Last November, Marvel launched a new iteration of the Invincible Iron Man, helmed by long-time Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis. The series has been controversial since it was announced in July 2016. Tony Stark is missing and presumed dead following the events of Civil War II. Stepping into his armoured suit? A black, 15-year-old girl named Riri Williams, codename Ironheart. The outrage from long-time fans of the comic who complained that it was political correctness run amok was predictable, thanks to similar outcries over a woman assuming the mantle of Thor and a multiracial teenager named Miles Morales becoming the new Spider-Man.
Jay Bardyla, co-owner of Edmonton’s Happy Harbor Comics, has seen some of those sexist attitudes first hand. Bardyla and his co-owner, Shawna Roe, set out to create a community-minded comic book shop that’s accessible to everyone with even a passing interest in comics. For Bardyla, it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also a savvy business decision.
“At a basic, economic level, it’s just good business sense to be nice to everyone,” he says.
Still, that attitude has riled some— Bardyla recalls a phone call he got last year, when the caller insisted on talking to a man. In a Facebook post about the incident, he wrote that the caller began by stating, “No offense, but I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with these militant feminists,” and became upset when Bardyla informed him that the majority of Happy Harbor’s staff members are women. “The women at the store told me, ‘We experience this everyday.’ I just didn’t see it,” Bardyla says.
He’s seen the same problematic attitude from some shop owners and other professionals in the industry as well.
“I was in a LinkedIn group of comic professionals who were slagging [Mighty Thor] before it even came out. ‘This book will be terrible.’ How do you know? You haven’t read it yet,” he says.
And despite doom and gloom from fans and retailers who have long insisted that diverse heroes wouldn’t sell, the numbers seem to say otherwise. According to comichron.com, a comic book circulation data website put together by John Jackson Miller, the first issue of Mighty Thor featuring Jane Foster as Thor outsold Odinson’s series Unworthy Thor in North America by more than 40,000 copies. Bendis’s Invincible Iron Man #1 featuring Riri Williams sold an estimated 97,700 copies compared to the previous Invincible Iron Man #1 by Matt Fraction, which sold only 63,000. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run of Black Panther was Marvel’s third-best selling comic in 2016.
It turns out representation does sell, because it makes comic books more interesting and accessible to a wider audience. White men make up roughly less than a third of North Americans, despite being an overwhelming majority of major comic book characters, writers and illustrators.
Danica Leblanc, the owner of Variant Edition, another Edmonton comic shop, says the growing diversity of comics has been extraordinarily positive.
“I believe that comics should be a reflection of the world we live in. To be blunt, if it’s only straight white people, that’s not the world we live in,” Leblanc says.
While the ‘Big Two’ (Marvel and DC) have often struggled with representation, smaller presses have often done a better job. AfterShock debuted a transgender superhero named Chalice last September, and Lion Forge Comics is focused on heroes of colour. Canmore-based Renegade Arts Entertainment published the Arctic Comics anthology by and about Inuit and Northern Canadian creators. And Hope Nicholson’s Bedside Press, based in Winnipeg, has published several comics focused on indigenous, Jewish, and LGBTQ+ communities. These smaller projects tend not to attract the same attention that Marvel’s forays into diversity have, in part because they aren’t ‘replacing’ well-loved existing characters with new iterations.
Of course, Marvel isn’t exactly replacing anyone either. While some customers are still upset that Jane Foster is now Thor, Leblanc is quick to point out the previous Thor hasn’t just vanished.
“He’s just not worthy so he doesn’t have the damn hammer. He’s doing his own thing, and he literally has his own series right next to hers,” she says.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, the old heroes are still around, helping the next generation of superheroes. Peter Parker still has his own Spider-Man series. Clint Barton is still Hawkeye, although he’s joined by Kate Bishop, who has also adopted the moniker. And in the new Invincible Iron Man, Tony Stark turns himself into an AI and plays sidekick to Williams.
While most people are aware of the criticism of more diverse comics, complaints have also come from a source that many people wouldn’t expect. When Riri Williams was announced, complaints came from both fans of the traditional rich, white, and male Tony Stark as well as from feminists and women of colour.
“A lot of the resistance to Riri Williams being the new Iron Man wasn’t so much that people didn’t want a black ‘Iron Woman.’ It was because they didn’t want a white man writing about it,” says Nicholson, who is a comic book historian in addition to owning Bedside Press. Until three weeks after Ironheart was announced, Marvel hadn’t hired a black woman to write their comics.
Much to the chagrin of those who are attached to the traditional versions of heroes like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, Marvel has been allowing newcomers to step into tights of its aging, white male heroes. But for those who long to see themselves represented both on the page and behind the scenes, change often hasn’t come quickly enough. Many black and multiracial characters are written and illustrated by white creators who don’t necessarily understand the community they’re trying to depict. In an essay for the Women Write About Comics blog, illustrator Olivia Stephens wrote, “While it’s a nice start to feature people of colour as prominent characters on the page, that’s all it is: a nice start… Representation on the page is a surface-level fix; a bandaid that doesn’t address internal discrepancies.”
Despite more diverse characters in more comics, there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done. While Marvel did hire Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey, two black women, to write a Black Panther spin-off, women and people of colour remain underrepresented as comic creators. Nicholson points out that Aboriginal people are virtually invisible as both characters and creators. And many women still feel uncomfortable stepping into a comic shop.