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Four revolutions in comics - Part 2 - The Diversity Revolution

diversity-revolution
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New Faces of Marvel Captain Marvel, Thor, Spider-Man

The 2011 Nielsen study ignites a conversation.

In 2011, DC Comics rebooted their entire comic line, restarting each title with a new #1 issue. One of the themes of the launch was a new commitment to professionalism - no more late comics. And to augment their understanding of their readership, DC hired Nielsen to conduct a market research study.

The results were dispiriting. The study found that DC's readership at 93% male, with only 5% identifying as new readers. The medium seemed to be trapped in a death spiral. Constantly catering to an aging readership of increasingly narrow demographic dimensions.

Those results were not shocking to veteran readers of mainstream comics. The frequently distasteful aesthetics of superheroine fashions and lack of female creators were obvious shortcomings that the industry should effort to remedy.

The extreme nature of the results were disputed. The methodology of the survey was called into question. Many comics fans who were approached by surveyors instantly noted problems. Patton Oswalt famously "rage-quitted" DC Comics because of how he was mistreated by surveyors. By conducting the research during a high-profile new release, the pool of respondents was inherently skewed toward the more extreme elements of comic fandom.

Regardless of the accuracy of the data - the survey ignited a conversation and that conversation led to change.

The editorial departments at the Big 2 (Marvel/DC) heard the criticisms, and responded.

DC's Batgirl had a resurgence in popularity when her costume was redesigned to much acclaim. Marvel re-designed the Spider-Woman costume which was also greeted with enthusiastic fan response.

In their alt-universe Ultimate line of books, Marvel Comics killed off Peter Parker and replaced him with Miles Morales, a half-Hispanic, half-African-American teenaged Spider-Man. The rantings of Glenn Beck aside (which are hilariously explained by writer Brian Michael Bendis in his appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers), the character has arguably been the most well-received new character created by Marvel in decades. The first appearance of Miles was planned well before the Nielsen survey, but his debut came shortly after the survey was in the conversation, and became a major part of the diversity narrative.

Marvel has passed the mantle of Captain America to Sam Wilson, the African-American character previously known as The Falcon, and he will anchor the All-New, All-Different Avengers launching soon.

In the pages of Thor, Marvel showed an (initially secret) woman prove worthy to hoist the mythic hammer Mjolnir and become the first female Thor. Under any circumstances, filling the son of Odin's boots would be an unenviable challenge, but it was doubly complicated by the fact that it came right on the heels of one of the best Thor stories ever written, Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic's God Butcher arc. But the story has proven compelling and the sales of the female-driven Thor have surprassed those of her male predecessor.

In the midst of a multi-universe-spanning Spider-Man event, Marvel introduced Spider-Gwen, which inverted the classic Peter Parker / Gwen Stacy story, with Stacy as the spider-heroine and Parker as the doomed lover. Although it was initially conceived as a one-off, the costume design was brilliant and resonated with fans. The pages of the initial story pulsed with a creative energy and Marvel decided to turn it into a new ongoing series.

Marvel also championed two books led by female creators and protagonists: Captain Marvel written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson. Ms. Marvel features a teenage Muslim girl protagonist and has been a critical and commercial success. The trade paperback of the first volume of Ms. Marvel reached the #2 slot on the NY Times graphic novel bestseller list and is nominated for five Eisner awards this year.

Communities surrounding these new diverse characters thrive at conventions and in social media.

The Carol Corps are a dynamic group of fans arising around the character of Captain Marvel. These people are just fantastic and represent the best tendencies in greater fandom - their enthusiasm in cosplaying is infectious, and they've led a number of charitable drives to put the community's energy behind various causes.

Fans of the feminist Image Comics title Bitch Planet have been sporting noncompliant tattoos in celebration of that book's subversion of the exploitative women-in-prison genre. Perhaps the most vibrant comics community on Tumblr is We Are Wakanda, which chronicles the increasing diversity in comics. The Tumblr blog Fuck Yeah Miles Morales is a celebration of (what else?) - Miles Morales. The Tumblr blog ilikecomicstoo and YouTube channel Weird Girls are great resources to follow topics in diversity in comics.

Some new studies show a different picture.

DC's market study in 2011 received a lot of attention partly because concrete demographic data on the comics market is rare. But since then, there have been more studies and reports introduced into the conversation. In 2014, a market study showed that 46% of comics fans are female. A study of Facebook likes shows increasing parity in male/female interest in comics-related content. And a new survey by Eventbrite shows that convention attendance and spending patterns have reached gender parity.

Publishers are reacting to the new marketplace with speed.

This year, comics publisher Oni Press opened up submissions, soliciting new projects from creators. Most publishers have abandoned an open submissions policy. Oni's submission efforts were not only unique for the open nature, but also due to its focus on diversity. The submission guidelines stress the importance of diversity, mentioning it six times and it is cited by specific editors as one of the main things they are looking for in new projects.

The future.

There is still an enormous road ahead. The mainstream Big 2 publishers still need more writers and artists from diverse backgrounds. We still haven't reached a point to where a step towards diversity doesn't initiate a backlash. But the revolution moves apace. Recently, comics artist Michael Cho took stock:

Next: Part 3 - Hollywood

Milton Lawson

Milton is a writer living in Houston. Comics, travelogues. Go Astros. Go Texans.

A short comic about an indie music shop written by Milton Lawson with art by Dave Chisholm

A travelogue about four friends taking their first trip to Europe. Now available on Amazon.com.