Let's start with the obvious. I am a white male in America's mid-west. I have not had to struggle in any capacity against any preconceived notions because of my gender or ethnic background. Do I know what it's like to be discriminated against? No. I can sympathize with those who have, but I will never be able to truly empathize with them.
This past weekend, my girlfriend and I went out of town and attended a wedding of one of her cousins. Not surprisingly, a good many of those in attendance were her relatives, most of which I had met at her father's funeral a year and half earlier. This wedding was, also not surprisingly, a decidedly more happy occasion and everyone seemed to have a great time. The two of us stayed with another cousin of hers who wasn't attending the wedding (other side of the S.O.'s family and no real relationship to the groom) and we spent much of our free time hanging out with that cousin's family.
One of the things that has impressed the heck out of me with my girlfriend's family is that they have ALL bent over backwards to make me feel welcome. Not just a couple of family members we see a lot, but everybody. All sorts of long-lost aunts and uncles and cousins and whatnot, some of whom I frankly didn't really even remember because they were introduced to me along with a string of other family members that I only talked to for a minute or two.
On our loooooong drive back home the other day, I told the S.O. how awesome her family was and how really gracious and welcoming they've been, and how I just thought that was incredibly cool of all of them. She thanked me, and responded that many of her family members have commented on how great I was. Which caught me a little off-guard. Not because I'm not great (because I am) but because I didn't think I really showcased very well in those large family settings. I get an introduction, maybe a little small talk, and then I usually stay quiet since there's all sorts of family dynamics going on that I am totally clueless about. My girlfriend's response was that, "Well, you're a white guy in a room full of black folk and you didn't collapse into jelly. That counts for a lot."
"That's a pretty low bar," I responded.
"Sadly, not really."
My girlfriend, if you haven't figured it out, is black. Her family is Jamaican, actually. Both of her parents were born there, and many of her relatives still live on the island. Those that don't tend to be concentrated near large urban areas like Chicago, D.C. and Miami.
One of the great things about my relationship with my girlfriend is that, having birthdays less than a month apart, we share many of the same cultural touchstones. We can reference the Challenger explosion or the dismantling of the Berlin Wall or the first Gulf War from essentially the same frame of reference. But we also have a lot of new experiences to share with each other. Thanks to me, she's actually gone out and started buying some of her own comic books -- despite having totally written off the medium years ago -- and she's introduced me to more blaxploitation movies than I even knew existed.
But those are the most obvious things. We also introduce each other to different ways of looking at situations or different interpretations of events. Generally, not too different from one another (otherwise, we wouldn't get along!) but different enough to give us a second to pause and reconsider our own position. Comics are a prime example.
It's easy to say, "Yeah, it's an industry largely built by and for white men, so it's not surprising there's maybe not as much diversity as there should be." But, geez, start looking for comics and graphic novels to show your black girlfriend that there's SOMEthing she might relate to? You'll find REALLY quickly just how slim the pickings are!
It's hardly any wonder comics have difficulty selling female- and minority-lead comics. The are so few instances where the people who might respond to those books are catered to, that they never bother setting foot in a comic shop in the first place! It's that extremely low bar of white guys being so uncomfortable even TRYING to speak towards someone other than another white guy that turns a lot of potential readers away.
Now I'm not saying that being able to stand in a room full of black people and not turn to jelly is going to guarantee that you can create a comic book they'd buy. I am saying that completely surrounding them with nothing but stories about white men, though, isn't going to make them feel welcome. And, being the skeptic that I am, I don't know that the direct market CAN change enough at this point to make a welcoming overture towards blacks. Or Latinos. Or Asians. Or everybody else that isn't white. I think that's one of the reasons webcomics do as well as they do -- they can reflect a different ethnography than what the direct market seems capable of. Whether those webcomic creators can (or even want!) to push their audience into a comic shop for additional purchases is going to help determine, I think, the future of the direct market.
I'm not advocating the demise of the direct market or that mainstream comic publishers shouldn't even bother addressing non-white ethnicities. I'm just saying that it shouldn't come as a surprise when pamphlet comics that feature non-white leads don't sell well. The industry has spent decades catering to one audience almost to the exclusion of all others, and it would take a MAJOR change in the industry over an extended period (I'm easily talking years here) for that to impact sales to someone other than Caucasian males.
Consider this. It has taken years for anything resembling a kids/young adult/all-ages comics market to re-emerge. It's still a vastly under-tapped market. And it's almost entirely OUTSIDE the confines of the direct market, and thanks in large part to publishers that aren't DC or Marvel.
I don't doubt there's a way to make and market comics to women and minorities. But it ain't going to happen in your local comic shop because the guys creating, distributing and selling those books are just piles of jelly.
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