Superhero Comics: Four Colors, But Needing More?


In the Toronto Star, Brad Mackay surveys the sorry sales status of the sterling superhero, and wonders if lack of diversity is to blame:

Just ask Reginald Hudlin. The writer and director behind such films like House Party and Boomerang and TV shows like Everybody Hates Chris has been frustrated for decades by what he sees as the gross under-representation of black heroes in comics. A comic fan since he was a kid (he owns more than 30,000) and the current writer behind Marvel's Black Panther title, Hudlin is perplexed by how one of the oldest and most "pop" of all popular cultures could remain so whitewashed.

"In every other medium, the most successful concept or product is black. Whether it's music, movies, TV shows: out of the top 10, four of them are black," he says from his office at Black Entertainment Television, where he is an executive. "Who are the biggest movie stars? Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy. Only in comics are blacks so under represented. Somehow, in this medium people are so out of touch with popular culture that they don't understand that black culture is popular culture."

I'm not at all confident that he's correct–I think the problems with the standard monthly superhero comic pamphlet's ability to appeal to large audiences goes much deeper than mere lack of outreach to blacks or hispanics, and Mackay's story touches on some of those problems as well:

"Everything that these companies do is in complete isolation from true market forces. They are not now, nor have they been for 30 years, part of the mass media," says the co-owner of Toronto's most discerning comic shop, The Beguiling. "Companies run by fans with comics drawn by fans rarely think of catering to anyone but themselves, which unfortunately means comics aimed primarily at adult men who still want to read comics featuring characters suited to children's entertainment."

As someone to whom superhero comics were central to his life from 1975-85, stopped reading them entirely for two decades, but has fallen back into the trap in the past two years, I can only say: Uh, yeah, that sounds about right. (I have gone back and scanned some of the 1990s offerings, and I think it is more than just fannish arrested development that has me saying that there are a lot more well-done superhero comics today than there were a decade ago.)

But this article makes an interesting read regardless of whether you agree with its thesis that lack of racial diversity is helping kill the superhero. And in its own way Mackay's story suffers from its own lack of diversity: no mention at all of where the real sales action when it comes to comics in the American market is these days: Japanese manga.

I wrote about how comics, even the most adult and literary, have a hard time escaping the classic superhero trope back in this May 2001 Reason article.

NEXT: America Needs More Credit, Not More Debt!

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “uh, yeah, that sounds about right” sounds about right.

    (holds up comic)
    Now my book, `White-Hating Coon’, doesn’t have any of that bullshit. The hero’s name is Maleekwa, and he’s a descendant of the black tribe that established the first society on the planet, while all you European mother fuckers were still hiding in caves and shit, all terrified of the sun. He’s a strong role model that a young black reader can look up to, `Cause I’m here to tell you – the chickens are comin’ home to roost, ya’ll: the black man’s no longer gonna play the minstrel in the medium of comics and Sci-Fi/Fantasy! We’re keeping it real, and we’re gonna get respect – by any means necessary!

  3. I’m going to throw that “Denzel, Fox, Murphy” thing into people’s faces next time someone says that race is under represented in the media.

    I was about to write about how most black comics failed in the past, and there is no reason that they should do better in the future (mostly because about 99.99% of all black comics have an obnoxious “up with people” vibe to it), but it occured to me that if the “G-Unit” side of black culture, who a lot of times idolize comic characters, where to bleed into comics it could have some success.

    Side discussion; who is your favorite black comic book? Steel was one of the ones I used to obess about as a kid. Static Shock was an awesome cartoon.

