Tag Archives: diversity

Kamala Khan Vs. America Chavez: How To Succeed (And Fail) With Female Superheroes

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It shouldn’t be that difficult or controversial to create compelling female superheroes. In a perfect world, it would be no different than creating quality male heroes. As long as they’re compelling, enjoyable, and foster great stories, that should be enough.

Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. You could even argue it has become even worse in recent years for female superheroes because they’ve become entwined with identity politics. It’s no longer sufficient for a female hero to just be likable and interesting. They have to take part in the never-ending whining contest that dominates outrage culture.

As a lifelong fan of superhero comics, this really frustrates me. I get that comics, like any medium, often reflect the issues of the time. That’s not new and comics have taken positions in those issues. Iconic stories have been crafted around them. The current situation with female superheroes, however, is less a reflection of the times and more a liability.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to single out two female superheroes, Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan and America “Miss America” Chavez. Both characters were created within the past 10 years. They’ve also been cited as prominent figures in the recent push for diversity within comics that has caused a lot of uproar or all the wrong reasons.

What sets them apart is that one character, Kamala Khan, has become a success story by most measures. Since her debut issue in February 2014, she has become popular and beloved. She has received and won numerous accolades and her graphic novels have made it onto the New York Times Best Sellers list. I consider myself a fan of hers. She’s one of my favorite female heroes.

On the other end of that spectrum is America Chavez. She debuted in 2011 and went onto have her own ongoing series. Unlike Kamala, though, her series received no accolades, sold poorly, and did nothing to endear her to fans of superhero comics. She has had opportunities to establish herself as a quality female hero. With few exceptions, she has failed at every turn.

These two characters represent a stark dichotomy in the current world of female superheroes. One provides a template for success. The other is a cautionary tale of how not to create a compelling female superhero in the current climate. It’s pretty striking how two characters created within a similar cultural environment can go in such wildly different directions. However, that difference also carries with it plenty of lessons.

To be fair to the medium I love, creating female superheroes today is very different compared to past decades. If Wonder Woman, Storm, Carol Danvers, or Supergirl were created today, they wouldn’t have the same impact. They came out at different times and under different circumstances. Those circumstances played a key role in how they became iconic.

Great female superheroes, and quality female characters in general, have traits that allow them to resonate in any era. However, the timing and influences have to be right for them to carve a place in popular culture. Kamala Khan and America Chavez dealt with similar circumstances when they debuted. That makes them a good case study in how female superheroes can succeed and fail.


Why Kamala Khan Succeeded

I still remember the day I read Ms. Marvel #1. I hadn’t been planning to buy it. I remember clearly that it was a light week, in terms of comics. I happened to have a few extra bucks to spend. I had heard that there was going to be a new Ms. Marvel. Having been a fan of Carol Danvers, I decided to check it out.

I’m glad I did because that one fateful issue made me a Kamala Kahn fan for years to come. The story it told struck all the right chords. It presented a character who felt real, genuine, and relatable. The fact that she was a girl, a Muslim, and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants was secondary. She still felt like a character that I could be friends with if she were real.

The reasons why Kamala was so endearing had little to do with how many diversity points she scored and everything to do with how the writer, G. Willow Wilson, went about developing her. She spent almost the entire first issue just revealing who Kamala was and what sort of life she had. We learn about her family, her friends, her hopes, her dreams, and even her favorite hobbies.

She quickly becomes more than just another teenage character. She’s a self-professed fangirl who writes fan fiction, plays MMO games, and loves gyros. Wilson approached developing Kamala the same way Stan Lee approached developing Peter Parker. She developed the personality before turning them into a superhero.

When Kamala finally does get her powers, Wilson establishes a solid reason for why she’s a hero. Just getting powers isn’t enough. Unlike Peter Parker, however, she doesn’t need a loved one to die. Being a fan of superheroes and having decent parents puts her in a position to make that choice without anyone dying. That, alone, makes her worthy of admiration.

From that point forward, it’s easy to root for Kamala. She carries herself as someone you want to root for. She personifies how fans of superhero comics are inspired by their heroes. Her having a chance to be a hero like the ones she idolizes isn’t just endearing. It’s special. That’s why she succeeds and why it’s very likely we’ll see her enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe at some point.


Why America Chavez Failed

Take everything I just said about why Kamala Khan works and why she’s so lovable. Then, reverse it completely. That’s basically who America Chavez is and why she’s more a joke than a success.

On paper, America has a lot going for her. She’s not just another generic female hero. She’s Latina, she’s a lesbian, and she comes from a very different world, literally and figuratively. In terms of diversity points, she checks as many boxes as Kamala. She has her own unique style and she even uses a familiar moniker that has been successfully used by others.

