GeekOut

Are comics becoming more diverse?

One night in early August, while watching the "Colbert Report" with the sound off, comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis had what he calls a "surreal moment."

"I'm watching Colbert, and there goes our book up on the screen! I truly did not expect that."

"The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "Conan" also joked about his comic book. The reason that Bendis' "Ultimate Spider-Man" (a title he helped originate in 2000, since relaunched as "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man") caught their attention is the same reason it caught the attention of much of the media one month ago.

Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Hispanic teenager, will be taking over the character of Spider-Man in the Marvel Ultimate universe, following the death of Peter Parker. He is set to make an even bigger splash in the September 14 issue.

In the same month that Miles is becoming the star of the "Ultimate" Spider-Man title, DC Comics is launching the ongoing series "Batwing," which features the first black character to take on the mantle of the Bat (that is to say, the persona of Batman), in stores now.

"As we were kicking around ideas for the 'New 52,' this idea kind of leapt out at us," said writer Judd Winick. "For one, just expanding the Batman family, and also having one who is an African, living and working in the continent of Africa."

Batwing is a member of "Batman, Inc." a global extension of the Batman brand launched in the comics late last year.

"Africa is kind of an untouched setting for the DCU, it's never been part of a a monthly title, never like this," said Winick. "We want to attack it in kind of a really honest way."

Aside from dealing with the many very real issues in modern Africa, Batwing will face his own supervillain, right from the start, said Winick.

"He’ll be going toe to toe with a subtly named villain,  'Massacre' - a very, very large guy wearing body armor and swinging two machetes," he said. "This is a superhero story but it will have a lot of realism. Africa is a beautiful, dangerous, tortured and inspiring place, and we want it to get it right."

With these two high-profile characters hitting the scene this month, opinions vary as to what it means for the comic book universe as a whole.

"We’re having crazy web debates about Peter Parker, and Spider-Man and the Ultimate Universe," says Bendis.

One participant in that debate is iReporter Omekongo Dibinga.

"I want more people of color in the comic book world but I believe that new characters should be made with their own stories," he said shortly after the announcement was made in August. "I never wished for a black Wolverine or Cyclops. Conversely, I don't want to see a white Storm character. I just wanted characters like Bishop, Sunfire, Sunspot and others that represented different backgrounds."

Aside from the characters Dibinga mentioned, we've seen more diverse characters introduced in comics over the past 40 years, including an African American Green Lantern (John Stewart, best known for his role on the animated series "Justice League: Unlimited"); Cyborg, a member of the Justice League in DC Comics' "New 52" titles (along with a black Firestorm, Latino Blue Beetle and more diverse characters within the "52"); and the Ultimate Universe's Nick Fury, who was the basis for Samuel L. Jackson's portrayal of the character in the "Avengers" movies.

Jonathan London wrote an essay on the new Ultimate Spidey for his site, Geekscape.net, and told CNN, "Marvel did this a few years ago with another character, Rawhide Kid, and made him an openly gay character. For about a week, it got a lot of attention. However, comics have never been about that."

London doesn't think that comics have traditionally focused on issues of diversity. "It’s always been more about social issues based on economics. In the ‘70s when Green Arrow’s sidekick became a drug addict, that was a story."

Even so, he notes, "Integrating racially diverse characters is something comics have always done really well."

Podcaster John Mayo of ComicBookPage.com points to Image Comics as a great example of that diversity, but is not very impressed with the new Ultimate Spider-Man.

"I don't think that the new Ultimate Spider-Man represents any sort of increased diversity in terms of storylines or the industry," he said. "If anything, it is something of a step backwards. If Miles Morales was a new flagship character for the Ultimate Comics line for Marvel, that would have been a step forward. Instead, the character comes across as a temporary substitute that is a pale imitation of the original Ultimate Spider-Man."

Bendis, however, has assured readers that Miles Morales is here to stay, pointing out, "In the very first issue of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, you will find out exactly who he is, exactly what’s going on in his world, and how he got spider powers."

Bendis said that the original thinking behind the 13-year-old character was to find a new, ethnically diverse Spider-Man who would represent New York City and all that it means.

However, he pointed out, "It’s not about this character representing all that is ethnically diverse, it’s a story about a kid who happens to be of an ethnically diverse family. Over the last few years my family has been more ethnically diverse, so I’m writing the world the way I see it, sometimes the world the way I want it - it’s about this kid looking at the theme of Spidey as ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ A new character is now trying to discover what that means in today’s world."

As Bendis worked on the character, he said, "Every day something would happen which would make us feel like we’re on the right track."

One big example of that was actor/musician Donald Glover's Twitter campaign in 2010 to get the lead role in "The Amazing Spider-Man," complete with a Photoshopped image of Glover in the costume. "I thought, 'that does look good!'" said Bendis. "I would buy that book, I’m glad I’m working on that book."

Mayo's podcasting partner, Bob Bretall, said, "Today, having new characters that reflect the diversity of our country just makes sense. I hope that people just read and like the stories that show how these characters can be examples of how to behave heroically towards others and not focus in on a factor like the race of the character, which should be irrelevant."

But what about the comic book stores themselves? Kyle Puttkammer, owner of the Galactic Quest stores in Georgia, said that he increased his order for "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" in response to the news.

"We've always had a lot of interest in characters like Bishop, Black Panther, and Static Shock. When Nick Fury was portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, it seemed like a natural update."

As for Batwing, Puttkammer said, "[He] seems to be a throw back to an earlier story. Specifically, 'the Batman nobody knows' from Batman #250. I think it's pretty cool that DC is keeping an eye towards their rich history, while turning an eye to the future."

"It is significant that an African is taking on the mantle of the Bat," said Jonah Weiland, executive producer of Comic Book Resources.

Weiland said that fans reacting negatively to the new Ultimate Spider-Man is something to be expected. "There’s always going to be mixed reaction to this because he is Spider-Man. People like their icons. People generally don’t like change." he said. “As long as the event is story driven, that’s all that matters. I have 100% confidence in Bendis to do that."

No matter what, all agree that high profile events such as these are good for the industry overall. "Anything that can get people to walk into a comic book store is a plus, so I’ll take it," said Bendis, about the jokes on late night TV. "I’ll take the gibing from Jon Stewart if it gets them there."