February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

How Diverse are Comics and Graphic Novels?

Princeless 1 When it comes to diversity, it often seems like comics and graphic novels exist in two parallel universes: Superhero comics and everything else. While the first has a long way to go in terms of diversity, graphic novels are seeing a broader range of authors and characters, and that trend is growing.

Superhero comics, which include the big Marvel and DC properties that are spun out into countless movies and TV shows, have traditionally been written by and for white men. Most of the leading characters are male as well. The writers and artists don’t own the characters they are working on, and fans are intensely loyal to the traditional versions of characters. However, this world is changing, albeit slowly: Creators such as Gail Simone, author of Bird of Prey (DC, 2004)  and Scott Snyder, co-author of American Vampire (DC, 2014), have called for more diversity in the medium, and have embraced it in their work as well. Marvel has seen considerable success with the character Carol Danvers, the newest incarnation of Captain Marvel (2012-14); Kamala Khan, the Pakistani-American teenager who is the new Ms. Marvel (2014); as well as Miles Morales, the mixed-race teenager who is the alter ego of Spider-Man in Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (2011-13). Nonetheless, superhero comics remain predominantly white and male.

nothing can possibly go wrongThe rest of comics, which includes graphic novels, webcomics, and self-published comics, is much more diverse, simply because there are many different stories to be told and many paths to success. So are graphic novels, produced by traditional book publishers, where women have been well represented for years. Comics also have strong grass roots: Many creators hone their craft and build an audience via self-published comics or webcomics. In addition, the manga boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s not only brought in more female readers, but  encouraged them to become creators via outreach efforts such as Tokyopop’s Rising Stars of Manga competition. While that contest is long gone, editors scout for new talent on open platforms such as webcomics and Tumblr.

As a result, many of the most prominent creators of children’s and young adult comics are women. Raina Telgemeier, the author of Smile and Drama, (both Graphix, 2010 and 2012) and Faith Erin Hicks, the creator of Friends With Boys and the artist for Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong (both First Second, 2012 and 2013), are among the most popular. Both write about the experiences of tween and teen girls, and Telegemeier has been featured in the Wall Street Journal.

BoxersWith regard to people of color, the picture is less clear. Asian Americans are well represented: Gene Luen Yang has written about Chinese history in Boxers and Saints (First Second, 2013) and the Asian American experience in American Born Chinese (Square Fish, 2008), and he also writes the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” graphic novels (Dark Horse, 2012-14). Kazu Kibuishi, cerator of Amulet (Graphix, 2008-14), the Flight anthologies (Villard, 2007-11), along with Derek Kirk Kim, creator of Same Difference (First Second, 2011), Thien Pham, author of  Sumo (First Second, 2012), and Jason Shiga, creator of Meanwhile (Abrams, 2010), are also among the best-known Asian American creators.

There are fewer graphic novels created by African Americans, but one of the most heralded books of 2013 was the first volume of March (Top Shelf, 2013), Rep. John Lewis’s memoir of the Civil Rights movement. Other graphic novels with black protagonists include Harry Bliss’s Luke on the Loose (TOON Books, 2009), Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless (Action Lab, 2012-14), Brandon Thomas and Lee Ferguson’s The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury (Archaia, 2011), and Jamal Igle’s Molly Danger (Action Lab, 2013).

HerevilleIt’s possible to find comics and graphic novels that speak to many other experiences, but the field lacks depth. The graphic anthology Trickster (Fulcrum, 2010) is a compilation of traditional Native American stories, but comics about contemporary Native Americans are hard to find. Telgemeier’s Drama includes two gay teenagers. Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro’s two “Foiled” books (First Second, 2010, 2013) feature a key character with a physical disability. Barry Deutsch’s “Hereville” (Amulet, 2010, 2012) is set in an orthodox Jewish community. Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki’s comic diary Tina’s Mouth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is told from the point of view of an Indian teenager. These are all strong books, but currently, there are no follow-up titles with similar characters or settings for the reader to turn to next.

DramaThat will change as the next generation of creators—and readers—comes of age.  During a panel at the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo in May, Simone remarked, “You walk from one end of the convention to the other and you realize real quickly that it doesn’t look like the Justice League from the ‘60s and that we shouldn’t be writing for that audience any more.” At that same event, the line for the “Gay Creators and Characters” panel was so long that the room reached its capacity of over 300. Over half the attendees at Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con earlier this spring were women. And fans of Carol Danvers, the female Captain Marvel, have formed their own informal network, the Carol Corps.

The "Diverse Worlds" panel at the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo in May.

The “Diverse Worlds” panel at the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo in May.


Meanwhile, a new generation of creators are connecting with their audience directly, in Artists Alleys, on DeviantArt and Tumblr, through Kickstarter and webcomics. They have already begun to make their mark, and from here, there is no going back.

Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

Diversity and Cultural Competency Training: Collections & RA

Do you want to ensure that your library’s collections are diverse, equitable, inclusive, and well-read?

Do you want to become a more culturally literate librarian and a more effective advocate for your community?

We've developed a foundational online course—with live sessions on February 28 & March 14—that will explore key concepts essential to cultivating and promoting inclusive and equitable collections.


  1. B. Graham says:

    Don’t forget “The sons of liberty” books 1 & 2 by Afro-Canadian brothers Alexander and Joseph Lagos.

  2. There are Native writers working in comic/graphic novel format. I featured Arigon Starr’s SUPER INDIAN last week: http://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2014/05/arigon-starrs-super-indian.html

    And check out the work of Cree (First Nations) writer, David Alexander Robertson, too.

  3. Superheroes are but one genre within the medium of comics. The graphic novel is a form. You could compare serialized, monthly comics with graphic novels, I suppose. And if you’d like to compare superhero comics with non-superhero comics for this argument, that could work. But to compare superhero comics from the “Big Two” while ignoring a vast swatch of compelling, critically-acclaimed, and often diverse independent comics is just stilly—and it suggests a narrow knowledge of the topic.

  4. I would love to see more attention on characters with intellectual or mental disabilities. The mainstream villainized versions don’t count.

    • There are plenty of those who are good guys in Marvel. Banner has a split personality/depression due to trauma from his childhood, Sentry is agoraphobic, Hank Pym has depression/bi polar disorder and anxiety, Tony Stark is an alcoholic narcissist… list goes on.

  5. May be true for DC but Marvel has a high percentage of female readers and in the past ten years including upcoming novels, every major character has had a female or minority group filling the role. Black Captain America, muslim Ms Marvel, female Thor, Hispanic/Black SpiderMan, young avengers features a gay couple and a hispanic female who is bisexual, black Nick Fury…Avengers Academy = hispanic, asian, and hawaiian main heroes. Never mind the number of original heroes that represent these groups. I would not lump all super hero comics together.