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Tony's Online Tips
Reviews and commentary by Tony Isabella
"America's Most Beloved Comic-Book Writer & Columnist"

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TONY'S ONLINE TIPS
for Monday, August 23, 2004

Our Army at War 179

I was the first member of my family to have black friends and I owe that to comic books. That several of them were long distance friends was the nature of comics fandom in the late 1960s, before the dawning of the comics shops. We exchanged letters. We wrote and drew for the same fanzines. We met at the all-too-rare comics conventions of the day. We all loved comic books.

My goal - my passion - in those late teen years was to become a comics professional. It's hard for me to recall with certainty whether or not I believed I would achieve that goal...at least not until the moment Roy Thomas hired me for an editorial assistant job at Marvel Comics.

My first day was Halloween, 1972.

Other than making the best comics I could, I didn't actually have a goal beyond becoming a comics professional and, in looking back, that much is evident in the shifting assignments and fortunes which have defined my career. I do know the Tony Isabella of 1972 never dreamed that - three decades later - he would be sitting at this keyboard to open a window on one of his current passions, one shaped by his years in the industry.

Stephanie Brandford, the writer of today's column-within-the-column is a moderator of the Dwayne McDuffie and Gettosake forums on Delphi. Her thoughtful posts on today's subject so impressed me that I invited her to share them with you. Chronic buttinsky that I am, I'll have observations of my own to add at the conclusion of Stephanie's comments, but, for now, I am most pleased to yield the electronic floor to her.

******

AT WHAT COST INTEGRATION
by Stephanie Brandford

This all started when Mark Hamill attacked me; not literally, of course, but as part of a dream. It's hardly unusual to have strange dreams, but normally, I wake up for a few minutes, mostly just long enough to think, "Why were those reindeer wearing Starfleet uniforms? I must have waited too late to eat that pizzzzzz...". Unfortunately, this time was different. I was awake, an hour before my alarm, and I wasn't going back to sleep, because this dream had jolted me alert. This happens every once in awhile, when I'm trying to ignore something that really is bothering me. So, this is going to take a bit of figuring out.

First of all, why that actor? It wasn't his science-fiction movie character, nor his comics-related animation character. He's probably just a stand-in for these hobby interests in general, which then leaves the question: why attacking? Usually an attack only happens there is some hostility or other general ill will towards someone. Something must have happened during the day that could be interpreted as hostility from these hobby interests. The most likely candidate was the discussion I had about convention guest appearances. It was explained to me that given limited funding, the most likely invitees were creators from the Big Two. On my end, the unspoken part of this conversation was the observation that that pool is very unlikely to include African-Americans.

This is hardly an unusual situation; many industries have difficulty integrating the more visible and influential parts of their organization. Many have only progressed under threat of sanction from the government, the courthouse, or consumers. In the case of the comics industry, the government and the courthouse are only worried about mature content, not behind-the-scenes hiring practices. As far as consumers go, dwindling readership is seen across-the-board, not specifically linked to creator demographics. This status quo is likely to continue well into the foreseeable future, without any pressure for change.

How would we measure progress, anyway? I needed an example against which to compare the comic industry. In my experience, one of the more difficult arenas to integrate has been the top of the food chain for the biggest businesses, that is, CEO of a Fortune 500 company. That will be the benchmark. Thanks to articles on the Fortune web site, it was relatively easy to identify African-American CEOs and set the baseline for a quantitative comparison. The three executives are:

Ken Chenault - CEO, American Express

Richard Parsons - CEO, AOL Time Warner

Franklin Raines - CEO, Fannie Mae

Three in five hundred is a rate of 0.6%.

The next step was to develop the integration measurement for the Big Two in the comic industry. This time, thanks to the Diamond web site, I could get a full listing of Marvel and DC releases scheduled for July 2004 ordering and September 2004 shipping. Since this is supposed to be a snapshot of the present, compilations were eliminated from the list. What remained came to a total of 170 opportunities for a writer to have been hired to create a story for the Big Two. Thanks to additional input from Dwayne McDuffie forum participants, there were three African-American writers linked to entries from the list (in alphabetical order):

Kyle Baker - Plastic Man #10, DC

Karl Bollers - Emma Frost #15, Marvel

Christopher Priest - Captain America & the Falcon #7, Marvel

Three in one hundred seventy is a rate of 1.8%.

That's...interesting.

Given the relative revenue responsibilities and personnel turnover, I thought that the comics industry could do much better. After all, the decisions that are made by a CEO affect revenues for the entire company. And when we're talking about Fortune 500 companies, the minimum annual revenues are $3 billion, many with much more than that. How much revenue does the decision of a writer of a single title affect? Depending on the sales of the title, on an annual basis it's approximately $500K to $1 million and is only a portion of the company's total revenue. With regard to turnover, it's only a gut feel impression that the tenure of a CEO at a company averages much longer than a writer's stint on a particular title. Imagine trying to have a one month fill-in at the head of a big business.

Having worked in corporate America for over a decade, I am familiar with many of the reasons given for the lack of diversity in hiring practices. The CEO position follows a series of many hiring decisions as a candidate moves through the managerial pipeline. Therefore, there are several opportunities for these corporate cultural influences to reduce diversity.

