Tag Archives: Gender Through Comics

The Struggle Continues: Kamala Khan and the Fight for Diversification in Comics

KamalaKhanThis week the comics industry juggernaut Marvel announced a new superhero stepping into their circulation.

Kamala Khan is a young Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage, growing up in New Jersey. In an article this week in the New York Times about the new character, author G. Willow Wilson explains that she wanted the comic to be about a few things: “…about the universal experience of all American teenagers, feeling kind of isolated and finding what they are.” Wilson explains that this comes through the lens of Kamala being a young Muslim in America who struggles with her faith.

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The prospect of a new comic about this kind of character feels really promising. Even the art displays something new and comforting about it. I feel like Kamala could actually be a real person that I know. But aside from pointing out how Kamala will be different than previous Marvel superheroes, very little is discussed of her.

About a quarter of the article is taken up with examples of Marvel’s shoddy history of attempting to introduce minority characters. Thus if we are not already familiar, readers begin to introduce themselves to the battle against sexism and racism in the comic book world. Navigating the gauntlet of narrow editorial mindsets and penny-pinching fans… is seeing the underlying reality that most positions in the comic business are still inhabited by white men, and that this environment has often embarrassing and ugly consequences.

There are so many incredible examples of how working mostly with white men to create a comic universe comprised mostly of white men and male-idealized women can take its tole on your ability to even imagine diversification.

Mark_DanSome fun examples of this are instances such as DC Comics’ Dan DiDio in his outburst, now famous in the comic book world, at the San Diego Comic Con in 2011. When a member of the audience suggested that DC hire more women, DiDio emphatically responds, “WHO? Who should we hire? Tell me right now!” Let’s keep in mind that the suggestion came as a result of DiDio literally asking the audience what DC Comics should be doing to boost readership and reader confidence. As has been noted by many, if you actually listen to the exchange (an MP3 is conveniently available), you’ll note that DiDio’s response sounds less like a question and more like a challenge. DiDio continues to embarrass himself as an editor at America’s #2 comic publisher with actions like forbidding Batwoman authors from allowing the character, who is currently portrayed as a lesbian, to marry her partner. Superheroes are about self-sacrifice; they “shouldn’t have happy personal lives,” he explained to fans at the Baltimore Comic Con.

In August, 2013, comics creator Mark Millar was in the spotlight, particularly for his comments about the subject of rape in comics. “The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he said. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.” Millar went on to boast that he “always likes to push it and see something [he’s] never seen before.” Monika Bartyzel’s response in The Week:

But Millar is wrong. We have seen rape in comics before, and we’ve seen it a lot. In fact, rape shows up repeatedly in Millar’s work (Wanted, The Authority, Kick-Ass 2), which echoes a longer tradition of rape suffered by superheroines like Black Cat, Ms. Marvel, and Rogue. Rape is no more an unspeakable taboo in comics culture, where the industry is overrun with continual sexual harassment and rape threats, than it is in real life.

Are we seeing a pattern yet?

Honestly, so much has been said about sexism in comics in recent years, comic creators have gone from ignoring it to denying it, to then claim it’s not their responsibility to change it.

Despite it being less of a publicly heated debate (perhaps because it’s more embarrassing?) we see this trend not only around gender, but around race. Brandon M. Easton, an African American animation writer, layed out the numbers in a Bleeding Cool article last year:

Clearly, breaking into Marvel or DC is insanely difficult and few people of any background manage to get close; but the fact that there are less than 3.0% of Blacks credited on all Marvel and DC titles as of June 2012 illustrates a serious problem that requires greater exploration.

Without necessarily trying to, Easton sums up a large part of the attitude problem facing society and the microcosm of the comic book industry. It is about racism specifically, but we can extract important lessons about all forms of systemic oppression:

In the U.S., it becomes a situation where some White people feel personally indicted as a racist and the burden rests on Black people to 1) prove racism still exists and impacts all of us, 2) explain the difference between a White person living their daily lives vs. the institutionalized system of racism, and 3) defend yourself against claims of “reverse” racism as the very mention of the issue means that you hate White people. Almost every online discussion of race boils down to these three arguments before it’s all said and done. And ultimately, nothing changes because some folks refuse to separate the system from their personal identity.

…So what does this all have to do with the fresh young Kamala Khan? Well, it could tell us that the mainstream comic book industry, despite some very old habits and mindsets, is trying to move forward.

Miles_MsMarvel…And yet.

Khan appears to be her own superhero, when she is, in fact, going to become the new Ms. Marvel…Oh dear. Marvel and D.C. both have an embarrassing record of stuffing minorities–African Americans, women, and LGBT folk–into superhero characters that are already molded and defined as the characters of white men. Why is this a problem? To me, it boils race and gender down to pigment and body parts, and ignores the basic understandings of systemic oppression: that of a categorically different life experience. The idea that a Black Spiderman or a Ms. Marvel would carry on with the same missions and objectives as their white male counterparts, in essence, tells us what the comic creation establishment means when they huff and haw at accusations of racism and sexism: beyond pigment and body parts, we’re all the same. So why go out of our way to hire/include/portray minorities in comics?

