Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Racism and Comic Book Readers

Are comic book readers generally racist? Is that why books starring diverse characters "sell less" (citation needed)?

This article at Bleeding Cool begs the question. Mark Waid is quoted by CBR at Baltimore Comic Con on the failure of the Boom! comic High Rollers:

"The concept was an urban take on organized crime. To Waid’s shock and awe, an astonishing amount of retailers claimed they had no audience due to the color of the characters."

Bleeding Cool then interviews a number of comic book retailers, who just about unanimously claim that their customers are not racist.

So which is it?

My own two cents: At DC I was told several times that comics starring African-Americans (or simply Africans, or Asians, or women, etc.) do not sell, that the majority of the comic-buying audience do not want to read them. One such proclamation happened in relation to the book Batman: Orpheus Rising, and one to the series Bad Girls. Oh, this was said about the entire Milestone line too. (This was DC Comics 7+ years ago, keep in mind; I'm sure a lot has changed since then.)

The flip-side of that is the success of a comic like Chew and a comic book related movie like Blade.

Is this "common wisdom" regarding the commercial viability of diverse characters a self-fulfilling prophecy? Are such comics at a disadvantage from the start by certain publishers who consciously or unconsciously buy into that "common wisdom" and don't want to allocate enough dollars to market/promote them?

Or is Mark Waid simply pointing out a problem that comic book retailers would never admit to the media on-the-record? ("Why yes Rich, most of my customers are indeed racists").

This is an open question to you all -- what do you think?

Postscript: There is also a separate but related side-issue regarding select extremely xenophobic/racist/sexist/homophobic comic book fans who freak out at things like James Rhodes being Iron Man and the Luke Cage/Jessica Jones thing. Those types of cranks really do exist, and also apparently like to write very crazy letters.

Related posts:
"Cartoonists Of Color Protest Newspapers"
"Vixen/JLA: The "Halle Berry Defense""
"Can Gina Torres Be Wonder Woman?"


  1. I used to read all the Milestone stuff back in the day. Icon was my favorite title. Nowadays I just read the old stuff. I've always loved the Falcon and that was due to him being teamed up with Captain America. The Falcon had a cool costume too. I even had the Mego figure of him.

    It may come down to stores and where they are located. If I owned a store in the Philly area I'd carry the books but if I was in the suburbs I'd carry it for subscribers and maybe one for the wall. Too much stuff and going through the Previews each month (if you're a store owner) is like trying to buy lottery tickets. You don't know what books will be good sellers as there is so much of them nowadays... and none of them have great print numbers since we're so fragmented with our interests.

    Basically, it's all about the location of your store. I'm more concerned that most stores have no kids section that is visable or well stocked.

  2. I liked the Milestone line and actively supported it when it came out. The problem was that a lot of the titles reinforced black urban stereotypes. I think it was probably necessary for the line to speak loudly and get in people's faces, but it ultimately lead to its downfall.

    I'm not sure that comic readers are racist. But by and large, books targeted at or starring minorities have been horribly derivative. I think people in general are tired of tokens or stereotypes. I mean, how many times does the Asian dude have to be a martial artist. I wouldn't buy that book and I'm Asian.

    I think minority characters haven't been given a fair chance. When they show up, their ethnicity defines them. The Asian girl is a ninja prostitute. The black guy is a former gang member. The Latino guy has ties to Columbian drug lords. Who wants to read that kind of derivative shit?

    I think things are getting better now. We have minority characters who aren't defined by their ethnicity. I think if more of these types of minorities have starring roles in comics, we can have a more accurate measure of whether or not comic book readers are racist.

  3. I think with the big companies its a case of readers wanting the old staples like Superman, Batman and Spiderman.Cass Cain held a series because she was Batgirl. Hence we got DC killing off beloved characters to make the line more diverse and then killing off the replacements to go back to the classics. I think they caught on when they bought the milestone characters. Static is established and now they can exploit the character. They don't have the profit margin to do this for themselves so they buy in.

    So no. I don't think the readers are racist by and large I think they are unwilling to try something new.

  4. One of the retailers cops to a homophobic reader not a racist one. Another talks about 20% African American readers - and not a single sale of High Rollers. They don't seem to be wearing tinted glasses over this.

    Also this is the Milestone that sold 400,000 of Hardware #1 to retailers, eight times ahead of expected orders...

  5. "I don't think the readers are racist by and large I think they are unwilling to try something new."

