Last week I gushed about the improvements of the 2015 Long Beach Comic Expo over previous shows bearing the name, but I want to bring up one aspect in particular again: the first ever presentation ceremony for the Dwayne McDuffie Award, for promoting diversity in the field of comics. The first recipient was Nilah Magruder, in honor of her creator-owned webcomic M.F.K., and on the back of the award was printed a properly poetic quote from McDuffie: “From invisible to inevitable.”
McDuffie’s contributions to the field of comics and superheroes are many and respected, but what I always respected most about him was that he never presented himself as someone that was out to destroy the past. He looked to the future. He wrote the (very white) Fantastic Four and Ben 10 with just as much verve and wit as his Milestone Comics creations. He always wanted to write characters first and foremost, but wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that there’s a selfish part of us that likes to see larger-than-life reflections we recognize in the media we consume. It’s like what I posted way back when discussing the seminar on Superblack (also featuring a section on McDuffie), where Dr. Adilifu Nama admitted his child self was fascinated by all the superhero action figures, but most of all by the Falcon, a black man who could fly.
It’s not to say we can’t identify with icons outside of our own skin color or gender or sexual identity, because a well-written character and story should have universal aspects that transcend such things. But as a white dude I recognize that growing up I had a lot more choices amongst media icons that resembled me, and there was something ineffable to that. I think one of the best explanations of why diversity in media matters comes from a speech by Pulitzer-winning author Junot Diaz:
“You guys know about vampires?” Diaz asked. “You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.
And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?
And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might seem themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
The invisibility. The feeling that you just somehow aren’t there and aren’t worth acknowledging. McDuffie’s quote comes from the feeling he got when his 11-year-old self picked up an issue of Marvel’s Black Panther in the 1970’s, a similar epiphany to Nama’s: “In the space of 15 pages, Black people moved from invisible to inevitable.”
And so it is. The face of the comics audience is changing, becoming far more diverse than when I was a kid, and while the appetite for good stories is still a unifying desire, the success of comics like the new Ms. Marvel is finally starting to chip away at the assumptions that only a certain subset of people want the product, and thus only a certain subset of people need to be acknowledged. I’m inspired to say that today because in my previous blog that I linked above I held up DC’s New 52 as an example of backwards blindness catering to the old and stale audience even though it was paradoxically supposed to attract the fresh and new. But today:
Listen, I’m not saying DC’s decisions in this regard are a sign of progressive attitudes winning the day. It could be, but it could also be the same reason Las Vegas has become such a staunch supporter of gay marriage—gay men and marriages both bring a lot of money into Las Vegas. Similarly, women and people of color (and women of color!) are becoming a bigger and bigger part of the pop culture and comics scene, and bringing money with them that they’re using to make their choices of what appeals to them. Maybe cold hard cash is not the most pure of motives for change, but it’s a powerful one that can eventually make itself heard in even the most tone-deaf of skyscraper boardrooms.
The diversity has been growing, and with it, the demand for those mirrors Diaz mentioned. That sense of inclusion in the clubhouse. Once, that was invisible. But now that it is not, it is inevitable.