2014 is undoubtedly a year of notable accomplishments for representation of people of color, women, and the LGBT community, to the point where there’s no way I can list them all. So I’m going to get a little personal with my choices and give some shout-outs, in no particular order of suggested importance.
Marvel Studios, Netflix, and Luke Cage
For years, fans have been dreaming, asking for, and demanding that Luke Cage, the bulletproof Black superhero created in the ’70s, find his way to the small and large screen. Celebrities from LL Cool J and Tyrese Gibson to Terry Crews and Dule Hill have been mentioned in connection with casting the character. Finally, we know for certain that not only will there be a “Luke Cage” live-action series, but this year all of the rumors were put to rest and actor Mike Colter has been chosen as the Hero For Hire.
We can be certain he’ll be great as Cage, because to be fair to Marvel Studios, their casting choices have been on point across the board, 10 for 10, no lemons, no flakes. Colter looks the part, he has the body, and at the very least images of him suggest a charisma and sex appeal which are intrinsic to the character he’ll be portraying.
But that’s not the most significant thing about this show to me.
For one thing, Colter as Cage will be introduced in the Marvel/Netflix “A.K.A. Jessica Jones” show starring Krysten Ritter as the main character, an ex-superhero turned private investigator. If the characters on the show follow the critical path put forth in the Marvel comic books, then Luke and Jessica will become a couple. We will see an Interracial Superhero Romance in Live-Action Form on American Television.
This is significant. The interracial couple is a growing demographic, to the point where advertisers now try to sell breakfast cereal, among other things, to that group. The Black/White couple is still very much a hot button subject in America. Even if you live in progressive cities and states, there are still certain realities that come with being part of that group.
I have personal experience on the matter. My fiancee is White, and the stories I could tell you about what we’ve experienced…
Insofar as American superhero comic books go, Marvel Comics has certainly broken ground on Black/White romance, at the very least with Luke and Jessica, and again with the X-Men’s Northstar character marrying his boyfriend, a Black man.
The Marvel Television Universe may very well be heading to that destination, and make no mistake, that would be a bold act. One that I would like to see, and see handled with some level of responsibility, which brings me to the other variable I consider of crucial importance to the realization of Luke Cage on the small screen:
Luke Cage will be introduced in “A.K.A. Jessica Jones,” and then spin off into his own show.
Marvel Studios and Netflix have a woman, Melissa Rosenberg, as the Executive Producer/Showrunner of “A.K.A. Jessica Jones.”
Will a Black person be offered the same position for the Luke Cage series?
When this person is announced, it will be revelatory on a number of fronts, because Luke Cage is quite symbolic as a character. The changes his character has undergone in the last four decades can be lined up with shifts for Black men in American society. The demographic Luke Cage immediately represents has been the subject of much debate in the media this year, reaching a fever pitch and approaching a point of no return.
There are ways in which anyone who is not a Black man will never understand what it is like to be one, and the best writers with the best intentions will get close to be sure, but still miss something of core import.
If the Marvel/Netflix team hires a Black man as the Executive Producer/Showrunner of the Luke Cage series, it will make for an impactful, progressive move.
The Eisner Awards, Dr. Sheena C. Howard, and “Watson and Holmes”
In July, during the weekend of the pop-culture event known to many in entertainment and fan circles as the “San Diego Comic-Con,” the Eisner Awards ceremony took place.
Named after Will Eisner, easily one of the pioneers and luminaries of the comic book and graphic novel medium and industry, the Eisner Awards are the equivalent of the film industry’s Academy Awards.
This year had an unprecedented number of Black writers nominated for awards. Karl Bollers and Brandon Easton for their work on the New Paradigm series “Watson and Holmes,” reimagining the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle as a modern day Black male duo operating in Harlem, New York.
Additionally, Dr. Sheena C. Howard, the Vice Chair of the Black Caucus and Assistant Professor at Rider University, was nominated for her first book, “Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation,” which explored this history of comic books from the early 20th Century to the present through the viewpoints of Black creators and themes of the Black experience.
Dr. Howard won the Eisner Award for Best Scholarly/Academic Work, and through doing so helped to galvanize the discussion of Black representation in comics in various media circles.
Seeing as how the nomination of Black creators and subject matter speaking to the Black experience rarely happens with the Eisners, the win for a Black woman on a book about the racial politics of Blacks in comics is nothing short of historic.
Ms. Marvel, Marvel Comics, and Well-Received Muslim Representation
Kamala Khan, the Pakistani-American girl living in Jersey City, New Jersey is the newest person to take on the Ms. Marvel identity in Marvel Comics’ breakout series.
Co-created by editor Sana Amanat and written by G. Willow Wilson, the “Ms. Marvel” series has been a hit on all fronts. Sales, quality, fan consensus, critical acclaim and mainstream impact. Chronicling the adventures of Kamala Khan as she deals with the schism of being non-traditional in a traditional Muslim family, the identity crisis of worshipping a White female superhero and her image, and dealing with the quasi-progressive ignorance of others as it relates to the Muslim culture, this comic book shows how the medium and industry can tackle those issues in a way that does not beat the reader over the head or act as a polemic on prejudice against Muslims.
