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.