Relatively speaking, I don’t think we are all the same. Perhaps a Pakistani Muslim superheroine like Kamala Khan would be concerned with American military drone strikes killing hundreds of civilians back home… Perhaps superheroes of colour would be more in tune with criminal behavior that has negatively impacted their communities or countries of origin, as opposed to some generic gangsters or bad men in suits?  And I can’t speak for all women, especially women superheroes, but perhaps a feminist perspective would *completely* change a superhero’s take on the world–its problems and its solutions.

What’s also enlightening, in the end, is the attitude of introducing diversity. “Fans respond with their dollars,” said Axel Alonso, the editor in chief of Marvel Entertainment, In the sense of margins and numbers, there is the logical fear that minority issues won’t connect with the majority and their wallets. As some of the most POWERFUL comics creators in the world said, “The comics follow society. They don’t lead.”

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Some leaders who apparently “don’t lead.”

I find that to be an interestingly defeated attitude for an industry’s top dogs. Any industry–but especially one with creativity at its core. And especially one so capable that it can put out a press release about the Muslim superheroine Kamala Khan on Monday, and have it picked up by two dozen major newspapers by Wednesday.

It seems to me that the biggest news the comic world can make these days is news of change.

Ultimately, the comic industry giants have yet to be able to overcome the major hurdles of sexism and racism, because they genuinely do not know how. Don’t worry guys, you’re not alone on that one. But until there is a comprehensive examination of racism and sexism, not as topics of sensitivity training, but as pervading systems of oppression in our society (with histories. with context) then we have little hope for the new characters being born, no matter how diverse they appear to be.

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#SuperMOOC Week 2: Superman and Reflections of Masculine Idealism

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We’re nearing the end of Week Two over at Ball State University’s Gender Through Comics, (Twitter hashtag: #SuperMOOC), and we’ve been reading Superman Birthright by veteran comics writer, Mark Waid. I enjoyed listening to Instructor Christy Blanch’s interview with Mark last Thursday, which actually led me to pick up Birthright again–I’d put it down after 1 1/2 issues on Wednesday night, cause I just couldn’t get into it. But it definitely started to come together for me, and I’m glad that I’m now much more acquainted with one of the world’s oldest superheroes.

I’ve developed my own thesis by which to tackle Superman: he reflects our evolving notion of masculine idealism. A lot has changed in terms of how we perceive the “perfect” man or woman in the last 100 years. Superman keeps getting re-invented to reflect this. But what connects them? How is the Superman of the 1930s’ Action Comics still Superman just as much as Clark Kent in Superman Birthright? Maybe, to do this, we should look at what is noticeably different?

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“Living things have a kind of glow around them. They’re surrounded by a halo of colours. …I’m not sure if that halo is a soul or an aura or what. I do know that at the end of the life cycle, it fades pretty quickly and what’s left is… hard to look at. Empty in a way that leaves me empty, too….But when it’s there, my God, how it shines.”

Kent’s Vegetarianism

This is an interesting update–one that Mark Waid touched on in the interview, explaining that this wasn’t intended to just be New Age mumbo-jumbo, and I agree. I think he is effectively exploring a higher understanding by way of Kent’s alien super-abilities. I believe this to be one of the many positive effects of sci-fi culture on modern pop culture, equivalent to Christianity’s influences of divine idealism on the Renaissance, if that makes any sense. That is, we as humans develop notions that don’t actually exist, but come into existence by us imagining them as notions of God or another higher being, like an alien. Thus we develop interpretations of inalienable rights, Utopias, …. and, well, places where we don’t have to kill other living things just to survive. That is an idealism entrenched in lots of Sci-Fi, and Waid has selected it as a “Superman” trait. I think this was an excellent decision, and emphasizes that an ideal masculine trait, now, is to be able to empathize and connect with life around you.

Kent begins his identity as Superman by travelling the world and searching out knowledge and adventure. This is compared to Pa Kent’s time in the Army in Issue #3 of Birthright, but it reminds me a lot of Che Guevera in the chapter of his life when he wrote his Motorcycle Diaries. It reflects a deliberate and positive step in the maturation process.

superman_isolatedThis ‘search for himself’ is coupled with the reality that Kent struggles with his identity and the gap that exists between himself and his [not-so-fellow] man. He describes that it never takes long for his relationships with other people being to break down, once his abilities become known. “Invariably, they freak,” he says. “They become retroactively paranoid, wondering what else Clark Kent is hiding from them.”

