Kleefeld On Webcomics #54: Just Like Me

By Sean Kleefeld

For much of the 20th century, comics in America were largely by and for Caucasian men. Very few women and minorities could be found working in the field and some of those that did tried to hide their identities to some extent. Krazy Kat creator George Herriman usually tried to dodge questions about his race and took to wearing a hat almost all the time to hide his tightly coiled hair. Dalia Messick used the more androgynous pseudonym of Dale Messick when she began work on Brenda Starr. Even Zelda Jackson, the first female African-American cartoonist whose comics were created specifically for black-owned newspapers, deliberately used her old family nickname to become the more masculine sounding Jackie Ormes, creator of Torchy in Heartbeats.

Formally, that’s not as much a concern any more. The comics pages contain works by the likes of Ray Billingsley, Keith Knight, Cory Thomas, Charlos Gary, Lalo Alcaraz, Lynn Johnston, Rina Piccolo, Hilary Price and Stephanie Piro to name a few. Which is, of course, fantastic but they still all reside in a distinct minority against an industry that predominantly favors (albeit only informally) Caucasian men. The thinking, historically, was that newspapers were primarily purchased and read by affluent white men, so they would prefer seeing something of themselves reflected in the comics pages. Regardless of how accurate that may have been, it was the general mindset of editors for many years.

Of course, comic creators are not bound by editors online and are free to create strips regardless of their gender, ethnicity or background. Which, in turn, means you’re more likely to get a greater variety of people working on comics. Lora Innes’ The Dreamer is a love story set during the American Revolution. Katie Cook’s Gronk is a sweet look at a monster who doesn’t want to be a monster. Tracy Butler’s Lackadaisy is a serialized 1920s adventure. These are all very well-regarded stories by women who probably would not have gotten even a first chance in traditional comics outlets. Their stories aren’t necessarily what a broad population might be looking for but they nevertheless have devout followings.

A full accounting of all webcomics would be nearly impossible. Certainly impossible within the confines of this column. But the broader female base of creators seems to be much closer in line with actual population breakdowns that on the printed page. That is, in a real world population which is evenly split between men and women, webcomic creators seem to be around that same ratio as well.

The 2010 Census states that about almost 13% of the U.S. population is black, and about 5% is Asian. A little over 16% is Hispanic. Do those numbers correlate to what we see in webcomics?

Well, it’s certainly easier to find creators that fall under those classifications online. Derek Kirk Kim of Tune, Ethan Young of Tails and Tak Toyoshima of Secret Asian Man are unapologetic of their Asian heritage. Harold Edge draws Dynagirl while Charlie Trotman works on Templar, AZ; though both are African-American, that comes through less noticeably in their comics.

As with gender, a full accounting of the ethnic demographics of webcomics’ creators would be nearly impossible. But, offhand, it does seem that there aren’t as many minorities creating online comics as there should be, if the ethnography of the digital world mirrored that of the real world. Interestingly, the Pew Research Center last year looked at online activity, broken down by race. They found that whites were about 15% more likely to be online than either blacks or Hispanics, and 20-30% more likely to have broadband. Conversely, blacks were 30% more likely than whites to access the internet via their cell phones; Hispanics, too, are more likely than whites to access the internet in that way, but not by nearly as much. (No data was gathered about Asian-Americans.)

Which suggests that whites have more and better access to the tools to create webcomics in the first place. I think it’s fairly safe to assume that the increased internet activity on cell phones stems from a lack of internet accessible computers. Which suggests that minorities don’t have the access to computers that whites do and, thus, are less likely to create webcomics. (Or web content in general, for that matter!) A cell phone, after all, is far from an ideal content creation platform.

I don’t know that I have the space here to get into the whys and wherefores of that issue, but suffice it to say that minorities who only see the predominance of Caucasians creating webcomics online aren’t likely to look to webcomics themselves as a possible option, regardless of whether they’re viewing them on a computer or a phone. Like printed comics, they don’t enter the business because they view it as unfriendly towards people like them.

As a rule, people are comforted by the “just like me” idea. Seeing others who remind them of themselves gives them confidence and promotes a stronger sense of self-identity. While I’m sure there are many more women and minorities working in webcomics than the handful I’ve listed above, it seems to me that until we get something closer to approximating the actual population breakdown, many potentially great comics are going to remain sitting on the drawing table because their creators didn’t think they were allowed into the club. Wouldn’t it be great if there were?

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Kleefeld On Webcomics #51: Kicking The Habit

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