Earlier this week it was announced that the author and prominent black intellectual, Ta-Nehisi Coates, will write a new series of comic books featuring Marvel’s superhero, Black Panther.
Created in 1966, Black Panther was the first black superhero, and Coates — a Marvel fan and a writer whose work frequently explores the black experience in America — seems like a great fit for the gig.
More female and non-white comic book writers are being recognized with some of the medium’s major honors — like the Ignatz Awards, which recognize small press comics, and the Eisner Awards, the comic book world’s equivalent of the Oscars. But the mainstream industry continues to grapple with issues of diversity.
J.A. Micheline, a writer for the websites Women Write About Comics and Comics Alliance — and a vocal critic of Marvel and their struggles with diversity — joined us on The Frame to talk about Coates and Black Panther, the lagging diversity among mainstream comic book writers, and the progressive aspects of indie and web comics.
What do you make of the news that Ta-Nehisi Coates will write a series of Black Panther comics for Marvel?
I think it's a bittersweet announcement. The great thing about it is that he's an amazing writer who really understands the semiotics of race, of how black people have been depicted in media, and really understands the nuances of history. I think he's going to have so much to bring to the table, and it's amazing to have someone like that writing comics. It's fantastic, and kind of unprecedented.
The only bitter thing about it is that I look at the announcement and I say to myself, Okay, is this what it takes for Marvel to hire a black writer? Do you have to have two books out? Do you have to be a household name and a writer for The Atlantic in order to be considered for a role?
(Photo courtesy of Marvel Comics)
Marvel's editor-in-chief, Axel Alonso, is half-Mexican, and they've recently introduced a half-black, half-Latino Spiderman named Miles Morales. It seems like Marvel is making some strides toward better representation.
Absolutely, and this isn't to say that Marvel is awful and not doing anything at all, because that's absolutely not true. They've done a lot of great things in the past and the present. This announcement with "Black Panther" is indicative of that, as is the announcement of "Angela Queen of Hell," a queer, solo lead that I'll be reading in October.
It's not that Marvel's moving backwards, but I'm more thinking about the way that Marvel has listened to criticism and perhaps been a little abrasive about it. And I'm also thinking about whether this movement towards diversity is something that they're genuinely interested in because it's socially important and responsible, or if it's just a thing that will make them money.
When met with complaints about their lack of diversity, comic book publishers will often point to the diversity in their ranks of artists and illustrators. Why is their track record not as good when it comes to writers?
That's really complicated, and I think there are a couple things at work. Firstly, I think we've seen a tide turn — it used to be that artists were the most prominent and most lauded people in comics, but it's shifted towards the writers.
Now you'll have people talking about runs written by specific writers, people like Brian Michael Bendis, Matt Fraction or David F. Walker. And so now people are also paying attention to the race, class, gender and [physical] ability of these writers.
I think it's a power thing — historically, power has been held by cisgendered, heterosexual white men, and so it's not that surprising to see that reflected in a staff of writers at Marvel or DC.
So which comic book companies get it right when it comes to diversity?
In terms of who's doing well, I would look at indie comics and very small publishers that people probably haven't heard of.
If you look at the Ignatz Awards that came out recently at the Small Press Expo, all of those were won by women. That's enormous. And even with the Eisner Awards that were announced recently at San Diego Comic-Con, so many of the winners were women.
Indies and web comics show that so many of the marginalized people who have been locked out of mainstream comics are doing fantastic work on the outskirts.