Diversity in DC Comics and John Stewart

Green Lantern John Stewart’s planned death was a few days back, when the news broke that new writer on the Green Lantern Corps creative team, Joshua Hale Fialkov, had walked off from the title because DC editorial was pushing for this direction. The Mary Sue has a pretty good editorial on the whole thing. In keeping with that, I thought I’d do my own write-up on the issue, and lay out why I think this is a totally bad idea. Yes, the planned death has gone back to the drawing board after stiff opposition from the fan community, but the concerns are still there, and that is what I want to address.

GL1Let me be clear first and foremost: I do not have a problem with a character dying. For all I really care, DC could kill off Superman or Batman (again). They could kill off Barbara Gordon or Lois Lane. The character death, in and of itself, does not bother me. It is what that death represents that bothers me.

Let me lay it out in full with a bit of a context at first.

In 2012, a fairly major DCU character came out as gay: Green Lantern Alan Scott who now resides on Earth 2 and is part of the ongoing continuity being created by James Robinson for the Earth 2 title. At around the same time (just a bit before), Scott Lobdell’s Teen Titans added a new character who was gay: Bunker aka Miguel Barragan. One of New 52’s biggest successes until recently (sales have been declining across the board in 95% of the cases), Batwoman aka Kate Kane is also gay. These are the ones I know about, and I think there is at least one more, although I forget the name at the moment.

Bunker also happens to be Mexican. Skitter aka Celine, another new addition to the Teen Titans line-up is African-American, although I have to say that her second moniker Bugg is a bit of a disappointment and cringe-worthy. Solstice, another new Teen Titan, appears to be Indian from what I can make out. Batwing aka David Zavimbe, an African character, currently has his own ongoing title. From what I gather, John Stewart is a fairly major character on Green Lantern Corps since the reboot. Vibe aka Francisco Ramon has been brought back by Geoff Johns for the new Justice League of America’s Vibe ongoing. Katana aka Tatsu Yamashiro has also gotten her own ongoing title after 15 issues on Birds of Prey as a key character. Mister Terrific aka Michael Holt was part of the launch wave with his own title (unfortunately it lasted only 8 issues before cancellation). Static aka Virgil Hawkins was another African-American character with a launch wave title (lasted 8 issues sames as Mister Terrific, although he had a cameo in Justice League IIRC).

The point I’m getting at with the above is that New 52 has been an era in which DC has taken small and hesitant steps towards more diversity in its comics. They have made some mistakes, such as the fact that there was a distinct lack of representation of female characters in the new line-up, as far as solo titles are concerned, and the lack of women creators on titles until Ann Nocenti was put on Catwoman.

Regardless, New 52 has been an era that has tried to be more relevant to peoples’ interests today, in the here and now, than comics were before. The scope of the entire reboot lent itself to this particular angle in diversity, and that is great. Admittedly, I’m not well-read on comics prior to New 52, so my comment on the entire issue may not be as informed as it would be otherwise, but I still think that DC took some important and bold steps in 2011-12 and has continued on with it.

Until we get to this whole kerfuffle that is.

Context: Last year, Geoff Johns added a new character to the Green Lantern mythos. Simon Baz, an Arab-American character, debuted in Green Lantern #0, and by the end of the issue, he had gone from being a criminal and a suspected terrorist to being a Green Lantern. While I highly applaud Geoff Johns’ decision and the path he was laying out for the title at the time, this also created some conflict within the DC Universe. The main point of contention here was that there were now just too many human Green Lanterns: Alan Scott (although in a separate continuity), John Stewart, Guy Gardner, and Kyle Rayner. The Red Lanterns also picked up a human character in Peter Milligan’s Red Lanterns.

So what to do? DC editorial no doubt felt that something had to give and that they needed to cut down on the number of human Green Lanterns. A reboot/retcon is completely out of the question, for obvious reasons, so they needed to find another way to handle the situation. What to do?

