I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating; diversity in comics is more than just the characters we see on the page. Who is behind the page is incredibly important. Also important is where that page came from. You can read comics with all sorts of characters reflected on and off the pages, but if you’re only reading print comics from the big two then you’re just not getting that diverse of a selection.
Two of the biggest alternatives to traditional American comics we see get some coverage are webcomics and Manga. If you love comics and you haven’t dabbled in either, you should. Even if you’re just checking out Manga like Akira, it’s important to see how different people and places present stories in similar mediums. Another country that has a strong comics tradition is France.
One of my favorite graphic novels from France in the past few years has been Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Keroscoet. The English translation was put out by Drawn & Quarterly back in 2014. It’s a gorgeously illustrated dark fairy tale that ingeniously juxtaposes the bleak nature of the story with whimsical characters and brilliant colors. I can’t possibly recommend it enough. The worst thing about it is that it eventually ends.
Fabien Vehlmann and Keroscoet are back at it again with a new graphic novel, Satania, from NBM Publishing. Satania at it’s core is the story of a girl, Charlie, trying to find her brother, Christopher. Once again Vehlmann and Keroscoet implement their brilliant use of juxtaposition having beautifully vibrant illustrations depicting some rather dark and hopeless situations.
The journey that takes place in Satania is one that leads Charlie and a small rescue party to search deep underground for her missing brother. What starts as some gorgeous but mundane imagery of tunnels slowly warps and gets more and more twisted as you turn page after page. Not only do the backgrounds begin to twist and bend, but so do our heroes. Charlie is also haunted by the image of her mother; an emotionally abusive woman who’s done considerable damage to both Charlie and Christopher over the years.
Whereas Beautiful Darkness comes in at about 96 pages, Satania is a meatier story coming in at nearly 130 pages. For me, while Beautiful Darkness is a wonderful story, it did feel as if it could have benefited from running just a little longer to immerse me in the story more. With Satania I feel the story is at a perfect length. I was compelled to read it in one sitting and wanted nothing to distract me. I was fully engulfed and immersed in the increasingly dark, dangerously, and inhuman world that filled the pages. It’s rare that a comics work that isn’t multiple volumes hits me as powerfully as Satania did, but when I finished this graphic novel it stuck with me and still lingers as I write this. It’s so deeply tragic and upsetting while also hopeful and inspiring.
If you’re familiar with the works of Fabien Vehlmann and Keroscoet this may be their best outing yet. If you aren’t familiar, this is a great introduction to their work that will get you wanting more. I can’t recommend Satania enough, and once you read it you’ll understand why.
We talk about diversity a lot here at ComicMix, partly because it is often in the news, but mostly because it’s an interesting topic. Comics, like most popular entertainment, have generally been most lucrative for straight cis white men, but changes in demographics and delivery have made that less true in recent years. There are now visibly queer, non-binary people of different colors who are also expressing themselves in our medium, sometimes in ways that earn them money.
So I’d like to talk about diversity this week, but not in terms of the politics or the morality. I’m in favor of discussing politics and morality, but that’s not what’s interesting to me right this second. At the moment, I’d like to talk about diversity in terms of capitalism.
In other words, when we acknowledge that our society has many different facets and sub-cultures, we can fine-tune our marketing strategies to make even more money. In the process, we get more different choices in our entertainment. This “marketplace of ideas” is supposed to be the justification not only for capitalism but the First Amendment as well.
It’s not a perfect system. Hollywood, like so many others (myself included), will often find itself in such a rut of conventional thinking that they miss opportunities that would have enriched our imaginations and their bottom line. Still, the major studios move more quickly than their comic-book counterparts.
For example, in most cases, when an entertainment conglomerate was about to launch a superhero movie franchise in which they had invested hundreds of millions of dollars, they would do everything they could to arouse curiosity about the project. However, even though Marvel’s Black Panther film is coming out next February (Black History Month) and the trailer for it has been seen almost 100 million times online, the interest in the character has not been sufficient for the publishing side of the business. The World of Wakanda, written by the best-selling author Roxane Gay, was recently canceled, and it is not certain that a trade collection will be published.
