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Marvel and DC: Recognising Progress Doesn’t Ignore The Fake Sound Of It

The world of superheroes is a funny old place, home to some of the craziest and most imaginative storytelling of the last century, but eternally trapped in a constantly regressive rut. Long time fans simultaneously demand change and uniformity, for heroes to evolve and remain the same age forever more.

This month Marvel announced three key upcoming changes in its comics line, which was met with familiar outrage and increasing mainstream press interest towards this medium that has given the public their favourite superhero movies. But what was most interesting to many onlookers were not the announcements themselves, but the chosen method of broadcast.

The View, a US daytime talk show, exclusively announced that Thor was to be female in an upcoming title. "It’s a huge day in the Marvel Universe," revealed Whoopi Goldberg. "Thor, the God of Thunder, he messed up. He is no longer worthy to hold that damn hammer of his. And for the first time in history that hammer is being held by a woman."

Cap and Thor
News of Sam Wilson taking over as Captain America was announced live on The Colbert Report the following evening. "Well you know, Steve Rogers saved the world again, but not without personal sacrifice," explained Joe Quesada, Marvel’s CCO. "Sam Wilson, his partner, the Falcon, is becoming the new Captain America."

And thirdly, Iron Man is going a little bit evil with a shiny new suit, reported Mashable. Not quite as jaw-dropping as the previous two announcements, but the platforms for these reveals are well worth noting: The View boasts an audience of 2.8 million with a large percentage of those in the 18-54 female demographic; The Colbert Report easily scores over 1 million viewers per week; and Mashable rings in a mammoth 34 million unique visitors per month.

Most importantly though all three are extremely mainstream news sources, with the two televised announcements being picked up by almost every newspaper, and the Mashable piece being bounced across social media at an alarming rate. All announcements were made before the very near San Diego Comic Con, separating these news items from the annual deluge of reports.

Thor #1 cover by Russell Dauterman

Thor #1 cover by Russell Dauterman

The reaction to the Thor and Captain America news was swift and predictable. An initial swell of excitement from young fans and women was swept aside by calls of "PC gone mad!", "publicity stunt!" and that any excited commentator should really know better than to think this was actually progressive.

As I wrote about the new female Thor for The New Statesman, this really isn’t actually a big deal at all. Characters in superhero stories are often replaced for the short term, and Thor himself has previously been both replaced by an alien space horse (Beta Ray Bill!) and turned into a frog (not the same character as Throg who is also a frog with Thor-like powers – he’s awesome, but not the same frog). In a "What If?" story, the kind of fun little stories superhero comics used to put out, it is Jane Foster who receives the powers of Thor, becoming Thordis.

So Thor changing is not without precedent, and writer Jason Aaron stressed that this was the Thor of the Marvel Universe, even as she is separate from ex-Thor who is clearly seen prowling the covers of other comic titles at that time, un-worthy and with some kind of cyborg arm. Thor of course has always been seen as a name rather than a title which has caused some confusion, but again this is not without precedent in a genre that once had two Bruce Waynes. The reason for the woman carrying Thor’s name will no doubt be interesting to find out, as will what ex-Thor prefers to go by now he’s un-hammered. Bob?

Aaron has spoken about his long desire to write a Beta Ray Bill-esque story, to have someone take Thor’s place and explore that path. Had Marvel chosen another man, another white man, to take Thor’s place there would not have been nearly as much of a fuss, nor much of a headline. But because they have listened to calls for diversity and chosen to look outside the default white male box, the category of person that absolutely dominates a world of superheroes mostly put in place decades ago, they are accused of faking progression and marketing hype. It is the ultimate case of simply not being able to win.

Unworthy Thor by Esad Ribic

Unworthy Thor by Esad Ribic

Of course what any superhero fan knows is that this change will not be permanent. A Marvel editor declaring something not to be temporary is equivalent to every blockbuster movie declaring itself the best movie of all time, or of WWE crowing that the latest match’s fallout will last forever… hyperbole, but a certain guarantee that the change will at least last long enough to get one or two collected editions published.

The fact is that any change like this is at least partly a publicity stunt. Comics as entertainment media rely on publicity for sales just as movies release trailers and leak details to the press to spark interest. What marks superhero comics out as different is their non-expanding audience.

That audience may not be exactly shrinking, but the low numbers of sales stand in stark contrast to the high ticket sales of the movies starring the very same characters. It stands to reason that some of the latter audience could be tempted to join the former, and that maybe that audience is where the publisher hasn’t focused before. The recent news that the popular new Ms Marvel title is selling more copies via digital than through comic shops would seem to support the logic of that move.

