Comic Book Superheroes Pack a Diversity Punch

Diversity has come to comic books.

In an industry once dominated by white male protagonists, major steps have been made in an effort to include more minorities. Last week, Marvel Comics announced that Thor’s hammer will be handed off to a woman and African-American hero Sam Wilson, formally known as the Falcon, will take up Captain America’s shield after blond, blue-eyed Steve Rogers loses his powers.

To Michael Cohen, a partner with Duane Morris in Philadelphia, Marvel’s superheroes are the equivalent to their workforce. That makes the changes to Thor and Captain America, two of their most popular heroes, the equivalent of a company appointing two minorities to executive positions in a single week.

“Every time you look down at your watch you realize it’s 2014, and you realize that organizations have to change with the times if they’re going to survive,” Cohen said. “This isn’t a novel idea anymore. Increasing diversity is just good for business.”

In Marvel’s case, it’s not only realizing that readership is diversifying but also that the industry itself has far more outreach than it used to when confined to just fans of the comic books.

Clinical psychologist and 2014 San Diego Comic Con panelist Dr. Andrea Letamendi said what interested her most about the situation is that the announcements got attention from more than just the comic book community.

“Folks watching ‘The View’ at 10 o’clock on a weekday or Stephen Colbert in the evening are getting this comic book news as if it’s more mainstream,” she said. “That’s really empowering and impactful in the hopes that maybe other companies, whether they’re comic book companies or other agencies, would see that this kind of celebration and attention is the direction we need to go in.”

Cohen said just the reaction to Marvel’s decision should be enough of a motivator for companies to want to follow the publisher’s lead in bringing more diversity to the forefront of their employment practices. 

He said increasing the diversity of the people attracted to positions at a company is one of the best ways to increase diversity in the people hired without looking like the organization is only interested in members of EEO-protected groups. Word-on-the-street plays a huge role in making sure that minorities understand an organization is inclusive and looking to appeal to more than just the white male job applicant.  

“Now the name 'Marvel is associated with the notions of diversity, with the notions of inclusion and acceptance,” Cohen said. “I’m not sure you can put a price tag on something like that.”

Becoming synonymous with “diversity and inclusion” doesn’t necessarily mean making just one grand gesture, Cohen said. To avoid skepticism, it takes a series of small decisions and commitment to diversity over time.

This strategy has been used for years by Marvel, which has made previous headlines albeit in a smaller arena. In 2012, it featured a wedding between two male X-Men characters, one of whom was revealed as gay in 1992. In December, Ms. Marvel was recast as the publisher’s first Muslim character, a Pakistani-American teenager who in her introductory comic deals with balancing her devotion to Islam with the desire to fit in with her secular friends. These changes caught the attention of pop culture fans but didn’t have the same scale of reaction as the alterations to Thor and Captain America.

“These are made-up, two-dimensional characters that have been around for a very long time, but we can really draw from their characteristics and representation,” Letamendi said. “While they’re fantasy and fictional, they have real-life implications for the way we are, our lifestyles in both our personal lives and our employment-related lives.”