  4. Comics are dying because every year and a half everything grinds to a halt when the latest worthless crossover happens. Take the latest “Civil War” debacle; 86 books over 6 months, most of which would be required to keep up with what’s going on. Then, to make matters worse, they’re late, and it winds up taking a year, during which time nothing can happen. Then, there’s no continuity so writers can ignore at will; prior to Civil War, Asgard was hovering over New York City. Nobody noticed; not the Avengers, or X-men or Fantastic Four, all of whom are based in or around NYC. The only one who noticed was Spider-Man, for one book, and only because he was sucked up there. Never plays into any of his other books, never gets mentioned again, nothing. They also ignore crossovers right after they happen (still waiting for you to explain what the hell happened with all the mutants, guys) Every book they put out is dripping with contempt with their readership. DC is a little better, but only because they managed to carry off their most recent crossover. Really, if they want to ignore everything else, then they should just move to a complete graphic novel format and just let the authors do whatever they want in their little worlds. That’s the lesson to take from manga sales.

  5. Foxx, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy.

    What, no Halle Barry?

  6. I was one of those illustration wonder-kids in high school that everyone expected to go off to Marvel. But I didn’t.

    It essentially boils down to I don’t get into the whole fantasy thing.

    I don’t do Scifi of any kind, and that’s really the point. Scifi is a nice little niche, but that’s all it is, a niche. And comics are just an extension of the scifi subculture.

  7. I went to a panel with Joe Q. who said that the reason they don’t just switch to TPB-only sales instead of stelling trades and single issues is the same reason that movie companies don’t just switch to realasing only dvd movies all the time. I guess people out there still collect the singals.

    I can’t stand the cross-overs either, which is mostly the reason I haven’t touched comics in years. And usually it beats the shit out of continuity by “wacking” the universe into something that is either narratively inconvient, like the Asgard thing, or just plain takes something out of the universe, like killing Blue Beetle. I usually don’t throw nerd fits over killing characters, but killing Beetle pisses me off, mostly because he’s minor enough to stay dead 4EVAH and yet he was a good, strong, character with a pretty unique personality compared to the rest of any comic universes.

  8. What, no Halle Barry?
    X-Men the Last Stand

  9. Black Panther, Luke Cage, Black Lighting, Jon Stewart, War Machine, Blade, Black Mantna, Falcon, Goliath, Bishop, Storm, Ultimate Nick Fury

    yeah that is all I can think of

  10. That’s the lesson to take from manga sales.
    Pandering to the sex-starved and socially inept? I’ve always felt the main draw to mangas was the audience surrogate aspect of it, where readers could live through the lives of socially inept characters who, for some reason, get all the girls.

  11. Also, too much politics. People want action, fun and cool graphics.

  12. The main reason for lack of diversity in monthly superhero comics is that after TV came along, comics held a competitive advantage only in superheroes and horror. For westerns and romance and comedy, TV did it better and cheaper. Then the Comics Code killed off horror, leaving only superheroes. Now, superhero comics are the victim of their own success because Hollywood special effects can now render the kind of action once confined to the printed panel. Superhero comics no longer have a competitive advantage in much of anything, making them a niche at best.

    Manga continues to thrive, however, because obsessive manga fans know they can get a more robust story in comics than they find in the anime versions of the same tales.

    Reason pimping: I wrote about the decline of horror comics back in June 2005.

  13. Ditto on Larry’s post.

    I would’ve liked to see Wolverine beat up Peter Parker when he was getting all drippy, and introspective.

    Anyone think Frank Miller originals are going up in price because of the recent movie? Hope so. . .

  14. DC Comics is trying to make its superheroes more diverse but in a way that alienates fans of the original characters and ends up pleasing no one:

    Firestorm: white male, now black male.
    The Atom: white male, now Asian (Japanese, I think) male.
    Blue Beetle: white male, now Hispanic male.
    The Question: straight, white, Objectivist male, now lesbian, Hispanic, Buddhist female.

  15. During the 90’s, DC partnered with Dwayne McDuffie to distribute titles produced by his Milestone Media. There were some pretty good comics in that line. Unfortunately, they didn’t sell. Black kids could be just as huge Marvel Zombies as their white cousins.

