Visiting professor Ramzi Fawaz presented an argument on the changing representation of comic book heroes to a handful of Ohio State professors and students Thursday at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library.
Fawaz, an assistant professor in English from the University of Wisconsin, has been nationally recognized for his integration of minority issues into art and culture through his characters and stories.
“It would not be an understatement to suggest that both popular and scholarly discussion of American comic books is currently dominated by debates about diversity,” Fawaz said. “What diversity means in these many and varied conversations is always a moving target.”
One of the most recent examples that appears to have hit that “moving target” is the critically acclaimed Black Panther film, featuring an almost entirely black cast and surpassing all box office expectations.
The adaption of Black Panther, done by director Ryan Coogler, was well received by audiences and offered a fresh concept in the long-line of Marvel superhero movies.
Fawaz asserted that while diversity in comics can be difficult to categorize, discussion commonly appears in three forms: a demand for minority representation, a demand for diversification of comic book writers and a demand for accurate portrayals of real-world issues. The aims of these demands, he said, are to produce positive portrayals of minority characters in relatable situations.
Wary of scholars who disregard entertainment value, he underpinned the importance of comics that promote diversity by highlighting their ability to affect audiences in such a creative way.
“I don’t turn to comics to get a documentary understanding of race or sexuality,” Fawaz said. “I want to see what comics can do with those categories in the realm of the fantastic.”
Fawaz used the comic series “Legion Lost” to ground his thoughts on diversity and character representation. “Legion Lost,” published by DC Comics in the late 90s, follows a group of superheroes who band together against genocidal aliens seeking a perfect race.
He said the series shows that diversity is not a value, but rather a fact of life comics are tasked with representing.
“The series trains readers to see from the perspective of each team member and to understand the effective logics that guide their actions,” Fawaz said. “Consequently, we gain the critical perspective to adjudicate how and when particular differences matter.”
While “Legion Lost” emphasizes the importance of differences in the face of adversity, other comics place emphasis on stereotypes. Fawaz spoke of the irony in the demand for representation, claiming superhuman monoliths often misrepresent entire groups of people.
Carelessly changing a traditionally portrayed character into one with a minority background can be dangerous, Fawaz said, adding that the issue of representation is far more complex than an one-off attempt at being progressive.
“How might we avoid the trap of merely reversing the poles of ideal representation?” he asked. “How might we instead reclaim the capacity of the superhero comic book to account for, cultivate and translate heterogeneity to vastly different audiences?”
While that question is hotly debated, Fawaz pointed to a comic like “Legion Lost,” a comic whose very plot relies on the diversity of its characters, as a starting point.