Oh yes, kill off John Stewart.

The major problem with that: John Stewart is currently the most recognisable Green Lantern outside of the comics. Reason: an entire generation of readers has grown up watching the five seasons of the Justice League animated series (the show was renamed Justice League Unlimited when the team increased its roster to include dozens more superheroes and superheroines). As has been pointed out in a number of places already, John Stewart was so iconic in fact that people were confused when Green Lantern was being played by Ryan Reynolds, a white dude, in the movie Green Lantern.

I damn well was.

I’m a huge fan of the cartoon series, which made me interested in Green Lantern lore at all, just as it did with the Martian Manhunter and Wonder Woman. For me, and thousands of other people, John Stewart is Green Lantern. Not Hal Jordan. Not Guy Gardner. Not Kyle Rayner. John Stewart.

Yes, I was quite pissed when the news broke.

Let me be clear. I like what Geoff Johns has done with Hal Jordan in the current ongoing Green Lantern, and his Green Lantern: Rebirth was over the top amazing. The Green Lantern animated series has been pretty good in season 1, and Green Lantern: First Flight was another great DC animated movie alongside Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, and, Batman: Under The Red Hood.

But, John Stewart was my first Green Lantern, and its him that I like the most. So yes, I was pissed.

GL3However, my anger over the issue is not just strictly emotional. John Stewart’s death represents a huge reduction in the diversity that DC has been aiming for since the New 52 reboot. Like I said earlier, Static Shock and Mister Terrific, were both cancelled after their eighth issues, before either title had even completed its first year. Mister Terrific has been reduced to doing cameos on other titles. On Teen Titans, Skitter has waffled in the background doing next to nothing. John Stewart has been the most prominent African-American character in DC comics for an age, and he continues to be so. Killing off a prominent character of colour at such a point has to be the worst decision of New 52.

And its not just that! This plan was being mandated by DC editorial. Not the writer, but the editors were the ones who wanted to do this. This comes at a time when DC editorial has been taking flak since early 2012 at least for too much oversight on titles. Editorial interference completely ruined the first 12 issues of Superman, which was one of the worst titles I read last year. Editor Brian Cunningham, who stepped into the Batgirl creative team sometime in late November/early December, fired writer Gail Simone off the title via email, leading to one of the biggest fan meltdowns in recent history. Batgirl has been one of the best-selling titles in New 52 and firing Simone off the titles makes absolutely zero sense unless there had been a creative difference between Simone and Cunningham. And that in itself is just plain wrong because Simone’s job is to tell the story of the character and she should have the freedom to do what she wants with the title, as long as she is respectful of the character/setting, and her work is selling. As far as I’m concerned, she most certainly was, since she was the one saddled with the onerous responsibility of making an off-the-wheelchair-and-not-Oracle-anymore Barbara Gordon palatable to readers. Which she did, and quite handsomely too. Other writers for DC have been grumbling about editorial oversight in recent months. Complaints about rewritten material, miscommunication, etc have become startlingly common.

And to top it all off, DC just finally managed to extricate itself from the whole Orson Scott Card/Superman kerfuffle, which was another in a line of incredibly stupid and insensitive decisions from DC. Some people have it right: the comics industry takes one step forward and then three stes back.

If the publisher is going to tell the writer what kind of a story to write, then what is the point of bringing in that writer in the first place? I do recognise that Gail Simone/Batgirl was in the same position, but then it is also somewhat different in that the creative team wanted to take the character back to her “original” iteration: Barbara Gordon was the first Batgirl and she became Oracle when the Joker attacked her in her own home and left her bound to a wheel-chair for the rest of her life. The decision to take her off the wheel-chair was a progressive step forwards because it represented Barbara Gordon overcoming one of the most traumatic experiences of her life and becoming a frontline character again. She wasn’t killed off like the Fialkov’s editors wanted him to do with John Stewart. Does the decision however represent a lessening of diversity in its own way, in that there is no more prominent disabled character in the DC Universe now? Very much so, and that’s an entirely separate discussion. I also withhold commenting on it to a great degree since my only interaction with Barbara Gordon as Oracle, that I can recall, is the live-action Birds of Prey television series, and Gail Simone’s Birds of Prey: The Death of Oracle.

