A few months ago I was shopping for a birthday gift for my 11-year-old cousin, Alyssa. She’s always been a bit of a bookworm, so I thought this was the perfect time to expose her to the world of comic books. I knew I wanted her first book to star an awesome female protagonist who didn’t have a tiny waist and bowling ball-sized breasts.
It shouldn’t be news to anyone that (like most sectors of entertainment) the protagonist of most comic books is a white man. Even knowing that going in to my search, I was wholly unprepared for just how limited options were for readers looking for anything other than a white man in tights. I found that fewer than 20% of the comics currently being offered the industry’s “Big Two” — publishers Marvel and D.C. — starred a woman or featured a female-dominated cast. Non-white readers have it even worse, with a whopping 75% of current titles featuring a white person as the leading character.
“Truthfully, the findings align with what I expected,” said Marlene Bonnelly a.k.a “ilikecomicstoo” a YouTube Partner, blogger, and the E.I.C. of tumblr’s official http://comics.tumblr.com/ blog. “Mainstream American comics have been primarily produced by and for white males since the ‘Big Two’ took off, and I say that without malice; that’s just the way the market has functioned. Now, however, we’re seeing efforts to embrace different audiences. Female fans and creators have always existed, for example, but there has been a certain push for inclusivity in the last few years that’s made the number of women readers grow and become even more vocal in production.”
The issue of equal representation has been something of a hot-button issue in the world of comic books lately as we see Marvel — who along with D.C. collectively make up over 60% of the comic book marketplace — make public pushes to bring more female and non-white characters into the spotlight. The fact that these stories exist at all is clearly a step in the right direction, but I wanted to look at exactly how “white-male dominated” the industry was as objectively as possible.
Using the release calendars offered by both Marvel and D.C. I collected every series that’s been published (or planned) from January through June in 2015. From there I collected the gender and ethnicity of the main character(s) using the publisher’s websites and secondary sources like http://www.comicvine.com/, Wikipedia, and interviews with creators to verify my data.
Ethnic categories were based on the parameters set by the U.S. Census Bureau, with some slight modification. I split people of “Middle Eastern or North African Decent” from the “White” category because it seemed completely at odds with the general societal perception of Middle Eastern peoples. I also added categories for interracial characters, mutated or modified human characters with no discernible ethnicity, and non-humans.
Comics which starred multiple characters were judged based on the diversity of its cast. For example, The Fantastic Four stars three men and one woman, all of whom are (or were) white. As a result FF was categorized as being both white and male dominated. It’s worth noting though that for both publishers “diversity” was often achieved thanks to Humanoid Aliens, Mutated/Modified Humans, or Non-Human characters; meaning not every team labeled as ethnically “Diverse” featured a person of color.
As I mentioned earlier non-white readers are hard-pressed to find a person of color starring in their own solo title or on a team that isn’t predominantly white. Only 25 of the 110 Marvel series surveyed star non-white characters in leading roles (or in non-white dominated casts).
“My initial thought is that 98% of comic characters were created by old, white guys,” said Tim Erwin, manager of The Comic Book Store in Glassboro, New Jersey. “Mostly old, racist white guys (laughs) — at least in my opinion.”
In total, Marvel readers looking for a solo book starring a non-white protagonist had only 19 titles to choose from. Two solo series starred Asian characters, four starred Black characters, two starred the same Hispanic character, two starred a character of mixed race, one starred a character of middle-eastern descent, and the remaining eight starred a character that was a Humanoid Alien, Mutated/Modified Human, or Non-Human character of a fictional race.
Where books starring a team like “The Avengers” were concerned, 31 of the 47 Marvel series with ensemble casts featured white-dominated teams and only 13 passed as diverse. One upcoming series, “E Is for Extinxtion,” didn’t have enough concrete information to judge fairly.
While their numbers are still nothing to brag about, Marvel did have more diverse offerings than D.C., who had only 24 series starring non-white characters (or non-white dominated casts) despite publishing 15 more titles than Marvel did in the same time period.
D.C.’s solo titles are an obvious weak spot where superhero affirmative action is concerned. Like Marvel, eight titles followed a character that was a Humanoid Alien, Mutated/Modified Human, or Non-Human character of a fictional race; but only five starred real-life people of color.
