September 18, 2012

Racism in the comics business

Understanding Ethnocrunching--How Racism Works In The Comic Industry

By Brandon M. EastonI’ll never forget the first time I learned that there were a lot of bigots in the comic book industry. Not too long after SDCC 1999, a group of Black comic book creators met in an apartment in Manhattan. It wasn’t a planned thing, a popular artist was in town and we grabbed some beers and met him. Soon, a party of six became a party of twenty. Most of the guys there were illustrators but there were a few writers, colorists and editors in attendance. While they were all Black men, none of these guys were similar. Some were Baptists, some Republicans, some were Muslim, some Catholic, some were gay, some were liberal and some were anarchists. It was a very, very eclectic mix of personalities and attitudes.

Eventually, the conversation turned into a series of jokes about the racist crap some of them had recently experienced. After a few moments, the tone got serious and the name of a White male editor at the Big Two kept coming up.

Then another name. Then another.

After thirty minutes of this racist roll call, those guys all realized that the same five White editors had treated them the same. And the only common thread was the color of their skin. Of course, for every racist name mentioned there were six or seven guys who were decent human beings. There’s an old saying about never meeting your heroes, and this conversation bothered me on a deep level. I’m going to reveal a secret about Black males – a lot of us are naïve idealists. We actually believe that people are going to judge us on the content of our character rather than the color of our skin. What you see is our reaction to constantly having our hearts broken by the realization that yet another White person is counted as an enemy. Disappointment can be worse than hate.

Fast forward a few years, I had a meeting at the Big Two. An assistant editor set up a meeting with his boss after I sent him some pitches. I emailed his boss back and forth for a week or two and things were pleasant. The last step was a face-to-face meeting to nail down the specifics. Stepping into that office the first time was an amazing feeling, a fulfillment of a lifelong ambition. I was dumbstruck by how cool that place was and the euphoria lasted only a moment as I saw one of their “superstar” editors and he completely ignored me when I said hello and tried to introduce myself. I told the assistant editor what happened and he was shocked, replying, “Really? He did that? Weird.”

I let it go and prepared for my meeting with his boss. The “meeting” lasted about 180 seconds. The person saw me, realized I was a big Black dude, their eyes widened and their body language betrayed a revulsion they’d never admit to in polite company. I don’t remember what they said except “I’ll be in touch.” I never heard from this editor again. I told the assistant editor what occurred and he didn’t have a logical explanation for his boss’ behavior. But I understood, I understood all too well.

I could easily recount another twenty incidents that were racially tinged; situations where the gig was available until I showed up in person for a meeting, interactions that were strangely uncomfortable and awkward, people who refused to make eye contact or shake my hand, editors flat out lie to me about the availability of writing assignments but told my White male colleagues to give them a call later. There are only so many times these situations can be explained away as coincidence or bad luck.

Part III: Why the Numbers Are So Low

The idea that there are less than 3.0% of Blacks credited on recent books at Marvel and DC is beyond absurd. It’s embarrassing and problematic. It’s endemic of the greater problem of racial misunderstanding and a massive lack of concern about proper representation in the industry. The truth is this: Marvel and DC aren’t in the business of telling meaningful stories about Blacks or providing gigs to qualified minority talent. The Big Two are primarily interested in keeping their intellectual properties viable for the next fifty years. It’s not just about comic books and movies, it’s about video games, backpacks, balloons, t-shirts, sneakers, hats, cereal boxes and other accessories.

Editors are busy folks. Editors have to manage entire lines, juggle multiple levels of continuities and make their superiors happy all on a deadline. I respect the work they have to do. However, editors have their own set of priorities, prejudices and expectations. Most of the editors out there aren’t bad people, but some of them have the idea that the only writers out there qualified to tell stories about billion dollar characters are other White guys from suburban backgrounds. This means that a non-White male will have almost no chance to pitch story ideas and concepts.

I don’t have to tell you that the American superhero comic book industry is in dire straits. The sales are in the toilet and continue to shrink despite momentary upticks caused by gimmicky “big event” crossovers. The new push for digital distribution should have been in place 15 years ago when the internet took hold of the pop culture landscape. The call for racial and gender diversity has never been fully embraced even though it is crystal clear that the world of social justice outside the industry has changed at an exponential rate.

I reflect on the words of my friend Peter Briggs, the “Hellboy” screenwriter who was once asked “Why do Hollywood films suck so often?”

Briggs replied, “Incompetence is rife in this business, and egos make it worse. And there’s a culture of poker buddy, frat boy nepotism that fosters ‘who you know’ and filters out genuine talent. And that’s why bad movies get made.”

Replace movies with comic books in this equation. Add in egos fueled by bigotry and the sum is about 3.0%.
Comment:  I've heard about the comics industry discriminating again minorities and women, but this posting shows us how it happens.

For more on the related subject of Hollywood racism, see Bottom-Line Argument Is Racist and Patel's Struggle Shows Hollywood's Racism.


Anonymous said...

Even X-Men, a series that is basically about how racism is evil, makes this mistake. Look at the 70s X-Men's names. It's not gotten better: We can move from there into the addition of Forge. Wow, a token minority who isn't Storm and his codename doesn't reveal his ethnic background. *claps slowly* Forge's powers aren't stereotypical either. Oh, wait, he communes with the spirit world, too? And this is still a plot point? [string of expletives deleted]

In the post-9/11 America, we have Dust, who can transform into sand. She's also a Muslim.

dmarks said...

Yeah, sure sounds stereotypical.

Consider that the most populous mostly-Muslim nation is pretty much all jungle, not desert.