When you picture the heroes of DC Comics, what do you see? Some may see them as a who's who of characters woven through the very fabric of American folklore. But what's more important is what you don't see.
Other than Wonder Woman, chances are the only DC heroes that periphery fans actually know anything about are straight white males. Batman, Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Green Arrow — there are times when the Justice League looks more like a country club than a super team meant to represent the people of Earth.
Thankfully, the light bulb finally went on at DC. This month, the company is undergoing a much-needed makeover, leading to 24 new titles — many of which have a focus on characters of different races, lifestyles and gender roles.
While The New 52 felt like a step backward for diversity and progressivism in many ways, the company is putting a renewed emphasis on making its superhero universe actually resemble the diverse readership that picks up these comics every month.
The Changing Face Of DC
Superhero comics have a spotty track record with its female characters — does anyone remember when Wonder Woman served as the secretary of the Justice Society of America? Somehow things only got worse as the decades went on, especially in the '90s — when female characters were valued solely by the size of their bustlines, and their personalities were as thin as their stingy costumes.
The company is attempting to change all of that. June's relaunch (known on the net as DC You) will feature 10 female-led books on the shelf, whereas The New 52 reboot of 2011 featured eight. It's not a huge increase by any means — but for an industry that still depends on characters created before WWII, any change is welcome. And according to comic book historian and author of Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World's Most Famous Heroine, Tim Hanley, these small changes should still be celebrated.
"In terms of how female characters are portrayed, things are better across the board. Things aren't perfect, and there are still some rough, sexist moments here and there — but compared to something like the hyper-exploitation of the 1990s, things are much better for female characters these days."
For this relaunch, the crass relics of The New 52 – like Starfire's intergalactic call girl outfit – are being phased out in order to reach a broader, more diverse fanbase looking for substance and character, rather than Heavy Metal levels of sexploitation.
DC also seems to be putting a renewed emphasis on marketing its female characters so that fangirls of all ages can actually celebrate their love of comics, instead of feeling like intruders on the medium. In addition to Wonder Woman, the roster of high-profile women at the company is beginning to expand. There are new roles for older characters – like an antihero take on Poison Ivy – and a relaunch of the '70s title Prez, starring a young female Twitter phenom who becomes Commander-in-Chief (because comics). And for some characters, Hanley sees even bigger things on the horizon.
"Harley Quinn seems to be the big one, which is understandable because she headlines one of their better-selling books." He continued, "DC's got the Harley Quinn and Power Girl mini spinoff in June, and the writers of Harley Quinn are rebooting Starfire, so they're pushing everything and everyone connected to the Harley Quinn title. Batgirl is another similar launchpad title for them right now, and they're pushing the Black Canary spinoff pretty hard."
The push for diversity wouldn't be worth much if change only occurred on the page, and that's why it's so important that there are a number of female writers and artists at the helm of these books. Annie Wu is illustrating Black Canary, Amanda Connor is still on the Harley Quinn books, Alisa Kwitney is the writer on a new series titled Mystic U (to debut later this year) and Ming Doyle is writing Constantine: The Hellblazer.
Some of this, however, is less than meets the eye.
A Mixed Bag Of Victories
"For the past few decades, both DC and Marvel's overall percentage of female creators has been fairly stagnant. DC's been in the low teens, percentagewise, for about twenty years, with slight variations," Hanley explained.
"While Marvel's been better than their mid-1990s numbers as of late, a recent study I did showed that Marvel had 11.6% female creators overall back in 1991, which was better than the numbers Marvel just posted in 10 of the past 12 months. Things are slowly getting better, and generally speaking, the numbers for female writers and artists specifically tend to be a bit higher than they were decades ago (though not exponentially so), but overall, there hasn't been a huge change."
It's one thing for the number of female creators to become stagnant, but Hanley also noticed a slight step backward in the number of female writers and artists for the company — ironically, right in time for the relaunch.
"While the DCYou totals for June are high relative to the New 52, the numbers for June are also the lowest DC has posted in 2015 (until July, when that 19 drops to 15)." Hanley continued, "There were more than 20 different female creators in all of the months before June, and 30 or more twice. DC had already improved significantly, and the June relaunch is actually a sizeable step backwards for them."
"This is actually a disconcerting trend at DC. For example, there were more women writing and drawing DC comic books before the New 52 relaunch than during it. Similarly, if you look at most of DC's big linewide publishing events, like their regular September special issues celebrating the New 52's anniversary, the number of women writing and drawing the books is always lower than the month before. When DC does a big, attention-grabbing stunt, their female creators tend to disappear."
While an increase in female-led titles and a decrease in female creators isn't ideal, this is the type of give-and-take that fans have, unfortunately, become accustomed to over the years. Even so, it just doesn't sting as much this time. Perhaps it's because there's more of a genuine focus on change from the folks in charge now, instead of empty pleasantries and half-hearted attempts of years past.
"This heralds in a new era for the DC Universe, which will allow us to publish something for everyone, be more expansive and modern in our approach and tell stories that better reflect the society around us," said DC Entertainment Co-Publisher Dan DiDio in the initial press release for the June relaunch. "Whether you've been a DC fan your whole life, or whether you are new to comics — there will be a book for you beginning in June."
A New Voice For The Flagship
Though most of the headlines concerning DC's new look have been focused on the female presence, the company has also made strides in bringing writers, artists and characters from different cultures, backgrounds and lifestyles into the mix. One of the most intriguing hires of the new DC is Chinese writer Gene Luen Yang on Superman.
Best known for American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang is a decidedly different type of writer for a DC book, especially one of its flagship titles. The new take promises to be more autobiographical in nature, as Yang relies on his own experiences with immigrant parents to tell the story of Superman — the ultimate immigrant from the stars. Speaking to L.A. Times' Hero Complex, Yang explained more about his take on Superman.
"His creators were two children of Jewish immigrants. And embedded in his origin story is this idea of negotiating between two cultures and trying to take two halves of himself and create something that's whole and unified."
We don't know whether this worldly take on the character will reinvigorate Superman sales, but just as long as it doesn't get bogged down by crossovers and team-ups and "event" stories, Yang's vision could prove unique in a superhero market that sometimes can't let go of the past.
Bringing The Real World To The DCU
There was a time when DC and Marvel could halfheartedly talk about diversity without really acting on it because they were the only game in town — but with Image, Dark Horse, Valiant and other publishers making headway with female and minority-led books, the Big Two are starting to realize that fans now have an alternative.
Though change has been a long time coming – and is still a ways off from being anything to brag about – DC promises with this new relaunch, at least on the surface, that there is a story waiting for — well, you. And that's really the whole point of the DC You campaign.
With new heroines, minority vigilantes, African American Justice Leaguers and a solo book for the gay hero Midnighter, the new DC Universe might finally resemble the world we all see when we look out the window.