Diversity in 2014 Comic Books

By Matt Petras

A crowd-funded comic book by the title of Toe Tag Riot featured zombies who attack the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church. Frequent writer for modern Batman comics James Tynion IV wrote a comic with intimate depictions of gay romance. Major publishers DC and Marvel stepped up their game on demographic representation.

The comic book industry in 2014 did not stick to telling stories about carefully chosen, lowest-denominator demographics, but various walks of life.

“Why on Earth wouldn’t we want our work to feel inclusive to more people?” said Toe Tag Riot writer Matt Miner in an email interview. “I mean, don’t we want larger audiences?  Don’t we want as many people reading comics as possible?”

Image from Black Mask

Image from Black Mask

“Toe Tag Riot” is a comic book written by Miner drawn by artist Sean Von Gorman, and now published by Black Mask that sells itself on a diverse cast of characters who attack in action-packed sequences against bigoted antagonists. It was crowd-funded on Kickstarter, raising $510 over its $19,000 goal. Andrew Hurley of the band Fall Out Boy supported this project; because of this, Hurley and the creators of Toe Tag Riot teamed up to give backers who pledged at least $50 a signed variant cover of the first issue with a zombified Hurley on the cover.

“The response to Toe Tag Riot from the LGBT community has been the most incredible and heartwarming,” said Miner.

It’s not just gay characters who make up the cast of Toe Tag Riot, but also people of different walks of life who aren’t always featured in fiction, like people of color and the disabled. “[W]e’ve been thanked by people with disabilities for creating Evie, a visibly disabled woman of color who finds empowerment in her disability,” said Miner.

In another avenue of the comic book industry, Boom! Studios has been publishing a comic book series called The Woods since May 7, 2014; it is a high school drama mixed with light-horror and fantasy. It features a cast of characters of varying ethnicities and sexual orientations. James Tynion IV, known for his work on multiple Batman series for DC Comics, writes this book along with artist Michael Dialynas.

“[The Woods] doesn’t imply stereotypes; it’s just a human story,” said Dialynas in a Skype interview.

In issue #7 of this series, which released in early Nov., the often-hinted upon gay tension between characters Ben and Isaac was finally revealed in a kiss. Ben is a heavy-set black boy who struggles with the common belief that he should play football when he doesn’t want to.

“They’re just two characters in the woods who happen to have a nice moment together,” said Dialynas.

The process Dialynas goes through to craft the characters of The Woods with Tynion is unique. Dialynas asked Tynion for a write-up that supplied him with the media tastes of the characters. When Dialynas was in school, the video game, movie, and music preferences of his classmates tended to say a lot about their character, he explained.

One character, for example, was given a skull on his shirt whenever Dialnyas was told the character likes metal, he further explained.

Telling stories about characters with mental illnesses has also been a part of comic books in 2014. This year saw the return of comic book series Li’l Depressed Boy, relaunched at #1 with the additional subtitle of “Supposed to be There Too.” Li’l Depressed Boy, which began being published by major comics publisher Image Comics in Feb. of 2011, is a comic written by Shaun Steven Struble and drawn by Sine Grace about a character’s struggles with romance and the clinical depression that is intertwined with it.

Image from Image Comics

Image from Image Comics

Struble suffers from clinical depression himself, Struble said in an email interview. The storylines of Li’l Depressed Boy are “thinly-veiled autobiography,” he also said.

The book has a cycle of jumping from different experiences the protagonist as with love interests, along with the symptoms of clinical depression that follow.

“The book is about relationships in general.  One of those is LDB’s relationship with his chemically imballanced brain,” Struble said.

The main character, Li’l Depressed Boy, often referred to as simply LDB by characters in the comic, is a rag doll living amongst regular human beings. Creating a sort of surreal atmosphere, this is never acknowledged in the story.

“I’m lucky that the fact that I write about ragdoll [means] lots of people can see themselves in the main character,” said Struble.

The audience for the book spans greatly across genders, races and locations, according to Struble.

“There are certain aspects of the experience [of depression] that remain the same [despite severity], and we can see each other in ourselves,” said Struble.

