Tag Archives: comics

My musings on increased diversity in comics

So Thor is to be a woman, Captain America is to be African-American, Spiderman Hispanic, Ms Marvel Pakistani (I prefer the ungendered ‘Captain Marvel’ title to ‘Ms Marvel’, but we shall press on), and other similar flippings and re-imaginings are bringing a new sense of diversity to familiar comic heroes. And to my own surprise, I am conflicted. I should be all for this… but.

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Photo Credit: Marvel Entertainment

Let me say from the outset, I want comics to diversify and tell the stories of people who are not straight, white guys. I want more stories with protagonists of colour. I want my sons to see superheroes that reflect the world they live in, populated as it is by shades of brown, by more women than men, by the rich traditions of cultures from around the globe. I’ve written here about diversity in storytelling before.

I love the idea of a female superhero flying in, swinging a hammer, sending lightning to strike her foes, in a superheroic role that don’t require skin-tight black leather, cleavage-bearing cut-outs or bikini line waxing. I was raised by Buffy. On top of this, Falcon is the obvious candidate to take-up the star-spangled shield if Steve Rogers’ serum were to fail him, and an African-American Captain America should be unremarkable in an America where Obama is president, for readers who have grown-up admiring athletes like Jordan, Shaq and LeBron.

And yet I am conflicted by these changes. For all those reasons I have to support them, something grates. I worried initially that this was some vestigial cultural rejection, that some part of me was stamping its feet and saying ‘Thor is a man because he just is dammit!’ But I don’t think that’s what this is. After all, much has been of Thor’s time as a frog, for a time Captain America was a Skrull, Superman has been a gorilla, etc. These passed unremarked, as they should have, and perhaps as these changes should too.

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I think instead that my conflict comes from concern that these well-intentioned changes don’t actually achieve the message they intend. These changes are not tokenism – as Chuck Wendig’s excellent post points out – and I don’t argue that they are. Yet it is not a true increase in diversity either. It is a veneer of diversity. I find that it disappoints me, particularly in the case of Thor, that these new heroes are presented to us only after they come to inhabit some other, established, identity – a white man’s identity.

Commercially, bringing these protagonists into the role of existing, established characters (with an existing, established readership) makes sense. Comic book superheroes are not rare. It’s a crowded space into which a new addition may make barely a ripple, but change an existing member of its pantheon, and people notice. Geekdoms landslide with approbation or applause, likely both. Either way you get noticed. You get into mainstream media. And that’s good business and I absolutely understand that.

In the case of Spiderman, and Captain America, and many others, I can see how the passing of the identity works. It has been long established. Many characters have taken on an heroic role: Azrael becomes Batman after the breaking of Bruce Wayne; the many iterations of The Flash (Barry Allen, Wally West, Bart Allen and beyond). I can imagine someone taking up the bow and purple cowl of Hawkeye, because Hawkeye is not restricted to Clint Barton (and Barton has played other roles than Hawkeye). When Pym retired as Ant-Man others used the technology to take on the role.

Thor is different, as are Superman and The Hulk. Behind Batman’s cowl anyone can dispense vigilante justice, that’s the nature of the cowl and of the secret identity of its wearer, but as Tarantino’s Bill pointed out, Superman is not a costume. Kal-El dresses up as Clark Kent, but Superman is inextricably Kal-el. Likewise, Hulk is inextricably Banner, Thor is inextricably the son of Odin. ‘Thor’ is not a title to be passed on.

God of Thunder is a role. Wielder of Mjölnir is a role.  These are roles that could be given to someone other than Thor Odinson, and at times they have, and yet when Captain America (or Storm, or Beta Ray Bill) did wield the hammer, they did not become Thor. They were able to play the same role, but not to inhabit the same identity.

Previous attempts – admirable in themselves – at gender diversity were similarly flawed or fraught: female superheroes were defined by connections with, or as counter-points to, male heroes. Batman/Batgirl; Superman/Supergirl; Hulk/She-Hulk; Thor/Thor-girl, etc. (Ms. Marvel becoming Capt. Marvel being an exception here). Marvel seems keen to head-off this criticism. Their announcement of the female Thor was couched in language as much about what she was not, as about what she was. Jason Aaron has said that “this new Thor isn’t a temporary female substitute – she’s now the one and only Thor, and she is worthy!”… “This is not She-Thor, This is not Lady Thor. This is not Thorita. This is Thor.”

So she has become that identity entire. And this is precisely where she sends the opposite message to the one I believe was intended. Can a female superhero not exist in her own identity, as herself? Must she inhabit the identity of a white guy before she’s gifted legitimacy? Can a woman only be heroic by taking on a male role – not just the characteristics of a male hero, but the very identity? Because if the answer to those questions is a yes, that’s a crap message.

