A look inside "All-New Captain America" No. 1. (Marvel)Link
A look inside "All-New Captain America" No. 1 shows the new Cap, Sam Wilson, conferring over his headset with his longtime friend, Steve Rogers, the former Cap who's been robbed of the super soldier serum that had kept him young. (Marvel)Link
Sam Wilson, long known as the Falcon, stars in "All-New Captain America" No. 1, out Wednesday and written by Rick Remender with art by Stuart Immonen. (Marvel)Link
Sam Wilson is seen in his new role in Alex Ross' variant cover for "All-New Captain America" No. 1, out Wednesday. (Marvel)Link
The new Thor is seen on Russell Dauterman's cover for her debut issue, which was released in October. (Marvel)Link
Miles Morales, who's been Spider-Man in the Ultimate universe since 2011, is seen at the front of his new team in "All-New Ultimates." (David Marquez / Marvel)Link
Kyle Jinadu, left, and Northstar wed in 2012's "Astonishing X-Men" No. 51, written by Marjorie Liu. (Dustin Weaver / Marvel)Link
"Ms. Marvel," written by G. Willow Wilson, debuted in February with Pakistani American Muslim teen Kamala Khan taking on the name that first belonged to Carol Danvers. The first issue went to six printings, and the first collected volume was the bestselling graphic novel of October. (Sara Pichelli / Marvel)Link
"She-Hulk" No.1, which started in February, is among a recent wave of acclaimed female-fronted titles from Marvel. The Charles Soule-written, Javier Pulido-drawn series is ending in January, but more superheroines are getting their own series, including another green gal: Gamora of Guardians of the Galaxy. (Kevin Wada / Marvel)Link
The Kelly Sue DeConnick-written "Captain Marvel" has been a leader in Marvel's growing number of female-fronted titles, which are written and drawn in distinctly different styles. And now Carol Danvers has a date with a big-screen destiny. (David Lopez / Marvel)Link
When Marvel took to ABC’s “The View” and Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” in July to announce that a woman would become Thor and a black man would become Captain America in its comics, debate ignited over what in Asgard’s name the House of Ideas was thinking.
Such dramatic changes coming simultaneously to two of the publisher’s classic marquee brands – names that front blockbuster film franchises at its sister company Marvel Studios – were celebrated by many people as positive progress, but others decried the decisions: “This is political correctness run amok,” “Affirmative Action Man” and “PC Avengers, Assemble!” read parts of some readers’ reactions posted on Hero Complex stories about the announcements.
Whether they’re meeting fans or foes, the new Captain America and Thor represent two ongoing concerns for Marvel and the comics industry’s growth: minorities and women.
As Marvel celebrates its 75th anniversary, it is working to take its growing catalog of characters into a future with a more diverse audience – and to use talent and staffing that better reflect the increasingly female and ethnically varied crowd at comic conventions.
“Marvel comic books are always at their best when they reflect what’s going on in the world right now,” editor in chief Axel Alonso said in an interview with Hero Complex. “That’s been our traditional strength, dating back to Stan Lee – our ability, either through metaphor or through straight-on confrontation, to deal with social issues and the zeitgeist of the day.”
In recent years, Marvel, which has long had a number of female and minority heroes, has made high-profile strides to make its characters look even more like the world they’re constantly saving: It has spun webs about a black and Hispanic teen wall crawler in “Ultimate Spider-Man,” hosted mainstream comics’ first same-sex wedding in “Astonishing X-Men” and introduced a Pakistani American Muslim girl as the new Ms. Marvel.
The new stories seem to be connecting with readers: The first volume of “Ms. Marvel” was the bestselling graphic novel for October, the debut issue of the new “Thor” sold out, the recent “Young Avengers” was a Tumblr titan and won a GLAAD Media Award, and the success of female-led titles has led to additional ones – soon, a historic high of more than a dozen of the roughly 75 comics Marvel publishes each month will star solo heroines (and many other titles are team books with diverse casts).
More changes appear to be on the way, both on and off the page.
“Young fans inspired by these books will grow up to become the next generation of comics creators,” said Rob Salkowitz, author of “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture” and books on digital strategy and the millennial generation. “As badly as we need more diversity in the pantheon of fictional characters, we really need greater diversity in the ranks of professional creators.”
Interviews with Marvel employees indicate that the company agrees. But change still comes slowly in an industry that has long been the province of white men. The publisher faces both the perception problem that these character changes are gimmicks and the challenge of diversifying its staffing demographics.
The next moment of truth arrives Wednesday with “All-New Captain America” No. 1, written by Rick Remender, who generated the idea of having Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, pick up the red, white and blue shield wielded since World War II by Steve Rogers (though it’s not the first time someone else has been Cap).
