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.

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.”