A 2013 Retrospective: Diversity Assemble!

9 01 2014
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Monet St. Croix

2013 shaped up to be quite an interesting year for diversity in mainstream comic books.  In a medium once ruled by stereotypical alpha male characters of a caucasian and heterosexual persuasion, it’s getting more difficult to shoot an optic blast without hitting at least one female, LGBT, or character of color.

Evidence of the progression that the comic book genre has made is all around. One only has to attend a comic book convention. Not only is a large percentage of visitors comprised of female geeks and LGBT readers, but any number of panels/screenings/talks are centered on numerous diversity issues that more and more fans are finding increasingly important.

Even 2013’s editorial “facepalms”  (re: DC’s Batwoman marriage scandal and the eyebrow raising “Harley Quinn Commits Suicide” art contest) could not stop the rising tide of progress that character diversity made throughout the year.

One of the most blatant examples of said progress is, inarguably, within the pages of Brian Wood’s X-Men.  The idea of an all-female team of X-Men is something that fans have been clamoring for for as long as I can remember. Not only does the current lineup of this squad boast all xx chromosomes, each member (save for Rachel Grey) is also a woman of color. Pre-Battle of the Atom teammates included Storm, Jubilee, and Psylocke… each representing Kenyan, Chinese, and Japanese ethnicities, respectively. They have since been joined by Karima Shapandar, a native of India formerly known as Omega Sentinel. Monet St. Croix, a Muslim of Algerian/Monegasque descent, first introduced in Generation X and most recently featured in Peter David’s run of X-Factor, has also been added to the roster . Each of these ladies on this team is a distinct voice and a powerhouse in her own right. Could any one of them go toe-to-toe with the likes of Captain American or Iron Man? Absolutely!

That’s not all when it comes to Mr. Wood’s book. The current villain in play is the Japanese cyborg, Lady Deathstrike. Yuriko has become a melting pot of her very own with her consciousness being uploaded into the body of Colombian heiress, Ana Cortes.

Bling! puts the moves on Jubilee.

Bling! puts the moves on Jubilee.

Let’s not forget about LGBT representation in X-Men. A secondary story is currently woven into the main plot involving the African-American/bisexual mutant, Bling!, and some Sapphic drama with fellow Jean Grey School classmate, Mercury. This recently culminated in Bling! planting a lip-lock on Jubilee in an attempt to make Mercury jealous.

While the X-books have always served as a metaphor for any number of oppressed minorities, Brian Wood should be given major credit for the fantastic work he has done on this title, thus far.

Female characters scored another success in the twelve issue (thirteen if you count the Age of Ultron tie-in… and you SHOULD) run of Cullen Bunn’s Fearless Defenders. The series was as fun and straightforward as an episode of GLOW (and, let’s face it, that’s pretty damn fun)… the good girls vs. the mean girls. The Defenders included Cheyenne Native American, Danielle Moonstar and African-American bionic badass, Misty Knight. As for the heroines who just happen to be lesbians, Annabelle Riggs and Ren Kimura had that area covered.

Shamrock tells the men where to go.

Shamrock tells the men where to go.

One of the most memorable moments from the series featured several of the Defenders’ significant others, gathering at a pub as a makeshift intervention to show the ladies the err of their ways. The world of masked heroics is just too dangerous for such fragile lasses. Having been involved in her fair share of superhero antics, the pub’s owner, eventually puts the whiny bags of testosterone in their place when it comes to sexism.

Marvel Comics has also proven, time and time again, that the books involving teenage characters both include and address diversity in a blasé manner. It is all very “matter of fact.” There’s no big “Yep, I’m gay.” speech at a news conference (sorry, Northstar). This could easily be chalked up to the fact that younger generations of people have been exposed to different cultures and ethnicities from the moment they are born. Avengers Arena and Young Avengers are two of these titles that ran through 2013 and featured a bevy of kids from all walks of life.

Cullen Bloodstone and Cammi share a moment in Murderworld.

Cullen Bloodstone and Cammi share a moment in Murderworld.