Even if the single issues weren’t profitable, one would think the loss they caused would be just a small fraction of the total marketing budget for the character. And, in the meantime, people who were intrigued about the writer because she had just appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah would be able to find something that might turn them into comic book readers.
Comics don’t market like that. Marvel and DC own characters, not writers. In general, they see no incentive to promote a writer, especially one who hasn’t been brought to the public’s attention by comic book publishers. There are exceptions (Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example), but they are few and far between.
Comic book marketing needs to change, along with comic book publishing and comic book retailing. I don’t know what it’s going to take for that to happen, but we must adapt or die. All retail businesses must do this.
If you read a link above, it’s about how Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods might change the retail experience beyond simply Amazon and Whole Foods. The kinds of trips to stores we make might change, and our experiences within those stores might change. In some cases, we might interact with humans and in some cases, we might not. Our interactions with other humans might be more personal than simply handing a cashier items to be scanned, and might require conversations about our mutual wants and needs. In the process, the kinds of goods and services offered in stores might change as well.
My pal, Mike Gold, frequently jokes about the impending demise of the bookstore at the hands of Amazon and other online retailers. I appreciate Amazon (no pants required), but I love bookstores of all kinds, and I hope he’s wrong. I like grocery stores, too, although I use them less and less for produce, preferring to shop at my local Green Market. If I’m going to go shopping in a store, I like to make my own choices based on what is in front of me and ask advice from someone whose expertise I believe. This is true whether I’m looking for sugar snap peas or something to read.
In my experience, which I sincerely hope is outdated, comic book publishers tend to think of their market as almost exclusively the direct market. When I worked at DC, if I would suggest a particular idea that would appeal to bookstores, for example, I was told that comic book stores would object to such an action. I understand that comic book stores are the largest customers for the product, but they are not the only customers. In fact, I thought that if I were part of the creative team who hoped to earn royalties, and I found out that a big chunk of potential customers for my work was being dismissed, I would be pretty angry.
Bookstores are bigger customers for comics than they used to be, but the business is still, for the most part, not designed for them. Too many publishers decide what to print solely based on single-issue sales, even though the way to grow the market is to provide products for readers in every format that might be appealing. If this means formats that are more appealing to new readers (like graphic novels instead of serialized fiction), give those a try. Certainly, DC, with its Earth-1 series, seems to be willing to take that tiny little chance.
For the most part, however, corporate entertainment companies, at least those that include comic book publishers, seem determined to not only focus on superhero comics … but only certain kinds of superhero comics. They still target that straight, cis white guy, and in a way that seems, to me, to be guaranteed to turn off anyone else. My FaceBook friend, writer and editor Mariah McCourt, recently posted this (I have edited her post for brevity):
The alt-right sees diversity at Marvel Comics as a betrayal by Jews of the “white race.”
“Possibly the most perennial… “debate” in comics is about the sexualized imagery of female characters. For many decades now the depiction of female comic book characters has relied on sexualized exaggeration through a (mostly) straight male creator lens.
“What I have just said is a fact. It’s not an interpretation or an opinion, it’s a fact. … It’s not just true of comics, although it’s definitely one of the more obvious examples. Fine art also has a history of this, which is why there is the entire method & school of art critique that revolves around the concept of the ‘male gaze.’…
“For years now my issue is not that sexualized art exists, or whether that’s inherently offensive or even sexist. It can be and often is, but art having a sexual nature doesn’t bother me.
“What bothers me is when that is the default state of female characters and people try to deny it, excuse it, or otherwise wriggle around that reality. When they argue that all comic characters are exaggerated, as if there isn’t a significant difference in how and why and by whom and for which audience.
“Comics are a medium, not a genre. You can have sexy sex comics, in which case sexualized characters and art make a lot of sense. That would be a pretty understandable context for them to exist in.
“It makes way less sense, when you think about it objectively, to constantly walk a very fine line between softcore art in what are supposedly “mainstream” comics that do not exist to depict sex. They may contain sex, but they aren’t sex comics. So it’s pretty weird for them to constantly default female characters, and almost exclusively female characters, to exaggerated depictions that are clearly sexualized.
