Monday, June 26, 2017

Marvel vs. Limits of Diverse Representation

I've written before on the numerous times Marvel comics has tried and failed to grasp just how diversity works. Seriously, just search the marvel tag. However,  the example that sticks out for writer Paige Allen isn't Marvel's continuing mishandling of Captain America. Nor is it Marvel's VP of Sales blaming attempts at diverse casts of superheroes for hurting sales. According to Allen, the most egregious example is the writing of Marvel's Invincible Iron Man. Penned by Brian Michael Bendis, Invincible  that introduced the world to a new Iron Man – a young black teen by the name of Riri Williams. Writing for Geeks of Color, Allen points out that "...some fans were skeptical of Bendis writing the experiences of a young black girl, especially since Marvel had no black women writers on its staff when the series was first announced."

Bendis has also written also wrote about another black teen assuming the mantle of of Marvel franchise powerhouse-- Miles Morales as Spider-Man. Bendis has also talked about the research he's done as an author and the perspective that raising two of his adopted African-American children have given him. Allen points that while Bendis is able to write about the challenges and loss Riri Williams faces as a black girl, his knowledge is reflected in a very narrow focus of the Black experience:
Unfortunately, this knowledge is the overall problem Bendis has in his depiction of Riri Williams. He knows about black pain and the various micro- and macro- aggressions that black people face every day, especially during these particularly fraught times of racial hostility... Basically, Bendis is like your white classmate that took one Africana class and now believes himself to be the purveyor of all knowledge on black life. However, because he acquired his knowledge as an outsider to the culture, the only way he really knows how to depict blackness is through identifiable aspects of The Struggle – all the negative social realities of being black that you see reported on TV, lambasted on Twitter, and through quickly cruising through activist circles in search of easily transferable knowledge about racism without any nuanced understanding of how black people deal with it.

This came to a head when scans from a page of Invincible Iron Man #8 appeared online recently, where it shows Williams in class trying to actively seek out marginalization as a motivator.

Allen reflected:
Never in my wildest nightmares would I imagine a black child seeking out racism to fight against in the pursuit of their dreams. Racism isn’t a Sailor Moon villain that waits for us to level up before trying to kick our ass; we are always aware of it and are always affected by it, but one of the best traits that black people have is our ability to bypass that negativity and live our lives despite it, not to specifically spite it.
This isn't the first time Bendis' writing for a black character has been criticized. The Nerdist pointed out that Bendis and other white writers writing characters of color often come off as tone-deaf and run the risk of alienating the very fans they want to recruit.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the real key is to actually hire diverse creators to write diverse casts. Otherwise we're just slapping a Band-Aid on the issue:
Looking at a diversity initiative as the beginning and end of what's needed to help improve the state of comics is short-sighted and wrong-headed. Instead of just having the same white men tell stories with some characters of color here and there, there should be structure in place for minority writers and artists and creators to tell the stories they want to a mainstream audience. Diversity as the final and only goal is a hollow act that does nothing but reinforce whiteness and the status quo as the default. That's not the world we live in, so why should worlds we get to make up have to be that way? Free your mind, and the audience will follow.

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