In mid-July, Marvel announced that its forthcoming “All-New, All-Different” line of comic books would be accompanied by a full range of over 50 alternate covers paying homage to iconic hip-hop album art.
“For years, Marvel Comics and Hip-Hop culture have been engaged in an ongoing dialog,” Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso said in a press release. “Beginning this October, we will shine a spotlight on the seamless relationship between those two unique forces when we unveil the first of more than fifty variant covers, each of which pays tribute to an iconic album cover from the past 30 years that shaped pop-culture over the past three decades.”
The covers will feature art riffing on a number of iconic hip-hop albums from the past 30 years, with everything from Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers” and Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” to 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Trying” and Nas’ “Illmatic.”
Another case of cultural appropriation?
The initiative wasn’t particularly well-received online. Critics said the covers were nothing more than a classic case of cultural appropriation, yet another instance where a company capitalises on the art and ethos of a marginalized culture it doesn’t engage with in order to drive profits. It’s a recurring theme in pop culture, from Elvis Presley (whose trademark rockabilly sound took cues from R&B and Gospel and made them palatable to mainstream, white audiences) to Miley Cyrus (whose post-“Hannah Montana” rebirth has been defined by an affectation for Ratchet culture as an accessory).
David Brothers, a comics professional and critic specializing in the intersection of race and comics, articulated on Tumblr that Marvel’s hip-hop covers were doing much of the same — looking to profit from a month-long nod to hip-hop (a genre inextricable from Black culture) while ignoring the fact that it employs a disproportionate amount of Black creators. This, coming on the heels of a newly-announced universe that will comprise 50 entirely new series, with none of the currently-announced titles having a Black writer, is a bad look.
“One issue with Marvel publishing hip-hop-themed covers in the wake of not hiring black creators is that…a dialogue goes two ways,” writes Brothers. “Axel Alonso said Marvel has been in a long dialogue with rap music, but that isn’t true. It’s a long monologue, from rap to Marvel, with Marvel never really giving back like it should or could.”
It’s worth noting — and this is something Brothers acknowledges — that to Marvel’s credit, the publisher has hired Black creators like the Jamaican-American artist Damion Scott and African-American artist Khary Randolph to produce a number of these hip-hop tribute covers. But this still comes across poorly, since the same artists aren’t currently working on any Marvel books, and precious few other Black artists are already working on Marvel books.
This is also coming at a time when Marvel is finally recognising the diversity of their readership, and making strides towards having its characters reflect that. With newcomers like Kamala Khan, the Pakistani-American teen that stars in “Ms. Marvel,” and more prominent roles given to existing characters of colour — like Sam Wilson, the former Falcon and current Captain America — Marvel’s reticence to actively engage with critics is all the more frustrating.
In his regular interview column over at Comic Book Resources, Marvel Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso comes across as rather adversarial when addressing the criticisms the publisher has received over the initiative.
“We talked about how this initiative would likely be a lightning rod for a broader discussion about diversity in comics, and I said so be it, that’s a good conversation to have,” said Alonso. “But some of the ‘conversation’ in the comics internet community seems to have been ill-informed and far from constructive. A small but very loud contingent are high-fiving each other while making huge assumptions about our intentions, spreading misinformation about the diversity of the artists involved in this project and across our entire line, and handing out snap judgments like they just learned the term ‘cultural appropriation’ and are dying to put it in an essay. And the personal attacks — some implying or outright stating that I’m a racist. Hey, I’m a first-generation Mexican-American.”
Alonso then went on to praise the diversity of his editors and announced that some of the covers would come from new talent that Marvel has never worked with before — and could conceivably do even more work for the publisher in the future.
So why the controversy?
Artists and influence
A big part of the problem is how artists tend to be treated at the Big Two publishers, Marvel and DC — they’re the majority of the work force, responsible for what’s probably the most labour-intensive part of making a comic book. Unlike writers, many of whom can (and do) take on about five monthly series at a time, a professional comic book artist can only really commit to one monthly publication.
The natural consequence of this is one of influence — despite being integral to the success of the book they work on, they aren’t seen as “architects” of a publisher’s universe because — unless they are also writers — they aren’t visible as a guiding force for an editorial direction. This is multiplied by certain long-running, flagship titles like “Amazing Spider-Man” or some of the “X-Men” books, titles that ship twice monthly and often have a rotation of artists to hotswap out in order to meet their aggressive shipping schedule.
Of course, there are exceptions, and good ones at that. Some of the best, most highly-acclaimed books that Marvel and DC publish tend to have artists that are either credited or considered as co-storytellers with the writers they work with (like Chris Samnee on “Daredevil“, or Greg Capullo on “Batman“). Other times, the publisher will assign an idiosyncratic, well-known artist to a book specifically because their distinct style will get readers excited and help the book succeed (Think Michael Allred on “Silver Surfer“, or John Romita Jr. on “Superman“).
But again, these are exceptions, and the day-to-day reality of it all comes with the unfortunate side effect of making the contribution of an artist appear diminished in the grand scheme of things — they are the driving force behind less books than their writing counterparts, and participate in a system where they often appear to be interchangeable cogs in a machine designed to ship books as fast as possible.
In this context, minority creators are there to be seen, and not heard.
This is the frustration inherent in discussing diversity in comics — representation is nice, but it’s not worth a thing if you won’t listen to the people who are underrepresented. As journalist and editor Laura Hudson writes in Wired, those in charge often aren’t eager to listen to the critics from cultures they are ostensibly trying to reach.
“When faced with these sorts of criticisms,” writes Hudson, “the responses from publishers and creators tend to be a jumble of righteous indignation about good intentions or creative freedom, vague lip-service to the importance of diversity, or outright dismissal …Rather than seeing diversity initiatives as a matter of altruism or avoiding controversy, the most transformational approach advocated by critics and creators alike is the one that views it both as a form of honesty and as a valuable creative investment.”
Hip-hop is a vast and diverse genre of music, containing multitudes of sub-genres and sensibilities. It is, in its endless variety, honest and raw, offensive and heartfelt, unsettling and beautiful.
Most often, it is the art form of people with no other recourse; the only place where they could ever hope to be heard.
You can’t have a dialogue with hip-hop without acknowledging that.
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