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Tuesday, March 20, 2007 

What are the reasons for comics declining? Not exactly what the following writer thinks

Brad Mackay, the director of the Doug Wright Cartooning Awards in Canada, wrote in the Toronto Star about how comic books are on the decline. Unfortunately, he chose what I feel is a superficial argument at best, about why they're on the decline, and even runs the gauntlet of sugarcoating. First, what's this that he says here:
For an industry famous for tales packed full of muscles and melodrama, the situation has prompted an unusual amount of soul searching. The would-be villains are many. Some have blamed the sales slide on cultural upstarts, like video games, manga and the ever-present Internet. Others point to the increased popularity of bookstore-friendly graphic novels, sales of which have recently surpassed traditional comics.

But there are those who have begun to ask more complex questions, like how characters that are 40, or even 70, years old can remain relevant in an increasingly diverse society. This raises one of the oldest and most uncomfortable truths about the superhero genre: its surprising dearth of non-white heroes, particularly black ones.

Take Marvel Comics, home to such super-powered luminaries as Spider-Man, Captain America, Wolverine and the Fantastic Four. For more than 40 years, the New York-based company has modelled itself as the more progressive half of a superhero industry dyad, the other half being DC Comics. But on closer inspection, Marvel's catalogue tells a different story. According to their own figures, the Marvel universe contains more than 5,000 characters, yet even a generous count reveals that only 100 or so of these are black – less than two per cent of their fictional population. This pales in comparison to the nearly 14 per cent that the U.S. Census says makes up American society at present (the number is more like 12 if you expand the numbers to include all of North America).

The rest of the mainstream industry doesn't fair much better. Of the 300 comics published monthly by Marvel, DC, and a clutch of other companies, only a half-dozen or so titles feature a black hero in a starring role. And according to the industry website Icv2.com, none of these titles – which include the Black Panther, Blade and Spawn – sell well enough to regularly crack the Top 50, which on most months is a realm reserved for an all-star (and all-white) cast of heroes like Spider-Man, Superman and Captain America.

The rest of the mainstream industry doesn't fair much better. Of the 300 comics published monthly by Marvel, DC, and a clutch of other companies, only a half-dozen or so titles feature a black hero in a starring role. And according to the industry website Icv2.com, none of these titles – which include the Black Panther, Blade and Spawn – sell well enough to regularly crack the Top 50, which on most months is a realm reserved for an all-star (and all-white) cast of heroes like Spider-Man, Superman and Captain America.

Female superheroes, meanwhile, haven't fared much better in the pages of mainstream comics. While there have been many notable super-heroines in comics – including DC's Wonder Woman, who was among the first to debut way back in 1941 – their ranks are far outweighed by the men.

But for those working in the estimated $400 million mainstream comic business, the homogeneity of heroes is becoming harder and harder to ignore.
In all due fairness, while there certainly is something to the argument about women not getting as good as the men do, I think the argument about "diversity" is moot at best. It's not at all because there aren't enough minority group folks in prominent leading roles. It's because of the lack of entertaining, intelligent writing, and because of the mass-stuffing of ultra-political plots down the throats of the readers. And if all they can do is one-dimensionally stuff anti-war propaganda down our throats, then is it any wonder that people will slowly begin to be discouraged from reading? Plus, as I argued earlier, I think that the way that DC for one has been putting minority group characters in the roles of the everypeople who came before has actually hurt them more than helped.

And why is he bringing a comic as bad as Spawn into the spotlight here? That book by Todd McFarlane, whose early artwork was pretty good but has stumbled almost ever since he went over to Image, is worthless.

The article does get this right though:
"Everything that these companies do is in complete isolation from true market forces. They are not now, nor have they been for 30 years, part of the mass media," says the co-owner of Toronto's most discerning comic shop, The Beguiling. "Companies run by fans with comics drawn by fans rarely think of catering to anyone but themselves, which unfortunately means comics aimed primarily at adult men who still want to read comics featuring characters suited to children's entertainment."

If they're truly unable to recruit younger readers, superhero comics are destined to whither and possibly die within a generation or two. It is entirely possible that our grandchildren will know of Spider-Man or Batman only through other iterations, like Hollywood, cartoons, or video games.
Comics will always be around in some form, possibly trade paperbacks, but yes, they're, well, half right, that they companies now are acting in isolation, but mainly because they're mostly obsessed with political metaphors and mindless violence with no positive messages to accompany them.

This might make some sense too:
Leopold Campbell, a 34-year-old vice-principal and die-hard superhero fan, has an easy solution: write better stories. Campbell, who has been reading comics since he was "a working-class black kid" in Toronto, says comic fans of all colours get hooked on them for one reason, the addictive nature of serialized storylines – many of which involve complex plots and take years to resolve.

Most black comics, on the other hand, "are insulting to the intelligence," he says. "The problem is, black characters always have to be protest characters... They're always arguing about something or they're always angry, and it always has to do with race. So they're fixed within one specific subject."

The worst recent example of this was Steel, a 1994 Superman spin-off that featured a black engineer-turned-superhero. "The stories were insulting. [Here's] this guy that's supposed to be highly intelligent and makes weapons for the military, and he's fighting people in the ghetto. It just made no sense." This is especially frustrating for Campbell who runs a book club for boys (many of whom are black) at Toronto's Fisherville Junior High School.
The guy may have a point here too, that too many minority group characters are depicted as having an axe to grind. Vic Stone/Cyborg, IIRC, was one black character whose background was far better written than that of Steel's, as his father was a prominent scientist at S.T.A.R Labs, a guy who'd climbed the ladder to success. But even so, the lack of standout protagonists of minority backgrounds is far from being the biggest problem with comics today.

And the following part is what drowns out the credibility of this article, I'm afraid:
If anyone is going to take the black superhero out of the ghetto, it just might be Marvel's executive editor, Axel Alonso.

A veteran of Marvel and DC, Alonso has championed controversial projects, including a 2003 miniseries that re-imagined the 1950s western hero Rawhide Kid as a leather-clad gay cowboy, and the 2004 series Truth: Red, White and Black. It recounted the untold story of the first Captain America, an African American who endured brutal tests that echoed the real-life Tuskegee syphilis experiments that were conducted starting in the 1930s on a group of American men who were black and poor.

Both series were praised by many outside of the comic industry, yet Marvel weathered intense – and often racially charged – criticism from fans.
Oh. My. God. Once again, we're up against a case of someone clouding the exact facts about all matters surrounding those horrible miniseries, the former of which depicted Rawhide as an atrociously flaming homosexual, and the latter of which wallowed in vicious racial stereotypical artwork by Kyle Baker. You could say that that's why I wouldn't dare buy his take on Plastic Man; why should I want to do any favors for a writer/artist who resorted to victimology? Can we be clear here, the Truth miniseries, as Mike Medved argued four years ago, was racist and also anti-American, and I shouldn't have to keep pointing that out. And Mackay has the disgrace to blur and confuse all that? And is it just me, or is he implying that the fans were the ones who went overboard, rather than the writers and editors themselves, when delivering their criticism? I'm not sure, but I will say that for now, Mackay has submerged his whole argument by sugarcoating some of Marvel's worst controversy-baiting material from the past few years.

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About me

  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
  • I was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. I also enjoyed reading a lot of comics when I was young, the first being Fantastic Four. I maintain a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy in facts. I like to think of myself as a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. I don't expect to be perfect at the job, but I do my best.
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