Who’s Afraid of Diversity in Comics?
Well, it depends on how you define diversity, really. In the context of diversity in comics about, Mirriam-Webster states that diversity is the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization. Seems simple enough, right?
But what exactly does it mean, in the context of comics, to include different types of people? It’s been stated that the comics industry is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. Fair enough, but it should be pointed out that the population of the United States is also overwhelmingly Caucasian. But what about the gender demographics of people who are likely to be interested in comics?
Well, that’s a little more complicated. In 2011, a study of Facebook likes showed that the majority of US fans of comic books were overwhelmingly male. However, the same study showed wildly different results when repeated dozens of times over the course of the following seven years. A study in 2016 showed men accounted for up to 62.16% of the US fandom. And yet, the most recent study using the same methodology shows that the majority of comics fans are women, who clock in at an unexpected 53.03%. The author states the methodology used in their collection of this data, and is quick to point out that these are just the demographics of people who have clicked like on any one of over 100 different terms related to the industry. It does not make mention of overlap, nor does it provide a list of these terms, and doesn’t appear to correct for the fact that women generally use Facebook more often than men. These statistics tend to be used to show that interest in comics is starting to shift over to a female-dominated culture.
But what about purchasing power? Last year ICv2 presented a comprehensive 72,000 person study at the New York Comic Con’s Insider Sessions panel with a number of telling insights.
Among these insights, the revelation that 72% of the people purchasing comics in brick-and-mortar stores were male and that men represent 67% of online purchases. Additionally, interest in comics of the superhero variety are overwhelmingly male, with older, educated men leading the pack. The majority of women purchasing superhero comics tend to be part of the 13-29 demographic.
Okay, so we’ve explored these claims, we can continue with this in mind: Interest in comics appears to vary, but the purchasing power for comics comes from an overwhelmingly male audience.
Today, there exists a special demographic of comics fans colloquially known as ComicsGate. But what is it, exactly? There are two narratives at play regarding ComicsGate. I’ll do my best to present both narratives as accurately and fairly as possible.
The first narrative, the one shared by proponents of the hashtag believes that ComicsGate represents an online community of people who believe that mainstream comics have become oversaturated with politically-partisan ideals and has been explicitly catering to a single political perspective seemingly as a result of partisan pressure upon the industry.
And the opposing narrative is that ComicsGate represents a demographic of white male comics fans who are feeling threatened about the inclusion of women and minorities in the professional industry and fandom.
Getting to the bottom of the argument in an objective way is a big ask, but I’ll try my best.
For what it’s worth, I believe both claims to be mired in truth to varying degrees. In the past few years, several classic Marvel characters have been altered and in some cases replaced by more diverse counterparts stepping into their roles. Billionaire philanthropist Tony Stark took a back seat to fifteen year-old Riri Williams. The mantle of the Incredible Hulk now rests upon the shoulders of Asian-American Amadeus Cho. The wielder of Mjolnir, Thor, was briefly a woman. When taken a piece at a time, none of these things are entirely objectionable, but with it occurring in rapid succession, fans of the classic characters felt those characters were being sidelined unnecessarily.
Despite the rapidity of the change, it seems a little silly for such a massive and loud movement to erupt based on a few, in my opinion, poor decisions regarding these characters. But accompanying these changes was a massive tonal shift within the Marvel universe related to the mission of having more diversity in comics. The cover of an issue of Mockingbird, for instance, featured the titular character wearing a t-shirt with the words, ask me about my Feminist agenda emblazoned on it. Poorly-written dialogue featuring common buzzwords popular among left-wing millennials are in multiple issues spanning multiple comics. In one issue of Mockingbird, a team of zombie pirates refuse a command to murder superheroes because they identify as progressive feminists. An issue of Angela: Queen of Hel featured a Norse god spewing unsolicited opinions on Israel and MRA Red-Pill filth as though the character itself had any interest in what goes on politically in other realms. There are far too many examples of this sort of thing to name, and if each one is taken by itself, again– it’s rather silly to complain about. But with the tonal shift and frequency of such things, fans took notice. And not all of them were pleased about the inclusion of what is argued as far left ideology rooting itself in an eighty year-old superhero universe. Many of these series were soon canceled, with Marvel making a promise to return to their roots.