Killing off John Stewart means that the DCU no longer has a prominent character of colour in its ranks, especially not when Mister Terrific and Static Shock are not even in the picture, outside of one-panel cameos.

Again, let me be clear: Today, comics need more diversity. We need more characters who are from different cultures. We need more characters who are NOT straight: characters who are gay, bisexual, etc. We need more characters from different parts of the world where the skin colour isn’t white. Comics need not and should not be primarily about characters who are white and straight. The industry can do better than that. Digital distribution is changing the landscape week after week, and as more international readers get on board, they are going to want more representation on the pages. Surely we can accommodate that?

If DC wants to kill of John Stewart, that in itself is fine. But they need to time it properly. After all, we are just coming off the death of Damian Wayne, Batman’s SON, in Grant Morrison’s Batman, Inc #8. To have the death of another major character so soon just smacks of insensitivity and sensationalism, of actively trying to capitalise on tragedy. To kill off your most prominent character of colour, when no one in the rest of your IP-box can currently match his popularity, just smacks of bad planning. To kill off one of your most prominent character of colour so soon after another up-and-coming character has been introduced (Simon Baz), smacks of even worse planning and of a “minority in comics quota”, that there can only be so many. For DC editorial to be forceful enough in their decision that an incoming writer to the title just up and walks away, smacks of terrible leadership. To do so when under fire for criticism regarding editorial oversight smacks of a devil-may-care attitude.

Note: There’s also Khalid Ben-Hassin, the Dr. Fate of Earth 2, who was introduced by James Robinson in Earth 2 #9, giving us yet one more Arab/Arab-American character.

DC has been treating some of its leading ladies, like Wonder Woman and Lois Lane, like junk in New 52. The solo title of the former started out excellently well, but has just become mired in misogyny, sexism and terrible writing after the first year. As a major supporting character, the latter has been continually pushed to the sidelines. She barely features in any meaningful role for the first year of the new Superman title! In Injustice: The Gods Demand she dies (again!) in the first issue while pregnant with Superman’s son/daughter.

It is high time that DC does something about its characters who represent diversity and iconism.

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Posted on April 3, 2013, in Comics News, Editorial, News and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. You could promise to buy 200 copies of each of these comics each month and give them away to those groups they represent.

    You get you a few more liberals to put there money where there mouth is(and quit asking others to do it for them) and all of a sudden you will see things are going pretty much how you want them too.

    It’s always been about the money, Why else would you think the republican party would encourage illegal immigration in the 80’s when they were told that by 2050 they would become the majority if they let it continue.

    These same people are not considered good enough to be in there houses, but they are good enough to take American jobs and build these mansions for the greedy bastards.

    You forget Green is the only true color of change.

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  2. I’m on my second read-through of this post. I knew there was something missing here and I’ve found it. Please give some props to Cyborg, an African-American character who may have been around for longer than John Stewart and is now one of the major members of the Justice League, with no signs of going anywhere anytime soon. Not to mention he was a key character in the Teen Titans for decades, including when it was the best selling book DC had.

    Oh, and for the record I still like Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman! It’s not the best book on the stands, I’ll grant you that, but it’s better than many and I still think it’s treating Diana better than Geoff Johns is.

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    • Shoot me now. I knew I was missing someone but couldn’t think who. God, I suck.

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    • You are correct that Cyborg was left out of the article. But to be clear John Stewart was introduced in 1972. Vic Stone – Cyborg – was not presented until 1980. The only one who beats him out on early introduction, for DC comics, is Mal Duncan who is two different characters depending on the medium one follows (Young Justice [animated] – Guardian, comics – Vox). His first appearance was 1970.

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