Beyond those traits, however, there’s nothing about her character or her story that will get superhero fans cheering. She’s not relatable like Peter Parker or Kamala Khan. She’s from a place called Utopian Parallel, which is exactly as boring as it sounds. Her world was threatened with destruction, but her parents sacrificed themselves to save it. They’re the only respectable heroes in her story.

America, for reasons that are poorly told and poorly developed, decides to prove that she’s as good a hero as her parents. Her world is a utopia. It doesn’t need her. As a result, she just looks for a world that needs heroes and happens to choose one that has a massive glut of them. Already, her judgment is questionable.

If you’re expecting me to explain the depths of why she’s a hero and how she distinguishes herself, I’m sorry to disappoint. That’s the extent of her heroic journey. She doesn’t answer the hero’s call as much as she looks for an excuse. She doesn’t work her way into the world of heroism. She just throws herself into it and skips the part that makes it a meaningful story.

It certainly doesn’t help that she’s grossly overpowered in a way that makes every battle feel boring. Unlike other powerful characters, including Superman or Captain Marvel, there’s no real intrigue to her abilities. Whereas Kamala Khan and Peter Parker struggle, seeing their powers as burdens at times, America Chavez rarely strains herself. When she does, it feels forced and contrived.

On top of all that, America never comes off as a likable person. In nearly every scene she’s in, she carries herself with an in-your-face, screw-you, I’m-better-than-everyone attitude that isn’t the least bit endearing. She basically tries too hard to be a badass female hero, but forgets the part where heroes are actually supposed to be admirable.

It’s not enough to just punch a Nazi, which she does at one point. Being a hero means embodying ideals that go beyond gender politics. America Chavez’s story is so contrived, at times, that it feels like the most shameless kind of pandering. It’s why those who bemoan Marvel’s diversity push often cite America Chavez as the personification of everything wrong with that effort. Sadly, she gives them plenty to work with.


Lessons For The Future

I have high hopes for Ms. Marvel. I even hope that, at some point, America Chavez becomes a solid character. There’s plenty of room for new characters that resonate with everyone, regardless of gender, race, creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It doesn’t have to come at the cost of established characters, either. Heroes can be anyone. That’s what makes them icons.

Now, I understand that there are plenty of people out there who don’t like Kamala. I don’t deny that she has her flaws and she’s had some pretty unflattering moments. I also understand that America Chavez has her share of fans who think I’m not being fair to her. I don’t claim that my take on her is definitive.

I singled these two characters out because I believe they embody the struggle facing female superheroes in the existing cultural climate. Like any creative endeavor, there is a right and wrong way to go about it. Kamala Khan and America Chavez provide important lessons on what to do and what to avoid. They include, but aren’t restricted to, the following.

Lesson #1: Build the character before the hero

Lesson #2: Appeal to everyone and not just a select few

Lesson #3: Make their struggle feel real and genuine

Lesson #4: Give the character a distinct and endearing voice

Lesson #5: Don’t just rely on punching Nazis

There are many other lessons to be learned from characters like Kamala Khan and America Chavez. Some of those lessons have to be learned the hard way, but they’re worth learning. More quality female superheroes can only help the genre, as a whole. Superheroes, by definition, are supposed to inspire others to be better. That inspiration need not be restricted to gender, race, or any other distinction.

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Filed under censorship, Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, gender issues, media issues, political correctness, sex in media, superhero comics, superhero movies, women's issues

How Ellie From “The Last Of Us” Does LGBT Characters Right

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In the current state of popular culture, one of the most emotionally-charged words is “diversity.” It gets thrown around like a nuclear hot potato. Anyone who holds it too long gets burned and anyone who doesn’t hold it long enough gets attacked. Whether it’s the handling of female characters or representation of minorities, diversity is one of those buzzwords that creates the wrong kind of buzz.

That’s not to say that it’s always mishandled. From a pure business standpoint, it makes sense for media companies to pursue diversity because the world is becoming an increasingly diverse place. New markets and consumer bases are emerging as people gain greater access to media, thanks largely to global connectivity. Any competent business would want to appeal to the most customers possible.

Economics aside, injecting diversity into a movie, TV, comic book, or video game is fraught with challenges and potential backlash. Movies have felt it. Comic books have felt it. Video games have especially felt it, thanks to scandals that seem to get more frustrating with each passing year.

The number of failed attempts to promote diversity is vast and tends to bring out the worst in many people. The successes, though, often fly under the radar and generate way too little attention. Other than the success ofBlack Panther” and the occasional Supergirl comic, the cases of diversity done right are few and far between.

