NYT Article on Comic Diversity Is Incredibly Problematic


The New York Times published an opinion piece about comic-book diversity entitled "That Oxymoron, the Asian Comic Superhero" by Umapagan Ampikaipakan.

The author argues that the comic book industry's current push to diversify its universes is unneeded. He also makes several claims about how changing the "context" (race, gender, sexuality) of the character diminishes his or her universal appeal. While presented in a very genuine, non-confrontational manner, Ampikaipakan's claims were incredibly problematic.

Ampikaipakan argues: "I suppose the current push to draw diversity into comics and add variety to the canon is meant to reinforce the notion that anyone can be a superhero. But that only risks undercutting the genre's universal appeal." He later expounds on this idea by giving an example:

Try to adapt the superhero comic's conventions to an Asian context and the genre collapses under the weight of traditional Asian values: humility, self-effacement, respect for elders and communal harmony. American comic book heroes also act in the service of the collective good, but they do so, unabashedly, out of a heightened sense of self. How can an Asian superhero take down the bad guy without embarrassing both the bad guy's family and his own? How do you save the world and save face at the same time? The Asian comic superhero is a contradiction in terms.

Without critiquing the idea of "Asian values", if Ampikaipakan uses his own logic, then the way the majority of superheroes are depicted (white, heterosexual, and male) should also bring cultural baggage to the character that ruins the universality (since the majority of people are not even two of these things, lead alone all three). If these aspects don't, then Ampikaipakan must be using the premise that whiteness, straightness, and masculinity are the defaults.

To be the default makes you the measuring for humanity and culture, but it also, paradoxically, means you are cultureless - a blank canvas. If Amadeus Cho's "Asian values" taint Totally Awesome Hulk's universality, this assumes his culture isn't as universal as Bruce Banner's, or it assumes Banner has less culture or no culture at all.

The author supports this by stating that growing up, his peers and he "didn't mind that our role models were all white". On a surface level, there is nothing wrong with his statement. White men can be universal figures, and there's plenty of evidence to say that they have, are, and always will be in pop-culture. But what he misses is that (especially in America) we are mostly used to seeing, identifying, and empathizing with straight white men in every form of media. No other demographic has this type of access to our minds and hearts. This surplus reifies the base assumption that "white masculinity" and "universality" are synonymous.

In the genre's formative years, most comic book writers were white males, so understandably, both the superheroes and the perceived audience matched their cultural imagination. This current surge towards diversity in comics is just a reflection of a diverse America that wants to see itself represented as such. Our public rejection of this trend may be an even more terrible confession about our private fears about the country's changing landscape.

Some simply cannot empathize with the character Black Spider-Man, a female Thor, or a Muslim-American Ms. Marvel. Instead of seeing what they are (courageous, strong, dedicated, honorable, insecure, i.e. universal traits), these people only see what they are not: white, male, and/or straight. That is not the character's fault, it's the reader's. If people can't connect with an Indian Spider-Man, it isn't necessarily because he is a bad character. It's more likely because they aren't used to seeing an Indians in comics. It's harder to empathize or humanize someone you don't see. What is the solution to this? Representation. Just make more characters.

All of the characters Ampikaipakan mentions in his piece are important. Their story is universal, but their race, gender, or sexuality are the things we can't connect to. And if we can't admit that and at least try to get pass it, then our idea of what universality means needs to be discarded.

But one of Ampikaipakan most problematic statements was this:

"The superhero comic is the American dream illustrated, and by definition the American dream must be accessible to all."

Historically, the "American Dream" has never been accessible to all in an equitable way. Statements like these buffer the fantasy of possibility without accepting the reality of probability. It's ironic that Ampikaipakan would or even could state this after bringing up "Captain America is black. Thor is a woman. Iceman is gay." - all demographics that have historically been marginalized in American mass media, and have had to fight to be included in "The American Dream".

Marvel and DC's push for diversity not only reflects their commitment to the idea of universality, but it has been a successful marketing strategy. Ms. Marvel is a New York Times bestseller, and the female Thor sold 250,000 copies. It's safe to say that comic companies are trying to draw in new readers and reinvigorate old ones, but they also are making a progressive moral assumption. If sales go down because characters are "less universal" and less universal means "less white/straight/male", what does that say about who and what the majority of readers want to see, or rather, don't want to see. It's ironic for society that sees itself as inclusive, even a token amount of diversity causes panic, as if we will walk into our favorite comic store one day and see a sea of women, POC, and LGTBQ characters - and no white men. But this is not a takeover. Companies are simply acknowledging that #RepresentationMatters, especially for the underrepresented.

I think Ampikaipakan general unawareness of the broader American culture debate surrounding diversity made his analysis cursory and ahistorical. The world of comics books is just one of the many ideological battlegrounds. I won't act like I'm privy to the general sociopolitical climate of Malaysia, but in America, there are many who see "universal appeal" as a coded way of saying "whiteness" (and many times, heterosexual). Ask any female or POC writer, illustrator, movie director, etc. pitching a story with a main character who looks like them. While diversity in places like comics or Hollywood has undoubtedly increased, for every one who slips through the cracks, there are dozens who get rejected because "they lack universal appeal".

And even though the author's home, Malaysia, may not be dealing with a race problem, it isn't unlike many Asian countries dealing with colorism. A big part of the population is just as brown as I am (some even darker), but most people represented in any media are as light as the palm of my hand. I'm sure Ampikaipakan is aware of the colorism debate in Malaysia and the rest of the region and continent, but regardless of the author's conscious stance on it, the lingering effect of lighter-skinned privilege (which in a global context is white supremacy) undercuts the arguments presented. The demand American women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community have on the comic industry to be more diverse is like Asia's darker-skinned population wanting to see themselves in media every once and awhile.

That shared feeling is called "universality."

Ampikaipakan points are not only flawed, but incredibly problematic and inconsiderate. Making cases that suggest diversity is an opponent to universality is such a dangerous oxymoron. In comics or any genre for that matter, universality, by definition, only occurs when the super-hero "could be you or it could be me". Not just heterosexual white men.