Having Sam Wilson trade in his wings for a shield doesn’t actually add diversity to Marvel, it’s just reshuffling their deck. Wilson was ground-breaking as a black superhero in 1969, and he breaks some ground now as Captain America, but it’s not added diversity. He’s not new, he’s just rebranded. Nor is he the first black man to take on the uniform. More than 10 years ago Marvel had a black Captain America in Isaiah Bradley.

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The criticisms levelled at that 2003 series ring eerily familiar this week:

“…outright racists who just don’t like the idea of a black man in the Cap uniform.”
(http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,390672,00.html)

“When we posted our first image of Isaiah Bradley – the silhouette of an African American man in a Captain America costume – the media latched onto it as a story of interest, but a lot of internet folks lined up against it, assuming, for whatever reason, that it would disparage the legacy of Steve Rogers.”
(http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=34680)

Despite Aaron’s insistence, both the ‘black Captain America’ and the ‘female Thor’ are absolutely being positioned as temporary inhabitants of these roles. Thor Odinson can reclaim Mjölnir when he is again worthy. Steve Rodgers remains in many ways the ‘real’ Captain America, training Sam Wilson in how to throw the shield and wear the stars, running the missions from Avengers mansion. An unkind reading would have this as a white master sending out his black errand boy. Both of these characters are replacements, and as such any identity they form will be in the shadows of their (white, male) predecessors, never an independently their own.

To bring them in in this way is to ensure that they are less prominent even in their role because they will always be viewed through a comparative lens. Rather than having Falcon brought to prominence in his own right (perhaps as the lead in a Falcon film where Captain America plays his second fiddle), Marvel has merely swapped the colour palate for the Captain America inking. Rather than bring Lady Sif to prominence in her own right, Marvel has merely altered Thor, making a pointier breastplate prominent. I’m sure they will do more with the characters that that, they have talented writers on hand, but the criticism is there to be made.

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And I do support that these stories are being told. I do support greater genuine diversity of the people represented as heroes. There’s better ways to achieve this. You want an African-American hero? DC could do well to leave the Ryan Reynolds disaster behind and cast a Green Lantern based on John Stewart in an upcoming Justice League film (and let The Rock play him!). What better opportunity than having a woman and an African American (I know The Rock is a Pacific Islander, stick with me here) stand alongside the Kryptonian and the Gothamite? It was a noted strength of the Winter Soldier film that when Captain America (Rodgers) needed allies he turned to two black men and a woman.

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Diversify The Avengers? Bring Falcon onto the team. Bring Rhodey on as War Machine and give Downey Jnr a rest.  Introduce Black Panther (and give him a movie of his own). Where’s Luke Cage? He has worked with Spider Man, Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Hulk and could appear in any number of franchises? (The Rock again? Or Idris Elba? Just don’t cast Nicholas Cage to play the Harlem-raised African-American).

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Would these suffer from the accusations or the reality of ‘side-kick spin-off’ syndrome? Perhaps. So take a character who’s no one’s side-kick.

You want a female superhero throwing lightning around and kicking arse? Storm! She’s established and portrayed in film by an Oscar winner. She’s a female of colour. She has worked with The Avengers before. If Wolverine can have an origin, why not Storm? Want a woman hitting hard with a divine hammer? Have Ms Marvel take up Mjölnir, or Brunnhilde the Valkyrie. Have Jane Foster pick up the hammer when Thor’s knocked down. Who wouldn’t want to see Natalie Portman with Mjölnir in hand? Have a new female character (Asgardian or otherwise) wield it. There’s no shortage of Norse myth to plunder.

Have Frigg and her attendants as a team of female heroes.

Gender-swap Vidar and have a Goddess who can stand beside Thor with the strength to rip Fenris’s jaw asunder with her bare hands.

Have Tyr become a one-handed Goddess of single combat.

Imagine if Nanna swore revenge instead of pining her way to an early death in grief at Loki’s murder of her husband. Powered by her need to avenge Baldr the (now former?) Goddess of Peace could oppose Loki, could ignore Thor’s calls for restraint or mercy, could be a narrative grenade tossed into the halls of Asgard and the world of men. She could renounce her reign of peace and unleash violence of divine proportions. She links to existing canon in that she is fighting an existing antagonist. She could draw on the tradition of moon goddesses, a new Diana hunting through the Marvel universe. Thor could cameo to plead with her for his brother’s safety, and she could shrug him off as a weak-willed and overly sympathetic fool. She could take Mjölnir from him, not received as a gift, but taken as her right, and in a rage she could wield it against her foes.

That’s a kick-arse female hero I want to read more about.

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Characters

So I’ve put up the second character profile for my new project. She’s obviously markedly different from the protagonist of the piece, but then narrative is conflict I suppose.

