Progressivism is on the Rise in Superhero Comics

Not only does Steve Orlando’s Midnighter comic star a gay man, it tells blunt, sex-positive stories about that character. The main cast of characters in the upcoming main Avengers comic All-New, All-Different Avengers has only one white dude.

While there is still a lot of work on the road to a utopia of complete social justice, there is a trend of progressivism in some of today’s superhero comics that is impossible to ignore.

“There’s certainly a long way to go, but [the comics industry] is moving in the right direction,” said Orlando via phone interview on Oct. 23.

Books like Batgirl and Cyborg from DC Comics as well as Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel down the lane at Marvel coalesce to paint a picture of superhero comics that not only includes a solid focus on minority and women characters, but also features progressive themes concerning identity, racial justice, body image and more.

This isn’t to say that it isn’t still easy to find drawings of women that pander to the male gaze in superhero comics, or that instances of prejudice have been entirely squashed. The point is that there are superhero comics today that are progressive in a way that was unheard of just a few years ago.

Mark Millar, writer of comics like Kick-Ass, Civil War, Chrononauts and much more, is starting to feel fatigued by superheroes, especially on the big screen, he said. On the topic of more minorities and women characters in lead roles and more of these real people in creative positions , he said “I think it’s essential,” via Skype interview on Oct. 21. “I think it’s one of these things that might actually make superheroes stick around and be interesting a little bit longer.”

From his experience, people working in comics tend to have a progressive streak.

“I think our whole lives we’ve been very subtly brainwashed to be nicer by superhero comics,” said Millar.

DC

MIDNIGHTER EMBRACES GAY MALE SEXUALITY

In May 2015, DC Comics released original eight page stories that teased June’s “DC You” initiative that saw a bevy of new comics and some new status quo change for other series. One of the upcoming new comics was the now-current Midnighter. The first page of this preview sees Lucas Trent, Midnighter, hurriedly awake from a sexual encounter with another man as he hears a call on his headset for help. There is a small panel in which he grabs for his underwear, emblazoned with the Batman logo and surrounded by wrappers of condoms.

Owned by DC Comics
Owned by DC Comics

“DC is saying we’re cool with that, and we love it, and we’re letting the Batman logo get used in this comic in this way,” said The Rainbow Hub comics editor and trans woman Emma Houxbois via Skype interview on Oct. 25. “Which is something from a licensing perspective, when you think of it being in the larger Warner Brothers portfolio, that is a gigantic deal.”

This series follows the titular character created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch in a 1998 issue of the Stormwatch series. Midnighter was originally designed as an analogue to Batman, who happened to be gay and married to a gay analogue of Superman, named Apollo. The last dedicated Midnighter series was canceled in 2008.

Houxbois has very positive things to say about the new series currently five issues in, which couldn’t have happened even three years ago, according to her.

“This is right on the bleeding edge of what anyone has been allowed to do in a comic,” said Houxbois.

Right off the bat, the first issue saw the protagonist use an app more or less identical to the common, real-life gay meetup app Grindr.

Midnighter has also impressed Matt Santori-Griffith, a gay man and senior editor of Comicosity, a comic book enthusiast website run by him and editor-in-chief Aaron Long.

EmmaHouxboisHub“It’s giving us something we haven’t had in a long time in superhero comics,” said Santori-Griffith via phone interview on Oct. 27.

The character speaks to Santori-Griffith, which is special.

“As a gay man it has been difficult for me to find a superhero character that represents even a part of my life,” said Santori-Griffith.

Orlando sees great importance in writing fleshed out, diverse characters.

“I think it’s important to break the stereotypes of the types of positions groups of people are allowed to have, and that goes for any group of people,” said Orlando. “It’s because of what people deserve… everybody deserves to have their own comic.”

CYBORG COMES OUT FROM THE SHADOWS

Despite being such a beloved character after his role in the hit 2003-2006 Cartoon Network television series Teen Titans, Cyborg has never had his own solo comic book series. The New 52 relaunch over at DC in September of 2011 saw Cyborg become a member of the Justice League rather than a member of the younger-slanted Teen Titans team. At that point, he was the only member of the team to not have his own series.

Thanks to the “DC You” relaunch, this has changed in a big way. Cyborg has his own series now, written by David F Walker, a black man, in which that overshadowing is actually a central theme.

