The Death of Diversity (in Comics)

Found an article near and dear to me by a writer named Dara Naraghi, who is both a writer and lover of the comic genre. After reading his article I knew I would have to share it again since it touched on issues of diversity in the DC Universe, a subject I have written on several times in the past, Superhero Diversity and Where are the powerful Black Superheroes, but bears sharing again. So without further ado, please welcome Dara Naraghi.

First, a bit of background for those of you who don’t follow superhero comics: a couple of weeks ago, DC Comic published Aquaman #7, written by Geoff Johns, one of the most prominent and popular writers in the superhero genre, and Chief Creative Officer at DC Comics. In it, he introduced a brand new superheroine to the DC universe by the name of Kahina the Seer.

Kahina the Seer, art by Joe Prado

On page 1 of the comic, we see her running for her life from Aquaman’s mortal enemy, Black Manta. She puts up a good fight, but by page 7, she is defeated.

Page 7, art by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado

On page 8, we find out that she’s Iranian.

Page 8, art by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado

And yes, she’s also killed off.

What follows is an open letter to Geoff Johns, adapted and slightly reworked from a similar note I sent to the book’s editor, Pat McCallum.

Dear Mr. Johns,

After reading Aquaman #7, I felt the need to share my thoughts on a topic close to my heart. To that end, allow me to very briefly share my background with you: I’m an Iranian-American writer, a lifelong fan of the medium of comics, and a big fan of the DC characters. I have over 10 years of published works to my credit, from self-published stories to comics and graphic novels from Dark Horse, Image, IDW, and DC Comics. My DC Comics contribution was a Spectre story set in Tehran, Iran, for the DC Universe Holiday Special 2010 #1, edited by Mike Carlin.

Needless to say, when I saw that a new superheroine introduced in Aquaman #7 was an Iranian woman, I was very excited. As far as I know, the only other Iranian character in the (pre-52) DCU was the villain Rustam (who, ironically, was named after the most famous and popular HERO from Iranian literature). So you can imagine my frustration and extreme disappointment when this new hero, Kahina, was summarily killed a mere 8 pages after being introduced!

Please understand, this is not one of those “DC Comics is racist/xenophobic” essays that you’ve undoubtedly encountered countless times in the recent past. I’ve been happy with, and supportive of, DC’s attempt at diversifying their universe with a sizable number of comics starring minority and female characters in the “New 52″ relaunch of books. But I just don’t understand the logic behind creating a new minority hero – one from a country and culture that’s often misrepresented in today’s media as “evil” – only to have her killed upon her first appearance. What purpose did her death serve, other than being a mere plot point?

In doing so, you deprived your readership of a character utterly unique by virtue of her ethnic background, a character different than the thousands of others in the DC universe. Imagine the new storytelling venues opened up to you and other DC writers, had this character been allowed to continue her adventures in your fictional universe. With Iran in the news cycle as of late, here was a chance to add an element of verisimilitude to DC Comics, and start something bold and unconventional.

I’m not asking that DC Comics create a plethora of Iranian characters, or that they should only be portrayed as heroes, or even that once created, they should never be killed. I understand narrative needs, primary characters and supporting ones, emotional beats and motivation. But when there are absolutely NO characters of a certain ethnic or cultural background in your stories, to casually kill off the ONLY example of one, after a mere 8 pages, seems very counterproductive to me. It’s a disservice to your audience, a step back in your strides towards diversity, and just reinforces the negative stereotypes about the stunted development of superhero comics.

I know that because of my background, I’m much closer to this situation than the majority of your readers, but I don’t feel that invalidates my thoughts on the matter. Embracing multiculturalism not only offers a wealth of new storytelling possibilities, but it also distinguishes them from the hundreds of other alternatives in the marketplace, and opens them up to a wider marketplace.

I hope that you will consider my thought on this topic in the spirit that they were written: not to condemn, but hopefully to illuminate.

Sincerely,
Dara Naraghi

After reading his letter, I was moved to respond and my response is an emotional one (emotional by my standards, your mileage may vary). If you find his letter moves you, you can leave a response at his blog. Trolls need not apply. We already know what you think.

Dara Naraghi,

I support your letter, plan to send it to everyone I know and ask them to say the same thing that you did. I was a long term fan of DC Comics (over 40 years buying them) and had intended to raise my son reading them, hoping to inspire him the same way they once inspired me to write. I am a science fiction and fantasy writer and think about our relationships to each other both racially (since race is just a concept used to oppress diverse groups I tend to ignore it) and culturally, since culture is more significant and often based around geography, it has a bit more relevance. The death of this character while seemingly insignificant to the writer could have major significance to a reader, like you, who identified with the character and felt painfully both the idea that she did not exist before now (and should have) and now does not exist again (seconds after she gave you hope of a new day dawning where her culture might be acknowledged as anything other than a bad thing).