The truth is that there undoubtedly is an element of what is claimed by the critics of ComicsGate. There are people out there who lash out reactively against women and minorities and oppose diversity in comics. However, they are exceedingly few in number, and by no means, in my experience, make up the whole (or even the majority) of ComicsGate supporters. The assertion that ComicsGate supporters are “angry white men,” is also categorically not true. There are many women and minorities that support the hashtag, and committing to their erasure is just as bad as fighting to keep women and minorities out of comics.
But there is another factor to this as well. Richard Meyer, also known as Diversity and Comics on YouTube, has been critiquing what he believes is an inordinate push toward far-left political ideologies in comics for a few years now. Meyer, a veteran, has also directed criticism against the writers and artists of various comics for a number of reasons, ranging from the technical skill of the writing and artwork to the political views. And while he has made mention of their gender, racial or sexual demographics in the context of how he assumes they operate, his criticism of their work does not seem predicated on their identity, but rather the views that he claims they are sharing through their work and their general behavior online.
Make no mistake, Meyer is a curmudgeon. But he’s a curmudgeon at odds with more-or-less equally curmudgeonly people.
For those who haven’t placed ComicsGate supporters behind a blockbot, the general milieu of the community is a range of ideas, but the one thing most appear to agree on is why they love comics. Comics represent an escape from a complicated, tragic, and cruel world and offers them a momentary respite from the malevolence of life. In comics, the problems of the real world take a back seat to the fantastic worlds and character-driven adventure which allows us to forget our problems, even for a moment. Their reasons are mostly their own, but it’s no secret that the political polarization of recent years have amplified anxiety for both parties. If Marvel, for instance, had begun to present purely nationalistic or right-wing populist views in their books, one would expect the response would be largely similar. The opposing extreme would of course rally against it, and those left in the center would become disdainful of being beat over the head with partisan politics.
And that, I believe, is largely what is occurring. Certainly there exists an element of far-right ideologues attempting to claim some form of control over the industry. Those people are loud, but of no real consequence or threat. But those who occupy the ever-shrinking center on the left and the right have expressed concerns as well, and they appear to make up the vast majority of ComicsGate supporters. It’s easy to make assertions about the far-right, but such criticisms of ComicsGate do not appear to make any allowances for the remaining centrist members who just want to enjoy a good story without being reminded of how cruel and unjust the real-world is.
There was a time publishers understood this was their mission. Unfortunately, it seems to have been forgotten. And so, ComicsGate supporters have began to institute their own silo industry, and so far it’s been wildly successful. Indie creators with chops in the professional industry like Ethan Van Sciver, who crowdfunded his comic Cyberfrog: Bloodhoney and reached over half-a-million dollars from supporters. Or like the aforementioned Richard Meyer, who crowdfunded two projects which reached over $300,000 and $100,000 respectively are proof of the staying power of the ComicsGate consumer silo.
Unlike GamerGate, whose sole focus was on attempting to bring light to what they perceived as ethical violations in game journalists and the infusion of political ideologies into indie communities, ComicsGate has gone a step beyond and started to create their own industry, despite numerous attempts to sabotage and otherwise regulate their access to publishers and retailers.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe the rational center of ComicsGate feels threatened by diversity in comics insofar as they feel threatened by partisan politics overtaking their beloved characters and settings. For someone who operates in the margins of the political spectrum, it can often feel like they are siding with far-right ideologues: but for the most part, that’s simply not the case. For evidence, all we need to do is observe the reaction of most ComicsGate supporters when far-right author Vox Day attempted to create a comics imprint bearing the name.
The issue then comes full circle back to the question of how ideological divides are threatening storytelling media. It is possible to promote diversity without coming across as heavy-handed, engaging in a massive tonal shift or dogmatically repeating buzzwords in comic book writing. It is also possible to promote traditional storytelling without limiting the roles of women and minorities.
The ComicsGate movement is definitely something to observe and is something worthy of unbiased study, because the effect they’re having on the wider industry is very clear, and they’re not going to go away any time soon.