My daughter, K, is six. My son, M, is five. They read comics. And everybody in comics is white.
My daughter is reading a lot of kids’ superhero comics. Mostly from the Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC lines. She’ll get to White Tiger, she’ll get to Greg Rucka’s upcoming Batwoman, she’ll get to Gotham Central, but not for a while. In the comics that are age-appropriate for her, everybody is white.
I went to my Local Comics Retailer last week and scoured the shelves. The Source is a good, good store. They understand customer service, they stock practically everything, they are well-informed and responsive. They have a kids’ section. They have shelf upon shelf of manga and manga-format titles. They have the entire Minx line. I asked My Comics Guy if he could think of books for my daughter. Titles that had characters who looked like her. “Not manga,” I clarified. “Characters who actually look like my daughter.” Dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, high cheekbones and light brown skin. Manga, whatever the purported ethnicity of the characters, largely consists of black-and-white art — this does not meet my needs. My Comics Guy looked at my kids. He’s known them since I hauled them in every week in the double stroller. “I get what you’re saying,” he said. “I’ll keep my eye out for stuff. But . . . ” He shrugged. I understood — in superhero comics, everybody is white.
I searched through the shelves. I started with the superhero comics marketed for kids. I found Cyborg in Teen Titans Go!. I found Falcon, sometimes, in Marvel Super Hero Squad. That’s it, out of three shelves of superhero comics marketed for kids — two not-white characters. In the manga section I found a Lilo and Stitch movie adaptation and some Avatar books in color. Not the superhero comics I was looking for, but I bought them. In the main graphic novel section, books that my kids are really too young for, I found Araña. I bought it anyway. The cast of Araña isn’t white.
When I got home I went online. Surely, I thought, there are comics for kids, featuring people who look like my daughter, and I just haven’t heard of them. Publisher’s Weekly’s The Beat doesn’t seem to know of any. Neither does LibraryThing, except for manga. (Though LibraryThing does have some recommendations for slightly older kids — Persepolis, and American Born Chinese.) Amazon is no help. MarvelKids is an embarrassment. DC Kids is a tiny bit better, in that their kids’ comics have more tokenism and people of color in guest appearances. I spent some time searching the blogosphere. I found comics for kids, and comics featuring Hispanic, Asian, and black characters — but not in the same title, not at the same time. As far as my kids are concerned everybody in comics is white.
I read an interview once with Robert Rodriguez, director of Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. In the interview he said he made the Spy Kids franchise because he wanted his kids to grow up seeing families like their own in movies. Families that are Hispanic, in movies that are not about The Experience of Being Not-White. Rodriguez wanted his kids to watch the kinds of movies that everybody likes to see, the American action-adventure flick, and see themselves.
The fiction we give the next generation influences the way they see the possible world. Reading, literacy, is important not only for the factual information that can be accrued through text, but through the visions of the future that become accessible by exposure to the stories of others. Fairy tales teach competence and morality, myths teach cultural values, best-sellers teach what everyone wants in a given moment. A while back in my blog I talked about this. And I listed off the geek cultural influences in my house. And one commenter, Handyhunter, very rightly brought up the glaringly obvious fact that the geek culture I was giving to my kids was entirely white.
What are we as comic geeks saying to kids? What are we as comics writers, artists, and fans saying — however unintentionally — to kids of color? I think the answer is pretty clear. We’re saying that American comics don’t care to counter white privilege. That comics don’t care about anybody except white kids. That superhero comics — with their soaring messages of hope and honor, of pride and strength, of ethics and power and responsibility — are not for kids of color. That there’s no place in the superhero’s world for a girl who looks like my daughter to be proud and powerful and courageous. And that not only is there no room for her to be that, but no one in a position to change this cares.
Marvel and DC are getting slightly better in their mainstream lines. In the comics for teens and adults there are great characters of color. But by the time my kids are eleven and twelve and thirteen, I expect my daughter won’t care. Why should she? Why should she, or any other kid like her, stick with mainstream superhero comics or mainstream geek culture at all through the early years in order to get to the marginally better products and stories for adults? If geek culture, if comics, don’t care about her, why should she invest her time in them?
I don’t want this to be true. I see the loss of the superhero genre to be a loss. Some of the best myths of our time are being told in comic books, and comic book movies, and fantasy and science fiction, and through the sweeping glory of modern myth and metaphor. To be ignored by those myths, to be dismissed as not worth the bother, is potentially damaging to every person of color.
Think about it. Think about what we are telling our kids.
There are heroes. And unless you’re white, you’re not one of them.
[Title courtesy South Pacific.]
Email: sigrid @ fantasticfangirls.org