Being a Black Writer of Comic Books
“What does it mean, to me, to be a black comic book writer? I’d like to say that it doesn’t mean anything different than before I put the “black” in there: That I treat my work seriously, even when it’s about something as inherently silly as giant monsters destroying island cities. That I treat every character I write with the dignity they deserve, even if it’s Lobo. That I don’t hide behind the color of my skin and let it serve as a shield, a nut-guard against criticisms of inauthenticity in the same twisted, ridiculous way that I can use the N-word and others can’t. But I can’t deny that I feel a bit of a responsibility to present characters of color in a way that I wouldn’t be ashamed to show to my mother.”
I wrote that five years ago. And that was the last time I spoke about what seems to be an annual event: debating and/or lamenting the lack of diversity among those who are employed to write comic books for Marvel or DC.
I rarely talk about this because it can too easily be seen as self-serving complaint. I would like it to be a thing I didn’t have to talk about.
And, like the younger me said, I don’t want to be perceived as a black writer. I just want to be a writer. I have done some heavy drinking while trying to reconcile the fact that while the label has helped me professionally it has also hurt me emotionally. I am not a number…unless it’s the number you want.
I don’t think Marvel or DC are racist, systemically, nor do I think that anyone there is, either. I am friends with lots of people at both companies and to a person, they’re terrific. Ultimately, people will hire the people that they know and in order to get to know them, you need access to them. I got my access through my day job as a magazine editor in Manhattan. Plus, I’m a dazzling urbanite. But if you’re a black kid living in Detroit or Tampa or Oakland, how do you get that access? How do you know which convention is the best for meeting editors? How do you know which bar to go to?
More importantly, if you’re that black kid (or Hispanic kid or woman of any color) why do you even want to make comics? The end product of decades of stories not told for a diverse audience is this: if the stories are not for you, you won’t read them; and if you don’t read them, why would you want to make them?
But we do exist. I don’t know if we are legion or if there are mere dozens of melanin-charged writers who haven’t gotten their audience with the gatekeepers for one reason or another — but I do know that it should probably be someone’s job to find them.
One of the few things that the NFL has done right in the last 20 years is institute the Rooney rule, which stipulates that when hiring new head coaches, teams have to interview a minority candidate. Not hire, just interview. They have to make the effort to NOT just call the dozen people they already know. Sometimes you get a guy who’s just fine, sometimes you get a waste of space, sometimes you get a dude who wins you a Super Bowl. Sometimes you hire that same guy you were gonna hire anyway. But none of that would’ve happened if the NFL wasn’t pressured — by, admittedly, its huge percentage of black players — to do so.
I’ve written comics, professionally, for a while now. I’ve got enough books to comfortably fill half a shelf. I’ve written black characters and white ones, men and women. And the only thing I’ve ever been insistent about is that the books portray the world I live in, if that world had lasers, hyper-intelligent gorillas and an endless supply of spandex. Which is the same world you live in.
There is nothing that is not made better by having a diversity of opinion, a plurality of influences — especially if you are trying to exist in a global market. Everything is improved by having different shades of people in it. Everything. Except maybe the Klan. But I’d bet the food would be better.
The fact that the Big Two — as arms of publicly traded companies — haven’t realized this is more than just a PR nightmare, it’s bad business.
I hope we don’t have to be talking about this in another five years. Really.