Black Lives and the Moral Imperative of Superhero Publishers

On May 25, 2020, a 46-year-old Black man named George Floyd was killed during a brutal, forceful apprehension by Minneapolis Police officers. The following day, video footage of Floyd’s killing was widely distributed through social media, and the first of many protests nationwide began that night.

America reached a boiling point, and the overflow spilled into the businesses of various global industries and corporations.

The American comic book industry was no exception.

On May 31st and June 1st, three superhero comic book publishers used Twitter to release public statements against injustice, in support of Black lives: Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and Valiant Entertainment.

Marvel Comics, the publishing arm of one of the most ubiquitous fictional universes in popular culture, shared the message originating from their parent company, Disney. Word for word, without embellishment.

DC Comics, a subsidiary of Warner Media and publisher of “Batman”, “Superman”, Wonder Woman”, and various monthly comic books, cleverly used a line of dialogue from issue #775 of “Superman: Action Comics”. Superman’s worldview served as the company’s exemplary statement on humanity and justice.

Valiant Entertainment, publisher of the “Bloodshot” comic book which served as source material for the film starring Vin Diesel, delivered a message to the public beginning with the sentence “Black lives matter.”, a clear reference to the global activist organization and movement founded seven years ago after the killing of Trayvon Martin. The final line of text in the publisher’s message was the Black Lives Matter hashtag.

A trinity of publishers with specific expertise in the creation of hero narratives came together to form a statement, one which was tantamount to a moral position on the villainy of institutional racism and its horrifying manifestations.

With the end of an historic year for America and a new year of anticipated change on the horizon, we are compelled to examine how these three industry leaders proceeded to modify their businesses in alignment with their public statements, well aware that some projects and initiatives preceded the catalyzing act of George Floyd’s murder.

Marvel Comics, leader of the comic book industry’s Direct Market which encompasses comic book publishers, distributors, and retailers operating mostly within the United States, made a handful of announcements throughout the last half-year as a reflection of Disney’s stance for inclusion and against racism.

· “Marvel Voices: Legacy”, a sequel to the publisher’s first book under the “Marvel Voices” brand. “Marvel Voices” was designed to bring together Black creators under one book featuring a wide array of popular heroes. Announced in November and debuting in February 2021, not coincidentally during Black History Month, the new book will feature Black creators who are both veterans of Marvel’s creative pool as well as those who are new to the company. Marvel published the first “Marvel Voices” in February 2020, so the Legacy book exists with precedent. Whether this will be the only sequel book with Black creators in the Voices program remains to be seen.

· During the same month, Marvel will publish a select group of books with covers by Black creators, featuring Black characters. This will be the publisher’s first time using a Black History Month promotional cover event in print form to highlight the annual celebration of culture and legacy founded fifty years ago.

· January 2021 will debut the introduction of “12 Years A Slave” screenwriter John Ridley to the Marvel Comics stable, with the publication of the third issue of their “Wolverine: Black, White, and Blood” title. The series is centered around stories featuring the popular hero portrayed by Hugh Jackman in the FOX X-Men franchise films. Marvel has confirmed the Wolverine story will be the first of various projects with Ridley.

How Marvel Comics will continue in 2021 and beyond in their support of Black people remains to be seen. With a command of over thirty percent of the Direct Market’s purchases, the publisher is well positioned to blow open the doors of their various high-profile franchises such as The Avengers, Spider-Man, the Spiderverse, and Guardians of the Galaxy, to invite more Black writers to their pop culture sandbox, one commonly referred to as “the world outside our window”. We will undoubtedly learn if Marvel’s great power will be used in service of their great responsibility.

Marvel Comics’ competitor, DC Comics, has been quite busy aspiring to the dreams of dignity, justice, and honor their Superman character represents, developing a publishing slate with a seemingly unprecedented number of Black writers working on stories for their superhero universe.

