Comic Book Diversity: War Machine and Tiny Titans

Posted by Jennifer Smith

In the same vein as Caroline’s recent Comic Book Girls post, I’d like to make a habit of spotlighting comics I’ve read recently that score points on the diversity front – be that diversity ethnic, religious, sexual, or gender-related.

On that note, take a look at this recap page:

That’s the cast of the current War Machine title, written by Greg Pak. The protagonist, James Rhodes, is a black man who’s historically been relegated to supporting character status in the Iron Man title. The fact that he’s headlining a book to begin with is progress, considering it’s the only Marvel solo title other than Black Panther (and Dark Wolverine, though Daken’s Japanese heritage is rarely depicted) with a non-white protagonist.

But even more impressive is Rhodey’s own supporting cast. Because, if you look at that list again, something becomes very clear – none of the characters are white men.

In fact, only one of the characters – Bethany Cabe, former Tony Stark love interest/bodyguard and all-around kickass lady – is white at all. Otherwise, we have a cast that’s entirely black, Hispanic, and Asian. An earlier issue even featured Jason Strongbow, a.k.a. American Eagle, a Navajo superhero who’s been offering Rhodey’s mother lodging and protection on his Reservation.

And all of these characters, be they male or female, are strong, intelligent, and very, very good at their jobs. When the women are in danger, they’re saved due to the efforts of a mixed-gender team – as are the men. And if some non-white characters have shady criminal histories, they’re balanced out by those with impeccable records. These characters defy stereotypes and pigeonholing, and though their cultural backgrounds have obviously had an impact on their lives, as we see specifically in flashbacks to Rhodey’s childhood, their race isn’t their sole defining feature.

I’m not sure how well War Machine is doing in sales. I’m not even sure I would have picked it up myself if my little brother wasn’t such a huge Rhodey fan. But it’s a very well-written book even beyond its casting successes, and I encourage anyone with even a passing interest to give it a try.

***

There’s really no good way for me to transition from a discussion of War Machine to a discussion of Tiny Titans. While the former is an in-continuity violence-soaked Marvel superhero story for teens and adults, Tiny Titans is an out-of-continuity DC kids’ book featuring short joke strips and vignettes about Teen Titans characters in an elementary school setting. The two books have pretty much nothing in common – but they’ve both impressed me lately with their commitment to diversity.

The most recent issue of Tiny Titans, issue 19, is a love issue. Or, more accurately, since it’s Tiny Titans, it’s a “like” issue – the title, in fact, is “Deep in Like.” The main “like” story of the comic is between Bumblebee, an insect-sized bee-like girl (and, as a side note, DC’s first black female superhero), and Plasmus, a giant pink blob (and a villain, but villains in the world of Tiny Titans wouldn’t hurt a fly – or, for that matter, a bee). It’s a cute little odd couple puppy love story. They meet in a dreary rain storm, and the power of their meeting magically conjures rainbows and birds and flowers and hearts where once there had been nothing but grey bleakness. Then the dates begin – throwing a Frisbee, having a tea party, sharing a milkshake, going to a baseball game, and finally falling asleep against each other under a shady tree. It’s adorable.

And then something unexpected happens. We return to the dreary rainstorm to find Monsieur Mallah – a sentient gorilla in a beret – and the Brain, the brain in a jar who created him. Fans of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol know that this unlikely pair of characters – both male – are also in love in mainstream continuity. And here, as they approach each other in the dreary rainstorm, they suddenly encounter Plasmus and Bumblebee, who bring along their lollipops and rainbows to brighten Mallah and Brain’s world. When Plasmus and Bumblebee are gone, Brain says, “Oh, I can’t stay angry at you!” Mallah picks him up, and they skip off, surrounded by hearts.

There’s an argument to be made that this is a joke – that the fact that this is a gay relationship is the punchline. But in the next scene, depicted below, Mallah and the Brain are shown to be on a movie date at the same time as Plasmus and Bumblebee – and the two relationships are explicitly paralleled. The moviegoers are afraid of Plasmus because he’s a giant blob, and they’re afraid of Mallah because he’s a giant gorilla. The punchline is that he’s a gorilla who is dating a brain in a jar – not that he’s a male character dating another male character.