Owned by DC Comics
Owned by DC Comics

“The only reason I bought Cyborg was because David Walker was writing it,” said Elana Levin aka Elana Brooklyn, who is the co-host of the comics podcast Graphic Policy Radio.

There has been discussions about potentially problematic aspects of Cyborg’s character in terms of racial representation, and on that topic, Levin cites this article by “sonofbaldwin” as the best breakdown of those concerns. In Walker’s new Cyborg series, great strides have been taken to alleviate these concerns and actually tackle them head-on in some cases, according to Levin.

Portrayal of minorities and women as deep, interesting people as opposed to stereotypes and tokens is important to Walker.

“[A stereotype’s] lack of humanity makes it an empty shell of representation,” said Walker via Skype interview on Oct. 28.

If it isn’t already clear, Levin digs what Walker is doing with the character.

“It’s really a very socially relevant comic and it’s very well done,” said Levin. “The aliens are really freaky, and I definitely think people should be reading it.”

BATGIRL BRAVES CONTROVERSIES AND PLEASES FANS

Whenever the creative team of writers Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher and artist Babs Tarr was announced to be taking over Batgirl  last year, fans and critics reacted very positively. Readers embraced the book’s diverse cast of people of color and LGBT folks, along with the redesigned costume and uplifting, youthful swagger.

Just this week, Batgirl #45 saw the same gender marriage of two members of the supporting cast, Jo and Alysia Yeoh, which was the first on panel same gender marriage in DC Comics history. It is also significant because Alysia is a trans woman of color and has been a major part of the Batgirl title as Barbara Gordon’s roommate and confidant.

Owned by DC Comics
Owned by DC Comics

In December of 2014, however, the creative team faced criticism over their handling of a major plot point concerning a trans person. Instead of attempting to defend themselves or ignoring the critcism, however, the team collectively decided to apologize and promised to improve in the future.

“It was a screw-up, it was a stumble, but the fandom was very clear that they accepted the apology and wanted [the creative team] to move forward,” said Houxbois.

With wounds still fresh from that controversy, fans were upset yet again with another work associated with the Batgirl series. This time, however, the work wasn’t done by the creative team, but by artist Rafael Albuquerque. In March 2015, DC Comics unveiled one of its many Joker-themed variant covers for books set to release in June, and one cover, the variant cover for Batgirl, proved controversial for its depiction of violence against women and even more so for its stark contrast to the positive tone of the current Batgirl series.

After readers and critics voiced their artistic concerns, some hoping for the cover to be pulled, DC Comics decided to cancel the variant cover at the request of Albuquerque, who respected the criticism of his work and was sad to see that the art upset people, according to the statement released by DC at the time.

quote2“It was the right thing to do, not as a creator but as a person,” said Albuquerque via Skype interview on Oct. 19.

Albuquerque doesn’t understand any commotion over his decision to apologize and request the cancellation.

“It’s not even about the idea that the cover is offensive or anything else, it was just the fact that it didn’t fit the book we wanted to promote, so if people understand that or not, it’s their problem,” said Albuquerque. “I did what I feel was the right thing.”

Readers are still loyal to Batgirl, not just despite these controversies, but partly out of the appreciation garnered through reading the apologies and the noticing of attempts to improve.

“When people know that you’re trying and that you care, they’re going to be more forgiving when you mess up,” said Houxbois.

MARVEL

THOR IS STILL BOTH A WOMAN AND A STAPLE OF MARVEL’S COMIC UNIVERSE

It has been over a year since Marvel made the bold decision to greenlight Jason Aaron’s idea of Thor losing his hammer to a female character, who we now know is Jane Foster, a character Thor moviegoers should be familiar with.

“I was just telling the story I wanted to tell, and I felt confident from the very get-go that I wasn’t upsetting the apple cart just for the sake of doing it,” said Aaron. “This was a Thor story, which is what I said all along.”

As is to be expected, there was some level of backlash to the decision.quote3

“A lot of fans don’t want to see that level of change in characters they grew up with and love how they were,” said Aaron via Skype interview Oct. 20.

Unfortunate for those fans, when the new take on Thor started in October of last year, it sold well. 40,419 more copies better, in fact, than the classic Thor did when Thor: God of Thunder debuted back in November of 2012.

“If anything, that backlash was drowned out by the flipside, which was all of the people who were excited about the change, the people who started picking up the book who hadn’t been reading it before,” said Aaron. “That was really gratifying.”