That’s why I think it’s fitting that one of the best cases of diversity comes from the world of video games, an industry that finds itself in a new controversy every other week. It’s even more fitting that it comes courtesy of “The Last of Us,” a franchise I’ve praised before in how it portrays masculinity in a refreshingly positive way.

Beyond just being an excellent game with amazing characters, it also provides a case study in how diversity can be done effectively. It doesn’t have to be forced. It doesn’t have to be preachy. It doesn’t even have to have a larger agenda. It can just be a bonus on top of a well-made product.

The character in question this time is Ellie, the co-protagonist to Joel in the first game and the main protagonist in the upcoming sequel. Her story is every bit as rich and compelling as Joel’s. Her history, her personality, and even the way she complements the gameplay helps make her distinct. She’s a major reason why this game is so enjoyable and why it sold so well.

She achieved all this as both a female and an LGBT character. It sounds like one of those combinations that has to be forced, but that’s not the case with Ellie. In fact, anyone who plays the entire story of the first game wouldn’t even know about Ellie’s sexuality because it was only revealed through a DLC , or downloadable content.

Even within that content, though, Ellie’s sexual orientation was not a big part of the story it told. It effectively filled in a time gap within the main game while also exploring more of Ellie’s backstory, but at no point did it make her sexuality a bigger issue than it needed to be. You could’ve removed that detail entirely and the story would still work, but it wouldn’t be quite as memorable.

More recently, during a preview of “The Last of Us Part II” at E3 2018, Ellie’s status as a homosexual woman was reaffirmed. Again, it wasn’t critical to making the moment work. The fact she’s attracted to other women doesn’t take anything away from the emotional weight of the scene. It does help enhance it, though.

Therein lies the key. What makes Ellie a great character has nothing to do with her sexuality. It’s not a defining aspect of her persona, nor should it be. It defines her no more than Joel’s heterosexuality defines him. It doesn’t have to be thrown in someone’s face as this huge, all-encompassing feature. It’s just a small part of a much greater whole that is Ellie.

There’s no effort to make her this LGBT icon, which has a tendency obscure a character when forced. Her status as LGBT isn’t belabored, either. She’s not important to the overall narrative in “The Last of Us” because she’s female and gay. She’s important because of factors independent of those traits.

That importance grows throughout the story, but not because of her gender or her sexuality. It’s what she does that helps establish her as an important character and a compelling one, at that. Her story complements Joel’s and the various other characters she encounters.

In the process, she also demonstrates a unique personality. She’s tough and stubborn, but she’s also impulsive and temperamental. Many of those qualities are entirely gender-neutral. Some stand out more because she’s a woman and that’s okay because a girl acting girly isn’t a big deal, which tends to get lost with other female characters.

It may seem so obvious, but the fact that diversity in media is such an issue shows just how difficult it is to pursue. Ellie succeeds because the diversity she represents is never primary to her character. It’s not even secondary, either. That’s not to say her gender and her sexuality are ignored, but it’s never elevated beyond a certain point.

Before any of those diversity-related issues come up, “The Last of Us” works to establish who Ellie is and why she’s important. That process of establishing a good, compelling character without her gender or sexuality being the focal point does a lot to get you to care about her story. It’s a process that can’t be rushed and the game does a masterful job in that respect.

The person Ellie is when you first encounter her early in the game is not the same person by the end. She’s someone who undergoes a lot of growth, encountering more than a few setbacks along the way. There are times she’s easy to root for. There are times when she comes off as an arrogant brat. Before you ever find out about her sexuality, you learn about her as a person.

By the time her sexuality finally comes up, Ellie is already so much more than the gender she’s attracted to. She’s a survivor, a fighter, and someone who has seen everyone she’s ever cared about die or leave her until Joel comes along. She also has a vital part to play in the ongoing apocalypse the world around her faces. All of this, once again, is not dependent on her gender or her sexuality.

I know I keep belaboring that, but it’s worth belaboring because that aspect of character development keeps getting glossed over. Other efforts at diverse characters often rush to the diversity without establishing why anyone should care about them. It’s why all-female remakes rarely resonate. It also leads to characters whose diversity is so blatant that it’s hard to take them seriously.

That’s not to say Ellie is a perfect example of diversity done right. She has her flaws, as does Joel. There are times when she’s too tough for her own good. She has a tendency to push peoples’ buttons for the wrong reasons. She also has questionable tastes in jokes. Even proponents of diversity can find flaws in her.

