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Devourer of Words 025: How to Diversify

Marc Bernardin

We seem to talk every 12 months at around this time—Black History Month—about diversity in comics. About how all too often the books that we read, and the people who create them, don’t betray the plurality of the world at large. This is when the major companies trumpet the gains they’ve made—some legit, some cosmetic—in adding some color to an overwhelmingly white landscape.

And it’s worth asking the question—year round—what we can do to push the dial in the right direction. Here are a four simple ways:

1. Don’t be afraid.

Though the advice “write what you know” has some merit, it can be a limitation as much as a “helpful” guideline. The first thing to remember is that people, no matter their place of birth or color of their skin, are driven by their desires. Once you figure out what they want, you can put things in their way to stop them from getting it. Not that you shouldn’t do some research to make your character feel authentic, but unless you’ve been writing every character like he grew up in the bedroom next to yours, you’ve been doing that research anyway.

2. What’s in a name?

This is a trick I’m stealing wholesale from John August’s Scriptnotes podcast: when giving secondary characters names in your script, change a few to some obviously ethnic ones. When encountering names like Gonzales or Singh or Nakitomi, your artist and colorist should, naturally, shade them differently.

3. Look to the background.

The texture of the world you create is often as important as the complexity of your main character. It can be subliminal, but subliminal messages totally work. Specify that you’d like the fundraiser your billionaire playboy is attending to be thrown by the National Organization of Women. Or that 4 out of every 10 people on the street aren’t white dudes. It might not sound like much, but it counts.

4. Examine the world you’re building.

Let’s say you don’t do any of the things above—what does that world mean to the character? Shouldn’t someone notice that everyone around them is homogenous? Doesn’t that feel like a Twilight Zone episode? Then lean into that. Turn a flaw into an advantage—or, at the very least, acknowledge it. You might discover something great.

If you’re doing a work-for-hire book, the things in your control are limited. You won’t be able to, say, turn Spider-Man into a Black/Latino kid (unless you’re Brian Michael Bendis, in which case, carry on). But you can affect change in smaller, but still important ways.

One last thing: Remember that diversity isn’t solely a skin-color thing. The world around you is different in any number of ways. Not everyone is skinny. Not everyone wants to sleep with whom you think they’d want to sleep with. Not everyone is sober. Not everyone has clear skin. Not everyone is alive.

Just another tool for the kit.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!