Recently Marvel Comics announced the upcoming release of Mighty Avengers, a new monthly series which will prominently feature heroes of color and women as the team members (popular characters such as Luke Cage, She Hulk, The Falcon, Superior Spider-Man and a number of rarely seen/under used characters). The news generated a bit of a buzz in a number of comic industry circles, but not for the reasons that you might think. Many independent comic creators and fans questioned Marvel’s reasoning for deciding to release a title that features such diversity, when behind the scenes there are little or no people of color, women, or LGBT lifestyle among the creative team. Among those who spoke out and gave voice to the thoughts of many fans on the issue were industry professionals Joseph Phillip Illidge (Writer, former Editor on DC Entertainment‘s Batman books, former Editor for Milestone Media), Brandon Easton (Writer for Lion Forge Entertainment, former Writer of Thundercats for Warner Bros. Animation) and Brandon Thomas (Writer/Creator of The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury for Archaia, Writer of Dynamite Entertainment‘s Voltron & Voltron: Year One).
On June 17th these three creative, talented, intelligent men recorded episode 9 of the popular podcast series “The Two Brandons.” The title of the episode: ”Mighty Black Avengers and the Legacy of Milestone Comics”. A passionate and fierce discussion, much of their exchange brought to light the frustration and consternation for the current industry models and practices that are in place. Mr. Illidge took time to elaborate more in-depth on the topic discussed by the creative trio and the fan base at large regarding Marvel Comics‘ Mighty Avengers.
MT: What does the presence of this title in Marvel’s line up mean? Do you think it represents an actual effort to depict diversity in their comic book line up? If not, what would a genuine attempt/product look like?
JI: It means Marvel is making an attempt to appeal to an audience of color, an audience with a lot of spending power in The United States. Marvel used the power of The Avengers name (now globally known because of the movie) as the launchpad for the effort, which from a business standpoint would increase its chance of success.
It’s clearly intended to depict their diversity in concentrated form, but I wish that diversity extended behind the scenes so that the writer and, or illustrator of Mighty Avengers was a person of color. Luke Cage, a well-known Black character of Marvel Comics going back thirty years, has a majority of White writers in his publication history, including the Avengers titles he appears in today.
When I worked as a Batman editor for DC Comics, I brought more creators of color to the mix. It wasn’t my Sojouner Truth tactic; it was a desire to expand the landscape. It was also refreshing that my fellow Batman editors at the time felt the same way. The desire to bring more people from different backgrounds to play in the Gotham City sandbox was a shared one. Can the same be said for any editorial section of the big two publishers today? There were two Black characters in the Superman film, The Man of Steel. Are there two characters of color within the Superman family of books? Most Marvel Studios films have a character of color. Do most Marvel comic books have a character of color?
MT: During the initial buzz over the announcement, you, Brandon Thomas (writer for Marvel, DC Entertainment, Dynamite, and Archaia) and Brandon Easton (writer/director/producer of the upcoming documentary “Brave New Souls” and winner of the 2013 Glyph Award for Best Writer on his graphic novel Shadowlaw) got together and shared your thoughts on this announcement in an episode of their podcast series, “The Two Brandons”. What has been the response from the professional world to that podcast thus far? Any reaction from the fan base? Has there been any response from anyone at Marvel?
JI: Various professionals in the mainstream graphic novel industry have contacted us with gratitude and appreciation for putting this subject on the table, which is the combination of marginal representation of characters of color along with marginal employment of writers of color. The fans who care about this issue have continued the discussion with us and many others through social media.
Marvel hasn’t responded. We didn’t put forth any kind of challenge or question for their response. We discussed a matter that reinforces how the graphic novel business is similar to business in various other industries, in dynamics involving race. Ironic, since Marvel Comics is progressive in other ways.
MT: Many are skeptical about this being a genuine effort to promote diverse representation in comics due to the lack of actual behind-the-scenes presence of people of color and women working on titles. What do you feel that big publishers should do to make a legitimate push to change this? Could you explain how the old “Rolodex” method of hiring is actually hurting the industry? Why do you think these same issues keep coming up and there is a lack of effort on the part of industry decision makers to change it?
JI: The skepticism is understandable.
The answer isn’t to hire people of color to fill a quota. However, with the number of talented writers of color, female writers, and LGBT writers in the graphic novel industry (and outside it), there’s no good reason for Marvel to not seek out more of these people to work on their books. It would be a good move, and good PR for them.
The “Rolodex” method I mentioned in the podcast is about editors going to their regular talent pool for assignments, because it’s easy, the path of least resistance. The resistance to stepping outside of their comfort zone prevents editors from finding talented writers who could bring a cultural authenticity to their characters of color, female gender, and non-heterosexual lifestyle. Also, using the same talent over and over again eventually leads to a creative white noise (no pun intended, I swear) which fans will eventually tire of, leading to a slow erosion of sales and of imaginative ideas within the books.
