When looking at current discourse over media, one notion hanging around comics and other related mediums is that diversity is somehow “forced.” The argument, so it goes, is that over-prioritization comes at the expense of storytelling and presentation. There is a disingenuous element to this whole line of reasoning where the true motive is trying to keep racial and sexual minorities out of fandom, but you’ll sometimes find people trying to argue this anti-diversity point in good faith. After all, “I love diversity, but quality should come first” seems like an innocent enough stance at first blush. However, the way they think about it is somewhat backwards. Being able to ignore the state of representation in works and judging them primarily on aesthetics is, to a degree, a luxury born out of already being able to see yourself and your values in them.
The image of the strong white man is practically foundational to the superhero tradition upon which American comics were built. Batman is one clear example, but even Superman—who was somewhat secretly coded as an immigrant—could pass as a typical white American on a visual basis. This is not to say that the intent behind their creation was racism, but rather that these stories had to deal with an assumption of what and who was the default.
It’s certainly not impossible for a reader or viewer to see themselves in a character who doesn’t look like them, come from the same background as them, or think and feel like them. In fact, that’s one of the beautiful things about media and fiction. But there’s a difference between being able to do this whenever you want and having to do this because you have no choice otherwise. Even when a new character is introduced as a way to speak to fans who could not see themselves in comics before, such as Stan Lee with the Falcon or Jack Kirby with Black Panther, their good intentions were also inevitably limited by a lack of firsthand understanding that comes with being born a part of black culture—which is where later creators such as Reginald Hudlin and director Ryan Coogler come in.
Comics and comics culture benefit not just from having a wide range of possible stories, but also giving the opportunity for a greater range of people to experience those stories while still feeling like they are as important and as special as anyone else. The many decades since the golden age of comics have brought the world an ever greater range of heroes of all colors and walks of life, with different authors and artists being able to leave their marks on this history. And even if a particular title is perceived as being too blunt or ham-fisted in its championing of certain groups or just diversity itself, having voices out there saying, “How you live and how you are is perfectly fine. You can dream!” is an important precedent to make, especially because it’s all too easy for an industry or culture to slide back into ignorance.