I worship at the altar of Chris Claremont. I know, that may sound silly, but I think he’s one of the best comic writers that has ever lived, and for 17 glorious years he wrote X-Men, changing them from a low tier close-to-being-canceled book to the premiere flagship comic from Marvel. He didn’t do it alone; Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti had their hands in as writers, and of course, John Byrne’s artwork for a good portion of the run made these characters iconic.
A lot of people like to tote out that 16 year run and Claremont and say that Marvel has always been “woke”, and that anyone who criticizes current stories or writers simply is in denial about the history of comics.
But they are wrong. Claremont, (and Marvel in general), were champions of diversity, not being “woke”. There is a massive difference!
Giant Sized X-Men is a great example of “diversity”. Each new character comes with an original idea, power set, and name. They come from a different place, with a different background, from many ethnicities and races. But more importantly, each character has a different personality that had character hooks for future stories. There is a story justification for why mutants from all over the world need to be recruited, and since they are all strangers, Claremont writes a lot of friction for the team with clashing personalities, character defects, and hurdles for the heroes to overcome, internally and externally.
For instance, Nightcrawler looks like a demon, but is actually DEEPLY religious, which creates a dramatic tension for the character. Colossus is a Russian living in the United States as a mutant, and despite being built like a tank, is a gentle soul who is an artist. The struggle of being a power-hitter on the team and his more gentle nature creates conflicts for the character in stories.
This is actual “diversity”. It’s not just, “that German guy” or, “she’s a strong female character because she’s a woman and women are strong”.
These characters had deep motivations, and Chris Claremont spend 17 YEARS writing the book in such a way as to develop their characters. Storm losing her powers, Jean becoming the Phoenix, Colossus marching into Hell for his sister, etc. When you have good writing with diversity peppered in, once you already have the bones of a great character and story, then the diverse elements of the character can make them more interesting or give them a touch of unique flavor.
Now, what is “Woke”?
Simply put, being “woke” puts politics ahead of story, plot, character, setting and sometimes, even sense. And many times, it’s done in the name of “diversity”, without actually being diverse.
Above is Titania, who beat She-Hulk nearly to death in her introduction issue in Secret Wars. And she doesn’t have a track record of going easy on Thor.
But “woke” comics put politics ahead of everything else: story, character, and setting.
- Story – Does it make for a better story to have Titania fight Jane Foster (who is “Thor” at the time), or to have her give up?
- Character – Is giving up against Thor because her opponent is a woman something Titania would actually do based on her character?
- Is Jane Foster standing on her own two legs as a character, or is she propped up by the powers, design, and stories of Thor Odinson?
- Setting – In the super hero genre, how often do super heroes and super villains come into conflict due to conflicting ideologies concerning morality? Does it make sense in a Marvel Comic to have the villain punch out her own husband and give up to Jane in a book that is supposedly about heroes overcoming the challenges presented by villains?
The better story here would have been to have Jane in the fight of her life against Titania and the Absorbing Man, then barely pull out a win using her wits and skill. Then a great character hook at the end would be to see Jane be envious of the two as they love each other as a couple, while Jane is dying of cancer, feeling more alone than ever, and lamenting how two criminals seem to have something she desperately craves in her time of dying. That would be the old-school “diverse” Marvel plot for this same book.
This is an example of the difference between “Woke” and “Diverse”, which Marvel used to be able to nail. Now, they have quite a bit of difficulty with it. Almost 40 years ago, Titania was a powerhouse character who could rumble with She-Hulk or Thor; now, in a “woke” story, this character lays down and gives up against Jane Foster, because of feminism, despite feminism better being represented when she stuck by her guns. By trying to champion feminism in a woke way, it actually weakens both characters in this story!
A lot “woke” writing at Marvel puts the horse behind the cart. Woke stories often go so far as to ensure the hero isn’t challenged, that no one truly argues against them, and are sometimes ‘dumbed down’ and made a caricature instead of a person.
Examples of Woke writing would be like The ‘New’ New Warriors, who almost look like a parody of what they are supposed to ‘represent’. Even some of the names, like “Snowflake” and “Safespace”, which are meant to be, “post-ironic meditations” according to Daniel Kibbelsmith, come across as even more offensive due to the dumbing down of the characters to the audience.
Or, more commonly, woke writing creates characters who don’t have original powers, names, or abilities, and have simply been race-swapped or gender swapped with another character. In essence, they are borrowing all that is popular from a different character instead of being a unique new character:
The question always becomes: could this character stand on its own if you took everything that it’s borrowing/stealing away?
Ponder this: how popular would Miles Morales be as a character if he didn’t have Spider-Man’s powers, similar origin story, ties to the setting, and costume design? Could Miles, as a character, have a carried a book if he had a different origin, different powers, and name?
This is a major problem with “woke” writing because if the character is borrowing or stealing ideas from another character to be popular, is this character actually any good? Thor, Wolverine, Spider-Man… these are characters that stood the test of time because they had great ideas. A lot of the woke characters that take their origins, powers, stories, and mythology don’t feel original.
Instead of creating brand-new characters and adding to the Marvel stable of characters who are iconic and unique, what we get instead is a remix of an already existing character. And most of the time, the ‘new’ character was being made for one goal: to replace the older one, sometimes even in the same book, like Jane Foster in Thor or Riri Williams in Iron Man.
A lot of comics readers don’t like it. Chris Claremont, Ann Nocenti, and Louise Simonson, when they were working on X-Men, kept throwing new characters and ideas on the table:
And I do mean, lots and LOTS! They made entire sagas, supervillain teams, a slew of heroes, and did most of this work by constantly adding in new heroes and villains.
For instance, old school Marvel would make NEW characters entirely if they wanted Asian, South American, Indian, or Scottish characters. This creates MORE characters in the pool of characters at Marvel and give you more to play with. But unlike “Snowflake and Safespace”, these characters were treated not as a “post-ironic meditation” on the meaning of words, but as characters with the potential to last 40–80 years as characters. Sunspot, Cannonball, Dani Moonstar, Wolfsbane… The New Mutants had a really interesting lineup and many of these characters continue on even today without having to borrow powers, names, and backstories from other characters.
“Woke” Marvel really only has two tricks: change an existing character, or make a “new” character that borrows or takes everything from an already existing one. It’s done to take something from the previous character to ‘give’ something to the newer, more deserving character. Or, an existing character is altered for “representation” that moves the character from ‘column A’, (like being straight’, to ‘column B’, like being gay, because Gay people need more representation in comics. That is “woke” writing when it comes to creating characters for ‘new’ characters or characters that are now meant to ‘represent’ an underprivileged minority.
This turns off long-term fans who liked the original characters, it turns off fans who feel pandered to in an in-authentic way, and instead of building up a better stable of characters and stories, it’s reductionist.
Let’s be honest: it is VERY DIFFICULT to be a GOOD WRITER. Chris Claremont and Denny O’Neil are two people I adore in writing because they fully acknowledge that it isn’t easy. But it can be fun, and can be done really well. B However, you have to treat the characters and material a lot like they are real people. Listen to either person in interviews talk about how they developed plot lines over YEARS for some characters and you understand why that diversity worked so well. They were trying to write characters as though they were people; many woke characters, on the other hand, feel very artificial. That is a huge part of what has been driving down comic sales over the last eight years.