· In November, DC Comics announced a wide scale multi-month publishing event called “Future State”. The future of DC Comics’ heroes, villains, and worlds throughout the multiverse will be revealed over a collection of 52 comic books to be published between January 5th and March 23rd of 2021. The writers pool boasts at least six Black writers, including novelist L.L. McKinney and the aforementioned John Ridley, the latter of whom is writing “The Next Batman”. The latest iteration of the Dark Knight is a Black man with a direct connection to the original Batman, Bruce Wayne.

· In the same month DC Comics unveiled the lineup for “Future State”, the company published the first issue of “The Other History of the DC Universe”, a five-issue series also written by John Ridley. Mister Ridley is certainly getting around within the publisher’s halls of justice, as the series takes a historical look at their superhero universe from the perspective of “the other”, points of view from characters who are neither White nor male. Starting with Black Lightning, the hero first published in the Seventies and portrayed by Cress Williams in the CW television show of the same name, Ridley uses various non-White characters of DC Comics as a prism through which to examine a superhero universe resting on a socio-political infrastructure of racism, sexism, and White supremacy closely mirroring that of the real world. While “The Other History of the DC Universe” was originally announced in 2018, the fortuitous timing of its publication is very much on schedule with the present-day zeitgeist.

· Outside of the superhero genre and print medium, DC Comics launched a digital comic book series called “Represent!”. The series title reflects the publisher’s apparent goal of showing themselves to be in step with Black culture and the demand for Black Americans’ experiences to be heard. Christian Cooper, a writer/editor and former employee of Marvel Comics, wrote the premiere story in “Represent!” about a birdwatcher whose unprovoked altercation with someone in a public park led to a media frenzy. It was a semi-autobiographical tale, as Christian was the victim of weaponized racism utilized by a White woman threatening to call the police on him as a show of her power.

· DC Comics’ last big announcement for the year regarding Black lives was the publishing return of Milestone, a groundbreaking company with its first iteration in the Nineties, responsible for creating the first widely known superhero universe mostly populated with heroes of color. Milestone created the seminal Black teenage male hero “Static”, seen on the award-winning animated series “Static Shock”. A new “Static Shock” book spearheaded by Milestone partners Reginald Hudlin and Denys Cowan will debut in 2021.

While all of these projects are high-profile and compelling, the first three are noticeably finite in publication scope. Time will tell if the future state of DC Comics is one of continued egalitarian hiring practices of writers, but at the very least, two of the Black writers from “Future State” have new projects in place with the publisher. Will the company boasting “the world’s greatest superheroes” be the industry example of great heroism in their long-term business endeavors?

Outside of the decades-long war between Marvel and DC Comics is Valiant Entertainment, a company of three publishing iterations with a collection of over two thousand characters, making them the third superhero universe of prominence in the Direct Market comic book industry.

In a move which effectively and further distinguishes them from the primary superhero publishers, Valiant Entertainment made no new announcements in 2020 of projects involving Black writers.

However, in October the company re-announced the upcoming return of their horror series “Shadowman”. The titular character is a Black man with mystical powers who serves as the newest guardian between Earth and “The Deadside”, an extradimensional realm full of demonic creatures and sorcerers.

Valiant’s awareness of the cinematic horror genre business as dominated by producer/writer/director Jordan Peele of “Get Out”, “The Twilight Zone”, and “Lovecraft Country” is made clear through one of their cover variants for “Shadowman”, an homage of the movie poster for “Us”, a Peele film. Utilizing the imagery of Black horror for a book starring a Black lead makes sense from a marketing standpoint. Regardless of the absence of a Black writer for the series, Valiant Entertainment’s “Shadowman” is being designed and positioned to attract consumers, including and especially Black consumers.

As a publisher proudly standing with Black people worldwide against systemic racism and proclaiming the truth of how much the lives of Black people matter, Valiant Entertainment’s lack of announcements for new stories or projects with Black writers is seemingly paradoxical.

Let’s dig a little deeper and examine the state of the Direct Market comic book industry of 2020, and the start of an outlook for 2021.

In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the industry to a standstill when Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. suspended operations, halting the weekly shipping of comic books to comic book retail shops. Among other consequences, the hiatus affected Diamond’s ability to pay publishers monies owed to them from previous transactions, contributing to various publishers (including Marvel Comics and Valiant Entertainment) cancelling and halting production on various books and telling a considerable portion of their freelancer pool to stop working.