Despite those flaws, there are many lessons that characters like Ellie and games like “The Last of Us” can teach when it comes to doing diversity and LGBT representation right. The most important can be boiled down to four basic components:

  • Don’t try and force diversity just to fill a quota
  • Develop the character before developing the diversity
  • Don’t make their status as a woman or LGBT their most defining trait
  • Have the character complement their supporting cast, regardless of their diversity status

There are probably many more lessons that I’m not qualified to teach, but I think characters like Ellie do plenty by just being memorable and endearing. She’s a great character within a great story. That wouldn’t change if she were straight, but her being a lesbian does help her stand out, albeit for all the right reasons.

It’s also worth noting that Ellie’s story is still ongoing. “The Last of Us Part II” is set to come out in 2019 and the next part of her story promises to get pretty dark. Whether she maintains the complexity and appeal of her current character remains to be seen, but she has a strong foundation to build on, which is key for any character, regardless of their sexual preferences.

Whether we like it or not, there’s a lot of animosity between both sides, there more diversity in future media because the world is a diverse place. It’s just a matter of going about it in a meaningful, compelling way. Ellie is an example of how an LGBT character can work and when done right, it works pretty damn well.

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Filed under gender issues, political correctness, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality, video games

How NOT To Market Comic Books: A Marvelous Cautionary Tale

Let’s face it. We all make mistakes. We all do dumb things. We’re all just one “reply all” button away from humiliating ourselves and undermine our entire professional career. One time, I accidentally washed my hair with shaving cream instead of shampoo. It made me feel pretty stupid, but at least it happened in the shower and in private.

It’s only when we make mistakes that become public shit storms that we really agonize over our mistakes. For most people, that’s difficult enough, but usually manageable, provided you avoid the “reply all” button and don’t watch porn at the office.

For celebrities, it’s like walking on egg shells on top of land mines on top of hungry lions. If Taylor Swift accidentally washed her hair with shaving cream and did it on camera, it would blow up Twitter and turn into a week-long national scandal. We envy a lot of things about celebrities, but nobody should envy that circus act.

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Then, there are the non-celebrities who still find a way to make their minor mistake into a national shit storm. Taylor Swift doing something that blows up the internet is kind of an inevitability. A non-celebrity creating that kind of shit storm is an accomplishment.

A man named David Gabriel found that out the hard way last week. Who is David Gabriel, you ask? He’s not a celebrity. He’s not a pop star. He’s not even a famous internet meme. He’s the Vice President of sales at Marvel Comics, a company that’s very important to me as an admitted comic book fan.

It’s a job that’s probably much less glamorous than it sounds. He’s tasked with selling products that include iconic heroes, women dressed in skin-tight costumes, and talking raccoons. His products couldn’t sell themselves better without being laced with nicotine.

 

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Despite this advantage, Mr. Gabriel’s job has been a lot tougher recently. Overall, Marvel’s sales and overall share of the comic book market has been declining for the past couple of years. That’s somewhat odd, given how Marvel’s movies have made more money than the gross national product of some countries.

Now the reasons for this decline are too numerous and too unsexy for me to cover in a single blog post or multiple blog posts, for that matter. The real story here comes back to David Gabriel, a man whose job it is to figure out why the company he works for isn’t swimming in a fresh pile of money every year.

What’s his explanation for the sales decline? Well, if you thought you’ve ever screwed up badly at your job, take a deep breath and put your feet up. You’re about to feel a lot better about yourself because this is what Mr. Gabriel said in an interview ICv2:

Now the million-dollar question.  Why did those tastes change?

I don’t know if that’s a question for me.  I think that’s a better question for retailers who are seeing all publishers.  What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity.  They didn’t want female characters out there.  That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.  I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales.

We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against.  That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked.

The bold parts are my doing because it’s the bold parts that got made David Gabriel the most hated, non-politician man on the internet for a week. Comic book fans, movie fans, and fans of people who publicly screw themselves all took the time to jump in and pile on a man who probably didn’t fully realize what he was saying.

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On the surface, the words themselves don’t mean much. Marvel made a push for greater diversity in its comics. I even covered some of the issues that came up during this push. That push didn’t work as well as they’d hoped. Compared to the efforts of DC Comics with their “Rebirth” initiative, there was a lot of room for improvement.

This is where Mr. Gabriel’s internal filter failed him. He looked at the situation, tried to make sense of it, and came up with something that indirectly insulted comic book fans and non-comic book fans alike. I get what he was trying to say, pointing out that the response to their diversity push wasn’t what Marvel had hoped. He just ended up saying way more, if not way too much.