“It is also intellectually dishonest and not even borderline insulting to suggest that comics art cannot be critiqued because it is “not supposed to be realistic”. That is not a valid argument. That is a crappy deflection.
“Plenty of non-comics art is not realistic or exaggerated and it is subject to criticism. Van Gogh, Munch, Picasso. No art is above that. … It exists within the framework of its time, its creator, its intention, its execution, and more. Art does not get a pass. Art is not neutral or stagnant or banal. Or it’s not really art.
“This is all maybe even more true of commercial art, of art that is part of a collective zeitgeist or cultural movements, times, places, and creations.”
Yes, let’s have sexy sex comics. Let’s have comics with stories about adorable puppies and kittens. Let’s have historical comics and science fiction comics and fantasy comics and non-fiction comics. Let’s have graphic memoirs and space operas and unicorns and fighting squadrons. Let’s have biblical comics, Hindu comics, Sharia comics and pagan comics. Let’s have military history and genderqueer confessions.
And then… let’s make those comics available where readers can find them.
The first time you ever ate a Yummy-Lump candy bar – second grade, wasn’t it? – you were sure you’d never tasted anything so good and you couldn’t wait to taste another. You didn’t have to wait long. Your aunt – the one who lived upstairs and always smelled like wet laundry – loved Yummy Lumps and when she learned that you, too, favored that sugary delight she took it upon herself to be certain that you were never without it. Nice aunty!
Day after day, year after year as soon as you passed through the front door your aunt hit you with the candy and, dutifully, you unwrapped and bit and chewed because aunty was nice and besides your mother seemed to be afraid of aunty and told you that you’d best not offend her sister and so you didn’t. The candy made you want to puke, but so what? You ate it and ate it and ate it…
All this has exactly what to do with the nominal subject of these comments, comic books?
A while back, in what has become a reliable supplier of comics news, and I refer to nothing less than the August New York Times, the paper ran a story headlined Don’t BlameThese Heroes for Slumping Sales. The adjacent story told the world that, as the headline proclaimed, Marvel Comics was off its game in the money-making department. That’s disconcerting, but far from catastrophic, but the situation got worse when a Marvel executive blamed the faltering sales on the company’s diversity.
Time was, not so long ago, that Marvel’s primary product was superhero stories featuring costumed good-guy vigilantes who went around having double identities and kicking heinous ass. These stalwarts were, with few exceptions, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. (Okay, I’m not sure about the “Protestant” part. Matter of fact, these folk didn’t seem to have religions. Did this disqualify them from seeking elected office?)
Now, though superheroes come in diverse sizes, shapes, genders, ethnicities, orientations. (Of course, you know all this.) The Marvel exec apparently blamed limping sales on the diversity of revamps of familiar characters. The story mentions a female Thor, an Asian Hulk and a black Captain America.
But a respected comic shop owner in San Francisco, Brian Hibbs, disagreed. Mr. Hibbs blames Marvel’s woes on the plethora of series reboots with a Number 1 on the cover. (Number ones can be marketed as collectors’ items and so hobbyists may decide to buy extra copies; the flood of new series (more collectors’ items and the satisfaction of being there from the beginning) andt he promise of significant changes in storylines where, it turns out, there are none.
Questionable marketing tactics, unfulfilled promises and maybe just too much of the same stuff… In olden days these special issues were rare and maybe appeared when someone had a story idea that demanded special handling, and not one that existed just to sweeten profits.
There is, of course, no reason why a comic continuity can’t do both, but maybe it’s not a good idea to do them both every day.
Much has been written lately about the recent Marvel Retailer Summit and the unfortunate public relations debacle that followed. As you may know, Marvel had arranged to speak with and listen to leading comic shop retailers following a difficult downturn in their comic sales. The fireworks really started in the subsequent ICV2 interview when Marvel’s Senior Vice President of Print, Sales and Marketing, David Gabriel, summarized the retailer conversations, and the reasons behinds the sales slump in an awkward, clumsy fashion that ignited a plethora of heated conversations.
