I know this is a little late, so please excuse me, but I just couldn’t let this go without saying something.
You might have heard that some serious heavyweights in the comics industry dismissed accusations of sexism, while also saying that comics are usually following, not leading, social change, so that makes it totes ok if they were sexist, which they aren’t. Their arguments read like a greatest hits of privilege apologetics (e.g. “We objectify men, too!”, “Why don’t they make their own comics?”, and the suggestion that superhero comics, like skepticism, are more of a guy thing), and include a digression that touches on race by arguing that actively pursuing diversity automatically means not creating a stand-alone good character.
The people in question are Len Wein, most famous for creating Wolverine, Gerry Conway, who invented The Punisher (and gave what was to me the most baffling and infuriating quote, that “…the comics follow society. They don’t lead society.”), and Todd McFarlane, who developed a comic book as an excuse to sell toys.
Before we get too into this, I think it’s important that we have some context for these guys’ careers, because they are not lightweights in the industry, and all of them have had significant impacts on the way we experience comics to this day, for good and for ill. But by examining where they came from, we might be able to understand why they are so horrendously wrong.
Let’s start with Wein. While Len Wein is best known for his creation of Wolverine, he actually created a number of the X-men that are incredibly popular, including Nightcrawler, Storm, and Colossus. He revived the book from five years of hiatus in 1975 and his tenure on the title set the stage for the team most non-comic readers would become familiar with: the 90’s animated series composition. Wolverine was introduced to the team in this book, but the fuzzball was introduced to the universe over a year before in Incredible Hulk 181, touted as “The World’s First and Greatest Canadian Super Hero”. However, unlike his predecessors and, to an extent, his successors, X-men under his direction wasn’t as socially conscious, preferring to focus less on the place of mutants in the world and more on super-powered people beating up on one another. Wein eventually became Editor-in-Chief at Marvel.
It was under his leadership that a man named Gerry Conway would be writing The Amazing Spider-man. Conway started at Marvel around the same time as Wein. In fact, 1970’s Daredevil #71 was Wein’s first comic at Marvel, and Daredevil #72 was Conway’s. Conway took over Spider-man at the tender age of 19, after a couple of years of writing duties being passed between Roy Thomas and Stan Lee. Again, we saw a move away from making any statements (ironic, only a year after Amazing Spider-man #96-98, which was not given a Comics Code Authority label because Lee wouldn’t abandon a plot thread about the dangers of drug use), and the eventual introduction of Punisher in issue 129. He would also script “The Night Gwen Stacy Died“. Punisher wasn’t given his own book until the early 80s, but stood out for his willingness to kill, a function largely of his antagonists being the mob and it being easier to mow down scores of faceless goombas than to have to create a new Doctor Octopus or The Vulture every couple of issues because you keep killing off unique villains.
Finally you have McFarlane. It’s hard to count him among the other two since he didn’t make his money or his fame from comic books directly. Rather, he created a comic, then marketed the hell out of toys for the comic. Yes, he did work on Spider-man as well, but really his success came from his founding of Image comics, an exercise in remembering why artists don’t just write their own stuff, and the creation of Spawn, who has limped along in comic fandom with some hard core followers but no lasting impression. I’m sure there are some Spawn fans out there, maybe even a couple that can name a Spawn villain off the top of their head that isn’t Clown, Satan, or Martin Sheen, but when your supporting characters are so incidental (BTW: Spawn had a supporting cast) that they can be cannibalized by your former company in an ill-advised continuity-merging event, you haven’t created a lasting property. Ultimately, McFarlane’s influence would probably be felt less as a creator and more as one of the people most fueling the Speculation Bubble that was one of the main reasons 90s comics were so awful.
The reason why I go into this digression is two-fold. The first is to point out that asking Todd McFarlane his opinion on comic books is a lot like asking Uwe Boll his opinion on movies. Sure, he’s made a few, but they’re not very good and usually a means to an end. McFarlane is much better equipped to answer questions about character design, much like Boll is better equipped to answer questions about just barely avoiding committing fraud.
The second point is that while McFarlane, who drove the Liefeldian testosterone-fueled 90s overeaction to body shape and human behavior (hello Youngblood, Cable, Doom’s IV, and Hardcore Station, to name a few), could be excused for thinking that comics never did anything he wasn’t interested in doing, Wein and Conway know better.
As I mentioned above, Conway, who gave the damn quote, took over Amazing about a year after Stan Lee specifically bucked the industry trade group in order to publish an incredibly timely comment on drug abuse and its dangers. Wein revived a book that had a really respectable seven year run as a metaphor to the Civil Rights movement while it was going on. Both of them started at DC and worked there during Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’ incredibly well done and successful Green Lantern/Green Arrow crossovers, which were specifically designed to address social issues because those were the books that were popular at the time (as a side note, they were also astounding and dealt with issues from a really balanced, but hard-hitting way).
Conway and Wein were executives at Marvel when X-men: God Loves, Man Kills was published in 1982. They were part of the industry and even could have grown up reading Archie Comics, which has always presented Riverdale as progressively accepting of other people, being one of the first comics to have regular appearances by characters of color, fairly recently introducing gay teen Kevin Keller, depicting Keller’s future marriage to a same-sex partner (after coming home a war hero), and this month showing him kissing his boyfriend on the cover of his title book.
Wein and Conway both should be aware of William Marston’s opinion that women should be in charge of the world, and how his feminism guided the creation of Wonder Woman. They might have even heard of Truth: Red, White, and Black, X-men: Magneto Testament, or Pride of Baghdad. You’d think they would have been familiar with Iron Man’s continuing battle with alcoholism or the decades of thoughtful fallout from Hank Pym’s abuse of his wife. Or with the importance of the introduction of characters like Black Panther, Luke Cage, and White Tiger. It’s possible they haven’t seen how well Batgirl has been doing since the launch of the New 52 under Gail Simone’s leadership.They almost certainly have heard of the Marvel Civil War, which is my favorite crossover event of all time because it dealt with the question of how much liberty we can sacrifice for security at the height of the War on Terror.
Even if all of those things escaped their notice, they might be peripherally aware of this comic about an immigrant boy who comes to be raised in middle America and becomes a hero. In fact, the popularity of this comic is attributed as one of the reasons why many immigrants joined the war effort in the early 1940s, despite immigration being a very sore subject during the time of that comic’s popularity.
Comics have consistently been ahead of or right in the middle of social change. They are often overlooked as a significant mover of social progress, mostly by people like Wein, Conway, and McFarlane who have never and will never have to worry about whether a character is like them at all: most characters are in a number of ways. They will never care about seeing people dealing with the problems that affect their lives, because the problems that affect their lives are not the kind of problems that need heroes.
But to suggest that comics are behind the curve is to project their own apathy onto a medium that has spoken directly about issues that have had to be tiptoed around in other places. It has been in front of so many social movements, and that we see it lagging behind on women’s issues in many significant ways is more disappointing because they have been a positive voice on so many other things.
Comics can be a catalyst for change, especially super hero comics, even from the Big Two publishers. That’s why it’s important that we push back against these types of attitudes, and demonstrate that the books that we want are the ones that are not only well written, but make a point to be inclusive and allow characters to be something other than wish fantasy fulfillment for straight white cis teenage boys.