“Ms. Marvel” has the benefit of being informed by the co-creation and editorial guardianship from a woman of color, and the viewpoint of writer G. Willow Wilson, herself a Muslim. The shared experience between author and character comes through in the stories. This contributes to the formula which makes “Ms. Marvel” a great read, lots of fun, visually beautiful, full of themes with universal resonance, and fulfilling of Marvel’s conceit of their fictional universe reflecting the world outside your window.
Considering the negative responses to creator Naif Al-Mutawa and his comic book series, “The 99,” about a Muslim superhero group, which sometimes overshadowed being highly regarded by both Forbes magazine and President Obama, it is even more impressive that Marvel Comics and the entire “Ms. Marvel” team managed to chart a different path of positive reception for the heroic Kamala Khan.
Last, but by no means least…
Shaft, David Walker, and Getting Back to the Roots
Depending on how old you are, the theme song for this hero’s first film as sung by Mister Isaac Hayes almost certainly popped up in your head upon reading about Dynamite Entertainment’s “Shaft” comic book miniseries.
Possibly the most popular icon of the Blaxploitation film genre of the ’70s, Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft has served as a cultural reference point through films, books, and emulation. The character of John Shaft may be the most well-known fictional Black male hero in any medium, and his stories are now in comic books written by David Walker and published by Dynamite Entertainment. There are so many reasons why the “Shaft” miniseries is a seminal event for the comic book industry and medium. The author, David Walker, is a Black man, an expert on the Blaxploitation genre and Shaft in particular, the creator of website badazzmofo.com, and a writer of various books on Black culture. Dynamite Entertainment, an independent publisher, did what neither of the two most powerful American comic book companies are doing at the point: aligning a Black writer with a Black character.
The most noteworthy thing about the story of the “Shaft” comic book is David Walker’s actions. He met with Chris Clark-Tidyman, the widow of Shaft creator Ernest Tidyman, to get her permission and blessing to begin the process of translating Shaft into comic books. After that, Walker took steps to identify and secure Dynamite Entertainment to publish the series, with Walker as the writer. Not only is Walker writing the “Shaft” comic book; he will also tell the stories of Shaft in a new series of novels to be published by Dynamite Entertainment, as well.
The wherewithal to do all of that is an example of seizing the narrative of a lack of Black heroes in mainstream comic books and changing it into a narrative of a paradigm shift, doing so with more than hyperbole and complaints. Using business knowledge, an understanding of the underlying rules of intellectual properties, and taking every step within his control to secure continued involvement.
David’s work on “Shaft” is going back to the roots of the character as opposed to embracing the stereotype, and by doing so will expand our understanding of John Shaft and his capacity to reflect the struggles of the Black man in America.
There are soooooooooooooooo many people who earned and deserve shout-outs and honorable mentions for their efforts and accomplishments in discussing and expanding the playing field for everyone this year.
Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and Derek T. Dingle of Milestone Media, along with Reginald Hudlin and Warner Bros., for the deal that will bring the popular Black teenage hero “Static” to the live-action world of Warner’s new digital division.
Gail Simone, for so many things but certainly for co-creating Alysia Yeoh, the transgender character appearing in the pages of DC Comics’ “Batgirl” series.
Fellow columnists Laura Hudson, Janelle Asselin, Juliet Kahn. Publishers Weekly Senior Editor Calvin Reid. ComicsBeat E-I-C Heidi MacDonald. The Bleeding Cool team for the coverage of gender and race statistics in mainstream comics. Marvel Comics E-I-C Axel Alonso. Professor John Jennings, the Associate Professor of Visual Studies at SUNY Buffalo, novelist and professor Erika T. Wurth, writers Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander, animation producer, illustrator, and Kickstarter butt-kicker LeSean Thomas, writer and artist Larime Taylor, the “Genius” team of Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman and Afua Richardson, the entire crew of Lion Forge Comics, writers Matt Wayne and Charlotte Fullerton for the creation of the Dwayne McDuffie Awards, the entire ECBACC team, the entire Action Lab Entertainment crew, director/producer Marisa Stotter, writer Eric Dean Seaton, the entire Fan Bros. crew, The Black Tribbles, the entire First Second Books crew, writer Gene Luen Yang, The Nerds of Color, the entire Thrillbent Comics group, Mark Mazz and Mark Turner…
…and my fingers are bleeding and my brain is pulsing so I’m going to stop right here, with respect to everyone else.
Diversity is so much more than one of this year’s buzzwords.
It’s a necessity. Part of an ethos.
So much has been done in 2014.
A lot more can and needs to be done.
Thanks to everyone who participates in, and supports, the cause.
Let’s hit the ground running in 2015.
Joseph Phillip Illidge has been a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and politics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books,” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.
Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment (www.verge.tv), a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series “Thief of Thieves” by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, and video game developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for transmedia development. Live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.
His latest project is “The Ren,” a 200-page graphic novel about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war and spotlighting the relationship between art and the underworld. “The Ren” will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.
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