Now in both these cases the character profiles are quite extensive. As these will be the two main characters so there’s a fair bit of extra work put into giving them a back-story and motivations that will make sense of their decisions and actions in the plot.

So I figured I talk a little today about what I think makes a good character in a narrative. There’s plenty of web resources covering this topic, but here’s my 2 cents:

Make them flawed.

Think of all the most popular characters in fiction and you won’t have to think for long to find their flaws. There’s whole blogs to be filled with the flaws of Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, Leer and Shakespeare’s creations, so too the Greek tragedies, but let’s, for the sake of brevity, confine our discussion to the last couple of decades. Humbert Humbert was a pedophile, Leopold Bloom couldn’t keep his thoughts in order, Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict (and almost certainly insufferable company), Yossarian was insane (but not insane enough), Randle McMurphy was too sane, Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time, Kurtz was a megalomaniac and a murderer, Winston Smith was old and weak and pathetic, Atticus Finch… well there’s always an exception.

Seriously though it’s the flaws that we as readers want to see. Even in non-realistic narratives. Superman gets a lot more interesting if there’s kryptonite about. Batman is the best superhero character because he is the most flawed. Harry Potter is flawed because (spoiler alert) he has part of Voldemort’s soul in him. We watch Star Wars because of Darth Vader (who’s evil) and Han Solo (who’s a ‘rogue’). I doubt the films would have been so popular if they were all about Luke going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.

George Martin understands this better than most. So too do Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan. Tolkein probably didn’t.

Allow readers to relate to them

Characters aren’t really people. Although you want them to be realistic you need some room for the reader to wriggle in and make themself part of the narrative. This is where Luke Skywalker comes in, and Frodo, and Charles Marlowe, and Harry Potter in the first few books (we only find out about his flaw after several increasingly large volumes), and so many others.

I wasn’t raised by my uncle and aunt on tatooine, but I know what it’s like to have too many chores and to wish my life could mean something more than just working on the family farm. I’ve never had a magic ring but I know what it’s like to feel over-burdened and crushed by responsibility. I’ve never been to Africa but I know what it’s like to be in a strange place where the cultural rules you know don’t count for much and you’re trapped on a journey to a task you don’t really want to do. I’ve never been to Hogwarts but a new school and I’m an outcast… I could go on.

The best example of this rule (but possibly the worst example of every other rule) is Bella from Twilight. Now I’m basing this on the films because I’ve seen two of those but  haven’t read any of the books. Bella is a shell. She’s utterly empty and devoid of any personality, will or individuality. This makes her the perfect vessel for the reader. You can pick up Twilight and start reading and in your imagination you’re imagining yourself having to choose between the perfect (but dead) Edward and the perfect (but not Edward) Jacob. *swoon*

Give them a purpose of their own

Not just their purpose for your story, but a purpose to their own being. It doesn’t have to make sense to us, but it has to make sense to them. There’s still a pantomime thrill in having a character do something you, the reader, know is dumb. If it seems to them that it’s the best thing to do but the reader knows something they don’t then no worries. Of course if they’re basing their action or decision on something we know but the character doesn’t you have a problem.

When we do something we vary rarely (Plato and Aristotle would argue basically never) do it for its own sake. We always have some other goal, or end, in mind. I don’t go to the gym because I have a really massive desire to pick up iron and put it back down where I found it. I don’t go for a run because of the run itself. I do these things because I believe that if I do I will be fitter and healthier. I want to be fitter and healthier because I believe it will bring me a happier, longer life. I want a long life because I want to spend more time with my family and see my boys grow up. I want to be there when they grow up so I can help them to be good people and live good lives (whatever that means).

My point is that characters will have these long-term motivations too. As a writer you need to balance the short-term and the long term motivations and create a pattern of actions which make sense. Of course there’s room to create a capricious or unpredictable character, but even they will want to achieve something in the end.

Make them grow

Maybe growth is a loaded term, but make them change at least. Maybe not every character, and maybe not a lot, but over the course of your story someone or someones need to change.

There’s examples in Harry Potter and Star Wars again (think of Luke Skywalker, or Harry himslef, or better yet the many changes of Snape, or the vast change in Neville). In the Game of Thrones (spoiler alert) Robert bemoans his own transformation from warrior hero to fat alcoholic, Arya goes from nobleman’s daughter to a criminal boy (even if it is a disguise).  Think of the reversal in Macbeth – initially he’s unsure and tending to loyalty even if it is through guilt, she’s egging him on, taunting him for his weakness. By the final act Macbeth is mad with bloodlust and Lady Macbeth overcome with guilt. This is what we wanted to see. How do people change? How are they affected by what’s happening to them, by the things they do or which are done to them?

Now there are exceptions. Call it ‘The Simpsons’ phenomenon (though it’s been around a lot longer than that). Bart will always be an underachiever. Homer will never learn. Lisa will always wear those pearls. But The Simpsons and the like are narrative McDonalds: we know it’s not really good for us but it’s comfortable, familiar, you know what you’re going to get from it.