When seeking a new audience, good publicity is a must. Whether or not the changes are "gimmicks" will be borne out by the stories themselves, something hard to judge in advance. But Marvel have pitched their announcements very carefully indeed, in a manner that guarantees the news will reach more than just the regular buyers.

Replacing iconic heroes with a more progressive, often newer character only to revert back to the original months (or years) later is part of the regressive nature of superhero comics. I wrote a little about this 3 years ago when the New 52 saw Barbara Gordon leave her Oracle persona behind and take back the mantle of Batgirl. This was the ultimate reminder that no character was ever truly safe from regression – Babs’ last run as Batgirl had been some 20 years previous at the time.

In the meantime, both Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown had built up a huge following by wearing Batgirl’s cowl, with both remaining mostly absent from the New 52. DC had given us more female characters for a while, but when the hero was regressed, they were simply forgotten.

It’s hard to argue that this will be the case with Marvel given the context – not only was the new Thor announced on a television show aimed at women, but the publisher has made huge strides in putting out books with female leads over the last year: Black Widow in March, Ms Marvel and She-Hulk in April, Elektra in June, Storm at the end of this month, and the upcoming Angela: Asgard’s Assassin and Spider-Woman. Additionally the all-female X-Men launched in July ’13, Captain Marvel in September ’12, and the sadly cancelled Fearless Defenders in April ‘13. (There is also to be a Star Wars: Princess Leia mini series.)

Fearless Defenders was in fact cancelled in February this year, a worrying development for readers concerned that this would reflect badly on the future of female-led books. Thankfully that has turned out to be far from the case – logically enough, as a book starring a man being cancelled would give no bearing on another male-led title.

Loki was a Lady previously - art by Olivier Coipel

Loki was a Lady previously - art by Olivier Coipel

With this number of titles starring women - distancing Marvel from very different stats just a year ago - it’s a little hard to surrender to the "just make a new book/character" point of view in the case of Thor’s change. This is something that again would not be said for a default replacement, and it ignores the potential for another book to be born of the change. We also know that it is very hard for a new title to make it in the current market regardless of audience or line-up. But a turn on a well-known and headline catching title can make a character level up to a more iconic status.

Additionally, in a modern era where creators are very aware of past problems with creator rights and ownership, many are reluctant to bring their best IP generating ideas and characters to the world of corporate comics. Instead, new characters are put out at Image or Black Mask Studios, or other publishers offering either entire ownership rights or a much better slice of the profit pie.

Two new characters from Marvel have found quick success with the younger audience however – America Chavez of Young Avengers, and Kamala Khan of Ms Marvel. The latter, a Muslim Pakistani American teenage girl, has benefited from the slight boost a known title provides, as well as the many subsequent headlines: issue one sold over 50,000 copies and is on its fifth reprint. The former, a Latina teenager and the newest but underused incarnation of Miss America, made a huge impact yet we know the sales for Young Avengers were never as good as they could have been.

One key problem remains – a direct market that is seen as very indirect for those accustomed to picking up their media on Amazon or the high street at the click of a button or a casual browse. This is arguably the biggest barrier for those who spend (TONS OF) their money on costumes and fan-art based at comic conventions and who are not spending much money on actual comics at all. Digital is one route, but for fans who enjoy pretty objects and high street shopping, it's still not ideal.

The new Babs by Babs Tarr

The new Babs by Babs Tarr

So is it progressive for a female character to temporarily take over the mantle of Thor? Not on its own, but within context it is a great step for a publisher to be looking outside of the default character box when implementing storylines we’ve seen similar iterations of again and again.

It’s also a much needed boost for younger, newer, more diverse fans to be able to see characters more prominently that they relate to. And alongside a bunch of comics with a variety of different female leads – covering a variety of races and body types - this is clearly more than passing lip service from Marvel.

It’s also part of a larger and more steady change for female-led books in the direct market this decade. Titles like Red Sonja, traditionally viewed as being tits and ass fodder, are being marketed to and bought by women. Image books including Saga and Rat Queens are courting a similar audience, while Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight subverts the male gaze in the horror market, and Lumberjanes entertains all ages. Even the aforementioned Batgirl is being relaunched as a younger, funkier character, and Gotham Academy is also putting girls front and centre. Women’s wallets have finally been noticed.

Sam Wilson’s move from Falcon to Captain America met with a predictable reaction in the aftermath of the Thor revelations. The "PC gone mad" brigade insisted their venom had nothing to do with race even though they had no such vitriolic objections to Bucky Barnes’ turn as Cap. Y’know, another white dude.

