Mike Straney, Sightsavers’ Director of Major Giving, hosted a talk recently to discuss how inclusion and diversity are portrayed in popular culture, and he flagged how the approach to inclusion is changing.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realised that books, movies, video games, TV shows and comics contribute to how we think about issues such as gender, disability, sexuality and race,” he explained. “We now have a female Doctor Who, and there are rumours that Idris Elba could be the first black James Bond, which isn’t something that would have happened 15 or 20 years ago.”
Mike has long been a fan of comics and graphic novels: he started reading American comics at the age of eight. “My dad served in the forces abroad and I went to a mostly American international school for a while,” he said. He read American superhero comics avidly for a few years, and then returned to them in his mid-twenties after reading acclaimed graphic novel Watchmen, which, he said, “sucked me back in”.
In contrast to the major resurgence seen by superhero movies in the past few years, sales of comics and graphic novels have declined steadily. To combat this, their creators – including leading publishers Marvel and DC – have made extra efforts to bring in new audiences and to embrace a more diverse, inclusive approach. Yet while the content has grown up to appeal to older audiences, there are still plenty of familiar themes.
During his talk, Mike looked back at the history of comics to explain some of the most common tropes. “Most major superheroes were created in the 1930s to 1960s and were geared at boys who were white. The first female character was Wonder Woman, who appeared in 1982, created by William Moulton Marston. She was presented as a very strong, very capable female lead who would appeal to adolescent male readers.”
In terms of popularity, characters such as She Hulk and Spiderwoman never really achieved the success of their male counterparts. The same is true of black characters, including Black Panther, Luke Cage and Cyborg. “All of these struggled to compete with more established characters. So, it appears that the issues of gender and race have not really increased readership.”
Mike explained that when it comes to including characters with disabilities, there is a huge journey ahead for comics. “In the case of superheroes, it requires creativity in order to introduce characters with disabilities, so publishers need to adapt their universe to popular cultures for today’s audiences.”