Narrative force is in change, and it takes both character and plot development (more on that later) to make it happen.


What Fantasy Fiction means (to me)

So I’ve posted a couple of short stories which I have tagged as fantasy. They are stories I submitted to spec-fic ezines as ‘fantasy’ pieces, but I think the term requires a little investigation.

Inevitably this discussion will have to deal with “the ghetto of genre”, but I like to think this is less an issue now than in the recent past. Where once, no so long ago, genre-fiction was something enjoyed by niche readerships it seems now that broad audiences are more accepting of genre-fiction. This manifests in two ways.

Firstly works of genre-fiction are more successful and reach larger audiences. The obvious examples here are “Harry Potter” (Magic Fantasy), “Twilight” (Supernatural Romance Fantasy) and “Hunger Games” (Post-Apolcolyptic Sci-Fi). “Game of Thrones” (Epic Fantasy*) could be added to that in terms of the NY Best-sellers list, and the Showcase adaptation is broadening the exposure still further.

Historically it has been harder for Fantasy to reach such audiences. “The Lord of the Rings” is of course the prototype of the popular Fantasy story, but its readership always carried something of a social stigma, until the success of the Peter Jackson adaptations opened its appeal to a new generation audience.

The enduring appeal of comic-book super-heroism is successful Fantasy, but until recently ‘comics’ were considered childish at best and geek at worst, perhaps (despite the Pulitzer won by “Maus” and the Hugo by “Watchmen”) they still are.

Further back we have the success of “Star Trek” (Soft Sci-Fi) and of course “Star Wars” (Sci-Fi / Fantasy), again with accompanying social stigma being recently reduced, in the first case by the grittier JJ Abrams re-boot and the latter by the prequels.

There was of course a time before genre so defined a text, so we have the canonical status of the speculative fantasies of traditional story-telling; Grimm’s tales for instance, “Gulliver’s Travels”, “Wonderland” the Gothic fantasies of Poe, the incipient Science-Fiction of Mary Shelley and R.L. Stevenson, whereas the weird fantasies of Lovecraft and Kafka, and the Golden Age Sci-Fi of Asimov, Clarke, P.K. Dick and Heinlein have achieved comparable respect only within their ‘ghetto’.

Secondly we see the breaking down of genre barriers so that genres are combined, created, morphed, mangled and ignored by authors. China Mieville famously called Tolkein “The wen on the arse of Fantasy literature” (though he has tempered that rage a little more recently) before going on to define the genres of “New Weird” and “Urban Fantasy”.  He wasn’t the only one to criticise Tolkein’s influence on Fantasy (and the influences of other conservative writers – Lewis springs immediately to mind). Perhaps as a result of shaking off the ‘stultifying influence’ of “Rings” (and others), contemporary authors are exploring the limits of what ‘Fantasy’ can encompass (or challenging the value of genres all-together).

Seth Grahame Smith has found a new use for classic literature. Diana Gabaldon uses the Sci-Fi trope of time-travel to create a bare-chested  Romance set against a Low Fantasy milieu.  Neil Gaiman brings myth to the strip-malls and freeways of the American road-trip.  Richard K Morgan creates Noir Sci-fi and an Epic Fantasy (which may actually be a Sci-Fi) complete with magical swords, non-human races, magic… and protaganists who are by turns gay, drug-abusing, sociopathic and decidedly anti-heroic. Joe Abercrombie drags his ‘heroes’ through a formulaic Quest Fantasy… torturing them and any other character that takes his interest along the way and finally depositing them in the most unexpected places.

How then do we define ‘fantasy’?

Tzvetan Todorov identified two modes of story-telling within ‘the fantastic’: ‘the marvellous’, and ‘the uncanny’.

He first defines ‘the fantastic’ as “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” He differentiates ‘the marvellous’ from ‘the uncanny’ by how they explain this event.

In ‘the uncanny’ the events can be explained within the laws of nature, perhaps through some fault of the character (or the reader) in understanding them.

In ‘the marvellous’ the events cannot be explained within the laws of physics, and are therefore accepted (b the character and presumably the readers) as supernatural.

I would like to think that my Fantasy writing avoids both the uncanny and the marvelous, or is perhaps different things to different readers.  As a writer I would like to keep my reader in that state of hesitation, in Todorov’s ‘fantastic’, for as long as the inevitable winnowing of narrative progress allows.

And so what does all this mean for me, the aspiring writer with a love of Fantasy Fiction?

I think it means what I want it to mean. I think it means freedom. Genre is not the ghetto it once was, or was once feared to be… Fantasy is a rich landscape in which I’m free to explore and perhaps even claim my own little plot of land, and to build upon it whatever structure I like.