Comics Industry Rep Accidentally Shows How Pop Culture Stays White

Racialicious' Arturo R. Garcia highlights the effort to get Marvel Comics come clean about race's role in the creative process.

By Channing Kennedy May 03, 2011

Lost in the big news weekend was this gem of a piece by Racialicious’ Arturo R. Garcia, highlighting the effort to get Marvel Comics rep Tom Brevoort to come clean about race’s role in the creative process. The conversation was kicked off by an interview in which Brevoort discards the idea of an all-black lineup for an Avengers series, saying there weren’t enough black superhero characters who’d be suited for such a team — but then goes on to pull reasons out of the air for each member of an existing all-white Avengers lineup. Garcia details how comics fans, particularly @SonofBaldwin, approached Brevoort on Twitter over this. Brevoort, to his credit, is forthcoming with honest answers.

What results is a fascinating case study of how the stewards of popular culture understand race, and in turn, on how popular culture informs us about race. It should be noted that Brevoort’s no slouch on this stuff; check his excellent response to a fan complaining about too much diversity in his escapism:

I don’t know who you are, obviously, but just based on your question I would posit that you’re a white male. I think you cannot overestimate the power that readers, especially younger readers, seeing a heroic character that resembles themselves, can have. For white guys like me, that’s easy — there are hundreds of them. Not so for almost any other demographic you might choose to name. That’s why, I think, people are supportive and even delicate with any character of a particular race or orientation or background. It’s a diverse world out there, and any time we can reflect that diversity in a meaningful way, it’s worth doing.

Which is why it’s so frustrating to see Brevoort duck behind circular logic defenses here. To wit: there aren’t enough good non-white characters for a team, the lack of non-white characters is due to the less-enlightened racial agendas of the past, and correcting the agendas of the past is an agenda itself, so that’s out. Brevoort says on Twitter that social justice and cultural criticism are nice when possible, but entertainment and storytelling is job number one. (He also plays the "you’re subjected to racism, but I’m subjected to accusations of racism" canard.)

Setting aside whether accurate demographic representations count as ‘social justice,’ there’s a couple of problems here. First, nobody’s asking Marvel to release crap; at most, they’re asking for a chance to decide what’s crap. And second, social agendas work in storytelling. Just look at Marvel’s seven decades of white-male-as-neutral superheroes.

Garcia puts the issue in perspective:

What Brevoort doesn’t mention is that a comic-book company is perfectly suited to run a course-correction on whatever attitudes came from those "less-enlightened times," because it deals with universes and characters of its own creation. […] When it comes to diversity, it appears the "contrivances" appear when they’re most convenient for the comics industry, as it does for so many others: there’s not enough qualified candidates; the market won’t support it; that’s not our job.

As Garcia alludes, these ‘contrivances of convenience’ show up in everything from whitewashed Hollywood casting to judicial politics — see the parallels in Melissa Harris-Perry’s case for an all-black, all-lesbian Supreme Court. This is a battle that gets fought in all industries, over billions of dollars, every day, in closed rooms — and we aren’t in those rooms. The ‘black Avengers’ flap should make us aware us that colorblindness, or a single enlightened individual, isn’t enough to offset an entrenched system of exclusion, or an industry’s internal staffing patterns.

As Brevoort frames it, the essential question is of the responsibility of the artist to the audience. The problem is that this question relies upon a old utopian ideal of artist-in-a-vacuum, one that’s been explicitly false since the invention of money. I hate to pick on Tom Brevoort, because he gets so much right — but as I bet he’d agree, if he has no responsibility to publish comics that look like us, we have no responsibility to pay his salary. We all have a hand on the ink brush.

Related reading: our resident black lady comics nerd Shani Hilton, writing in appreciation of the late Dwayne McDuffie.