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March 4, 2010

Roundtable: Race and Diversity in Comics


As comics reach an ever-growing audience—and as styles from around the world, like manga and manhua, permeate the American marketplace and help shatter cultural boundaries—it seemed like an important time to look at where comics have come from and where they’re going, in terms of diversity. It seemed a perfect time to open a dialogue, even a small one, dealing with issues related to race in comics, specifically how comics appealed, portrayed, and were created by the black community.

We talked to longtime comics pro Trevor Von Eeden, who’s been working in comics since the mid-’70s, when DC Comics asked him to help design their first black superhero, Black Lightning. Since then, Von Eeden has added his distinctive style to Batman, Green Arrow, and Black Canary, and he’s continued to work steadily in comics. His latest work, The Original Johnson, details the life and turbulent times of boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion.
He’s joined by Jeremy Love, whose award-winning Bayou began as a webcomic and has recently been published by Zuda. Bayou is a mystery set against the Missouri bayou and tinged with elements of fantasy and magic realism that play out against the unfolding of racial prejudice in early 20th-century America.
When you first started reading comics, how did you feel African Americans were portrayed?

Love: I wasn’t aware of race when I first started to read comics. I identified with The Thing, Peter Parker, and the X-Men. I started reading in the ’80s, so I missed the Steamboat/ebony white days. By then, things were much more progressive. Looking back on the ’80s, there was at least a few really great black characters around.

Von Eeden: I started reading comics when I was about 6 or 7 years old in Guyana, South America. Being one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere (a little above Haiti), we had no TV, and movies were a rare luxury—so I took to reading at a very early age and loved it. Comic books were a world of fun—exciting, entertaining, original, and impossible fantasies—all in one simple, portable, and easily accessible form. For me, true escapist fare, indeed.
The first comics I recall reading were The Rawhide Kid and Sgt. Fury and His Howlin’ Commandos—both Kirby comics. In 1970, at age 11, I emigrated to America with my family, and in JHS 123 in the Bronx, I met Al Simonson, who shared his vast comics collection with me and introduced me to the wonderful world of American comics in all its incredible diversity (of genre and subject matter, at least). My first memories of a black character in comics were Gabriel, the black horn player in Sgt. Fury, and The (great) Black Panther—again, both Kirby creations! Then later on, there was Robbie Robertson, the black newspaper editor in Romita’s Spider-Man. All very good characters, and very good men—who just happened to be brown-skinned…I mean, black. But black people in general were a rarity in comics back then.

Has it changed much now? Is there better diversity in comics and a better representation of African-American experiences?
Love: There is better diversity because we have a ton of black talent in the industry and those voices bring positive influence. At this point, a black superhero is no longer “special” because of race.
Von Eeden: I don’t know if that’s changed by now—I don’t really read and follow comics much anymore. For one thing, they’re damned expensive on a struggling freelancer’s budget. For another, the average comic has become too much of a generic product for my tastes—regardless of the publishing house. The whole of American culture, not just the comics industry, needs a jolt of something new to shake things up and get things moving into the very real future. This is the 21st century—the time when comics themselves predicted us as all living in shining silver towers, in skin-tight silver suits, in a super-technological and benevolent Utopia—our Earthly problems conquered and our eyes set firmly toward the stars. Instead, comics are just another corporate product, in a shiny, shallow, superficial, sterile, hollow, corporate-run and corporate-owned society. Whose only real agenda is to promote and perpetuate basic corporate sensibilities—in the guise of runaway merchandizing and mass-marketing of stereotypes born of cynicism and shallow values.
Is there better diversity and/or better representation of black experiences in comics nowadays? Relative to the past, yes. Relative to what should be—no. In America, being white, or light-skinned, still makes a difference—it’s still an advantage, all delusional denials to the contrary aside. That fact about the overall culture, of which comics is but a small part, is what needs to be fundamentally admitted, addressed—and finally, overcome. Is there better diversity or representation? I don’t know—but there should be.

Were comics a big part of your childhood and your experiences growing up?
Love: I am cursed with the insatiable urge to sit at a table for hours drawing superheroes, monsters, and fantastic worlds. What do you think?

Von Eeden: Comics were a HUGE part of my psychological development—through early childhood and beyond. I love the format, the variety, and as an artist, the freedom of expression it offers. Comics are modern-day mythologies; folklore passed from generation to generation, communicating lessons about life, love, and humanity—complete with colorful, interesting, larger-than-life characters, heroes, and role models, to learn from and apply toward success in one’s own life. At least that’s what they were to me: a huge source of entertainment and personal inspiration—both morally and psychologically. (Yes, I take my heroes very seriously.) My favorite thing in the world are American movies (where a happy ending is just the beginning). But even before the movies, there were comics—for me.
Did comics in any way help shape your own attitudes toward yourself, your racial identity, or society at large?
Love: Not really. It was an escape for me. I found characters of all races identifiable. Honestly, I had more in common with Peter Parker and The Thing then I did Luke Cage and Black Panther.
Von Eeden: Superhero comics shaped a large part of my personal identity, because they presented characters of impeccable integrity, with personal beliefs in honest values. Literal role models, on a larger-than-life stage—and scale. Again, comics as portable movies—portraying heroes as honest, hardworking men—I love it!
I have no “racial identity” whatsoever. I don’t believe in the divisionist philosophy behind racism. Everything I’ve learned about society, I’ve learned from direct, personal experience. Comics were a psychological building block, one that helped reinforce ideas of good character and conduct in my mind, while dealing with my fellow man. Comic characters are literal embodiments of certain psychological aspects of character. The Hulk is anger, Superman is omnipotence, Spider-Man is teenage angst, Captain America is patriotism and military precision, Daredevil is fearlessness and native intelligence, etc, etc. Comics are a powerful psychological force, period. And for me, they were all good.
As an African American comics creator, what has your experience been in the industry?