I am a Black Man in America and no longer have the benefit of the illusion of parity in this culture. I know I will never see it. But I live for the day when I am not asking for anything that White writers and by proxy White superheroes don’t get by being White. I would like the same chance to develop as a person, with the expectation of being heard, of being considered a person with feelings, not a statistic to be killed when a convenient death is required.

There was no need to create Kahina the Seer if the only goal was to kill her. There was no reason to make her a person of color if your goal was to kill her. All that says to people of color (at the subconsciously level) is you matter less than the story I am telling, less than my promotion of stereotypes and mindsets of “White Superiority” and that in the end, you, as a “Person of Color or Culture Outside My Own”, don’t matter. Please don’t bother writing responses refuting this, all of you trolls who will read this. I will not be affected one way or the other. I am now beyond that. I wrote this letter for Mr. Dara Naraghi who expressed his concerns eloquently and should know despite the piss-poor support he has received in the comments of his letter, that he was heard by someone who understood his pain.

You would think with things in the US being as racially charged as they are in the last months (if you read this at a later date, today was the same day Mr. Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder of Trayvon Martin, but was unable to be arrested since he had been let go by the police department the same day as the alleged murder took place back in February 2012) and anyone publishing anything might consider what a statement this particular event in their books might take.

On the other hand, one of the benefits of White Privilege is never having to acknowledge anyone else’s culture but your own. And when you discount other cultures, you are right to do so, because only your ideals, your dreams, your people’s right to exist in all forms of media, matter. Everyone else is an extra on your stage to be discarded at will. So, as poignant and significant as your letter might be, I suspect it will fall upon deaf ears, used to hearing only how wonderful it is to be White in America and responsible to no one but themselves.

I salute you, Dara Naraghi. Anything you write, I will find and support. It is rare to be a person of conscience in an age of conceit and vanity.

If you have been insulted by what I’ve said, examine yourself. If you hate me because I speak the truth as I see it, know this: If you hate me because I am Black, know that I did not choose it, especially knowing how much this culture hates Black men, I would have chosen to be something, anything else.

But, and this is the more important point, I did not choose to be what I am, hating me is a choice YOU made. Continuing to hate me and people like me, is a choice you perpetuate. The true stigma in this is yours, not mine. I could not choose. You could. You chose poorly. You chose to vilify your fellow man about a thing he could not change. You perpetuate your hatred in your media, though you will not call it that. “I’m just telling my story,” is how you rationalize it. And that sir, is history. “His Story.”

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Freedom versus Society: Does being free mean I get to ignore everyone else?

M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest galactic neighbor boasting over one TRILLION stars!

A well-known writer named Steven Barnes posed a thought this morning in which he asked:

I’ve seen a number of posts recently with people complaining about “losing our freedoms.” All right, I’d like to understand exactly what is meant by this, and would like anyone who thinks this is happening to tell me exactly when in American history they believe there was more freedom overall for the average person in this country.

The responses to this question were often interesting and insightful and while I do not advocate Facebook as a way of life, if you are interested, you can follow the thread here.

Initially, the question seemed easy to answer but the longer I thought about it, the more I realized how complex the question actually is. So I thought to answer it with a short and direct answer. The more I wrote the more I realized the question didn’t have an easy answer. So I gave up and started again, this time in an effort to challenge the status quo and answer the question in the way few will be willing to acknowledge.

Freedom and Society are inversely proportional. The more Freedom you claim, the less likely you are to want to be involved with Society because thinking about other people (Society) means you have to limit your Freedom and the exercises thereof.

I do not believe there has ever been a time that we have had more freedoms than we do now. Yes, everyone can name some erosion that has taken place in their lifetime, but I look at a picture wider than any individual and consider that Freedom is a summation of everyone’s abilities to enjoy the same rights, liberties and expectations of happiness. Not just the options the elite and well to do have to offer but the ability of any individual to harness their natural talents, strengths and gifts for the betterment of themselves and to the improvement of our mutual society.

In America, while some of us have been free, to paraphrase: freedom was relative; some of us were more free than others.

In my opinion, Freedom and Society are inversely proportional. If you want the benefits of living in society, some freedoms seem to have to give way to means of working and living together in close quarters.