D.C.’s team driven stories lagged just a bit behind Marvel’s offerings with 53 of 64 D.C. series featuring ensemble casts being white-dominated and 16 passing as Diverse (putting them about 2% behind Marvel).
Erwin believes the issue of race representation in comics may be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He pointed out that many non-white characters rarely get the same kind of character development their white counterparts get and, as a result, never gain the kind of following needed to warrant their own solo book.
“I feel like a lot of [non-white] characters that have been created over the years have been created maybe not with the best intentions,” Erwin said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, here’s this black character or here’s this Hispanic character,’ but they’re just thrown at you to be that ethnicity; not to have any real depth. So a lot of readers reject them more often than not.”
Bonnelly also argued that the key to addressing the problem is by taking the time to develop non-white characters with depth. She believes that while the industry still hasn’t done enough to fix the issue it’s making moves in the right direction, and that’s a good start.
“…but it is trying and I sincerely appreciate that,” Bonnelly said. “Diversifying comics is inherently tricky, because adding minorities in for the sake of adding minorities in can equal tokenism. I, for one, would rather creators take their time in building well developed stories respectful of cultural boundaries than throw in a character who occasionally lapses into Spanish idioms to fulfill a quota. I want the next iconic Latino hero, one that rivals Batman in popularity and depth, not ten Speedy Gonzales caricatures.”
In terms of raw numbers, readers looking to follow female characters have a lot more options, but it should come as no major shock that aren’t nearly as many women in capes.
“I wasn’t particularly surprised by any of the numbers,” Bonnelly said. “As a consumer of the medium, I’ve seen the market change recently. The numbers for female-led titles in both companies seem pitifully low, but it’s significant progress compared to years prior. I expect that continued demand from an expanding readership will bump those numbers up over time.”
Despite the strides being made by books like “Captain Marvel,” the female “Thor,” and the new “Ms. Marvel” just 21 of Marvel’s solo titles were led by a female character…
and four were female-dominated. Another 15 passed as being diverse, and again “E Is for Extinxtion” didn’t offer enough to be fairly considered.
D.C. had the same number of books being fronted by a female character, but again, the numbers are a little skewed because D.C. published 15 more series than Marvel did in the same sample size — all of which were fronted my white males. To put things in perspective 84 D.C. titles were male-dominated compared to Marvel’s 68.
The publishers were almost neck and neck when it came to cast books. D.C. also had four books led by female-dominated teams, and just beat out Marvel with 16 passing as diverse, but once-more the extra 15 white-male dominated titles tipped the scales in Marvel’s favor.
The question remains though, why are we seeing such a small number of female or non-white characters?
Many are quick to turn the debate into a question of chicken or the egg. Critics argue there aren’t more female or non-white characters because females and people of color don’t read comic books, but more and more research is showing us that’s simply not the case.
“I just think a lot women are reading other books like [Image Comic’s] ‘Saga,’ and ‘Sex Criminals,'” Erwin said. “Those are the books that are appealing to women. Those are the books that we always sell to women. But then again, on the other hand Thor as a female character has sold more now than ‘Thor’ has sold in years.”
The conventional wisdom has always been that white, male characters sell, and non-white characters don’t, but the critical and financial success of new comics starring characters like the female Thor, Batgirl, and the new(ish) Ms. Marvel, Pakistani American teenager Kamala Khan, are likely changing the way publishers are looking at the market.
“Comics are, above all, a business, and a business that has been doing things the same way for a long time, Bonnelly said. “Changing a winning business strategy is risky, and it doesn’t make sense for companies to venture outside their comfort zone for fear of failing and losing profit. To put it simply: they think non-white, non-male characters in leading roles won’t sell. Thankfully, current trends (‘Captain Marvel,’ ‘Ms. Marvel,’ ‘Batgirl,’ etc.) are chipping away at that fear and encouraging creators to explore more non-traditional outlets for their characters and stories.”
For a full analysis of my data visit: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1rYyXA-WRdCSFjgeEnaKBBX0HMIi3s81ksNVTYlld6uw/edit?usp=sharing