Love: I have to say I haven’t encountered any obstacles because of race. My experience so far has been very rewarding.
Von Eeden: I’m not African-American, I’m a Permanent Resident of America, but still a Guyanese citizen. It costs about $600 nowadays to become an American citizen—why I’d pay money to be considered a second-class and inferior human being is still beyond me. When America becomes America—then I’ll become a citizen. Besides, I consider “African-American” to be a racist term—not every dark-skinned person is from Africa, especially when they were born right here, in America! It’s just another color-coded euphemism still in popular usage whose time has almost come. I’ve often wondered—what do they call white people born in South Africa, who then attain American citizenship? Aren’t they also “African-American”?—or is that only for black people who were born here? I’ve never seen a white person referred to as an African-American in my life—and yet, they’ve lived in Africa for centuries.
My experience as an “African-American” in comics? As in all aspects of American culture (except in popular rap “thug” music)—deliberate and systematic marginalization. America is still a subconsciously racist country—just look at the plethora of movie, TV, and billboard ads invariably featuring happy, smiling white faces looking back at you—with maybe one or two brown ones somewhere in the background for “politically correct” (i.e., token) measure. Just because self-delusional racists are not aware of their own racism, it doesn’t change the nature of what it really is. In America, “black” is not a descriptive term; it’s a political one. It means, invariably, inferior.

Are comics doing enough to attract new readers from this community?

Love: I can’t answer that question because “comics” is comprised of multiple companies doing multiple things. Black males are not that different demographically than white males. There is really no need to market Iron Man differently according to race. Attracting new readers of any race is challenging. The more variety in the content will certainly increase the possibility. 

To break it down a little further, what about African American girls and women? Are they represented well in comics, and are there graphic novels and comics that will help attract more of them to the format?
Love: More, more, more. More is better. My comic Bayou features a black female lead, and I appreciate the great response. But there is no magic pill. Black girls and white girls both read Twilight. The industry needs more female readers period.
Von Eeden: Are comics doing enough to attract readers from the black community, black girls, and black women? The answer to all three questions is I don’t know. I hope so, but I don’t know. (I’d have to have read an awful lot of comics to make a statement on an issue as large and long-ranging as that.) Besides, I make it a rule never to speak for women—they can speak for themselves quite effectively.

In terms of racial diversity in comics, are there any specific things (or attitudes) you’d like to see changed?

Love: I’d like to see more, of course. I’d like to see black characters who are not total badasses. I’d like to see three-dimensional, living characters. 
Von Eeden: As far as “racial diversity” goes, I’d like to see the concept of “race” obliterated completely from both people’s minds and American society. It’s a completely fallacious concept, created by racists to justify their own odious hypocrisy. There are not many different races of Humankind on the planet—there’s only one. To break down the Human Race into the particularization of beings of “different races” is to pursue and concentrate on but a small part of a grand and wonderful whole. There’s a reason why racists are always so narrow-minded. There’s enough diversity in Humanity itself to last a lifetime—you just have to look.
Who were your favorite characters as a child? Who did you identify with most?

Love: The Thing, The Hulk, Spider-Man.
Von Eeden: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The Rawhide Kid, Daredevil, Thor, Captain America. I loved Batman because I could relate to him—he was just a normal human being who transformed himself into a superhero by his own will and effort—a huge source of personal inspiration for me. I related to the Rawhide Kid because I loved the way Kirby drew him in action. Thor made me feel like a god—when Kirby and Buscema drew him—and Romita’s Spider-Man hooked me with the teen angst, not because I related to Peter Parker’s specific problems, but because here was a superhero who had problems to begin with! An unusually original concept—created by Jack Kirby for The Fantastic Four. Score one more for the King!
And now, as an adult, who are your favorite comics characters?

Love: As an adult and a student of mythology, I’ve come to appreciate the DC pantheon and characters like Captain Marvel and Superman.
Von Eeden: Favorite characters as an adult: I don’t have any, just favorite artists: Kirby, Buscema, Adams, Toth, Kubert, Swan, Romita, and Ross. Mmmmmmmmmm.
What’s your overall impression of the comics industry at this point regarding how it treats African American characters and appeals to African American audiences?

Von Eeden: I wouldn’t know—as human beings, I’d hope.

Love: Sound and improving. We have to stay positive.