Dennis Hopeless’ Avengers Arena introduced us to Cullen Bloodstone (of the monster-hunting Bloodstones). He was one of the unlucky students from the Braddock Academy to find himself trapped in Arcade’s Murderworld. As if being pitted against fifteen other superpowered teenagers in a Battle Royale/kill-or-be-killed contest for Arcade’s sole entertainment, he also has to deal with his unrequited feelings for his (presumably) heterosexual classmate, Anachronism.

As the body count rises, there’s an interesting moment between Cullen and Cammi. She asks him about the secret feelings that he’s been harboring about one of the other gameplayers. Cammi doesn’t bat an eyelash at the revelation that Cullen has fallen for another man. Instead, she advises him against getting attached to anyone because the only way out of Murderworld is by being the sole survivor at the end of the game. The big “coming out” scene is treated casual as if it’s not a big deal. Honestly, it shouldn’t be a big deal.

Superhero selfie (courtesy of the Young Avengers)

Superhero selfie (courtesy of the Young Avengers)

One really cannot speak of teenage superheroes and diversity without touching on Kieron Gillen’s SUPERB run on Young Avengers. First off, the series features one of Marvel’s longest-running gay couples, Hulkling and Wiccan. The wonderful thing about these characters is that their relationship feels organic. Readers have been able to follow its development since the days of Allen Hienberg’s run in 2005. They aren’t generic plot devices thrown into a story for the sake of having a token gay relationship.

Also joining the team is African-American depowered mutant, Prodigy. Gillen put an interesting spin on David’s previous powerset. Through the course of Young Avengers, we learn that David identifies as bisexual. He attributes this to his previous ability to mimic the knowledge from anyone’s mind that he came into contact with. This knowledge still remains within him despite being depowered on M-Day.

Team bruiser came in the shape of one Miss America Chavez. Introduced during Joe Casey’s Vengeance, the interdimensional Latina heroine proved herself to be an invaluable asset to the team… especially when it came time to putting the Norse trickster god, Loki, in his place. Speaking of Loki, the pansexual, occasionally female-bodied brother of Thor was the perfect thorn in the team’s side.

Batgirl's roommate, Alysia Yeoh

Batgirl’s roommate, Alysia Yeoh

Over on the DC Comics side of the room, champion of diversity, Gail Simone (seriously, she should list that as a “special skill” on her résumé), introduced what may be the first transgender character in mainstream comic books. Barbara Gordon’s (a.k.a. Batgirl) roommate came out as transgender to the titular character following the events of Death of the Family. The great thing about Alysia is that she is not transgender due to a latent superhero ability to shapeshift… it’s just a part of who she is as a person.

Reflecting back on the past year definitely gives one high hopes for the new year. Judging by early solicitations and news media outlets, it doesn’t appear that 2014 will disappoint.

Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel

Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel

Beginning in February, G. Willow Wilson will bring us the adventures of the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan. The teenager from New Jersey styles herself as Carol Danvers’ number one fan and, after discovering her Inhuman heritage and shapeshifting abilities, takes on the classic mantle. Yes, Kamala is not the first Muslim to appear in a Marvel title. She is, however, the first Muslim to receive a solo title.

February will also see Cullen Bloodstone return as a main character in Dennis Hopeless’ Avengers Undercover while Loki receives own solo series, Loki: Agent of Asgard. Writer Al Ewing promises that the Loki’s book will address the god’s fluid sexuality and gender identity.

Comic books have always been a way to kick back and escape from reality. A way to suspend disbelief and connect with a character that does what needs to be done for the greater good of humanity. Thankfully, today, more people are able to do just that. People from different backrounds or ethnicities. People of different sexual orientations. People both male and female. The truth is, in the end, we all look the same behind a mask and cape.

 

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Fearless: A Requiem for the Defenders.