It's no huge surprise that these reactions are similar to the aggro around the popular Miles Morales initially taking over as Ultimate Spider-Man. Miles is a great example of actual progression in storytelling that has not been undone - he is still Spider-Man with no sign of Parker being resurrected and usurping his replacement. If there can be two Spider-Men, albeit it in separate universes, why not two Thors? Or two Captain America's? Regressing these characters without giving them greater standing will be Marvel's downfall, but Miles Morales indicates that may not happen.

Sam is riding high on popularity at the moment with his character front and centre in the second Captain America movie, and him generally being a more likeable character than the stuffy Steve Rogers. Sam has been around since 1969 so he's not exactly what one could call a new character. He is however one of the few black characters in the superhero universe, and was Marvel’s first African-American superhero.

Anthony Mackie as Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Anthony Mackie as Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

But here’s the thing. Cap has been replaced by more people than even the large number that have lifted Mjolnir: Bucky, William Nasland, Jeffrey Mace, Roscoe Simons, John Walker, Dave Rickford… and those are just the ones who had Steve’s blessing after the fact. There was also Isaiah Bradley, known as the Black Captain America by reputation (his grandson Elijah is Patriot of the Young Avengers), and oh yeah, Sam Wilson aka The Falcon took over for one issue back in 1998.

Once again the change isn’t really that big a deal with it only being news because the world of superheroes is stepping outside of that default white male box. These changes make headlines because not only are superhero comics painfully behind when it comes to diversity, but all our media is painfully behind.

In a year where summer blockbusters are failing to pull in as many dollars as previous seasons because of a declining female audience – the same audience with the most money previously spent at the box office – those with less privilege are clearly expecting more of their media and entertainment.

With Marvel seeking to not only provide that but to deliver the news right to their doorsteps, it’s certainly a good step in the right direction and hopefully a promise of more to come – perhaps even a joint coup for comics and movies with a female-led superhero film at some point. No superhero film has yet to follow in the glorious footsteps blazed by Dredd, although the recent news that the Soska sisters are directing a new Painkiller Jane adaptation is incredibly promising.

What it doesn’t address, and has yet to acknowledge, is the massive white (male) elephant in the room – that the diversity on the page is not being matched by diversity at the desks. The number of women working at DC and Marvel, from letterer to editor, generally ranges between 10-15% - with similar performances from Dark Horse and IDW, with Image and Dynamite slightly behind. Boom! Is way out ahead with a massive 36.4% in April 2014, but that is still clearly way out of sync with the general population makeup. As Tim Hanley notes, the July solicits list 8 different women creators at Marvel while DC has 17. (DC has more women but also more books due to Vertigo, hence the similar percentages.)

July at Marvel: Kelly Sue DeConnick, G Willow Wilson, Jen Van Meter, Sara Pichelli, Joanna Estep, Carmen Carnero, Victoria Pal, Cat Yronwode.

July at DC: Gail Simone, Ann Nocenti, Christy Marx, Amanda Conner, Nicola Scott, Emanuela Lupacchino, Rachel Dodson, Cat Staggs, Megan Hetrick, Tula Lotay, Fiona Stephenson, Catilin Kittredge, Yuko Shimizu, Annie Mok, Rachel Deering, Jody Houser, Carla Berrocal.

Hanley also had a run at race-crunching two years ago, breaking down the June ’12 solicits for both DC and Marvel. His results were pretty telling: 79.3% of credits were for white people, 10.9 for Hispanic/Latino, 6.8% Asian, and 2.4% Black.

Captain America and the Mighty Avengers #1, cover by Luke Ross

Captain America and the Mighty Avengers #1, cover by Luke Ross

So while the applause for Sam Wilson being made more prominent is all well and good, it is severely undermined by those statistics. Today, Marvel has only ONE black writer. DC has NONE at all.

The lack of women and non-white creators behind our superheroes is something that simply isn’t changing fast enough, regardless of how much diversity is put upon the page. And when I say diversity, what I mean is reality: the world is not made up of only white, male, straight, abled folk. That is not what I see when I step outside my front door, and it’s not what Thor and Captain America should be seeing either.

That is not to say that only women should work with female characters, or that only non-white creators should work with characters of colour, or that white men are incapable of writing either. But a white writer and a white artist working on Sam Wilson as Cap, or two men working on Thor as a woman, or two men working on the new Spider-Woman title… that’s not the face of diversity. Nor was the latter a particularly smooth move to be the solo announcement at the Women of Marvel panel during SDCC.