Indirect or not, we’re living in an age where anything you say can and will be misconstrued as bigoted, sexist, racist, homophobic, or anything else associated with the republican party. With Mr. Gabriel’s comments, it didn’t take much for anyone with a Twitter feed to twist his words appropriately.

The implications are as apparent as they are misguided. Comic book fans don’t want diversity. They just want to read comics about the same old white guys who save beautiful women in bikinis that they’ve been reading since the Kennedy Administration. If a character is black, female, or does any that straight white men don’t approve of, then they’re not interested.

Again, that’s the implication. That’s not the actual substance of Mr. Gabriel’s words, but that doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t even matter if he meant something else entirely. The angry, politically correct whims of the internet and social media has spoken. David Gabriel and comic book fans are in league with the white male fascist order that’s intent on making the world one big sitcom from the 1950s.

That last part was sarcasm, by the way. I know it doesn’t take much to kick up a shit storm of outrage these days, but I feel like I have to cover my ass with an adamantium plate. There are too many people in the world who just can’t resist a good dose of whining.

Naturally, Mr. Gabriel’s remarks triggered a week-long sideshow where everyone weighed in to voice their outrage, even if they weren’t comic book fans. Most of the outrage was pretty standard. It can usually be boiled down to the following remarks:

“HOW DARE YOU ACCUSE OF US BIGOTRY!”

“HOW DARE YOU TRY TO SPEAK FOR ALL COMIC BOOK FANS!”

“HOW DARE YOU IMPLY THAT DIVERSITY IS A BAD THING!”

“HA! YOU ADMIT YOU’RE A RACIST, BIGOTED, HOMOPHOBE!”

No less than 95 percent of all reactions can be boiled down to something of that nature. One side claims the other is being a bigot/racist/insert-minority-hating-term-here. The other side claims Mr. Gabriel is wrong, stupid, and doesn’t speak for the majority of comic book fans. Somewhere in between the shit storm are just people who want to read awesome comics. They’re basically stuck smelling this stench.

I can already spoil how this is going to play out. The outrage will continue to be a controversy for a while. Then, something else will come along that’ll start another outrage-fueled shit-storm about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. After that, David Gabriel will go back to being a nobody who wouldn’t be recognized if he had a two-foot cock plated in gold. I’m sure that day can’t come fast enough for him.

It’s not just human nature. It’s part of the system/flaws in marketing. People have very short attention spans. Unless it affects their livelihood, they get bored pretty easily. People are also very selective with their outrage. It doesn’t matter how asinine or misguided it is, even if it’s something as simple as a Halloween costume. Outrage is inherently irrational.

It’s an important, albeit bittersweet lesson for anyone looking to market anything in a day where we’re all just one offensive hashtag away from a really bad week. Since I’m trying to sell my own books and preparing to launch my first published book, it’s a lesson worth learning.

We don’t live in an age where a bad add or an off-hand remark can be swept under the rug or forgotten. We live in an age where everybody has a camera and a recorder in their pocket. We live in an age where anything you say or do can be misconstrued in any number of wholly ridiculous ways.

Whether you’re a straight white man working for Marvel or a black transgender lesbian working for BET, your words and actions can and well be skewed if you’re not careful. Professional trolls like Ann Coulter, Lena Dunham, Michael Moore, and Milo Yiannopoulos can get away with it. Most people trying to make a decent, honorable living can’t.

Now I believe that David Gabriel is as decent a person as the rest of us. I don’t think he believes that diversity is a bad thing in comic books or anything else in life. He just made the mistake of saying a certain sequence of words that evoked a knee-jerk reaction from a public that’s more and more sensitive to anything remotely bigoted, regardless of how valid that sentiment might be.

These are strange and volatile times. Today, the worst thing you can be is opposed to diversity. Marvel Comics is behind the curve, unfortunately, because so many of their iconic characters were created at a time when the market almost exclusively favored straight white men. They can’t undo that or the legacy that helped build their company, even if a new generation of politically correct hippies despise that.

If I could say one thing to David Gabriel, I would say, “Take a step back, open a cold beer, and just wait for everybody to get bored being upset with you.” Hell, I’d even buy him the beer.

Even as we forget about David Gabriel and what he said when he underestimated the internet’s capacity for outrage, there will be others like him who fall flat on their face in their effort to sell their products to a public that’ll jump at any reason to get outraged. It’s a challenge, and an annoying one at that, but it’s challenges that make us stronger.

That’s why I still have high hopes for the future of Marvel comics. It’s also why I have hopes for the future of my novels. I doubt I’ll sell anything as well as Marvel sells its comics, but if I can do that without generating misguided outrage, I’ll know I’ve done it right.

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