And then United Airlines’ corporate blunder dominated the headlines so outraged fans and consumers could focus their anger towards that brand instead.
But as the pundits reviewed Marvel’s missteps, there were a few topics missing from these conversations and analyses. Maybe these issues were just pushed into the background, but they are important puzzle pieces necessary to understanding Geek Culture’s retail landscape. And by not focusing on these issues, Geek Culture becomes its own worst enemy and just fights itself.
In fact, on John Suintres’ excellent Word Balloon Podcast, last week’s guest, industry expert Rob Salkowitz, talked about how retailers can often feed a false, or skewed, vision of reality to publishers. And as this vision can ultimately hamstring the longer term success of both retailers and publishers, I think it’s important that these trends also be considered:
Card Stores Shaking Off Comics
Attending last month’s GAMA trade show gave me a unique perspective into one particular group of the stores: retailers who are doing well but have walked away from comics.
At this trade show the focus was on games and gaming. Many card and comic shops are blended entities, where Friday Night Magic: The Gathering events are just as important as Wednesday’s New Comics Day. Of course, at a trade show like this there were many retailers whose personal passions lie in card games, and it’s difficult for them to understand comics. On the other hand, the show also hosted many comic retailers who see the potential in card games.
But there was a big contingent of card stores who have walked away from comics. It’s not that their hearts weren’t in it, it’s that they couldn’t figure out how to keep selling a sufficient amount of comics to their fans.
That’s a shame. They have the platform to make it work, they have an account with the distributor and there’s usually a lot of overlap. But for whatever reason, they chose to stop selling comics.
Diversity May Not Need Comics
A more even-handed headline would be “Diversity Doesn’t Only Need Comics, Per Se.” One of the shifts that we’ve been seeing amongst the best comics retailers is less of a percentage of sales from weekly ‘floppy’ comics and a more diversified merchandise mix. And that’s positive and robust for all parties.
It’s not hard to find a huuuuge fan of a particular character (Batman, Deadpool, Harley Quinn, Green Arrow – you name it) who does not read the comics featuring that character. They can probably recite the character’s adventures in the movies or on TV. They might spend hundreds of dollars in character merchandise. They might be wearing apparel that reflects that character or they might even cosplay the character. I know one college student in particular who has Batgirl images on her dorm room wall but is unlikely to ever read Batgirl’s adventures in comics.
The cold hard fact is that it’s unlikely you’ll ever convert this fan into a comic reader. You can convert her or him into a Geek Culture retailer customer, but not a reader. And that is surmountable for the industry.
YA Wants To Join The Party
Some of the hottest comics aren’t published by Marvel or DC – they’re published by Scholastic’s Graphix imprint and by Raina Telgemeier. And there’s a lot of them. The Young Adult (YA) genre is hot and creating new readers every day.
I stumbled across a prose Black Widow book, Forever Red by Margaret Stohl, at my local library. I’ve always liked the character ever since her reboot in Amazing Spider-Man & Amazing Adventures. (In fact, there’s a Gene Colan-illustrated shower scene that’s seared into every middle-aged comic fanboy’s’ adolescent memory.) And I’m really enjoying the current Black Widow Marvel comic series by Chris Samnee and Mark Waid.
But when I read the book, I soon realized that the entry point for the author, and her readers, was so different than my own. These fans know Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, from the movies. She’s been on screen for half a decade and that version is their heroine. Who needs musty old comics? Who needs floppy monthlies as an onramp? I did, but they certainly don’t.
• • • • •
And that’s the tyranny of it all. So many times the insular industry that is Geek Culture is talking to itself, or even fighting against itself. The experts are knowledgeable and loud, and dominate the conversations in such a way that’s difficult to discern the other voices. It’s tough to hear the lapsed retailers or the comics-character fans who don’t read or the up-and-coming YA crowd that wants to read more. I look forward to when Geek Culture focuses more on pitching bigger tents and focuses less on fighting against itself.
I guess Marvel senior vice president David Gabriel has had a bad week.