Children can also find themselves represented in 2014 comics, both in characters and in demographic targeting. One comic, written by former IGN Comics editor Joey Esposito and Ben Bailey, who still occasionally writes for comic book press/criticism publications, and drawn by Boy Akkerman, is the all-ages Captain Ultimate, published by digital-only Monkeybrain Comics. “All-ages” is a term in the comic book community to refer to books that appeal to every age demographic; the purpose of this term is to rid of any stigma that books that appeal to children are solely for children.

“Kids can tell if they’re being talked down to,” Esposito said in a Skype interview. The only difference between the writing process on an all-ages comic and a more adult focused story for Esposito is checking to be sure there aren’t any bad words in the script, Esposito said with a laugh.

Esposito found himself disappointed in the lack of all-ages comics, which filled him with a passion to do Captain Ultimate, he said. Captain Ultimate is a superhero comic with commentary on the contrast between the morally-wholesome and fun-filled comics of days past and the dark and gritty comics of today.

Esposito has worked on other comic books that aren’t for an “all-ages” audience, such as this year’s Pawn Shop. This comic is about a small store in a big city that unites people of different walks of life, making a statement about the interconnectivity of life. To Esposito, diversity in this cast was essential to getting across the message of the book, he said.

“I started thinking about the kind of people I know,” he said.

The big two in comics, DC and Marvel, have also done things for diversity in the industry this year.

DC Comics put a new creative team on the series Batgirl, featuring a new costume design and a female artist by the name of Babs Tarr. This new direction for the series brought in new gay and female characters.

DC also announced a string of films to release in the coming years, including Justice League films that feature characters like Cyborg, who is black, and Wonder Woman, who is female; both of those characters are also primed to receive films featuring them.

Marvel made mainstream news for shifts in their comic book stories multiple times throughout the year, including their new directions for Captain America and Thor. The person inside the costume for both characters was changed in 2014, Steve Rogers being replaced by black character Sam Wilson (who was previously a superhero named Falcon, a character featured in the 2014 film Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as Captain America, and a new female character taking the title of Thor from the previous hero.

Marvel also started a new series called Ms. Marvel, starring a new character named Kamala Kahn. Kahn is a young, female person of color of the Muslim faith who gains powers and takes the mantle of Ms. Marvel. The book is written by G. Willow Wilson, who is also a Muslim.

Matching DC, Marvel announced movies starring more diverse characters and cast members. Two scheduled films are Black Panther, which stars Chadwick Boseman of 42 fame, and Captain Marvel. Captain Marvel stars a female character that is confirmed to be based off the newest Captain Marvel storylines in the comics, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick.

“A woman creator took a woman character and made fans SO passionate about her that the studio couldn’t help but notice. So wonderful,” said popular feminist comic book critic and former editor for DC Comcis Janelle Asselin.

Despite any kind of progress there are still noteworthy important problems in the industry, according to Asselin.

Among her critiques is a lack of hiring female creators from Marvel and further sexual objectification of women, she said. On Apr. 11, 2014, Asselin penned a guest piece for leading comics site Comic Book Resources harshly critiquing the cover of the first issue of this year’s Teen Titans relaunch, largely for objectifying an underage girl front-and-center.

One big news story in the industry this year was the controversial variant cover for the new Spiderwoman series, featuring the titular character donning an extremely tightly-fitting costume in a sexually suggestive pose with exaggerated body parts.

comicsdiversity manera

Image from Marvel Comics

“[This] cover was a problem, in my opinion, not because it was a sexy cover at all, but because it was an objectifying cover for a book that Marvel had been touting as a book for women and starring a strong female character,” said Asselin.

There were other events this year that casted a negative outlook for diverse representation in comics, including reviews criticizing the new direction of writer Meredith Finch and husband David Finch on art, on the Wonder Woman comic series. Despite being written by female writer Meredith Finch, comic book critics like Jesse Schedeen have criticized the depiction of the protagonist in this new direction. “Diana comes across as weak, whiny, and childish – basically everything she wasn’t under [the previous writer’s] hand,” he said in a review for IGN.

Noting issues with something doesn’t completely demonize it. “Overall, it was a year of positive change,” said Asselin.

Fiction provides creative people with the opportunity to tell stories that represent whatever kinds of people they want to see represented.

“Anything that you want to see that you don’t, make it,” said Esposito.