Wizard World New Orleans: Civil Rights Movements as Reflected in Comics
Diversity in comics has been at the forefront of the public conversation recently, and between Marvel's announcement of a female Thor and a black Captain America, Ms. Marvel becoming the first Muslim-American superhero, Green Lantern coming out as gay, and superhero movies increasingly being criticized for casting all of their protagonists with a white guy named Chris, we seem to be making significant strides in that department, but we still have a long way to go. At New Orleans Comic Con this past weekend, a diverse panel of comic book enthusiasts took us through several social justice topics and how comics either reinforced or challenged common stereotypes about disenfranchised groups.
Minority comic book characters have the potential to be both significant and problematic from a social justice perspective; the panelists discussed the ways in which Luke Cage, for example, is something of a mixed bag. While the writers often demonstrate that only the "bad guys" used racial slurs, while "good guys" who had disagreements with Luke Cage kept their insults racially neutral, one panelist also felt that his characterization had the propensity to be condescending, as it felt like "a white writer trying to tell me what it means to be black." This demonstrates a common problem in the effort to improve representation and inclusiveness in the media; it's not as simple as including minority characters, as they can feel like tokens, but there also needs to be a concentrated effort to increase the number of non-white voices writing that medium, in order to ensure that there's a wealth of storylines about diverse, well-developed characters.
Similarly, there's been a lot of positive attention given to Marvel's decision to bestow Sam Wilson, or Falcon, with the moniker of Captain America, but that one decision doesn't erase Wilson's problematic characterization over decades. According to the panelists, he has often reinforced negative stereotypes about blacks, with the writers often portraying him as subordinate to Captain America and writing one particularly painful retcon in which he was once a pimp named "Snap" Wilson. One panelist described him as playing "second fiddle" to Steve Rogers, and then qualified, "I'm being really nice right now, the word I really want to use is 'house Negro.'"
X-Men have always served as a stand-in for oppressed groups, as their "mutant" powers render them outcasts in society. Historically, they've usually highlighted parallels with the LGBTQ community, particularly since their powers are discovered in puberty and their population was once decimated by an AIDS-like epidemic. But in the 500th issue of Uncanny X-Men, the X-Men became stand-ins for another despised group: undocumented immigrants. In a case of art imitating life, San Francisco became a "sanctuary city" for mutants, and the issue was not shy about delving into the issue, portraying "anti-mutant" demonstrations that eerily resembled anti-immigration demonstrations.
Other than this storyline, immigration issues are all but invisible in mainstream comics, aside from a truly bizarre condemnation of illegal immigration from Superman. Superman has also served as a stand-in for outsiders, as he came from another planet himself. But in one issue, Superman finds a group of aliens who fled a tyrannical leader, and he chastises them for illegally coming to Earth without "contributing to society." They (rightly) pointed out that he did the same thing, and in fact caused many deaths by coming in a meteor shower, but he brushed them off with the excuse that his planet was destroyed and he was a child.
Wonder Woman has had a similarly tortured relationship with feminism. While many have hailed her as an "icon" of the movement, it is more accurate to say, as the panelists did, that she has sometimes served as a feminist icon but more consistently reflected women's place in society, for better and for worse. She began as a progressive figure, as, according to the panelists, creator William Marston believed women to be "emotionally superior" to men, but was unfortunately a "kinky bastard, so there's a lot of bondage subtext in the early books. So they wouldn't be considered progressive by today's standards, but at the time they were revolutionary." Particularly during World War II, while the men were off fighting and women were expected to get out of the home and keep industry alive, Wonder Woman was an active agent in all of her books and had many exciting storylines.
But then, once the soldiers came back from the war, her 50's storylines de-powered her and mostly focused on her love life. So fittingly, there was a resurgence of Wonder Woman's feminist significance during second wave feminism. (In an amusing anecdote, feminist Gloria Steinem, who had hailed Wonder Woman as an emblem of the movement, called the publishers every single day until they gave Wonder Woman her powers back, just so she would leave them alone.) But now, in an era of "post-feminism," Wonder Woman is "drawn like a blow-up sex doll" and, in one unfortunate panel, "cries into a teddy bear, even though she's the goddess of war."
But, the panel ended the topic on a (sort of) happy note: "On the other hand, Power Girl doesn't have a boob window anymore, so that's progress!" [thumbs up]
In keeping with changing laws and attitudes, gay marriage has become more visible in comics in the last few years, with both the Archies and Astonishing X-Men depicting two men getting hitched in 2012. Both publications were controversial, with the Archie issue banned in Singapore and the X-Men storyline blasted by the National Organization for Marriage, but they both exist, which unfortunately still counts as progress. (The panelists made the wry observation that both weddings were interracial, but all the controversy surrounded their homosexuality, which also unfortunately counts as progress.)
But not all publishers are being quite as progressive about the issue, most notably DC Comics, who caused a stir recently by forbidding Batwoman to marry longtime girlfriend Maggie Sawyer, driving the popular creative team to quit in the middle of their run. DC claimed that they weren't taking a stance against gay marriage, but against marriage in general, as superheroes "shouldn't have happy personal lives." To be fair, they've also dissolved several high-profile heterosexual couplings recently, including the marriage between Superman and Lois Lane. But realistically, if the only objection was to Batwoman having a "happy personal life," the same goal could have been achieved by allowing her to get married and then dissolving the union once it got boring, as they have with their heterosexual characters. Many have speculated that in spite of their insistence that they are not taking a stance against gay marriage, it is likely that they are politically motivated, especially as they recently hired prominent writer and anti-gay marriage activist Orson Scott Card as a guest author on a Superman series.
The panelists also took on the recent Batgirl controversy, calling it, in no uncertain terms, "transphobic." Read a full analysis of the problematic nature of the Batgirl issue here.
The panelists ultimately concluded that, although progress is being made, it's much slower than the recent positive press would have you believe. While developments like the female Thor are a step in the right direction, that's all they are. Unsurprisingly, independent comics are diversifying at a faster and more satisfactory rate than mainstream comics. "If [mainstream comics] are diversifying, they're doing it at a snail's pace."