The writer said that having the Falcon, who debuted in a 1969 “Captain America” issue as the first African American superhero in mainstream comics, become Cap in the wake of Steve Rogers’ sudden advancement to old age grew from working with the two characters and seeing more new storytelling possibilities and room for interpretation in Sam.
To the hubbub over having a black man as Captain America, he replied: “As a left-leaning punk rocker, this doesn’t feel that progressive to me,” adding that as a young comics reader in the 1980s he knew Iron Man as an African American character – James Rhodes – and was “bummed out” when Tony Stark stepped back into the armor.
It’s not that he’s unaware of the messages having Sam as Captain America can send – recalling his childhood best friend’s enthusiasm about a fellow African American being Iron Man and seeing pictures teachers sent of kids holding the shield after the July announcement, he noted that if the new series leads to “one less disenfranchised human being,” that’s a positive effect.
He also understands the doubters.
“It’s difficult being a former strident indie punker who saw that in all of the corporate machine,” Remender said, “but having been the person who generated this idea and knowing the place it came from and then seeing the reaction Marvel had to it, I can honestly say that you also have to look at the other side, which is that there wasn’t a cynical instinct in this whole thing.”
One skeptic is Christopher Priest, a former Marvel staffer who in the 1980s became the publisher’s first black editor (under his former name, Jim Owsley) and has written a “Falcon” miniseries and “Captain America and the Falcon” series.
“It feels like a stunt,” he told Hero Complex in an email interview. “It would have felt like a stunt had I done it.” He added that Wilson, as he understands him, wouldn’t become Captain America – and that for the story to work it needs to feel different from Rhodes’ stints as Iron Man.
“Putting the black sidekick in the suit, when everyone knows sooner or later you’re going to switch things back to normal, comes off as patently offensive,” Priest said.
Adding that he’d be “delighted” to be wrong about the Cap change being a stunt, Priest laid out what his former employer is facing: “Marvel’s challenge is to deliver something so affirming and positive that the work overcomes that cynicism. I assure you, Black America will be watching: Does this have real depth, or is it just surfacey costume-switching?”
And he had some other advice for Marvel: “Hire some actual black people.”
Though diversity within the company’s staff and freelance ranks has lagged like the industry as a whole, that is poised to change, outside observers and Marvel leaders agree.
Tim Hanley, who wrote “Wonder Woman Unbound” and keeps statistics on female and minority workers at Marvel and DC in a column at Bleeding Cool, counts the House of Ideas’ percentage of women working on its comics as varying between 8% and 15% in the three-plus years since he began keeping track, with ethnic minority numbers lower.
“I don’t think Marvel’s done well diversifying its creators yet, but there are people inside the company who are very committed to doing so,” Hanley wrote in an email. “I’m optimistic about Marvel in 2015; I wouldn’t be surprised to see their numbers for women and people of color grow significantly.”
Salkowitz pointed out that most comics professionals start as fans, and that many of today’s creators started reading in the medium during the 1980s and ’90s, when its tales were almost exclusively targeted at males. He added that changes have started in the last 15 years or so – though the years-long journey from young reader to adult creator means they’re “not happening fast enough to keep up with changes in the culture.”
Louise Simonson, a writer and editor at Marvel in the ’80s and ’90s who co-created the big screen-bound mutant supervillain Apocalypse, saw the X-Men franchise’s diverse characters propel it in sales. “I think there’s a kind of feedback loop at work – good stories that feature women tend to interest women. This increases female readership, which increases the presence of women in comics.”
Marvel’s Jeanine Schaefer, who is on the front lines of finding new writers and artists, agrees.
The talent coordinator and scout, who as an editor shepherded the creation of the recent all-female-character “X-Men” series, said the goal is to tell the best stories the company can, and to do that it needs multiple points of view: “You have to bring in fresh voices and new eyes to push us to the next level.”
“If we’re going to get more women and minorities working … in the industry, we have to have women and minorities working in the industry,” said Schaefer, who is spearheading an all-female-artist Women’s History Month variant cover program for March.
The question is how best to do that.
Hanley recommends that the industry adopt something like the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head-coaching positions.
Alonso, who sees his company as nudging progress along, also invokes the NFL when talking about hiring women and minorities, comparing it to the complex process of grooming a new quarterback to succeed.
“That quarterback has to land in the right organization with the right offensive coordinator and the right talent around him to build his confidence and learn and grow and … not lose his confidence in his first few games,” Alonso said.
Marvel has its eyes open, he said, and its internal demographics will change “without a doubt.”
“[W]e need to scour the indie comics, any type of relative media, and then we need to make smart decisions about where the talent is deployed,” he said, adding, “I think over the next few months we’re going to be making announcements that are really going to open some minds and make people excited.”
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