Two Black former DC Comics editors describe the career obstacles they faced, from white leadership saying they'd never be promoted to their achievements being undercut
- Harvey Richards and Lateef Ade "L.A." Williams, two Black former DC Comics editorial staffers, told Business Insider they felt their careers at the company were hindered because of their race.
- Richards was fired in December 2019 after 22 years and was the only Black editorial staffer at DC when he left. He was only promoted once.
- Williams exited in 2000 after six years without a promotion and after disputes with white members of DC leadership.
- The careers of Richards and Williams cut across two decades, but the similarities in their experiences, from being told they'd never be promoted to a feeling that their achievements were not valued, show how little has changed for Black staffers.
- DC's small editorial team shapes the comics that inspire lucrative movies, video games, and merchandise. Richards and Williams said that it's important for Black editors at DC to be in a position to champion diversity.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Harvey Richards and Lateef Ade "L.A." Williams have a lot in common. They both grew up reading comics with aspirations to work in the industry one day. They both ultimately nabbed roles on the editorial staff of DC Comics in the 1990s.
And they are both Black men who say they never achieved their full potential at DC Comics because of their race.
There are differences in their stories — notably, the time periods. Williams exited his role as an assistant editor in 2000 after six years without a promotion, while Richards spent 22 years at the comics giant with just one promotion before he was fired in December 2019.
But the similarities that cut across those two decades are striking and speak to how little has changed for Black editorial staffers at DC Comics and in the comics industry at large.
Richards was the only Black staffer in the main DC editorial department at the time of his exit in 2019, which included about 15 people, he said. He added that DC had since hired a Black assistant editor. DC declined to comment on personnel matters.
DC, which is home to Batman, Superman, and other iconic characters, is much larger than its comics editorial department, with around 200 employees on the publishing side. But the small team of editors shape the comics and characters that inspire lucrative movies, video games, TV shows, and merchandise.
"You need [Black] editors to help nurture talent to foster diverse characters," Richards said.
Besides being the only Black editorial staffer at the time of his exit, Richards felt stymied in his own career, he said. In his 22 years at the company, he was only promoted once. He began as an assistant editor and 12 years later, in 2009, he was promoted to associate editor.
L.A. Williams can relate.
"My personality and work style is different than Harvey's, who is different from every other name I could rattle off," Williams said. "But no matter how different our work styles or personalities are, the reality is that every one of our stories ended up the same. When it keeps happening year after year, person after person, you have to ask yourself what all of these people have in common."
A Latinx former assistant editor, who exited in 1999 after five years without a promotion, shared similar concerns with Business Insider about a lack of a career path forward at DC and a sense that her work was undervalued.
The stories of these three former DC editors are also similar to that of Charles Beacham, a former Marvel editor who spoke with Business Insider in July. Beacham was one of two Black editorial staffers Marvel had employed in the last five years and quit in 2017 because he felt his voice wasn't heard.
For Richards, there were many instances during his time at DC where he felt he was treated unfairly because of his race. He recalled specific instances with Paul Levitz, the DC publisher at the time, like when Levitz told Richards he had "grammar problems," and when Levitz told him "some people think you deserve this" when Richards won an award. Richards was never promoted while Levitz was publisher and president.
Williams also described a confrontation with Levitz, in which Levitz told Williams that he would never be promoted as long as he was publisher.
In response to a request for comment, Levitz said: "I'm not going to comment on decades old incidents. I'm proud of the increasing diversity at DC in my time as an executive there, and while we didn't achieve an ideal balance, I think much changed for the better."
Since Richards' departure, DC has taken some steps to promote diversity and inclusion.
Two women — Marie Javins and Michele Wells — were named interim editors-in-chief after recent layoffs. DC recently hired former Activision Blizzard exec Daniel Cherry, who is Black, as its new senior vice president and general manager, overseeing marketing, sales, and more for the company.
DC is also reviving Milestone, a division of DC that focused on Black characters like Static Shock and was founded in 1993 by four Black men. It ceased operations in 1997 but will return in February.
But for Richards and Williams, it's essential to have Black voices on the editorial front to help inspire change and champion a diverse set of voices and characters.
'I've had my doubts about you'
For Williams, comics were his life. He had written his senior thesis in Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts on the history of Black characters in superhero comics.
So when he got a job at DC Comics in 1994, it was a dream come true. But he faced roadblocks that previewed Richards' own experiences in the coming years.