Those that are in the position of doing the hiring are often influenced by familiarity, or lack thereof, with the candidate. That familiarity can be one-on-one personal knowledge, or general cultural similarities. Even before a particular candidate gets to the screening and interview stage, they need to be within the applicant pool.

Companies choose whether and where to publicize a position opening. Often, word-of-mouth references make up a large portion of the pool. Again, familiarity has an opportunity to reduce diversity.

As a remedy, larger companies have initiatives intended to broaden the pool of applicants by using more diverse outlets and improve the chances of diverse hiring by training the decision-makers to be sensitive to their own biases. Since I do not work within the comics industry, I have no first-hand knowledge whether similar initiatives are underway within the Big Two. All I have to go by are the recommendations of current writers towards those aspiring to write for the Big Two. There are guidelines about preparing work for review, etiquette during interactions, and expectations for getting responses. I've not read anything indicating that there are recruit and retain programs underway to add diversity to the talent pool.

I believe this is where my perception of hostility comes in. It's one thing to recognize a problem; given the history of the United States, an inferior status for African-Americans is widespread. It's an entirely different situation when those with the ability to implement change simply shrug their shoulders and continue business as usual. I've already mentioned earlier about how there are lesser chances for external accountability. Internally, the idealism that comes out in stories might have a chance to reverberate back through the organization, but that hasn't helped so far.

Perhaps competitor publishers will take advantage of the situation. Personally, I've noticed that an increasing proportion of my purchases does not come from the Big Two. Sure, some of that comes from older tastes, but not all. This shift would only accelerate with a greater mix of diverse talent. Otherwise, I may have no choice but to spend my entertainment dollars elsewhere. And given the demographic changes in this country, I doubt that I'd be alone.

- Stephanie Brandford

******

AFTERWORD

Earlier in today's TOT, I spoke of my current comics passions. The personal and most obvious one is that I would like to return to the business of making the best comics I can, comics that deliver solid value to those who buy and read them. A more general one is that I'd like to see comics creators treated more fairly than they have been and are being treated by publishers. And then we get to another general passion:

I'd like to see more African-Americans in comic books, both as creators of those comic books and as positive characters in those comic books.

This is a passion which evolved within me. When I wrote Luke Cage stories for Marvel, when I created characters like Iron Fist friend Misty Knight and Jefferson (Black Lightning) Pierce, I acted out of the sense of fairness which had been installed in me by my parents while I was growing up.

There were so many comics fans who were black that it didn't seem fair that we had so few black characters. So I created some. I never knew then or, indeed, until much later, how much opposition there was to what I saw as simple fairness. I never realized until much later that one can reasonably argue that there was and still is an ingrained - hopefully unconscious - culture of discrimination with the industry. Past and present.

I don't have to catalogue how many black characters have been used badly by comics editors or writers over the past decade or so. You can make the list yourself.

I don't have to point out how few black editors or writers are working for the Big Two on a regular basis. You can make that list yourself and in a lot less time than it would take you to make that first list I mentioned.

Do I have solutions to these problems? Sadly, I'm not sure I can even convince those that most need convincing that the problems are real and that they should be addressed.

All I can do is what I've tried to do here:

Open a window on the problems and - hopefully - generate some serious discussion of their nature, the need to address them, and the ways to solve them.

I look forward to those discussions.

******

COVER STORY

Our opening illustration is the cover of OUR ARMY AT WAR #179 [April, 1967]. In "A Penny for Jackie Johnson" by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert, the former boxing champ faces the racism of an Easy Company replacement. When Jackie extends a hand in friendship to Sharkey, the other soldier calls him "boy" and drops a penny into his hand, adding: "Where I come from, we don't shake hands with the likes of YOU! We just drop a coin in it."

Sgt. Rock sees Sharkey as a danger to the squad. Jackie won't answer in kind. He figures Sharkey is entitled to his opinion and that it's up to Jackie to show the man the error of his wrongheaded thinking. You can see where this is going.

More insults. More of Rock getting steamed. Let's skip right to the scene *after* Jackie has saved a seriously wounded Sharkey despite the ex-boxer's own injuries.

Sharkey asks for his penny back.

Jackie and he shake hands.

An earlier Jackie Johnson story had him prove himself in the face of Nazi racism. This story had him facing racism from one of his own countrymen. It seemed like an apt choice for the opening of today's column.

******

SPECIAL THANKS

...to Stephanie for writing today's guest column-within-the-column and to the members of the Dwayne McDuffie forum for helping her with the research on same.

Thanks also to the esteemed McDuffie himself. His forum has been and continues to be a fine and friendly place to discuss these and other issues, ranging from the serious to the jovial. You can check out this fun forum at:

http://forums.delphiforums.com/Milestone/start

As always, my own message board is also open for those who may wish to discuss these issues, my columns, and pretty much whatever else you want to talk about:

www.comicscommunity.com/boards/tony

Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back tomorrow with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

<< 08/19/2004 | 08/23/2004 | 08/24/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Message Board. Also, read Heroes and Villains: Real and Imagined and view my Amazon Wish List.

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