    I’m not kidding about that. I had an after school job in one of my city’s few comics shops in the mid-to-late 70s. Some buddies of mine bought the owner out and opened a shop around 1979, where I hung out and sometimes filled in behind the counter or convention table. The first place was in a pretty rough, very black neighborhood not far from where I attended college. The second one was in a then quite integrated area, but both stores had plenty of African-American shoppers. Black customers were another question. Most of our paying clientele was white, and those who weren’t college kids living in the dorms of our downtown campus drove in or rode the bus in from nicer, cleaner, and – let’s face it – whiter neighborhoods. The guys who spent the real bucks on Golden Age collectible comics had Real Jobs, and houses in the `burbs. The local kids in Neighborhood 1 were dead poor. (One of the reasons the original owner had his store there was the cheap rent.) In Neighborhood 2, the kids who shopped at the new store actually had some money to spend. But there wasn’t much difference between the comics the black kids and the white kids liked. Spider-Man could have been black under his mask, so popular was he with the young brothers. Hulk was huge with the black kids, too. Maybe they considered Old Jade Jaws a “person of color” – green. African-American kids loved kung fu comics, too, which is why the merger of Luke Cage, Power Man and Iron Fist into Power Man & Iron Fist made some commercial sense.

    Of course, almost everybody loved the multi-national, multi-racial New X-Men.

    Maybe black-produced, black-oriented comics could have succeeded if the monthly pamphlets had been able to avoid their banishment from the spinner rack in the neighborhood candy shop to the wall display at the comics boutique. But the product was transformed, from a mass market item, printed on the cheapest paper posssible to keep its price down, and earning a good deal of its revenue from advertising, into a specialty item, often with few or no ads, with higher initial prices and with increasingly more sophisticated production values, even if the stories and art may not always have merited the upscale packaging.

    I sometimes think that a hip-hop aesthetic in comics might have resulted in issues with 22 pages of photocopied snippets of other people’s work, lettered graffiti-style in thick markers. I keed, I keed! Actually, when characters with “flava” showed up in the pages of the Justice League or Archie, that was a sure sign that whatever trend the unhip writers and editors had noticed had just received the cultural kiss of death. Vibe breakdancing his way into the JLA, anyone? Rocket Racer or Night Thrasher going into battle on their skateboards?


    `Nuff Said!


  16. The Question hasn’t been Objectvist since the 80’s. O’Neil’s run made him a Zen-Buddhaist.

  17. I’ll believe that Rene Montoya is The Question the same way I’ll believe that “Charles Victor Szasz” was: when I see it in a story by Steve Ditko.


  18. BTW, kebrob is just the way that Mushmouth on Fat Albert pronounces my handle.


  19. Jonathon, Static was an awesome comic too…

  20. Warren: That’s a bunch of horse shit! Lando Calrissian was a black guy. You know, and he got to fly the Millennium Falcon, what’s the matter with you?

  21. Fuck Lando Calrissian! Uncle-Tom nigger!

  22. Pandering to the sex-starved and socially inept? I’ve always felt the main draw to mangas was the audience surrogate aspect of it, where readers could live through the lives of socially inept characters who, for some reason, get all the girls.

    With some series that’s certainly a large part of it, but there are more than a few genres that don’t fall into that trap; the works of CLAMP and other “female oriented” manga are quite a bit more story-driven, which is how they attract readership, and why they’re more popular with young people, and increasingly young girls, than standard comics are.

  23. The Question is a female now? Hmm.

    I’ve been reading some of the new Ghost Rider and Iron Man comics, and they’re pretty good, but I’ve got a buddy who collects, so I just get to read them. Since I’m a white guy, I don’t really care too much what colour the character is, but I (naturally, I think) prefer white characters. Same thing with athletes – while I don’t have a preference, and give credit where credit is due, I’m going to pull for a white fella over a black fella any time.

    Speaking of the Ghost Rider comic I just read – the hero is a white guy, but in the first issue, a free black man (it’s set just after the Civil War) saves our hero, but in the next issue we get to find out that a bunch of Confederates and general racist, shit-kicking pricks, came and killed the entire (black) man’s family, including himself, of course. Our white (Confederate) hero’s not too happy about that.

