On diversity in comics, and The Unforgiven

A reader asked me the other week where all the people of color are in The Unforgiven. It’s a point I’ve been meaning to address candidly for quite a while, and now, with what’s happening in this country I used to recognize, I feel it’s more important than ever that I do.

 

I grew up in a white, conservative, religious, middle to upper-middle class town. And I turned out to be a leftist, anti-religious, anti-racist, anti-bigoted human being. That I managed to reach maturity instilled with the fundamental understanding that humans of all kinds are to be loved and respected is a testament to the character of the family, friends, teachers, and all the wonderful people who had a hand in raising me, and whom I’ve surrounded myself with over the years. Nothing at all against the town—it just happens to be 99.3% white.

What this means is, though the city of St. Louis is 40 minutes away, for the overwhelming majority of my development, I was not exposed to a diverse group of people. The kids I went to school with, the people on the street—nearly everyone I interacted with on a daily basis was a person who looked just. like. me. More than that—the characters in the movies and TV shows I watched, the comics I absorbed, the toys I played with—everywhere I looked, I was well-represented. I never knew what it was like to turn on the TV and wonder where all the people were who had my skin color. Who had my gender. My sexual orientation.

Even in college, in the middle of Illinois, my exposure to people who were not like me was still limited. Sure, the makeup of the school was 60% female—but it was still 78% white.

I came up with the basis of The Unforgiven when I was still in high school, and I started seriously illustrating the story for publication while in college. The majority of the main cast was white. And male. And I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t recognize it as a problem, because I had never been on the other side of that problem. I’d never been underrepresented in any media I’d consumed. And no one around me had anything to say about the lack of diversity in my story—again, likely because everyone around me looked just. like. me.

So it wasn’t until many years into the process that I began to hear about diversity issues in comics. With several published issues under my belt, I decided to make my foray into the convention scene. And the more exposure I had to other comic creators and the surrounding culture, the more I began to hear about the lack of representation between the covers.

Historically, comics have not had a widely diverse creator base—and, for the most part, the characters that filled the pages of their books were a reflection of that. There wasn’t, to my knowledge, a conscious, collective effort to deliberately and with prejudice exclude women or people of color from places of prominence in comics. Probably a lot of earlier creators, like me, just made the mistake of putting people in their books who looked like them. They spoke to what they knew—which makes sense. But the end result was a cast of longstanding characters that aren’t a true reflection of the diverse makeup of the world around us—or the people who read their stories.

It’s only been within the last few years that I’ve seen mainstream comics publishers tackle these problems, and make a conscious effort to change things. Miles Morales, the first Spider-Man of color, was created in 2011, just as I was publishing my first issue of The Unforgiven. A few years later, we’ve got a female Thor, an Asian Hulk, a Muslim Ms. Marvel, and a black, female Iron Man (among others) joining him in the pages of Marvel comic books. Image Comics have risen to the forefront as another major player on the scene—and look at the diversity in the books they’re putting out. These are characters I never saw, never could have seen, in the comics I got from the local Wal*Mart as a kid. The effort being undertaken in recent years to ensure people of all backgrounds are represented in the comics they read has a long way to go, but I’m glad to be here at the beginning of it. And I’m eager to be a part of it.

Many facets of The Unforgiven are direct reflections of the modern world around us: increasing socioeconomic inequality and the hijacking of our governments by the wealthiest corporations and people, authoritarian abuse of power through the militarization of police, oppression of individual rights and freedoms, and invasive breaches of privacy—to name a few. But I grew up in a sort of echo chamber. And living in an echo chamber means running the risk of disconnection from reality. You’ll never have an accurate picture of the way the world really is. And, in respect to representation of all people in comics…I didn’t paint one.

But I’m working on it.

I realize I’m saying this as a white male comics creator—but I can’t change my ethnicity or sex, or that I fell in love with the world of comics from age 5, or that I knew soon after that making comics was all I ever wanted to do for a living. I can’t take back all the time and money I’ve put into making that dream a reality. But what I can do, should do, and WILL do, is work to ensure my series becomes a true depiction of the world around me (fictional liberties notwithstanding), and ensure that with time, every person can see a representation of his or her self within its pages.

 

So, to recap: within the first act of The Unforgiven, we’ve got a predominantly white male cast, guy rescues girl, dead parents and orphaned children, and a protagonist hero(?) who won’t kill anybody. Sounds familiar. The stage has been set by decades of other comics following the same line, and reinforced here in The Unforgiven. Some of that was intentional—but the lack of representation, admittedly, was not. Now that I’ve had the years to learn and recognize it, I can own it—and through natural storytelling, I can actively and intentionally subvert it.

Both life and art are a never-ending learning process. I’ve learned some over the years about what it means to be unrepresented in the media one consumes, and I’ve long since rewritten the back end of The Unforgiven while making inclusion a priority. The overall plot hasn’t changed, but I’ve written many new characters (and rewritten established characters no one has met yet), and adjusted some character arcs to create a more diverse, realistic story overall—and the story itself has only grown more rich and satisfying by doing so. Beginning with a few issues in Act II, then full-force in Act III, readers can expect to see a more diverse cast in the pages of The Unforgiven. The main cast will expand to include more people of color, more women, more gay characters—more people who don’t fit the white, straight, cisgendered male profile. No one you’ve already met has had their established character altered in any way—whoever they are now, and whoever they reveal themselves to be later on, they were born that way. But very soon, people from all walks of life will join together throughout the course of the series to fight the oppressive government ruling over them with an iron fist—and the characters of The Unforgiven will start to look more like the world around us.

And if that’s something you’re dismayed to hear—if that’s something that offends/hurts/disgusts/upsets you…then The Unforgiven isn’t for you.

One act down, five to go—and slowly turns the wheel of progress.

Let’s burn the establishment to the ground.

Love,

Tyler

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Side story: I was tabling at Wizard World in St. Louis shortly after releasing issue 1.6.5: Poison Girl, when a little girl pointed to the cover from across the aisle and shouted, “Look, Mom! She looks like me!” One of the best moments of my career.

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