    I think the unwillingness to try something new is the biggest culprit across-the-board. Some of this is due to a very insular mentality, but some of it is also due to the fact that comics are relatively expensive.

  6. This: "I think minority characters haven't been given a fair chance. When they show up, their ethnicity defines them. The Asian girl is a ninja prostitute. The black guy is a former gang member. The Latino guy has ties to Columbian drug lords. Who wants to read that kind of derivative shit?"

    And this: "I don't think the readers are racist by and large I think they are unwilling to try something new."

    The former sums up my general reaction to what usually happens to minority characters in comics. As soon as their minority status is used as their only defining trait or method of characterization, I completely shut off and put the book (or movie, or whatever) away.

    The latter is almost everyone everywhere. Which makes it the toughest nut to crack, and why ad wizards get paid mega bucks and live in castles.

  7. DC comics has a non-white legacy character for almost every "mainstream" hero they have, all of which were eventually pushed out [or back] by their predominantly white, silver age counter-part. Marvel faced a very real outcry when a rumor came out that Ultimate Captain America was going to be black. It's hard not to wonder.

    I think there is some part of the readership that wants to have these characters as some sort of reflection of themselves, and a bunch of white male readers just don't connect with characters of different ethnicities, especially when they're just enhanced stereo-types of cultures they don't have any involvement in, or understand.

    If you look at the characters who aren't white that have taken off with comic readers, I think you see that by and large they don't reflect the strict, often disgusting stereotype - instead of the studious Asian kid, we have the mall-hopping Jubilee, instead of the battle-hardened straight from the ghetto African-American, you have the typical teen Static Shock, or even the happy-go-lucky Skin from Generation X [though he still had from the hood origins]. And I think a lot of characters in similar situations, like Ryan Choi and Jaime Reyes [Atom, Blue Beetle], were accepted by audiences because they weren't just their race.

    Still, I say that, and two of those characters I mentioned are dead, two have been used sparingly, and one, despite critical acclaim, couldn't keep the sales up to keep from getting axed.

    And if we just decide this, as well as more specifically what Waid is referring to, is just because comic readers at large are resistant to change, does that necessarily absolve anyone of the charge of being racist? Isn't this, in a way, a form of economic racism - we're not stocking the book because no one will buy it, but since the book isn't stocked, how is anyone ever going to give it a chance? And all because the main character is black [or whatever ethnicity, sexuality, etc.]?

    I know it's not a direct parallel, but it just reminds me way too much of "I don't have a problem with black people, but if they move into my neighborhood, my property values will go down."

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. My apologies. Blogger told me my first comment was too long to post, but apparently submitted it anyway. Hence the shorter, second response I removed. I don't want to clutter your responses with two from me saying basically the same thing.

  10. Just so you think this is not a fanboy-specific problem, women's fashion magazines go through the same debate regarding females of color on their covers.

  11. Here's an interesting comment on the Bleeding Cool board from a retailer;

    "More prevalent, in my experience, is homophobia. I've had multiple customers drop Dark Wolverine because of it, and had one customer repeatedly complain about the Moondragon/Phyla relationship in Marvel's cosmic books. (This was the same guy who--I wish I were joking--told me about his fears of predatory lesbians abducting his daughters from the playground and turning them gay). I've always found it especially strange when my X-Men readers have complained about the presence of Northstar; how they could so thoroughly miss the point of the X-Men is baffling. "

  12. Regarding a comment made above by James Noguchi, I don't see how anyone could claim to have actively supported Milestone, and then in the next breath complain that it "reinforced Black urban stereotypes."

    I've seen similar comments online before about Milestone. Someone will say that the tried to read Milestone but it was "just about Blackness," or something like that. I recall one reading once said he didn't like Milestone because "all the heroes were Black and all the villains were White."

    It always makes me wonder, what books were these reading?!? Or did they just look @ the covers? Because I have almost all of the Milestone books, and I wouldn't characterize them like that @ all.

    Icon was a conservative Republican. Hardware a brilliant scientist. Not sure what Black Urban Stereotype those fit. Static was a typical teenage nerd, who did well in school and liked to read comics, with a multi-ethnic group of friends (including his closest confidant, a White Jewish girl).