Freedom, the ability to say you live without rules or guidelines imposed by others is still yours. You have the option to leave America and go someplace else. You have the option to maintain your aplomb and understand that you freedom stops in front of my nose. As soon as your Freedom infringes on mine, you stop being free. That is the nature of a Society, where the sum of the parts creates the potential to do things greater than any single Free individual with the understanding that the rules we create benefit us proportionally for the Freedom we willingly surrender.

When that formula of Freedom surrendered for Society becomes imbalanced (NDAA, indentured servitude or slavery, TSA, undeclared wars, untoward military spending, financial imbalances and class warfare, to name a few) we begin to sense our sacrifice of Freedom is not proportional to the benefits we are expecting and that is the vague unease many of us are feeling. Our freedoms are being bartered away (or stolen, or bought depending on your occupation and where you stand in the social food chain) and replaced with artificial constructs in place of either Freedom or Society. This new un-balancing agent is partially the engine of commerce run amok, without an understanding that every result of Society owes its existence to Society. And when our economic responsibilities to Society at large fails, Society and Freedom both suffer, replacing them with a Tyranny and control of Society for economic purposes, rather than for the improvement of society or the escalation of true Freedoms.

If you chafe today, it is because you are getting an artificial substitute for Freedom. It looks like Freedom: You have 300 channels (but nothing you want to watch), you have eat 60 different varieties of potato chips (but can’t afford decent medical care) you have genetically engineered food keeping our bread baskets full, (but the FDA has no power to actually regulate or check if that food is safe for you to eat). You have the option for the finest education in the world (as long as you can afford it or are willing to carry the debt for decades, paying twice what you owe.) And even the well to do secretly chafe under this false freedom because while they can afford the creature comforts denied to 99.99999% of humanity, all they have to give up IS THEIR HUMANITY.

Our Society is no better off. The Greater Good or the Common Good, the idea we are here for each other, we support each other, that we are Americans and citizens of a nation, in theory if not in fact, prides itself on being an icon to the modern world. That image has been tarnished in our quest for resources to consume, to prop up an economy built on the manufacture (and ultimately the use) of weapons of mass destruction (and these days, lesser and more targeted destruction, using drones or other smart weaponry). Our foreign policy consists of bombing people back to the Stone Age, absconding with their resources or using banks or other financial chicanery to control the wealth (or debt) of foreign nations.

We can no longer come together politically, over even the simplest of ideas. Better schools, more healthcare for everyone, less processed sugar in our processed foods, the merits of birth control or the excesses of Viagra, regulation or deregulation. Everyone gets upset when you talk about regulation or deregulation. I don’t. Simplest way to be sure, if an industry needs more regulation is if an industry goes from profitable to obscene, its time for regulation, if it goes from profitable to questionable, perhaps we should consider releasing a few regulations to determine if that industry is still viable, so if you look at oil companies who are obscenely, ubiquitously, and most egregiously wealthy, nearly beyond that of any other industries, for them to receive tax cuts, tax benefit beyond those any other company should get and to give them SUBSIDIES as well, is a sign of an industry who not only has forgotten the Greater Good, but tap dances on the bones of the poor creature long after its been dead.

The list of crimes against the institution of Society is long, with our last century racking up a body count that could rival a Rambo movie. How long must those of us without wealth, without the recourse to lobby and purchase the political votes we need to make our concerns known, endure this Tyranny of the wealthy, which would have been as abhorrent to our founding fathers (okay, I am Black, so they are not MY founding fathers, my ancestors were enslaved during that time) as it has become to almost everyone today?

We live in an age where we have the technology to peer into the heavens to discover our alone-ness in a sea of galaxies. The Milky Way, that band of light you can see if you still live someplace without air pollution (if not, there is always the internet) shows a part of our galaxy, not even the whole thing and it fills the heavens. The part we can see is a few million stars, our galaxy is blessed with an estimate of 100 to 300 BILLION stars. We now know, thanks to the engineering marvel that is Hubble, created by a tiny group of people who could put aside their backstabbing long enough to further all of Humanity, to discover our universe is filled with at least 100 BILLION galaxies, each as vast as our own (or in some cases far more vast than our own; one such galaxy is thought to have one trillion stars all by itself).

Stars in numbers so vast we only hear about them in national budgets, we fail to remember the most important number when you look at the cosmological scene.

One. 

That is how many Earths we have. That is how many planets we have to live on, live with, struggle over, SHARE with each other and all of the diverse life forms who live on it as well. We continue to fail to remember, humanity, each other, is all we have. Earth is all we have. Our societies had better learn to get along because, THIS planet, right now, with our frail bodies, choking under the pollution of our production of things we do not need, to increase the wealth of those who have more than enough, is going to turn our questions of Freedom versus Society into a much easier debate; whether we, as a species will SURVIVE or NOT.