The Death of Very Special Diversity Comics

If there is a dog–whistle, code–word, red–flag phrase in today’s comic book reviews, it’s Diversity. Used by supporters it means broadening the field of fiction to include stories of all people, by all people. Used by critics it means a weak story and bad writing that is nonetheless promoted as good because it erases the narratives of straight white men.

I’m here to assure you, Gentle Reader—today’s diverse and representative comics are nothing at all like the didactic message fiction of decades past. Written by the Others of yesteryear, the diversity of the past is now representation, now inclusion. Diversity today is vibrant, joyous, and explores the lives of everyone, equally human.

One of the most frustrating things about past diversity comics written by the white heteropatriarchy is the notion that categories of Others can be represented by one person. That diversity is six white guys, one woman, one black man, and one white gay man. It falls on the “diversity characters” to somehow represent everyone in the world of their category. The woman, usually white, straight, young, and thin, stands for every woman in the world.

There is a pushback against today’s diverse comics. Some of this resistance is clearly just flat–out racist, misogynist, and other forms of hateful. But some of the resistance seems to stem from a genuine impression that fiction featuring protagonists who are not straight, white men must be terrible. I believe a lot of folks think this because, well, the diversity fiction I personally recall from thirty years ago was, frankly, terrible.

I wish, I truly do, that I could remember the names of some of the books, TV specials, and comics that dripped heavy–handed condescension while imparting important information to us kids. The gist was almost always the same. Some kid who seemed normal enough would finally grudgingly reveal his or her shameful secret. They were poor. Their dad was in jail. Their uncle had raped them. They were gay. They couldn’t read. Or, in the alternate form, a kid who was visibly different would come to a community, and after some struggles, would convince one other kid that the differences did not matter, should be ignored, that the different kid was really just as good as the normal kid.

You remember these stories, right?

The prize–winner of this ilk in comics is the 1985 Sunday supplemental in which Peter Parker, Spider–Man, reveals that he was sexually abused as a kid. While the story to this day receives praise for the way it frames Peter as sympathetic, I still recall the profound sense of Othering the comic gave me. This, clearly, was not part of the NORMAL Spider–Man comics, the ones everyone read, the ones that mattered. This comic was set aside, made an example of, highlighted as different. The story was supposed to tell kids that being abused wasn’t their fault, that it was okay to tell someone what was happening. But the After School Special nature of the format made it clear that whatever the text read, sexual abuse was a weird thing that wasn’t going to be understood, that would meet disbelief and resistance, that telling someone would be painful and difficult. If not, why did we have to have a special comic supplement about it? Normal things, things everyone held in common, we didn’t need special stories to teach us about those.

I hated those message comics even as I read them. The clear lesson I learned was that there was an objective “normal.” Anyone who was not the objective normal should keep it a secret and be ashamed. That anyone who was not normal must spend all their time and effort hiding it, or, if it was not something that could be hidden, spend all their time convincing others that one is fully human. Those stories intended to hold out some hope. There was always an upbeat ending. After 85 percent of the story was devoted to fear and shame, the ending offered the chance that someone out there might think you were okay. Not normal, obviously, but okay. The rapist was caught, the teacher helped the kid learn to read, the best friend decided to forgive you for being gay.

This thing that marks you as different, the diversity comics said, it can be mitigated if not erased. We can help you pretend better, more thoroughly, to be “normal.” There’s hope for you.

Here’s the thing:

Those stories weren’t written for the outsider, the freak, the kid with the problem.

Message comics were written for the mainstream, the kid without that specific problem. Those stories were written by folks who were trying to induce empathy and sympathy in “normal” insider folks. “Here,” the books said, “is the perspective and life of a kid different from you. See how they struggle, how rough they have it? But they are a kid just like you, so don’t be an asshole. Be kind.”

The comics were didactic, sensationalized, and they were written by and for the white heteropatriarchy. As a result, they just weren’t very good.

Today’s diversity in comics is not that. Today’s diverse, representative comics treat marginalized stories as the default, as relatable for everyone. They are full of lived experience, of humor and tragedy. No one in today’s diverse comics is bothering to convince the heteropatriarchy of the intrinsic humanity of their protagonist. The writers of today assume humanity as a default.

Lumberjanes by Noelle StevensonGrace EllisShannon WattersBrooke A. Allen

The joy of Lumberjanes is that no one character must stand for every girl ever.

The girls in Lumberjanes are at summer camp. A bizarre summer camp of rather more peril than I hope the camps my kids attend would permit! The campers are all different from each other. Some are thoughtful, others impulsive. Some are women of color, others are not. Some are queer, some are straight, and some don’t care about that yet. Some are athletic, others are clumsy. Some are angry, others joyous. And all these characters relate to each other in unique combinations, meeting and getting along or not as their personalities dictate.

Lumberjanes is modern diversity comics. It is well–written, cleverly and cleanly drawn. The plot is a twist on a very, very old classic. There is nothing pedantic about Lumberjanes. This is not a story about how That One Girl is Just as Good as the Boys at Camp. This is a story of adventure and old grievances as seen through the eyes of a group of brave and inventive girls.

Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

Kamala Khan lives a life of exuberant joy. She is a teenage girl from Jersey City, a Muslim, and a superhero. At no point does Kamala feel a strong need to explain to anyone why and how she is Muslim, any more than she feels a need to explain why she’s proud to be from Jersey. Were Kamala’s story to be told in the dreary tones of after school special, Kamala would be afraid to tell people about her religion, she would be ashamed of her family. Kamala is neither ashamed nor afraid. Her only real identity conflict revolves around how to keep her family safe from enemies she makes as an Avenger.

Truly, this is a conflict universal to superhero comics.

Wilson and Alphona have made Muslim identity as absolutely mainstream in the Marvel superhero universe as any other identity could be. Kamala’s world is populated by dozens of characters, all different from each other, none of which are burdened by the need to stand in for ALL of anything.

Monstress by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda

Sometimes, we all would like to be monstrous. Maika, the protagonist of Monstress, is linked to something part demon, part monster. The story unfolds quickly in gorgeously drawn art, with brilliantly white moonlight and disturbingly red blood.

The women of Monstress are as varied as the creatures they carry with them. Twisted and horrific or full of razor–edged cunning, huge and towering or whip–fast and clever—the monsters express different needs, different motivations. As do the women. No one woman defines what all women must be. No single monster limits what can be terrifying or tragic.

Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Val De Landro, Taki Soma, and Robert Wilson

Some folks objected to Kelly Sue DeConnick’s work on the comic Captain Marvel, calling it angry feminism. Her response? You haven’t even begun to see angry yet.

You might think that the feminist rage of Bitch Planet would be off–putting. But as satire, it’s not. The plot of Bitch Planet is about sports, and prison, and making money, and keeping one’s sense of self. Themes we have been assured time and again are universal, because they speak to the lives of men. Yet all the protagonists are women of color.

This is not a feminist polemic comic designed to tell men everything they are doing wrong. It’s not a comic listing grievances and demanding apologies. In fact, it’s a comic that isn’t really talking to men at all. Sure, men can (and do) read it, can (and do) love it. But they read and love a comic in which they, straight white men, are the alien and incomprehensible Other.

ODY–C by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward

The Odyssey. Set in space. Gender–swapped. And that ambitious bastard Matt Fraction, he has still written it all in verse—not a translation of the Greek–language original, but a re–imagining placed back into heroic poetry.

As in the original tale, Odyssia and her crew are not entirely admirable. They are violent and conniving, domineering and cruel, while at the same time full of honorable purpose. They are, in short, just like the men in the original. There is power in the transformation. There is a jaw–dropping sense of real wonder at seeing women and non–binary folk master our myths.

This is one of those works that reminds us that the greatness of a work does not depend on the gender identity of the protagonist. That classic, epic stories are still masterpieces when women, trans folk, and non–binary people are at the center. Genitalia do not define legend.

Stumptown by Greg Rucka and Matt Southworth

One of the things most often erased from attempted diversity is the fact that protagonists can know all sorts of people. That our communities are rich, full of folks similar to and different from us. The protagonist of Stumptown, Dex, lives a life of complicated relationships. She gets angry with the people she loves, she takes care of them, she nurtures them, she disappoints them.

One of the things most often lost when a single character must represent a category is failure. Rage, sarcasm, letting people down, screwing things up. Dex does all of these things. It’s refreshing to see a woman living a fully realized life. And, besides, she’s a kickass detective.

The thing I notice most in today’s representative comics is the near–total lack of shame. The characters in Bitch Planet, in Sex Criminals, in Nimona, are not embarrassed by who they are, what they do, how they love, or where they come from. The protagonists are sometimes angry at those in the mainstream, but they are not ashamed. That old siren “message comics” dance of be–fearful–and–ashamed, reveal your secret, and be accepted by those with power—that dance just isn’t present in today’s diverse and representative comics.

That story’s done.

We have moved on.

Not all comics have moved on, of course. The week that I write this has seen some stellar examples of reactionary, tone–deaf, dismissive, dominant–paradigm–enforcing bullshit. But I believe with all my heart that the people taking that stance, writing those stories, that they are the past. We will keep going forward into the future, drawing strength and joy from everyone’s stories told for us all.

Today’s diverse comics are by wildly different creators. And these folks are writing about their own experiences, from their own communities. These creators fill their work with the details that say, “this is my life; come, listen to my story.”

If you, Gentle Reader, remember the message comics of yore with wincing, negative nostalgia, don’t fear. Instead of ham–fisted polemics and reinforcement of heteropatriarchal norms, today’s comics contain genuine representation and rolicking stories.

Enjoy what the future has brought.

Sigrid Ellis

Sigrid Ellis is co–editor of the Hugo–nominated Queers Dig Time Lords
and Chicks Dig Comics anthologies. She edits the best–selling Pretty
Deadly from Image Comics. She was the flash–fiction editor of Queers
Destroy Science Fiction, from Lightspeed Press. She edited the
Hugo–nominated Apex Magazine for 2014. She lives with her partner,
their two homeschooled children, her partner’s boyfriend, and a host
of vertebrate and invertebrate pets in Saint Paul, MN.

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