Williams, 51, recalled an instance in 2000 when some assistant editors were given a monthly comic to edit on their own by then-executive-editor Mike Carlin, who is now a DC Entertainment creative director. Williams said the assistant editors of color were set up to fail and given comics that were doomed from the start.
But Williams turned his assigned book, "Impulse," starring a Flash sidekick that had been hurting in sales, into a success.
Carlin wasn't happy. Williams said Carlin cursed him out for getting veteran comics creator Walt Simonson to draw two issues of the comic, and "wasting his time on Impulse when he should be drawing other characters like Superman."
Carlin did not return a request for comment. DC declined to provide a comment on his behalf.
That sense of not being valued even when he succeeded was a hallmark of Williams' time at DC, he said.
After a white associate editor was fired, Carlin offered Williams to take over that editor's books, which included one of DC's best-selling comics at the time, "Wonder Woman."
Williams remembered vividly what Carlin told him: "I've had my doubts about you, but you've delivered. Everything is always on time, it sells, and critics like it."
"I thanked him for my promotion," Williams said. "And he interrupted me and said it didn't come with a promotion. I feel so stupid now, but at the time I was so confused and asked why it wouldn't come with a promotion."
More than two decades later, the answer is obvious to Williams.
'Some people think you deserve this'
Williams' DC career ended just as Richards' was just getting started.
Richards, 48, moved from Akron, Ohio, to New York City in 1995 and began his comics career with an internship at the original Milestone, which then shut down in 1997. His Milestone connections eventually led him to DC, where he started in the mailroom and then became an assistant editor.
"I was living my dream at this point," Richards said.
In 2001, after four years as an assistant editor, Richards was offered the chance to work on the Superman titles. It wouldn't have been a promotion, but a chance to prove himself (the chain generally went like this: assistant editor, associate editor, editor, group editor, and executive editor).
But Richards was given what he said was the "unusual" task to write about what he "could bring to the Superman books." Paul Levitz, then the EVP and publisher of DC, told Richards he had "grammar problems" after he completed the assignment.
"After that, Levitz made up his mind about me," Richards said. "I felt he already had because most people are promoted after four years. But after that, it was over, even if I got a good review or worked on good projects or got company awards for going above and beyond."
Richards won two such awards, called "Carrots," which were given by DC's parent company, Warner Bros. After he won the second time, Levitz handed it to him and said "some people think you deserve this," Richards said.
Richards was finally promoted to associate editor in 2009, 12 years after he was hired, when Diane Nelson took over as president of DC Entertainment.
'Change is going to come'
Richards' time at DC came to an end in December.
He had been put on zero-tolerance probation in August of last year. The document Richards provided Business Insider outlined "poor time management skills and an inability to meet deadlines." Richards said he was being overworked.
The day after he returned to the office from Thanksgiving break last year, he was let go with a six-month severance and told he "no longer fit company standards."
He's still looking for work while honing his digital art skills. He said a potential employer asked him why he was only promoted once in all that time at DC.
"It wasn't because of my work performance," Richards said. "I feel like they blacklisted me."
19 years earlier, Williams had left DC with similar sentiments.
After a confrontation over Williams using the likeness of the Alabama governor in an issue of "Impulse," Levitz told him: "As long as I am publisher of DC Comics, you will never be promoted. You're welcome to stay here in the role of assistant editor for as long as you like."
Williams thought the timing of the dispute — shortly after he had filed a racial-discrimination complaint with human resources against Carlin — was suspect. He quit shortly after.
"I naively thought that as long as I do good work, the comics sell, and the critics like them, I'm going to do well," he said. "As a Black man in America, I knew I wouldn't be able to make as many mistakes as others. But I thought the solution was, work harder and do better."
Their experiences highlight why editors of color are so important, Richards said. They can help "realize a creator's vision" and promote more diversity in comics. He lamented that he never got that opportunity. And Black editors in senior positions could provide a source of support for ones in assistant or associate roles, he said.
"Ideas came down, they didn't go up," he said. "And I didn't have anyone above me advocating for me."
He hopes the recent shakeup at DC affords marginalized groups more opportunities and he sees more women in comics than ever before. Jessica Chen, who is Asian American, was promoted from associate editor to editor last year, for example. But Richards also noted there is still a lack of Black women in the industry.
"Change is going to come," he said. "It has to."
If you have a tip about DC Comics or anything else, email the author at [email protected] or DM him on Twitter @TravClark2.
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