In my mind, this narrative runs parallel to the concept of privilege. In addition to being an alien with superhuman abilities, Clark Kent also happens to be an able-bodied white male, who was raised in the most powerful and militarily aggressive country on Earth: the United States. It shows him attempting to make friends with non-Americans in his travels, to no avail once they discover just how much more powerful [privileged?] he is than they are.
He struggles with balancing his desire to help people without isolating himself from them. He longs to be accepted as a human.

superman_whitemansburdenWhen Kent tries to advise a local African leader not to march because he foresees violence against him, the villagers are right to point out that he is a white outsider trying to dictate to them. It doesn’t mean Kent has bad intentions, and some readers may think that this objection makes the characters simple and petty, but there is real history and politics there that he is not, or has chosen not to be, aware of. If anything Waid downplays this in the story; in real life, I think a man like Kent would be facing serious trust issues well before he started lifting buildings.

On this note, I can’t help but point out that a summary of this plot line smells a bit of “white man’s burden”. Kent wants to help people who need help the most, so he goes to help a minority tribe in Africa. Some of the images depicting this are particularly noteworthy, like this one to the right, which could also be critiqued from a perspective of gender as well as race. What can I say? It’s hard to write realistic stories without touching real-life issues like politics, gender dynamics, race relations, histories of colonialism and imperialism, etc. Comics have traditionally been comfortable in their own universe[s], but that is slowly, slowly changing, and I think panels like this are an indication of both an attempt to be more real, while also clinging to old stereotypes. (I mean, really, how long has Abena known Kent? Two weeks? If I were her and this guy came out of no-where with mega perception and rock-hard abs, I’d think he was CIA–hands down.)

Waid uses a great term in the #SuperMOOC interview: comics are a “visual short-hand” form of storytelling. I acknowledge that it’s hard not to simplify human conditions and relationships. Duly noted, but I wouldn’t be doin’ my job if I didn’t point this stuff out.

A side-note: The epitomy of “cheeziness” is the absence of believability. Superhero stories are in a constant struggle to maintain believability. To do that, Superman is all about depicting things on the edge of what we can sense and understand: that means everything from the constant introduction of new concepts (logically), to the depiction of senses that we find difficult or impossible to detect, such as superhuman sight, hearing, and movement. The illustrations in Birthright are vital to this, and really carry the story.

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Linked to the first image explaining why Kent is vegetarian, here he sees his friend’s “aura” fade away, and he knows that he is gone forever. This effect emphasizes the pain and loss Kent feels, and is in turn emotional for the reader.

Superman crying: this is part of the evolution of masculine idealism, as well as the creative struggle for believability. The idea that men are supposed to hide their emotions is thankfully falling out of date as a prejudice that is both detrimental to men and world around them. Furthermore, emotion is an essential element within the anatomy of epic narrative: battles where life and death hang in a balance must make emotional connections. Crying , at least for any writer worth their salt, is not a sign of weakness in a character, but an indicator that they understand and are intimately connected with that world. As well, we ideally expect to see story characters crying around the points in the story when we, the readers, feel like crying. This connects the protagonist not only to the world around them, but to their audience as well, and creates a better story experience.

superman_perfectmaninimperfectworldPart of Superman’s modern-day struggle, invariably, becomes one of masculine idealism vs. realism: can a near-perfect man exist in an imperfect world? Since man can influence the world through his abilities and actions, and this man does, despite the world remaining imperfect—is he still a perfect man / an ideal? Is he still “Superman”?

Superman has traditionally had a strong father-son bond. This is a part of masculine idealism: ideal men come from ideal father-son relationships. This explains the place of prominence for Kah-el (Clark Kent’s birth father) in previous Superman narratives—as well as Pa Kent.

Pa Kent and Clark struggle to understand their connection, now that Clark wants to explore his extraterrestrial roots.
Superman is always an optimist. This distinguishes him from new superheroes, who are often expected to take on a “more realistic” perspective on the world, as well as old superheroes who have been reinvented within the modern “anti-hero” framework.

What to make of Lois Lane?

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superman_loislane1944Superman is as much a reflection of the evolution of gender perceptions as just about any pop culture icon that outlasts a generation. But what do we make of Lois Lane? In the very first Superman comics, Lane was a very attractive, feisty and smart news reporter who is dedicated to her career and her independence, despite the occasional dramatic lapse of utter dependence on Superman and his supernatural abilities. In the most recent remakes of Superman, we see Lane as…. A very attractive, feisty and smart news reporter who is dedicated to her career and her independence, despite ALSO having the occasional dramatic lapse of utter dependence on Superman and his supernatural abilities. Despite some subtle changes, (and one really confusing case of Lois Lane turning Black for a day), the woman has remained much more glued to her original form.

If Superman has changed so much over 75 years, why not Lane? Was Lois Lane classic, at in her inception, already a progressive enough reflection of the female gender? Are comic creators’ notions of women and their ‘social evolution’ simply stagnant—it just doesn’t get any better? I’m unsure about this one, and want to give it some future thought. I actually think that it presents an interesting argument: gender perceptions of men have changed more than women in the history of comics. This is despite massive social, political, and economic changes in the status of women in that time.

I’m looking forward to reading others’ thoughts on this, as we continue with the #SuperMOOC class. Thanks for reading. More to come with Week 3.