These issues resurface because a company like Marvel has never seen any financial consequence from the lack of employment of diverse writers. Only the consumers could do this, by holding back their dollars and demanding change, but as with the entertainment industry in general, such behavior on the part of buyers is unusual. It’s also a complicated thing to do, because how far does one go with the protest? Does it extend to Disney, who owns Marvel? Should it? Many layers to consider.
MT: In the podcast, you mention that you feel the independent scene is where different voices and people of different backgrounds will stand a better chance of being heard (rather than with the big two). Do you think that if a number of prominent indie creators were to come together and create a shared universe (a model which is utilized by both Marvel and DC Comics) it would create a model that is more accessible to fans? (Milestone Comics being one of the best examples of this.)
JI: The independent comics scene, loosely defined as the collection of all publishers who are neither Marvel nor DC Entertainment, is certainly a more generous landscape for diverse writers and other creators to do work and tell their stories.
The Ren’, a graphic novel which takes place during the Harlem Renaissance, is a book I’m producing with co-writer Shawn Martinbrough and illustrator Grey Williamson. All of us are Black men and New York natives, both factors informing the book’s content, and the book is being published by First Second Books, a division of New York-based book publisher Macmillan. The Ren’ could not be done at either Marvel or DC with the same level of creator-ownership and sincere editorial interest, because of their corporate philosophies, but a mainstream book publisher was very interested in facilitating the book’s creation.
The shared universe model is not one I see a large number of independent creators putting together, because of the complexity that would come with ownership issues and profits. The model needed to represent an accessible and financially-viable alternative to Marvel and DC for the fans would be either a) a venture capital-backed creation of a new company, utilizing a creative and executive base of diverse talent to create marketable comic books of quality, or b) a union of existing independent graphic novel publishers.
This has recently happened with the acquisition of Archaia Entertainment by Boom! Studios, the publisher of the comic book 2 Guns, which has been adapted into the upcoming film starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. A unified company like that would provide a great landscape for creators from diverse cultural backgrounds to develop books with wide audience appeal.
MT: In the podcast, the issue of product quality comes up and how it can foster the perception that some independent comics are inferior to those from Marvel and DC Entertainment. Since independent creators don’t have Marvel or DC’s financial resources, what can they do to challenge this perception? Or should they even try?
JI: Independent creators should and must try to make books as good as the Marvel and DC books. What they should not do is put out uncompetitive work, in a writing, art, or editorial context. If it’s not good enough, sharpen your skills and get better, get an editor, then return and launch your book.
As a public speaker, I’ve been to colleges and events throughout the United States, and this is what I tell independent and aspiring creators all the time. All the time. It’s not enough to self-publish your books. Those books have to stand up to the books people are buying in high numbers today. Creators with books full of typos, bad coloring, bad lettering, uncompetitive artwork, disjointed story pacing…you’re not competing with the comics people are buying when you have problems like these in your books.
Thankfully, various independent creators are veterans of mainstream comics, so their books have a certain level of quality. Karl Bollers, for example, is the writer of the independent series Watson and Holmes (New Paradigm Studios). He’s written comics in the X-Men family of books for Marvel, so he’s used to producing at a particular standard.
MT: One of the arguments fans use for not buying indie comics is accessibility. They cite the easy access to, and abundance of, titles from Marvel and DC Comics when they shop for titles. What do you recommend fans do, if they want to find comics and graphic novels from independent creators? How can they find stories from diverse creators, reflecting the diverse world we live in? Are there any websites you can recommend?
JI: In the major cities where there are comic book specialty shops, it’s easy to find comics by independent creators. Middle America, I imagine, has fewer options. That said, finding anything these days is just a matter of using a search engine. Use Google or Bing and look for “Black comic book writers”, “female comic book writers”, “comic book publishers”, “Latino comic book writers”. “Black comic book conventions”, etc.
Follow some of the creators you discover through this search on social media, where they will almost certainly announce new projects.
MT: What challenge, if any would you like to issue to the creative community and to the fan based community in light of this recent reveal by Marvel?
JI: I wouldn’t issue a challenge to the creative community. Creators who care about expanding the cultural landscape are doing so, and the ones who aren’t clearly aren’t concerned with the issue, or think addressing such a concern could adversely affect their careers.
My challenge would be to the consumers of color, to seek out writers, artists, and stories that reflect their culture. Give new works and unpopular creators a chance to prove themselves to you with their books.
I shop at Midtown Comics in New York City quite a bit. I always walk all the way to the back of the aisle first, where the rack of books by lower-profile independent publishers can be found. Sometimes I find good books there, then I make my way through Marvel, Image (my favorite comics publisher right now), and the other independent publishers.
That kind of conscientious action, and the expanded purchasing decisions that come from the search and discovery of diverse talent, is what I’d like to see more of, for a more diversified graphic novel landscape and industry.
MT: Thank you for sharing Mr. Illidge. Fans can check out the previously mentioned ‘The Two Brandons’ podcast here.