Comic book stores throughout the world closed their doors for the last time, unable to survive due to a lack of new product, a reduction of customers, and various business expenses within the conditions of a pandemic.

As the year continued, Disney and AT&T/Warner Media, the parent companies of Marvel Comics and DC Comics respectively, suffered financial losses on a scale forcing both media empires to initiate waves of layoffs which rippled throughout their various departments and subsidiaries. Both of the “Big Two” comic book publishers were victims of these cost-cutting measures, leading to furloughs and permanent layoffs.

With the top two Direct Market comic book publishers dealing with a reduction in staff tasked with generating, managing, and processing new comic book series and projects, 2021 promises a greater focus on a smaller number of books than originally planned. After all, while the superhero genre is impressively popular in mainstream media, it is becoming more niche in the Direct Market of monthly comic books.

Marvel and DC are inescapable brands with characters eight decades old, and the comic book publishers are the IP engines of multimedia universes worth billions of dollars. They are owned by global media and communications giants with long-term goals based on the continuing multi-platform delivery of superhero narratives.

Clearly, both publishers can and will take the risk of publicly and proudly increasing their stable of Black writers in a nation suffering from a schism regarding the perceived value of Black lives.

Valiant Entertainment, on the other hand, is a company with characters shy of being three decades old. A publisher operating in the superhero game alongside Marvel and DC Comics by primarily focusing on the production of White male hero ascendant stories. The risk of showing the comic book industry that Black writers are equal to their White peers, through hiring more Black writers, is relatively greater for Valiant.

That said, 2021 is a great opportunity for the publisher to embrace the courage their name exemplifies. The same courage they showed on June 1, 2020, when they made a public statement in support of Black lives and “against the injustices of systemic racism”.

Standing hand in hand with the top two superhero publishers, Valiant Entertainment made the statement of conviction that human equality is necessary for a better society.

In service of a moral imperative.

This year, entertainment companies far and wide have noticeably increased their Black writer pools, so we would be hard-pressed to believe that public support of Black writers endangers the profit imperative. Just as we would be hard-pressed to believe a publisher publicly embracing Black lives would leverage Black suffering to elevate themselves during a time of economic, social, and political upheaval.

In 2020, the comic book industry was the nexus for a reckoning with its inherent sexism, sexual harassment, and racial injustice. The response was a partial purge of sexual predators, staffing changes to facilitate the promotion of female executives to higher positions, and both the increase and promotion of Black executives. Publishers including BOOM! Studios, Image Comics, Vault Comics, and IDW took action to varying degrees in service of a better comic book industry.

There is no industry conceivably more nimble, more suitable, more qualified to support Black lives through action than the comic book industry, and the expectations for its leaders to usher in an era of permanent change will be high, as a result.

With the end of corporate bloodbaths on the horizon and the redesigned publishing plans aligning with the publishers’ capabilities, increased hiring of Black writers is both feasible and expected. The idea that two publishers have to share one high-profile Black writer does not track with the vast number of high-profile Black writers across the various entertainment mediums.

Those Black writers would be well-served at companies with a diverse workforce reflecting a well-rounded worldview, with Black editors and executives to serve as their mentors and supporters because they understand and live in the world through a distinctive and insightful existence. A perspective that cannot easily be understood regardless of the number of books and workshops produced and created to explain racism.

Projects created for and with Black writers must be conceived and designed with financial success and strong backlist power in mind, as opposed to placebo projects which both conventional wisdom and P&L statements suggest have little chance of significant market penetration.

The measures needed for lasting systemic change must be integrated into corporate infrastructures, baked into the companies, their promise to the world, and the hearts and minds of their staff.

Otherwise, the collective actions of the day will serve as nothing more than a temporary crossover event of borrowed ideologies, lacking an arc toward true justice.

Written by

A writer, editor, columnist, and public speaker from Brooklyn, NY. His upcoming graphic novel “MPLS SOUND” featuring Prince debuts April 2021. josephillidge.com

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