When it comes to vying for top place, DC Comics (and its corresponding DC Extended Universe) and Marvel Comics (and its Marvel Cinematic Universe) inevitably invite comparison. As consumers steadily grow more socially aware, the element of diversity is key to this comparison.
Sharmane Fury, the co-founder of Gulf Coast Cosmos Comicbook Co., shared her thoughts on what one article dubbed the “DC vs. Marvel diversity arms race.” She warned of her partiality to one publisher over the other: “Full disclosure, I’ll have to say that I’m completely biased on this because I am a Marvel [fan].” In spite of her preference, she provided thoughtful assessments of both entities.
Fury explained a significant difference between the heroes that exist in both universes that influence their effectiveness in addressing social issues and representation.
“So with DC you have what I refer to as ‘gods on earth’, and with Marvel you have [our] world [if it] existed the way that it exists now and there just happened to be superpowered people on it,” said Fury. She argues that DC’s approach results in a more reductive approach where justice is administered and the problem is solved almost instantaneously. In contrast, there is usually a movement for change in Marvel’s universe.
This dichotomy can be seen when comparing the heavyweights of each franchise: Superman and Captain America.
The creation of both characters is remarkably similar. Both were conceptualized by Jewish creators who were facing antisemitism and persecution due to their identities. They were heroes they could look up to — heroes who spent their early origins defeating Nazis and white supremacists. Their differences arise when you observe their development over the years.
Superman remains more static. “As [Superman and Captain grew] in time, Superman [hasn’t] really changed that much.” He sticks to what he knows — the white side of Metropolis. Captain America takes everything on, and when he’s out of his depth or needs another perspective, he has a team that can help him.
Marvel demonstrates the need for these perspectives, when Steve Rogers lacks understanding of the differences between understanding justice for white people versus for Black and brown people, Falcon is there to step in. There is a confrontation of issues that demonstrates the need for diverse perspectives. Marvel is willing to make their heroes uncomfortable and take a back seat.
Mark Lynch, a writer, and podcaster who goes by the moniker Old Man Wade, added another dimension to the conversation regarding diversity in both Marvel and DC. While he acknowledged that in terms of race and ethnicity Marvel seems to do it a bit better, he conceded that DC is ahead in their representation of LGBTQ+ characters.
“In terms of the LGBTQ community, DC seems to be doing it a lot better. They have more representation in terms of not just gay, bisexual, but they have more trans characters. And they seem to actually care about what’s going on with these characters,” said Lynch.
He provided an example in Tim Drake, who recently came out as bisexual. “I thought that was cool because [as long as I’ve read] Tim Drake, his personality has always seemed very one dimensional,” said Lynch.
Both franchises have demonstrated a willingness to answer to their problematic pasts by retroactively amending issues and returning to stories that were overlooked or unseemly. Fury cites one example of Captain America misunderstanding how Black and brown people have a different relationship with the police. Falcon’s introduction later on in the series amended his understanding.
DC has done something even more drastic with The Other History of the DC Universe which features marginalized characters reexamining popular scenes from DC’s canon.
Fury also addressed a common claim levied against both DC and Marvel that their diverse characters appear as more of a cop-out than a genuine pursuit of representation. “Is it an afterthought? Yes,” Fury said. “But everything is an afterthought because people have been existing where white has been the mainstream all along,” she continued.
On the topic of improving representation, Lynch keeps it simple.
“Just do it. Honestly, that’s it. Just literally all you have to do is do it. There are characters out there. There are tons of characters that you could [use],” said Lynch.
DC and Marvel also struggle with underutilizing the diverse characters they do have. Take for instance, Storm. Storm is one of the most powerful mutants in the Marvel canon and has even led the X-Men. Yet she still does not have her own comic book run. When featured in the Fox films, she was hard as present as her strength demanded.
The same has happened to Monica Rambeau, an extremely powerful hero who even led the Avengers — though she received more sizable attention in the TV series WandaVision. Nubia, Wonder Woman’s Black twin is another demonstration of this underutilization. Fury questioned why it took so long for her to get her own run, “If she was created 40+ years ago, why is she just now getting her own?”
Fury believes remedying faults in diversity begins in the writer’s room. “It starts with hiring, making sure that you have more Black and brown people, or people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, differently-abled people, different sexual orientations. I think [hiring] with that in mind will change the climate whether they are actively trying to change it or not.”
Lynch shares Fury’s sentiments. He believes the most effective representation in both DC and Marvel has been when the perspectives of those being represented have been taken into account. When historically misrepresented people are present from the beginning, little details that can be overlooked can be employed to make people feel seen. He used the example of Naomi, a character from DC comics created by Brian Michael Bendis, David F. Walker, and Jamal Campbell.
“David F. Walker and Jamal Campbell are Black. So there are certain things that they get right when they’re portraying a character or they’re drawing her. Like she has locs and her locs don’t look a mess,” said Lynch.
He provided another example in Vita Ayala, a non-binary Afro-Latinx author for DC comics. “If you are a nonbinary person you have somebody to look up to ‘Oh they write books, they write amazing books’… and you think to yourself I can create these characters. I can be this writer. I can be the one to show that there are more options out there other than what we have.”
Marvel and DC both have a ways to go in terms of being socially aware and diverse. But as comic book lovers mature and venture into the industry, both groups can make their universes of escapism more reflective of the people inhabiting the real world.