Editorial – Diversity in Comic Books takes a big leap with Riri Williams

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Comic Books are for kids. Sad truth.

Most creators connected with them initially as kids. It affected them deeply, profoundly, and inspired them. However, it’s important to remember these kids were inspired by grown men and women wearing spandex in public while throwing around shields or blowing people up with their laser vision.

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It’s disconcerting and humbling when you realize that most comic books cost less then they do today, that their target audience expected easy storylines with quick resolutions and that it wasn’t entirely abnormal for say – a person to become brainwashed and do the bidding of an evil dictator before overcoming said brainwashing and punching him in the face. Or that, a person could become involved in a hideous accident and be fine by the end of the issue.

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It’s easy to forget that comic books are for kids because comic books inspire people enough that they want to take them, overcome those boundaries, and tell other people through comics about how these characters affected them personally. While I might decry Alan Moore for taking away the childish aspects and sending people in New York into a hellish Hell’s Kitchen landscape and completely destroy any of Gotham’s remaining property values (Would you really want to live in a world with giant decaying Joker traps? No? See there you go.) There’s something fundamentally primal about them.

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There’s a protagonist. There’s an antagonist. They have a goal. They fight. The protagonist wins. The antagonist slinks away, twirling their mustache. They reappear periodically. People keep coming back for more. It’s a good formula and it’s one that everybody – no matter who you are – is familiar with. Chances are if you have an antagonist in your life, you want to defeat them. They seem unbeatable. You summon reserves of strength and beat them – or send them away. You’re the hero of your own classic story. It’s simple, it’s easy to adapt and a key component of the human story which is probably why it appeals to broad and diverse audiences.

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From the introduction of Thor as a woman, to the most recent introduction of Riri Williams, the heir apparent to the Iron Man legacy, Marvel has continued to push for diversity in it’s media and it’s readership. The heirs to the X-men’s proud history, the new cast of characters Marvel has created fits the world we live in more accurately then those same men and women wearing spandex and throwing around shields.

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Remember what I said about seeing yourself in the story? How those stories can apply to helping you change your life? That’s that ultimate impact of what diverse characters and diverse storytelling can do for you. It represents a degree of creativity that I’m proud to say Marvel has in spades. From Thor (aka Jane Foster), Sam Wilson, Kamala Khan, Amadeus Cho and now to Riri Williams and the future Danielle Cage, at last people can share the fun, share the spot light, and speak out about issues that are important to them.

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It’s a positive impact. You have only to look next door to the Agent Carter campaign to to see how diverse characters and representation can change the outlook on a person’s life. Peggy Carter has inspired thousands of women across the world to know their value, and to change their lives for the better. The impact of a heroine who is both strong yet feminine, powerful yet dignified, beautiful yet bad ass has literally changed lives. It makes sense that introducing characters who also mirror other struggles and other marginalized groups would provide a positive environment for growth.

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Riri Williams is the latest addition to the MCU, and I have high hopes she will have a similar effect. As a MIT graduate who will be taking over for Tony Stark, Riri is inspirational. Bendis rightfully called her a modern superhero and her story is inspirational. I had to know more however, and I had to speak to the community most directly affected by her creation. Black Girl Nerds on Twitter has been fighting the good fight for representation on and off the page and and screen. I was very privileged to speak with Jamie Broadnax, who runs their Twitter account and is in charge of their site:

What do you think is most important about diversity in writing?

I think opportunity is important.  Diversity is more than just a conversation about inclusion, its about expanding your worldview to others who have never or rarely have had a chance to have a say.  When it comes to writing in comics WoC are sparse and we need to change that.  What so many Black women and WoC writers are saying is that we’re out here.  We’ve been here.  And we’re not going anywhere.  We deserve inclusion just like everyone else.  I’m grateful to know many Black women writers who have taken it upon themselves not to be beg but to create.  And that is part of why I’ve come to know many of these women as the founder and EIC of Black Girl Nerds.
Bendis called Riri a modern superhero. Do you think that seeing stories like hers will continue this wave of positive change we’re currently seeing?
I think so!  I happy to see RiRi its fantastic to see Black women and girls being depicted as superheroes!  Marvel released Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur which is another great comic with Black girl lead.  So the change is good in areas of comic characters.
There is a constant struggle in the comic book community for stories like this and others that include new leads and characters. How can the average reader help encourage more characters like Riri in addition to works from a wide array of authors?
I think social media has been a great conduit for information regarding comic book characters both in mainstream and indie authors.  And one thing I love about social media is that it provides a platform for marginalized voices to be heard, which are often ignored in the mainstream and among large comic book web platforms supported by the Big 2
What books are you reading right now?
I’m behind on all my comics!  But I’m reading, The Ultimates, Black Panther, Ms. Marvel,  and going back to some old school Chris Claremont/Alan Davis runs of Excalibur.  Excalibur is an old favorite of mine.
What other books would you recommend if people wanted more characters like Riri?
Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Princeless, Eating Vampires, Agents of the Realm, Greg Pak’s run of Storm (even though its now canceled)

 

It’s clear that Riri is a step in the right direction, but it’s not the only one that needs to be made. Nothing feels worse, I’d imagine then when your platform is taken over by someone who knows little to nothing about about what you’re speaking on. If you have a unique story that you want to tell, it’s important to provide an atmosphere that fosters those who have experienced that story and gives them a chance to speak.  As I spoke to Jamie, it became clear to me that while Mr. Bendis’ s heart is in the right place, there should be an opportunity for a black woman to tell Riri’s story. To tell anyone’s story in fact, from Jessica Jones to HYDRA’s story, to put it bluntly, people are people, and people should get a chance to speak on stories that affect all of us, all while comic books are a medium that speaks to everyone.

This push for diversity gives people a chance to flower, to connect to characters, to change the landscape, and perhaps be inspired to create comic books themselves to give the next generation a platform to speak. It’s a question of if Marvel will follow through with pairing diverse characters with diverse writers on all fronts.

As we head to comic con we look forward to further new releases that can inspire, educate, and entertain.  We also look forward to comic books that can lead in today’s day and age.  From Marvel to it’s competitors, it’s an issue that deserves all of the attention.  I can’t wait to see what new stories are in store, and what new stories might be created by the kids that attend, and the kids that read these comics.  After all, comics are for kids.

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