    Anyway, I had mixed emotions about what the authors were trying to say, because there’s some voodoo shit going on, too, that just seems to have a very simplistic take on black history. The white history is a little more nuanced (hence the white, Confederate hero having a black man as a friend), but…

    Of course, in the end, it’s a comic, it’s for entertainment, and if you don’t like it, don’t buy it, and if you’re upset there’s not more (insert your pet ethnicity, hobby, time period, etc, etc, etc) being represented in the comic industry, then try your hand at making your own comics – I guess. πŸ™‚

  24. I see no reason why a new African-American superhero would not be wildly popular today, as long as that superhero was female and had magnificent bazoombas.

  25. Do you think they ever have discussions like this over at Little Green Footballs?

  26. So, someone has identified a neglected market but did not bother capitalizing on it?

    Sounds like someone is missing an opportunity. The only things stopping me are talent and the doubt that the complaint is anything more that baseless.

  27. Hudlin’s Black Panther is not far removed from the comic described by Warren in the second comment to this post. Not far removed at all.

  28. its thesis that lack of racial diversity is helping kill the superhero.

    Horsecrap. Put out the exact same comics they do today, only with a little re-inking to make characters different races, and sales would be . . . exactly what they are today.

    God forbid that they problem should have anything to do with the quality of the product rather than insufficient kowtowing at the altar of multiculturalism.

  29. Personally, I’m waiting for yaoi comics to really take off in the US.

  30. The Big Two Comic Companies gave up trying to garner new fans long ago. These days they simply preach to the converted. Almost all ads for comic books appear only in other comic books.
    They also use the Big Publicity Stunt to get attention, but this never translates into long-term sales increases.

    Quite frankly, I do not think the death of superhero comics would be a bad thing.

  31. Meanwhile, Marvel is opening a theme park in Dubai.

  32. Comics have no market among people who don’t read.

  33. Personally, I’m waiting for yaoi comics to really take off in the US.

    Maybe if I were twelve. I mean I’m all in favor of the man-love, but the boy-love is a little weird.

    *goes back into her room and watches Brokeback Mountain*

  34. “as long as that superhero was female and had magnificent bazoombas.”

    so says a man who celebrates the entire movie oevre of Richard Kiel…


    (naughty moose. naughty)

  35. I always thought that if Batman were real, citizens rights groups would protest him for disproportionately targeting poor minorities and violatign their civil rights. Because of his cooperation with commissioner Gordon, you could even argue that Batman is a state actor.

  36. The problem doesn’t revolve around a lack of characters, but a lack of creators of color to portray them. With painfully white writers at the helm, the characters are mostly used as a “token” black characters.

    Also, you have to look at the fact that most black superheroes are just analogs of other superheroes in black-face. Steel=Superman, Falcon=Captain America, Jon Stewart is a Green Lantern, etc. Their characterization revolves around them being the same character, just black.

    The later changes are no better; making characters black is often just a plot device, discarded or ignored by later creators. Black Manta being African-American was a ret-con that came out of nowhere, mostly for a short-lived storyline of him wanted to conquer the oceans for a separatist state for people of color. Ultimate Nick Fury is just an over-long Sam Jackson homage.

    As for Luke Cage, all I have to say is “Sweet Christmas!” (In the video game Marvel Ultimate Alliance, one of Cage’s unlockable super powers is “Street Smarts.”)

    Race is dealt with in modern comics by white writers like it is dealt with in modern America by most white people: apologetic guilt with a sublimated thread of unconscious racist condescension.

    (Full disclosure: I’m so white, I’m pink.)

  37. I always thought that if Batman were real


  38. The linked article doesn’t make much of Milestone, but I think Milestone’s ghost is a real issue. At the time, Static, Icon, and Blood Syndicate were, as far as I’m concerned, probably the best super-hero titles on the market. They did everything right– featuring black characters but not only black characters, creating a well-thought out super-hero-verse, having one limited profile-boosting Superman crossover, giving characters a range of voices and backgrounds and political interests or uninterest, and being a lot of fun. And the line died. I can see why the Big 2 companies have subsequently floundered– they think they need to do *something*, but it’s just not clear what the right ‘something’ could be.