    Then you get Blood Syndicate, a group of superpowered gang-members. You could easily dismiss that as a stereotypical concept, unless you actually read the book. It was also multi-ethnic, with Black, Latino, Asian and White members. And had a homosexual and a transgendered member. Later Milestone books including an ongoing title starring a Cuban-American (Kobalt) and Xombi, and ongoing title with an Asian-American superhero who was not a martial artist).

  13. 1) What was the name of that comic in the 90's that was kicking Marvel and DC's asses? It had toys and a movie. What was it? Oh yeah, Spawn.
    2) I see a lot of minorities (and ladies) at the comics shows I attend. I wonder what they buy.
    3) I watched a couple of episodes of Static Shock last week. It was pretty good. Lots of neat bad guys. I liked it.

  14. @J.R. LeMar, ah!! You're right! My memory is terrible. Been a while since I read them.

    So maybe it's better to say that Milestone really never got the chance to sink in with the readers.

    I kind of think it might be time for a new imprint to come along. I don't think DC or Marvel will be the ones to come up with new diverse lineups of characters since the fanbase is so ensconced in their mainstays. It's like pulling teeth to get new characters to stick.

    A new imprint would be free of those continuity woes and have a chance to break new ground. Like a Milestone ver. 2 or something along those lines.

  15. To be fair, I think that we are way past the period in history in which having black characters or even black creators necessitates even black sales.

    I'm a black person who is struggling to find an emotion faint enough to describe how I feel about the comic book in question. I mean STRUGGLING. For all that I know, it could be really good but I...don't care about Mister Two Guns and his pole-dancer friend in the background.

    Every so often I see one of these "urban" comic books and the closest that I come to buying one is scowling in its direction. I'd be much more interested in a comic book about a black doctor, truck driver, chemistry grad student, carpenter, superhero, lawyer, astronaut, mad scientist or K-Mart employee than I would about any black gangster.

    I don't mean to derail the subject, I'm truly sorry, because I do believe that the points about racism against black characters and subject matter is a *VERY REAL ISSUE* in comic books today. It's just that this isn't the fight. Look at the cover--it could be brilliant, but it looks like it's just WAITING to insult your intelligence.

  16. "...comic book fans who freak out at things like James Rhodes being Iron Man..."

    If Rhodey had been the first Iron Man, it wouldn't even be a concern.

    For example: people who were introduced to the character of Green Lantern on the Justice League animated series accepted John Stewart as GL without question.
    Because to them, he wasn't a "replacement" for "original" GL Hal Jordan! (who wasn't even the "original", anyway! Alan Scott preceded him as a Green Lantern!)
    Stewart IS the "original" GL to the animated series fans!

    Conversely, Rhodey is "accepted" as War Machine because he's the first guy to have the identity!

    Yes, there is racism in comics, but I don't think it applies to that particular case.

  17. "Yes, there is racism in comics, but I don't think it applies to that particular case."

    probably would explain the death threats Marvel allegedly received regarding Rhodey back in the day, though.

  18. Phil Jimenez has talked about receieving tons of hate male when he had Wonder Woman start dating a Black man.

  19. As an illustration of Valerie's earlier point about fashion magazines:

    Out of ten fashion magazines, only four ran features spotlighting a black model.

    Is it that white women aren't interested in black models? Is it that fashion magazine editors assume their readers are white and uninterested in black models?

    I don't believe that the readers or the editors of these magazines are deliberately racist. But the magazines don't seem to be sending the message that a) black women are attractive or b) black readers are welcome.

  20. Valerie, how did Quantum And Woody fare compared to other Acclaim Comics for retailers?

  21. "Valerie, how did Quantum And Woody fare compared to other Acclaim Comics for retailers?"

    From what I remember, Q&W did great. We kept putting out special editions, it was one of the first Acclaim TPBs we put out, and it was the first comic that we created a toy from. Those initiatives wouldn't have happened unless we had the sales to back them up.

    It was also a very fun comic to read. If new issues were put out today, I think they would still find an audience.

  22. The ideal that something with a nonwhite lead wont sell (or at least sell big) isn't something unique with comics. For example i've seen it stated that's a common view with people that make tv shows (a show with a Black lead wont bring it white veiwers)

    The thing with other media is that at least they try every so often even they beleive they won't have a crossover hit and have somehting that's aimed at a certian market.

    it seems comics don't look at things that way and if a comic with a minority character sales well enough to stay around for a while, yet not a chart topper then minorities don't sell even thought they have shown to be able to hold their own fanbase.