Walking around the floor of New York Comic Con or glancing at the panel schedule is pretty encouraging — comics and the community that surrounds them are diverse. Sure, there is still a long way to go in terms of representation, but the progress has been noticeable and encouraging. However, the comics of yesterday still exist, and many of them are non-diverse at best and actively offensive at worst. So, on Saturday, a panel of diverse, progressive comics pros gathered to talk about problematic faves.
"Horribly offensive" is how Saladin Ahmed described a lot of old comics from the '40s and '50s near the beginning of the "Old Classics, New Voices: Diverse Creators Rate the Comics Canon" panel. That's not all of it, though. Ahmed, who is writing Marvel's Miles Morales Spider-Man series that debuts this December, said that some pre-Comics Code books were just "bizarre," while others were almost "what we would now call radical feminist stuff."
Ahmed cited a comic called Crimes By Women, a lurid "true" crime series that was exploitative, sure, but also had its protagonists "gunning down all the horrible patriarchal men." Once the puritanical Comics Code went into effect, though, characters like that disappeared until the '70s or '80s.
"I learned how much stuff got erased," Ahmed said.
Crimes By Women was an imperfect exception, though, and hardly the rule. "Stuff with people of color is a lot more hit-and-miss," Ahmed said.
Even so, he was hardly alone in expressing having some complicated feelings about classic comics. Jay Edidin and moderator Elana Levin both admire Frank Miller's iconic Daredevil run while feeling that some of his other works, like 300, were racist or otherwise problematic. Meg Downey noted that there's "all sorts of messed-up stuff in Jim Starlin's comics" but praised how Starlin wrote Nebula in the Infinity Gauntlet comic, though he probably wasn't trying to be progressive.
"It's this weird stealth feminist comic from someone who probably wouldn't identify this way," Downey said.
"Contrast helps," Ahmed said when an audience member asked for help grappling with their problematic fave, the 1970s Wonder Woman comics where Diana loses her power and becomes a fashionable kung-fu girl. While the culturally appropriating comic was bad on a lot of levels, it was at least an example of a strong and independent woman, albeit one that writer Denny O'Neil would much later apologize for, saying "I thought I was on the side of feminism."
"For all its flaws, that run is still sadly better than average," Ahmed said.
None of the creators were giving problematic works of old a total free pass, though.
"That's just a product of the time, yes, but that doesn't mean it's okay, and it's still influencing things today," Desiree Rodriguez said.
Ultimately, going back into the archives and appreciating the good while recognizing shortcomings takes nuance.
"There are separate lines for what I will and won't read, and what I will and won't recommend, and what I will and won't recommend people spend money on," Edidin said. "Recommending [problematic comics] responsibly takes more information... than there's room for in 280 characters.
"I want there to be a secret grown-up table for a problematic faves mailing list," he added.
Thanks to an audience member's question, the panel ended with an important reminder that, even though there's a lot of comics history needs to atone for and grapple with, the work isn't done. In modern comics, especially from Marvel and DC, which lag behind indies when it comes to representation, diverse comics don't always work as intended. Ahmed identified two common pitfalls creators make when trying to write diverse characters.
"Either they're saying stereotypical Spanish every other line," he said, "or they're characters who 'just happen to be [minorities],'" with no real consideration of their identity.
Although Ahmed is one of the all-too-rare non-white creators in mainstream comics, he spoke of how much care he's putting into his portrayal of Miles Morales in his upcoming Spider-Man comics, especially because he is neither black nor Latino. That identity, he says, "has been neglected" when it comes to past iterations of Miles' story.
Ahmed earnestly praised Brian Michael Bendis for creating the character, but when it came to the specifics of writing the character as a black Latino, he said Bendis "understandably tried to handle that from a distance."
It served as a fitting capstone to the conversation, one that reflected on comics' unsteady march of progress and reminded the audience that the work of representation (and it is something creators and fans need to consciously work on) continues.