It’s safe to say that some of the positive parts of the reaction was a surprise to Aaron.

“I’ve never had a book I was working on mentioned on The View,” said Aaron. “That was kind of strange.”

FEMINISM MEETS A WOMAN WITH ALL OF THE POWERS OF A SQUIRREL

There’s absolutely no need for there to be a great deal of seriousness in these stories for progressivism to shine through.

Enter  Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, a comic from a creative team that proudly accepted a “Nuts About that Booty Award” from a comedic cartoon published on Comics Alliance by comic book creator and fan Kate Leth by sticking the credential on the third issue of the comic back in March of this year.

“Squirrel Girl is drawn with curves and thick legs,” reads the cartoon. “I myself have patriarchy-crushing thighs.”

Owned by Marvel Comics
Owned by Marvel Comics

Erica Henderson’s art goes alongside writing from Ryan North, who started a kooky series of web comics called Dinosaur Comics that are often shared online.

It’s a goofy comic book that follows the strange superhero’s nutty sense of justice and style. The book embraces the ridiculous in ways that would be seen as breaking continuity to purists, like when she single-handedly takes on Galactus, one of the biggest and baddest villains in the Marvel Universe, capable of giving the whole Avengers team trouble.

“Squirrel Girl is more of a full-figured woman, which is something you don’t see in superhero comics so much,” said Santori-Griffith.

It’s not just the fact of this character existing with this body type that makes this special, but also the art’s implicit support of her figure.

“Erica Henderson’s art on Squirrel Girl is so explicitly feminist,” said Levin. “The fact that her priority is making it animated and funny and not just making [the female characters] appealing to the male gaze is really radical… that’s something people haven’t really done.”

FAN DEMAND FOR MORE SPIDER-GWEN GETS THEM JUST THAT

A short, four-issue miniseries called Edge of Spider-Verse started in August of last year, which led into the big Spider-Man event series Spider-Verse. Each of the four issues covered a different version of Spider-Man that existed outside of the normal continuity of the Marvel Universe, like September’s Edge of Spider-Verse #2, starring a new character named Spider-Gwen.

This superhero is a twist on the classic Spider-Man story in which Peter Parker’s dear friend and off-and-on love interest Gwen Stacy is killed, to which Parker is devastated and motivated by.

“Gwen Stacy has had the most ruthlessly exploited death in all of comics history,”  said Houxbois.quote4

This version of the story follows the reverse, in which Stacey uses the tragedy of her friend Parker’s death to motivate her superheroics.

This story, originally intended as a one-off, was a massive success, so much so that the done-in-one diversion turned into its own ongoing series in February of this year.

“I would have never thought it could be a big hit,” said Santori-Griffith of Spider-Gwen’s “immediately amazing capturing of reader excitement.”

This role reversal is something that Houxbois finds interesting, praising its shift in focus on deep characterization of Gwen rather than using her as a source of grief for a separate male character, she explained.

“She’s in a band with Mary Jane,” said Houxbois. “Mary Jane and Gwen can actually talk, girl-to-girl, and have a relationship on their own terms away from Peter Parker, who’s dead, for the first time in the entire recorded history of Spider-Man.”

MS. MARVEL GETS MORE INVOLVED IN THE MARVEL UNIVERSE

One of the easiest examples of progressivism in superhero comics is the new Ms. Marvel, described by some as the modern day Spider-Man. This young Muslim girl, Kamala Khan, made her debut in a hugely successful comic written by Muslim author G. Willow Wilson in February 2014.

Ms. Marvel was a big leap for Marvel Comics,” said Santori-Griffith.

Owned by Marvel Comics
Owned by Marvel Comics

Since then, Khan has interactions with many big league Marvel characters. One two-issue story saw her exploring the underground with Wolverine, while another saw her cross paths with Captain Marvel.

Santori-Griffith thinks the book is useful for teaching kids to accept other cultures.

“I buy Ms. Marvel for my nieces,” said Santori-Griffith.

Emblematic of the diversity she brings to the Marvel universe is the upcoming All-New, All-Different Avengers book, starring the sole white dude Iron Man  along with the non-human character Vision, but also the new black Captain America, the female Thor, the black and Hispanic Spider-Man character Miles Morales, the Hispanic Nova Sam Alexander, and lastly Ms. Marvel, the beloved Muslim girl of color.

“You have a team that looks more like America than ever before,” said Santori-Griffith.

