These days you can’t go anywhere without seeing superheroes or someone (rightly) decrying their lack of diversity.
As both a lifelong comic book fanand a lifelong white dude, I understandsboth sides of it. On one hand, it’s exciting to see these iconic characters finally get the spotlightafter 50-plus years of being relegated to four-color funny books. I mean, we getat least sevendifferent superhero blockbusters this year alone, and that’s not even counting television!
But on the other hand, well…let’s just say that guys like me have never been leftwanting for role models that look just like us.
Fortunately, things aren’tquite the same as they wereback in 1939, when Superman first showed up on the scene. Sure, there are stillplenty of characters (and fans) whostick to their traditions of Stoic ManguyHero and The Sexy Lady That He Rescues All the Time. But nowit’s easier than ever to find comic books that accurately reflect the world we live in where there are more distinctions between people than thecolor of their spandex over-the-pants underwear.
Here are just a few of our favorites:
Wait what?! Don’t worry, Peter Parker is still around.But a black Hispanic teenager namedMiles Morales isalso Spider-Man, thanks to Brian Michael Bendis, a Jewish-American comic book writer who wanted a more diverse role model for his adopted children. Originally introduced in 2011 as part of Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe (a parallel alternate continuity…because comics), the newSpider-Man comic launching in February will place him firmly beside all your other favorite heroes.
2. “The Wicked + the Divine”
“Every ninety years, twelve gods incarnate as humans. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are dead.” It’s happening again right now and this time, they’re all beloved pop stars.That’s the basic premise of “The Wicked + the Divine,” which explores fandom, death, divinity, and the irresistible allure of pop music. While the book itself is set in England, the pantheon of deities pulls from every cultureand historical periodand mashes it together with a cast that spans the spectrum of race, gender, and sexuality. And it all oozes with a rock ‘n’ roll sex appeal.
When he was first introduced, Midnighter and his now-ex-husband, Apollo, were basically a gay homage to Batman and Superman. And if that sounds like the concept to a cheap sketch comedy, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Midnighter is more powerful than Batmanand at least as badass if not more. (Let’s just say his early appearances were part of DC’s adult-oriented publications.)He was also the first gay male to headline an ongoing DCcomic book, and the current iteration is the first timeit’s being scripted by an out writer, too.
Speaking of adult content, “Lumberjanes” is probably the most delightful all-ages comic you will ever read. The girls at the (big breath!)Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady Types(yes, really)get into all kinds of fantastical mischief as they learn about friendshipand aboutthemselves. It’s heartfelt. It’s fresh. It’suniversal.It’s like the best parts of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Scooby-Doo,” and “Salute Your Shorts”all rolled into one. Did I mention that it also features a transgender cast memberand can help kids and adults alike to empathize with issues of gender dysphoria?
5. “Ms. Marvel”
If you thought Peter Parker was the only character who isrelatable as thelovable loser whose superhero antics get in the way of getting his life together, then you haven’t read “Ms. Marvel.” Kamala Khan is anerdyteenage girlliving in Jersey City when she discovers that she has superpowers. Think about your own most embarrassing high school experience; now imagine that it happens when you’re teaming up with Wolverineand that you can’t tell anybody about itand that your parentsstill won’t let you go to that party with all your friends ugh. On top of all that, Ms. Marvel is the first mainstream Muslim superhero comic, scriptedby a Muslim writer, and it doesn’t shyaway fromall the complications that come along with that.
6. “The Private Eye”
It’s cool enoughthat “The Private Eye” is a pay-what-you-wantdigitalcomic about Internet privacy that was specifically designed to be read on a computer or tablet. It’s also an incrediblycompelling detective story with a bisexual, biracial protagonist, set in a near-future society after The Cloud burst and released everyone’s private information out into the world.The international and highly acclaimed creative team have also made the book available completely DRM-free, with translations inEnglish, Spanish, Catalan, andPortuguese. You have pretty muchno reason not to read it all right now, and the only reason you’ll want to stop reading is justso you can change your passwords.
7. “Bitch Planet”
“Bitch Planet” is a science-fictional feminist riffon ’70sexploitation movies, set in a dystopian future where “non-compliant” women are sent to an off-planet prison where they learn to be subservient so, maybe not so different from the real world.The allegory isobvious, but the action and the characters are anything but.WriterKelly Sue DeConnicknevershiesaway from going there,wherever “there” might be.Think “Orange is the New Black” but in space. Or maybe Margaret Atwood meets “Inglorious Basterds.” Either way, it’s awesome.
8. “Black Panther”
We’ve written before about why we’re excited to see MacArthur-Award-winning author Ta-Nehisi Coates take over the new “Black Panther” comic book, but it still bears repeating. The leader of a highly-advanced African nation, T’Challa is a super-powered super-genius who has served as a member of The Avengers as well as the Fantastic Four.And, oh yeah, he has that movie coming out soon, after his upcoming debut in “Captain America:Civil War.” Let’s just say that it’s about time he had his chance to shine. While Coates’ comic doesn’t debut until April, you can currently catch Black Panther in the Marvel comic “Ultimates.”(Not to be confused with the aforementioned Ultimateuniverse continuity of…oh, forget it. It’s comics.)
Like “Bitch Planet” above, “Virgil” is a twist on ’70s exploitation films,onlythis time, it’s a black, queer revenge story. Virgil is a Jamaican policeman who is forced to hide his sexuality from his fellow officers, especiallywhen they use their authority to bully the brothels. But when his secret is exposed andhis partner is kidnapped well,to say the least,there aren’tanyfunky “Shaft”guitarlicks during Virgil’s brutal, bloody odyssey to save the man he loves. Added bonus: “Virgil” is a complete graphic novel (as opposed toa collected series of comic book issues), which means you get the whole story in one book. But speaking from personal experience, I should warn younot to crack it open right before bedtime or you won’t go to sleep.
Barbara Gordon is more than just a Batman knockoff in a purple suit. The current “Batgirl” comic makesher into her ownforce to be reckoned with, an incomparable computer hacker and crimefighter who’s still dealing with the ramifications from a traumatic crippling at the hands of The Joker.
Also? Her roommate and friendAlysia Yeoh is the first transgender character in a mainstream superhero comic(which made her recent wedding the first transgender wedding in a mainstream superhero comic, too).
10 years ago, 10strange alien monoliths the titular “trees” landed on Earth. And ever since, they’ve…just kinda been there, as if these extraterrestrials had come to Earth in search of intelligent life but just gave up. “Trees”explores the personal lives of itsinternational ensemblecastand the ways they’ve been affected or not by the presence of the Trees. From Slavic scientists to Brazilian drug-runners to Manhattan businessmento queerartists in China’s quarantined “cultural zone,” it’sa socio-political tapestry about the aftermath of the most disappointing alieninvasion ever.
These stories and characters might be fiction, but that doesn’t mean they can’t reflect the world we live in.
People are resistant to change, and we can’t change that about them. But stories can help us empathize with other peopleand understand the way we live.
So while it is important to applaud the diverse casts in these and other books, what makes these comics great is the same thing that makes any comic great:a cast that we connect with, regardless of their gender, race, age, or sexuality. Even if you’re a white dude like me, there’s still a lot that you can learn from a super-poweredPakistani-Americangirl. (Which is only fair, since we’ve expected everyone to empathize with us for so long.)