The conventional wisdom of marketing has always held that gay relationships aren’t appropriate for children’s media. There’s a reason And Tango Makes Three and Heather Has Two Mommies are two of the most challenged books in America. Even the most benevolent publishing companies tend to believe that gay relationships automatically involve sex, and that sex shouldn’t be sold to children. But with this issue of Tiny Titans, Art Baltazar and Franco turn that conventional logic on its head. The relationship between Monsieur Mallah and the Brain, in Tiny Titans land, is no more sexual than the relationship between Plasmus and Bumblebee. They’re absolutely equal. Both couples are “in like.” Homosexuality, the writers demonstrate, is no more inherently sexual than heterosexuality – and neither is a bad example for children.

When I go for my monthly Tiny Titans fix, I’m not usually looking for insightful social commentary and subversiveness. The fact that this issue provided that – in addition to its usual humor, light, and cuteness – was unexpected icing on the cake. If you love the DCU at all and you’re not reading this comic, I highly encourage you to pick up an issue.

So what about you? Have you read any books lately with especially impressive diversity displays of diversity? Feel free to discuss and recommend in the comments!

By Jennifer Smith
E-mail: Jennifer@fantasticfangirls.org
Twitter: throughthebrush

  • sigrid

    Thank you, Jennifer, for posting this — it’s an excellent reminder that, despite my lament about diversity in kids’ comics posted a few months ago, there are some mainstream titles that add to diversity. I think I’ll start picking up Tiny Titans and giving it to my kids.

  • Caroline

    I don’t read either of these books, but I’m glad this is happening.

    When I think about general impressions about diversity in comics lately, it’s more things like, “Oh, Harry Osborn’s black girlfriend has blond hair, that’s special,” than actual positive observations? I guess I could say that I like how we’re seeing (relatively) more Asian-American men in prominent roles — Amadeus Cho in “Hercules” and “Mighty Avengers” and Jimmy Woo in “Agents of Atlas” (though the artist don’t always seem to remember he’s Asian). And since it looks like the X-Men are turning ‘Legacy’ into a young-team book, and those teams tend to feature more diversity, that’s potentially positive.

  • Anika

    Eep! Those Tiny Titans panels are ADORABLE.

    As the others have already stated, I like that you (and by extension we, this weblog) are acknowledging these positive steps.

  • handyhunter

    I tend to feel the way Caroline does when this subject comes up. But I would like to thank you for highlighting diversity in comics. I think I may give War Machine a try.

  • @everyone Yes, it’s sadly very easy to pick up on all of the negative things going on in comics — true equality is still quite far off. But it’s worth it sometimes to notice the good things out there, because spotlighting them will hopefully encourage more writers to follow in their footsteps.

  • @Sigrid I definitely encourage you to pick this up for your kids — it’s all-ages fun, and you might appreciate some of the in-jokes (like the “Finals Crisis”).

    @Caroline That’s a good point, about Asian men, and I, too, hope that the younger kids get more of a spotlight.

  • Marfisa

    That “Tiny Titans” story sounds cute. But, like a number of other things in the book–e.g., the introduction of villain Dr. Light, who in “Identity Crisis” was established as a vindictive rapist, as a faculty member at an elementary school–it can be kind of disconcerting for readers who are too familiar with the current version of mainstream DC continuity. In this case, both Monsieur Mallah and the Brain were brutally killed by Gorilla Grodd in the recent “Salvation Run” miniseries. (As far as I know, they’re both still supposed to be dead.) Possibly Baltazar and Franco’s spotlighting them in this story was at least partially intended as a protest against this. Or maybe the creators’ attitude is that the whole Tiny Titans series is so totally alternate-universe that the recent history and “true” personalities of the characters’ mainstream-DCU equivalents are simply irrelevant.

  • @Marfisa Have you ever heard an interview with those guys? I recently listened to Art Baltazar’s Word Balloon podcast, and he discussed Tiny Titans. Basically, he talked about how the Tiny Titans world is purposely one where everything is sweetness and light, where the characters aren’t allowed to fight, much less be evil. I mean, if Trigon can be their principal and Deathstroke their teacher, anything can happen. The Tiny Titans guys are calling up the purest, most fun versions of these characters for all-ages fun. If they paid attention to all the horrible things that happen in mainstream continuity, they wouldn’t be able to tell a story.

    Now, whether or not those particular appearances are protests, I don’t know — I can’t read the creators’ minds. But I think your second theory is definitely correct, and I, for one, celebrate it.