Culturally, are superhero comics following rather than leading?

NPR television critic Linda Holmes has spent the past couple of weeks tweeting from the Television Critics Association press tour, which ended with a panel on the PBS documentary Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle. Debuting Oct. 8, the three-part miniseries was directed by Michael Kantor, who was on the panel with comic book writers Todd McFarlane, Len Wein and Gerry Conway.

Holmes noted that the panelists asked about the lack of diversity in superhero comics, but unfortunately, the response to that question wasn't very satisfying. She paraphrases four reasons cited by the panel:

  1. Hey, nobody is standing [in] your way saying you can't.
  2. You can't, because it would be like a medieval comic about female knights.
  3. Readers wouldn't read it, so don't blame creators.
  4. You can't make the point of a superhero some kind of political message.

I'm pretty sure that a couple of those are demonstrably false and the other two are arguably so, but the telling part is what happened when Think Progress' Alyssa Rosenberg asked (again, this is paraphrased) whether that means that, culturally speaking, superhero comics are stuck following rather than leading. The answer she got was, "Yes."

To which Rosenberg replied, "That seems like a really unambitious position," before setting down her microphone. And it does.

To be fair, we don't know which panelists said what exactly, so I'm not casting stones at anyone in particular [Update: Rosenberg has posted her report on the panel and clarifies the speakers], but it's a troubling point of view to hear soon after the "We publish comics for 45-year-olds" quote. Which, as a 45-year-old, I find pretty insulting because, not only would I love to read Paul Pope's version of Kamandi, I'd also love to see a lot more diversity in superhero comics. I'd also love to read superhero comics that challenge the way I think politically, socially and a dozen other ways (and, in fact, I do, although they're more rare than I'd like). And I'd sure as hell love to read a medieval comic about female knights.

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