What we need are more creators from all backgrounds and experiences, writing and creating and working with characters from all backgrounds and experiences. Women in comics are tired of being asked about being "women in comics". People are tired of Black Superhero, Gay Superhero and Female Superhero being headline worthy.

Only by making these changes more commonplace, by making characters like these less rare, will that happen. And the more headlines like these there are, the less new and special they will be – just simply what we expect of the genre.

The creator issue is one that I feel needs more powerfully challenged, while change on the page can be embraced. Wherever you are on the cynicism-optimism comics wave, the fact that many young readers are excited by these changes is a breath of fresh air. That common changes are being stepped up a gear by not simply swapping like for like is a good move amongst the regression, while allowing those with less privilege small moments of happiness is priceless.

The new Avengers lineup, art by Sara Pichelli

The new Avengers lineup, art by Sara Pichelli

The number of women working on direct market comics books is increasing, particularly when Image, Dark Horse, KaBOOM!, and Dynamite titles are taken into account. The loss of Gail Simone on Batgirl has sparked worries that characters with disabilities and LGBT characters, with an emphasis on the T, will be overlooked – with hope that her hints of working on a "secret" project will mean a return of the Secret Six, perhaps even with less editorial control than she battled on Batgirl.

But when I go to comic conventions, indie or pro and full of women as they are, the tables are still looking very, very white.

Superheroes as popular culture are accessible to everyone, but superheroes as comic titles to buy are still very much in a closed market. As long as that exists, we will struggle to bring in both new readers and new creators. Increasingly the latter are disinterested in superheroes because of the restricted storytelling opportunities and lack of diverse characters.

It’s a vicious circle but one that we need to break – by embracing change, and by demanding far more.

Angela: Asgard's Assassin #1, cover by Stephanie Hans

Angela: Asgard's Assassin #1, cover by Stephanie Hans

Yes we want more new characters, but yes those don’t always get the publicity or sales that they deserve. Boosting a new or old character by switching roles, and hopefully following up with a more popular new title of their own, is one approach of many that should be tried.

But what we don’t need are more white dudes raining on the parade, crudely describing a character many women are excited about as a "crap image of Thor with tits", or maintaining that no small changes can be enjoyed along the road to real progression.

It's telling that this is the same month I had to lock down both my Facebook and my Twitter in order to escape a constant barrage of demanded explanations from brocialists for why I didn't like x, y, and z, or why I was excited about a, b, or c - didn't I know that the overall battle for progression wasn't won? If I didn't want to defend my opinions from angry men, maybe I shouldn't open my mouth - if I wasn't going to explain, how could they learn?!

Women know that their media does not cater well for them; people without privilege know that their entertainment tends to be problematic and regressive as fuck. One moment of happiness does not mean we think the war is won, or that equality has been reached. We don’t need a rendition of The Fake Sound of Progress. Those of us who are never pandered to are allowed to enjoy the feeling while it lasts.

We can be excited about the success of Lucy and The Hunger Games trilogy while still being angry about the lack of female directors. Equally, we can be happy (or annoyed!) about changes in the portrayal of comic characters without having to disclaim our asses off each and every time about our awareness of the inequality of the media, industry, and/or society. And women should feel able to express their opinions on the first images of Wonder Woman from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice without being jumped on for being wrong or ignorant or a fangirl or a hater, regardless of their points.

Thor is a woman, Captain America is black, Ms Marvel is a Muslim teenager, and Batgirl gets to be cheerful – who knows what else could now be on the horizon?! And that gives this superhero fan the happy feels.

Jane Foster's previous kickass turn as Thordis! (Art by Rick Hoberg)

Jane Foster's previous kickass turn as Thordis! (Art by Rick Hoberg)

More reading:

Women in Comics: Regressive Storytelling and Iconic Characters (Regression, The New 52, and Barbara Gordon)
Spider-Man: Progressive Storytelling and Iconic Characters (Miles Morales, Torchy Brown, Race, and New Characters vs Legacy)
New Statesman: Thor has been an alien space horse and a frog – is a woman really more fantastical than that?

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
The Male Privilege Checklist
Derailing For Dummies

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  1. My only real issue with the announcement of a female Thor is the fact that the concept is too played out in general. Thor is going female. Spider-Man has had Spider-Girl. Batman has Batgirl. Superman has Supergirl. Hulk has She-Hulk. Need I go on? Whenever companies and Marvel even get a notion of bringing in new female fans they always take their big male heroes and literally feminize them.

    Both of these companies need a few good female heroes that have never been males to begin with and are also original creations, with new powers unlike any seen before. Wonder Woman shouldn’t have to stand alone as the one quality female hero that didn’t have a metaphorical sex change at some point in her career.

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