Different points of view sharpen all media

Feb 22nd, 2013 | By | Category: Advice

Pencil with sharpener and shavings

© Alex Elman iStockphoto

By Joe Grimm
Michigan State University
School of Journalism

Joe Hughes, editor-in-chief at ComicsAlliance.com wrote in a column that there is not a single black writer working on a monthly series for the two major comics publishers in the country. Hughes asked why not and, as importantly, why doesn’t anyone seem to care anymore?

Good questions.

In the late 1980s, I was reader representative at the Detroit Free Press and editors got so agitated about diversity newspaper comics that it changed things. It might have started with a content audit I did.

After hearing an approximately equal number of black and white callers tell me there were too many people of the other color in the Free Press, I decided to run a one-month audit on the images. When I got to the comic pages in the back of the newspaper, I just kept on counting.

There were lessons to be learned from what we were doing on the sports pages and with crime stories and in features, but the finding that editors seized on was that the images of people in the comics pages were about 99 percent white.

There were lots of reasons for the disparity.

One of the cartoonists, pretty much all of whom were white, told me that the people he drew were factitious and could be whatever race the reader imagined, even though they were all white, even on Sunday. One cartoonist had tried to draw black characters but was so roundly criticized for how he made people look that he gave up. At least he tried.

A syndicate told us that southern markets wouldn’t buy strips with black characters or by artists, so they couldn’t carry any in their portfolios.

Other media, including The Wall Street Journal and The Chicago Reporter, picked up on that comics audit and started asking the same questions.

None of the objections turned out to be insurmountable. We asked for more diversity in the talent pool and in the strips. We started seeing it and bought the strips to try them out.

And enough readers liked them so much that we kept them.

One of my sons, just learning to read, was sitting on the floor of our home, reading the funnies, and started cracking up.

He showed me what made him laugh. It was “Curtis,” a strip by Ray Billingsley, one of those new black cartoonists. “Curtis” started in 1988. Billingsley counts many white cartoonists as his mentors and supporters, but he needed a chance. “Curtis” was it.

And here’s the lesson in a young boy’s laughter: We don’t diversify the media just because it’s right, although that’s a pretty good reason. And there’s more to it than including as many perspectives as possible, which is also essential to doing this work correctly. We also diversify the media because no demographic has a lock on talent and skill. In fact, that is less and less the case. So, if we don’t let the Ray Billingsleys do comics and, thank you Joe Hughes, write comic books, then we lose the people who have just the right touch to tickle certain funny bones or make people think.

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