18 10 2013

tumblr_mteam7F0V11qzidaoo1_1280In February of 2013, if you were to tell me that my favorite book of this year would be mainly comprised of C and D-List superheroines and villainesses, would I have believed you? Yes. Yes, I would. If you’ve had the opportunity to speak with me about my love of comic books for at least five minutes, you would quickly find out that my unwavering love for underused and underutilized female characters knows no bounds.

For those of you not in the know (yes, I hold you all mostly responsible for the book’s cancellation), Fearless Defenders  spun out of the events of Fear Itself: The Fearless, arguably the only good tie-in associated with the Fear Itself crossover event. The first issue hit store shelves just prior to Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle which, coincidentally, would be the first time that I had the priviledge of meeting the book’s scribe, Cullen Bunn. His excitement about the new book was palpable. I remember discussing Misty Knight with him and stating that she doesn’t get the love she deserves even though she’s pretty much Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown with a robot arm!

battleThe book brought together a ragtag group of female superheroes to battle the love child of Doctor Doom and Morgan Le Fay as she and her army of Doom Maidens attempt to usher in world-wide destruction. The team leadership role was split between Brunnhilde (Valkyrie) and Misty Knight. As the story progressed, the team’s ranks would expand to include a bookish archaeologist (Annabelle Riggs), a resurrected Amazonian warrior (Hippolyta) a depowered mutant (Danielle Moonstar), a snarky British monster hunter (Elsa Bloodstone), an exiled sorceress (Clea), and a newly activated Inhuman (Ren Kimura). Even with such a large and diverse cast, Bunn had no problems adding to each character’s development within the story and giving each lady her own, distinct voice.

Caroline Le Fay’s team of Doom Maidens was also made up of a veritable who’s who of “where the hell have they been?” villainesses… Ruby Thursday. Quicksand. Sylvie Lushton (The Enchantress). Titania. Scorpia. Mindblast. Shriek. When a creator pulls characters like this out of “comic book limbo”, it’s pretty safe to say that it has more to do with his/her affinity for the character and less to do with editorial mandate.

titaniaWill Sliney handled the pencilling for the series (save for issue #7 in which Stephanie Hans took the helm for Clea’s return). To say that his work was consistently enjoyable would be an understatement. His characters’ facial expressions were crisp and clearly demonstrated the appropriate emotion required for the panel (the pseudo-condescending looks and side-eye that Elsa would throw Misty were some of the most memorable). During some of the epic smackdowns and battle scenes, characters were never lost due to murky artwork which is more than some other artists on the top-tier books can boast. Sliney’s pencils, coupled with both beautiful coloring from Veronica Gandini and Mark Brook’s absolutely stunning covers, made for some unforgettable visuals.

If we have learned anything from Marvel Comics over the years, it’s that nothing this good ever lasts forever (read: Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente’s Alpha Flight reboot, Jeff Parker’s Agents of Atlas and Atlas) It’s easy for folks to say that books that lack an A-list character like Captain America or Iron Man will never make it. I don’t necessarily believe that to be true. Books featuring these characters are going to sell, regardless, and yet they are the titles that generally receive the most promotion and the heaviest push from Marvel. It’s well beyond time that publishers give the underdogs a bit more of a boost instead of leaving them to tread water until they’ve become exhausted around issue #12. The fans and creative teams of these books deserve better.

FDWhile the fanbase of Fearless Defenders may not be as large as that which reads any one of the sixty Wolverine-centric titles that Marvel pushes out on a monthly basis, I can safely say that we are a dedicated and vocal fanbase. Perhaps my memory deceives me, but I don’t recall seeing any Savage Wolverine readers organizing a cosplay photo shoot based on the book at this year’s NYCC.

Fearless Defenders was one of those rare gems that my eyeballs eagerly gobbled up each month on the day it was released. It represented both female and queer characters in not only a positive but also a powerful light. Saying it will be greatly missed just doesn’t seem appropriate enough of a sentiment.

My hat goes off to Cullen Bunn, Will Sliney, Ellie Pyle, Stephanie Hans, Veronica Gandini, Phil Jimenez, and the entire team involved in the title. I know I speak for many others when I say “thank you.”