Marvel’s New Black Panther and the Ghettoization of Comic Books

Black_Panther_Cover_StelfreezeThis week Marvel announced that their new Black Panther title, dropping next spring, would be drawn by Brian Stelfreeze and, more importantly to many, penned by Ta-Nehisi Coates. For those of you unfamiliar with the latter Coates was at one point most well-known for his contributions to The Atlantic, in particular the contentious “The Case for Reparations”. More recently, however, a significant amount of attention has been given to his second published book, Between the World and Me, which was released just this past July.

The various news outlets that have covered this story, those dedicated to comic book journalism and otherwise, have taken note of the fact that both Coates and Stelfreeze are African-American. While the character himself hails from the fictional African nation of Wakanda he is nonetheless Black, and many have praised the publisher for allowing top-of-their-game, Black creators to take the reins of the person soon to be their most famous Black hero [due to his appearance in the upcoming film Captain America: Civil War].

Totally_Awesome_Hulk_1_CoverThis announcement comes, while not necessarily hot on the heels of, soon after Marvel breaking the news that the latest character to hold their own Hulk title will be Amadeus Cho. A Korean-American character and one of the smartest people on the planet despite his years, his adventures were also given to another match made in comic book A-list heaven. Writer Greg Pak and artist Frank Cho are both Korean-Americans themselves, with the former being of mixed descent. In the very same vein as next year’s Black Panther this December’s Totally Awesome Hulk bears a creative team that has a lot racially, as well as culturally, in this case, in common with their book’s titular character.

Similar strides have been made with last year’s All-New Ghost Rider, which starred a Mexican-American young man and was written by Jamaican-Nicaraguan-American writer/artist Felipe Smith. As you should all probably know by now Ms. Marvel, which I’ve written quite a few reviews for, casts Muslim Pakistani-American teen Kamala Khan front and centre. While not of Pakistani descent herself comics scribe G. Willow Wilson is a practicing Muslim, and has touched on the way that faith has influenced their heroine in a number of issues. Over at their Distinguished Competition Midnighter follows the eponymous Batman-analog’s exploits, who just so happens to be a homosexual, just like its writer Steve Orlando.

All of this is amazing, and is solid honest-to-goodness proof that comic books, as an industry, is actively moving forward. For its narratives to reflect the world its audience lives in behooves the various publishers to have such stories told by those most familiar with them. I couldn’t be happier about it all, honestly. Except that I can’t help but notice a particular trend-

Writers who are non-White, female, and not straight appear to be relegated to the books that feature characters who they share traits with. At the same time, straight White male writers handle books that star superpowered individuals of every race, creed, or colour.

Which isn’t to say that the latter cannot result in exceptional work. British writer Al Ewing penned 14 issues of Mighty Avengers and 8 issues of the sequel title Captain America and the Mighty Avengers, both books that featured a primarily non-White cast. During his tenure on both titles Ewing covered issues of classism and what it meant to be a person with less privilege than what popular culture considers the “norm”. While neither Black nor American himself Ewing did everything in his power to raise the statuses of those heroes who were, and very effectively. It’s not to say that the majority of comic book writers [the aforementioned straight White males] cannot create great, and even accurate, narratives. On that same note simply because a creator is Black or Korean or transgender does not mean they will be responsible for good stories.

The issue again, as I was saying, is that minority creators appear to be relegated to “minority titles”. To finally elaborate on the title of this blog post, it looks like these men and women, as talented as they are, have been placed in a ghetto of sorts. One that awards them work and all the fame and notoriety that goes with it, but a ghetto nonetheless.

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To give credit where it’s due, and play devil’s advocate as well, there are a few examples to the contrary. Ms. Marvel‘s Wilson penned four issues of X-Men and is currently writing [and will write, after the renumbering] A-Force. That of course breaks down when considering that both books feature an all-female cast. While not forced into a ghetto labelled “Muslims Only” all of her recent work for the publisher has very decidedly been writing women.

To actually do what I said I would do, DC has hired Gene Luen Yang of American Born Chinese fame to steer Superman, which is no small act. While an alien from another planet the Last Son of Krypton is one of the most famous White characters, superhero or otherwise, of all time, and now written by a Chinese-American man. Though when considering DC it should be noted that the openly gay Marc Andreyko was hired to write Batwoman, a lesbian herself, starting with Issue #25. While that book ended with Issue #40 he still writes for the publisher, albeit for Wonder Woman ’77. Whether or not he would like to write straight male characters is unknown, while he certainly has in the past with Batman, Conan, Captain America, and others.

In decades past exceptions to the rule have without a doubt presented themselves. Dwayne McDuffie, who wrote and produced many an episode of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, also wrote the comic book that starred that very team, among many others, a number of which did not focus on primarily Black characters. While he often lent a spotlight to them in these books when he could the publishers he wrote for [and he did work for both of the Big Two] largely thought him talented enough to do well with whatever he was given.

Which isn’t to say, and I hate to start yet another paragraph this way, that both Marvel and DC are only hiring minority talent for minority books and don’t think highly enough of them to tackle their more lucrative IPs. Only that it seems that way.

I don’t want to fool myself, or you, either. All writers, pencillers, inkers, colourists, et cetera must be tested for great power before being given great responsibility. Their names need to be recognizable enough for comic book store customers to see on a cover and to be enough of a hook to get them to pick it up. Except that whether they ever attain that level of notoriety is up to the publisher as well.

2709980-journey_coverOver at Marvel writers like Sam Humphries have been given opportunity after opportunity to do well, and while some of his books have been quite good he’s received a fair share of criticism. Kathryn Immonen, on the other hand, wrote 12 issues of Journey Into Mystery that were not pushed by the company, with a run that began at Issue #646 instead of #1 [in spite of starring a new lead character] like many other titles on the stands. It was also very, very good. Most recently she wrote the Agent Carter: S.H.I.E.L.D. 50th Anniversary one-shot that was released last Wednesday, with an almost two-year gap between the two gigs.

Speaking of S.H.I.E.L.D. 50th Anniversary one-shots, Marvel actually gave writer Chelsea Cain an ongoing starring Mockingbird after she penned the one starring the character. While it is indicative of their confidence in both her abilities and the heroine to draw in viewers, how long will it take for her to ascend the ranks, given that she has the ability? If Mockingbird takes off will Chelsea Cain one day write Iron Man, or Captain America, or, even more impressively, Amazing Spider-Man? Could her name one day be spoken in the same breath as Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, or Scott Snyder? For Chelsea Cain, as well as others, are female-led books a ghetto, or are they a stepping stone?

Representation, it should go without saying, is good. Diversity that results in fresh, and authentic, narrative voices is good. Having both your books as well as those creating the books be reflective of the real world is very definitively good. You know what else is good, though? Hiring minority talent and trusting them with more than just this little slice of the pie. Success with heroines and Black heroes is perfectly fine, but is it ever in the purpose of raising these creators to the big leagues? Only time will tell.

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2 responses to “Marvel’s New Black Panther and the Ghettoization of Comic Books

  1. Pingback: Asian-American Creators in Comic Books As Of July 16th: 2 Out of 3 Ain’t Bad | Culture War Reporters

  2. Very thought provoking. Another thought provoking thing is that “the big leagues” seems to refer to straight white male characters.

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