  39. The ultimate black comic character is the work of Reason’s own Pete Bagge, namely George Cecil Hamilton III.

  40. Grown men reading comic books. No libertarian stereotypes there. πŸ˜‰

  41. Political and demographic note:

    During the heyday of comics, the “Golden Age” that stretched from the run-up to WWII and some ineffable point of time after VJ Day, publishers avoided having black characters who weren’t comic sterotypes for a practical, if ignoble reason. Local distributors in the the Jim Crow South, and many communities outside it, wouldn’t stock books that featured “race mixing.” About the only treatments of black characters that wouldn’t make you cringe were the way Walt (Pogo) Kelly would casually include a normal-looking black in the group when he was doing the comic book version of Our Gang (aka The Little Rascals), or Lee Falk’s Prince Lothar, who aided Mandrake the Magician in the newspapers. Even if Lothar wasn’t comical, he was still a sidekick, and the Master of Mesmerism’s designated muscle. Will Eisner subverted the dominant trope in his newspaper-distributed Spirit Section. The Spirit’s pal, Ebony White, was drawn to look like a sterotypical Negro chile’, and was given a dialect to speak that was right out of Stepin Fetchit. In his actions, however, he was clever, brave and loyal to his friends. When Eisner revisited the character decades later he was drawn as a conservative looking middle-aged adult who wouldn’t look out of place on the Central City Council.

    That comics weren’t produced with an eye to appeal to minority communities when they were a genuine mass market item may have been a relic of an unenlightened age. Specialty magazines aimed at the black market tended to be undercapitalized and short-lived. Marvel’s first steps into this arena were tentative. I know they got flak about the Black Panther’s first appearances in The Fantastic Four, and by the time the character was regularly appearing on the cover of The Avengers, his mask had been redesigned so that only the cognoscenti would know him for an African, without flipping through the book. The Comics Code’s ban on holding ethnic groups up to ridicule had a perverse effect on the frequency of black characters in the 50s and early 60s. The old sterotypical sidekicks disappeared, but more realistic black characters did not replace them. I don’t have figures to back up the supposition, but I wonder if comic buying was significantly less popular among African Americans all along. The introduction of graphic novels in bookstores may change things, but it’s been my experience that individuals are either introduced to comics at a young age or they don’t pick up the comic-reading habit, let alone the comic-buying one.

    What I found the article most lacked was any comment from McDuffie or any of his collaborators, such as Denys Cowan. While they couldn’t keep Milestone going, DC’s parent company, Warner Brothers, wound up airing a cartoon based on their characters, Static Shock, on the Cartoon Network and the WB. Milestone left the racks just when there was an upheaval in the comics distribution system that resulted in hundreds, if not thousands of independent comics shops closing their doors. [Short version: Marvel tried to self-distribute, and it blew up in everybody’s faces.] Not a few of those shops were in urban locations like the ones I frequented. If that line had been reintroduced after the comic shops had retrenched, it might have had trouble getting into the hands of black kids who lived in the city.

    One of the best bits about a black superhero was when then Feds demanded that the Avengers, during one of their periodic membership shakeups, induct the Falcon and place him on their active roster, or risk losing their security clearances. Very clever of Jim Shooter: make sure that your conpany’s flagship all-star superteam has a black face in it, then use his being an “affirmative action hire” as a plot point. To the Falcon’s credit, he resented the tokenism.


  42. tragdor, you forgot Marvel’s Captain Marvel, a black woman with the power to turn into any type of electromagnetic radiation.

  43. always thought that if Batman were real, citizens rights groups would protest him for disproportionately targeting poor minorities and violatign their civil rights. Because of his cooperation with commissioner Gordon, you could even argue that Batman is a state actor.
    Frank Miller covered part of that in Batman:YO and The Dark Night Returns

  44. What’s a “Nubian”?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.