On Diversity, Comics, and The Comic Classroom

Chuck definitely had his priorities straight.
Chuck definitely had his priorities straight.

Faithful readers know that the first comics I ever read (and loved) were Archie comics. My five-year-old mind loved the simplicity, pacing, and set-up/punchline structure of life in Riverdale. At the age of five, I wasn’t really prepared to deal with the idea that there weren’t a lot of Aftican-Americans in Archie comics, and I won’t lie and say I really noticed. This could be for a few reasons. In 1985, I wasn’t exactly starving for representations of myself in the media. Michael Jackson was the biggest pop star, I grew up in a city that worshipped Walter Payton and Michael Jordan, and my household television habits revolved around Diff’rent Strokes, Webster, The Cosby Show and Gimme A Break (with a little sprinkling of Good Times and Sandford and Son for good measure). The biggest comedian when I was that age? Eddie Murphy. See, to me and other kids who grew up in my neighborhood, Sesame Street was always diverse and hip-hop always existed. We grew up in a world that was getting browner by the day. But in comics? Not so much.

I didn’t notice, really, the lack of people of color (POC), or to be precise, the lack of relevant people of color in comics until I started reading X-Men in the early 90’s. The 90’s were a magical time of a resurgence in  Black Pride and Awareness timed perfectly with a renaissance in Hip-Hop music and culture. As I got older, I was drawn to groups like Public Enemy, NWA, and the Geto Boys, while Hollywood was producing classics like Boyz in the Hood, Juice and Malcolm X. Along with my maturation as a person, my tastes in art began to grow and I became more informed about my heritage. Pretty soon it was important to me that I knew Alexander Dumas’ ethnicity. It was important to me that I finished, and quickly, RootsI Know Why the Caged Bird SingsThe Autobiography of Malcolm X, and the assorted works of Donald Goines (don’t ask). Meanwhile, in comic land I was starting to wonder where are my people here? Am I supposed to be happy with the odd Black Panther, Black Lightning or Black Adam (who wasn’t even Black!)? That’s when it happened. Or more precisely HE happened. The coolest, time-traveling, Jehri curl wearing brother this side of the x-gene: Bishop.

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“Alright suckahs, who wants to ride on the pain train?”

It wasn’t until Bishop showed up that I was even aware of a dearth of minority superheroes that I cared about. Immediately, Bishop made me confront the fact that I’d been looking for him all that time. He was cool, he was strong, he had powers! As much as I liked the idea of Luke Cage he still felt like a relic from the 70’s, and I never quite got behind Black Panther because he always seemed kind of…boring. But Bishop was the prototypical new 90’s antihero and he looked like me! For me, Bishop opened a flood gate of minority heroes that I gladly got swept up in. Soon after his introduction I discovered Brotherman and the graffiti art style of Dayud Ayabwile. Then DC decided to throw their hat into the ring with Milestone Comics where heroes like Icon and Static Shock were born from the inimitable mind of Dwayne McDuffie. And let’s not forget the politically charged world of Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks, which helped me further formulate my own political identity. I can’t really explain it, but at this time I finally felt like I belonged among my heroes. I didn’t have to pretend to be Superman or Batman. I could now be me. Don’t get me wrong, I can honestly say that I was happy reading comics before, but now that things were different, they were also…better.

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Fast-forward to me as an adult, and now that I’m an educator, I can see a new renaissance happening in comics. Now there are young girls who are experiencing that same newfound sense of inclusion and I cannot be happier. Now we have prominent creators like Grace Ellis, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Becky Cloonan, Fiona Staples, Gail Simone, Lucy Knisley, Meredith Gran, G. Willow Wilson, and countless others who are creating some of the best stuff out right now, and these are voices that have long been quieted by the establishment. Before now, I did not know just how much Louise Simonson, Ramona Fradon and Ann Nocenti shaped my comics reading landscape, and I feel like this is knowledge that could make it that much easier for women who are looking to break in now. Girls deserve the chance to see themselves in story, and the opportunity to feel as included in the thing they love as any boy who reads comics.

Kamala Khan displaying her butt-kicking prowess.

In the end, the new takeaway is story overrides all. A boy (or in my case a man) can love Lumberjanes and Ms. Marvel just as much as a girl or woman can because the storytelling is so rich. And girls now have a chance to get that feeling I got when I was a kid: “That could be me.”

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