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There are more books, stories and events that can be talked about as great, positive examples within the realm of both publishers. Batman #44 tackled racial injustice head on, Action Comics is currently dealing directly with police brutality from a thematic standpoint, and Catwoman and Harley Quinn were recently confirmed to be bisexual, the latter of which is in a polyamorous relationship with Poison Ivy. As for Marvel, the new writer on the upcoming relaunch of Punisher is going to be Becky Cloonan, a woman, and Nick Spencer’s Sam Wilson as Captain America is saving immigrants from murderous white supremacists, which oddly enough upset some anchors on a certain television network.

It’s possible to keep going. However, at this point it is important to note that superhero comic fiction is not a perfect haven of progressivism.

“There’s a lot of high-profile books out there that are progressive,” said Levin. “I think one of the reasons they’re high-profile is because they are progressive.”

quote5While there is a trend of progressivism happening within superhero comics, it’s important to not miss the forest through the trees. Some problems that have plagued the industry since its inception are still evident.

“When I get all of these review copies sent to me from different publishers, and when I look at the weekly previews, most of what I see is still tacky drawings of women who look like they had their back broken,” said Levin.

When it comes to the great deal of female characters taking over old mantles, many of which previously held by men, it can sometimes be a recipe for disaster for those looking to find strong female characters, according to Houxbois.

“The issue is, a lot of the time, you get these gender swaps and they don’t have meaningful explorations of what it is to be a woman in that role,” said Houxbois. “They’re just kind of like, ‘Well this is a girl doing things that the guy did.’”

One of those bad examples for her is Thor, for example.

“We didn’t know who she was for the longest time,” said Houxbois. “She didn’t have a civilian life. She didn’t have civilian concerns. She didn’t have the normal life that the previous Thor did.”

She also pointed out a temporary nature she sees as intrinsic to it, given the sacredness of the original character and the necessity to tie things back to the film version for marketing reasons.

“The problem with something like Jane Foster being Thor is that its an elastic band,” said Houxbois. “You can stretch it, but it’s gonna snap back.”

Houxbois, Levin, and Santori-Griffith all made it a point to criticize Marvel for its current relationship with LGBT characters.

“Marvel seems to be intentionally rejecting the idea of queer characters,” said Santori-Griffith.

When it comes to explicitly LGBT characters in prominent roles, the only real example Marvel has at the moment is Bobby Drake, or Iceman, a classic X-Men character who was revealed to be gay in April’s All-New X-Men #40. X-Men stories have always been an allegory of prejudice towards minority groups, first intended to make commentary on racism and then shifted to homophobia as time moved on. Houxbois pointed out that it is cool to see the literal meet the metaphorical with April’s revelation about Iceman.

However, Brian Michael Bendis, the writer of the comic that contained that reveal, received some pushback from readers and a piece from Carolyn Cox of The Mary Sue for the way in which the story revealed that Iceman is gay; for those readers and Cox, the scene flirted with poor ideas about bisexuality. As that Mary Sue article points out, Bendis has written on his Tumblr blog that he rejects any sort of ill intent on his part and disagrees with the interpretation, saying the dialogue in question is very specific to the characters at hand.

Owned by Marvel Comics
Owned by Marvel Comics

“It was such an example of someone who has historically been an ally being so convinced in his rightness that he can’t recognize that just because he has a better understanding of these things than a lot of heterosexual guys do, doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still have to talk to queer people about things that are about queer people,” said Levin. “We expect better from him.”

There is also the question of sustainability.

“Where we go in the next few years is going to be dependent on money,” said Walker.

If DC and Marvel don’t effectively sell their most progressive comics, they simply won’t continue to exist. The direct market, or the selling of single issues, is something that fuels some fear for Santori-Griffith. A concerning amount of comic book shop owners are only interested in promoting what they like, rather than finding fits for a variety of customers, according to Santori-Griffith.

“Comic book store owners have a lot of sway in the direct market,” said Santori-Griffith.

Santori-Griffith did make a relevant point that is favorable to the financial stability of progressivism in superhero fiction, though. Given the success of comics like Spider-Gwen and Batgirl in cultivating passionate fandoms, it’s almost obvious, too.

“That straight white male demographic isn’t getting any bigger for superhero comics,” he said.

A big thanks to Pop Optiq’s Comics Editor Logan Dalton for all of the help gathering interview subjects for this story. 

Check out Matt’s online portfolio here

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