz of these newly inclusive titles are any indicators, we can't be too far off.

Right now, there are big, institutional changes going on at Marvel Comics. They've recently made some mistakes, and they're finally being held accountable for them. The cultural backlash is bigger than we've ever seen in comic book history, because more people are reading comics than ever before, and it feels like everyone's finally "allowed" to read comics. The more we push back as a culture of conscientious readers, the more change we'll see among writers, artists, editors, and publishers at large. Want to keep your diverse cast of Marvel characters? Buy the comics when they get it right, and scream at them when they get it wrong.

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