Diversity is an organic thing.
Whenever someone is writing a story, and their main focus is writing that story, everything will come together as it was intended. As a writer with his own book hitting Indiegogo later this month, I know this quite well. Whenever a writer feels any sort of pressure, whether it be political or otherwise, the story suffers. Though quotas, representation, and other such terms mean something to Fortune 500 companies in February or June, they don’t have much meaning to a writer whose focus is on a plotline. Mostly because a lack in focus is a lack in quality. A lack in quality leads you further from the highs of Frank Miller’s Daredevil or David Michelinie’s Amazing Spider-Man, and closer to the lows of Mark Waid’s Champions or Gabi Rivera’s America.
In the process of writing my book Englewood, it never once crossed my mind to have the main character be any other ethnicity than black. Ever. It made the most sense. I wanted someone who grew up in Chicago, was a star athlete, and was having the same cultural impact on the city that Michael Jordan did. It made the most sense. I wanted his father to be a preacher, and though my own dad was a Chicago area preacher, most of our ministry friends were black as well. The menagerie of characters includes black folks, Jamaicans, Japanese, Chinese, Latino, and a couple of pasty folks such as myself. Such a cast makes sense given the location. Modern day Chicago is a diverse place, just like it was when I lived in the area.
The unfortunate thing about the world today is that there is a constant demand for diversity. Now, diversity isn’t a negative at all. I think it’s quite nice to interact with folks from different walks of life. There’s a difference between the natural diversity of characters and then what some of us call “forced diversity,” “diversity on demand,” or “diversity quotas.” Natural diversity is what it sounds like. It’s a part of the setting of the story. If you set a story in Chicago, or New York, or Los Angeles you’re going to find a mix of ethnicities and cultures. It’s the nature of the beast.
Forced diversity’s problem is twofold. First is that you’re letting someone else write the story for you. It’s like you’re allowing a mob to ghost-write in your stead. Giving something that fans want to them is not a negative either. That’s the goal. Fans are the lifeblood of entertainment. Without the audience, who is the entertainer aside from some sputtering doofus? However, many people these days who want to influence stories don’t do it because they want to buy. They just want you to agree with them, and will destroy you if you don’t. Taking their “advice” on a story is like being a mechanic and listening to an armchair engineer try to tell you how to do your job. It will come across as forced.
Second is the issue of focus. As I mentioned earlier, focus matters in a story. If your focus is on delivering a solid tale to the audience, you’ll accomplish it if you stay true and your talent or skill is sufficient. Characters will come across like human beings. However, if you’re worrying too much about the skin color, or you’re focused on that skin color instead of characterization, that’s all you get. That’s often times been the problem with writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates or someone along those lines. All they see is skin color in their writing, so the characters come across like they’re nothing else aside from skin color. There’s a well loved clip from the film CB4 where the rap group member Dead Mike records a solo song that is just the words, “I’m black, y’all” ad nauseam. That’s what you end up with. A character that is nothing more than melanin, and about as entertaining as watching paint dry.
As we’ve seen with Marvel Comics’ failed All New, All Different initiative, there’s always failure whenever a character is perceived as one-dimensional. If all that character has going for them is their skin color, the type of genitals they have, or who they have sex with, there’s not much for the reader to grasp. Because of the diversity push, it’s very difficult to answer basic questions about characters and get a straight answer. Who is the nemesis of Kamala Khan? No one can really tell you. All you know is she’s from a Muslim family. Why does America Chavez do what she does? It’s hard to say because any sort of belief in justice or such is buried under “I’m an alien posing as a latina.”
Now, if your characters are one-dimensional, how can you expect people to grasp them? In the comic book medium, character is all you have. You could introduce a black Superman or a half-asian Wonder Woman but if the character isn’t interesting it doesn’t matter much. There’s a simple fact that is overlooked about comic books. No one really cares that much about a character’s skin color, gender, or sexuality. They care about what makes that character feel human. What are their hopes? What are their dreams? Why do they fight? Who do they fight for? What made them take up the proverbial cross they carry? If you can’t answer these questions and use them to make a character, you may as well not write the character in the first place.
Though not my goal with Englewood, I do feel that with my own work there is a point that needs to be made. You can have a diverse cast of characters and not have them feel wooden. It’s been done before by other comics, and I’m absolutely certain I can do it as well. It’s because each character is more than just skin color. They have personal tragedies, personal triumphs, and other defining moments that give the reader the sense of who that character is. The goal is for that character’s name to carry weight in a conversation. When I say the name Victor Von Doom, it means something. When I say the name Peter Parker, it means something. When I say the name Clark Kent, it means something.
When I say the name Riri Williams, no one cares.
Micah’s comic, Englewood, hits Indiegogo on June 28th!