In case you haven’t heard – perhaps you were in solitary confinement – at the Marvel Retailer Summit Gabriel said that some retailers have told him that they “did not want female superheroes out there.” I have no doubt this is true: every industry has its share of morons, and sometimes – the Trump election is a case in point – those morons can influence policy. Capitalism being what it is, if enough morons have their way something really good and necessary gets chopped. For example, our President’s recent budget eliminated the miniscule funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Social media is instant, uncensored, and vox populi on steroids, so Gabriel’s comment was the latest shot heard around the world and everybody jumped on the bandwagon, taking his comments out of context, twisting them around, and making him appear to be the Adolf Eichmann of comics diversity.
Are there retailers who refuse to order, or who under-order, comics that star black, LGBT, and/or female characters? Of course there are. To quote from Blazing Saddles, “You know… morons.” Gabriel did say that Marvel’s commitment to diversity remains unchanged. He wasn’t backed into a corner and babbling bullshit to save his ass – he was standing behind a commitment made by a Fortune 500 company. Fortune 53 company, to put a fine point on it. And a publicly-traded company at that.
Did Gabriel say it in the most productive way? Hell, I don’t know. I wasn’t there, and I haven’t heard or read the statement in its entire context. At worst, it was phrased in a manner that was not adequately defensive.
In these days of instant communication and instant reaction – and I’m not suggesting this is bad in and of itself – it is virtually impossible to make an important observation that won’t be shorthanded and tossed to the wolves. And I like wolves. I have been one; I will be again. Getting the full story in these days of shortened attention spans and heightened touchiness is a bitch. But it is what it is.
My own takeaway from this affair: First, David Gabriel reported that some retailers don’t like diversity in comics, and I have absolutely no doubt that is true. Second, David Gabriel stood behind Marvel Comics’ commitment to diversity and reaffirmed it.
Corporate America being what it is, that’s not a guarantee. But it is as good as one can expect given the circumstances. Don’t condemn the guy for reporting an observation made by some retailers, delivered at a conference of retailers.
There’s a broader issue, one that I think is at the heart of the criticism. Previously, Marvel announced that this fall their best-known characters such as Iron Man and Thor will revert to their original constructs. We all knew that was coming. I said so in this space before, and I didn’t hear a peep of criticism. But that doesn’t mean that characters such as Captain Marvel, The Wasp or Ms. Marvel necessarily will be altered, and that doesn’t mean that Lady Thor et al will no longer exist.
What we need, and this has pretty much been ComicMix’s point of view all along, is that we must continue to create original characters who are reflective of our entire society. Yes, that is not easy. Absolutely. It’s tough to sell a new character out there. But Marvel has the muscle of Disney behind it, just as DC has the muscle of Warner Bros. behind it. Archie has been doing this for a long time, and some of the “smaller” publishers such as IDW and Dark Horse have plenty of resources.
Diversity is not a fad. No matter how violently some people might react from behind the safety of their internet service providers, this change is here to stay if we remain vigilant and we protect our gains.
Saying a lot happened in the world of comics this past week is a gross understatement. Between MoCCA Fest in the east, WonderCon in the west, the poor performance of the Ghost In The Shell live action remake, and the reports coming out of the Marvel Retailer Summit, I could have column fodder well into May. I’ll try to touch on a few of the points that are important to me.
For starters, I wasn’t at WonderCon, but you should read about it here.
Let’s start with MoCCA then. I wrote about MoCCA last year as well. For those not in the know, MoCCA stands for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. It’s a festival that’s been going on here for the past fifteen years, celebrating the indie side of comics as well as illustration, fine art, and creative innovation. This year featured big name guests including David Lloyd, Becky Cloonan, and Gene Luen Yang.
I joined ComicMix’s own Molly Jackson at the diversity panel MoCCA Fest put on titled Reading Without Walls: Diversity in Comics with panelists Gene Luen Yang, Damian Duffy, Hazel Newlevant, Whit Taylor, and moderated by Jonathan W. Gray. This panel is named after Gene Yang’s The Reading Without Walls Challenge he set as The Fifth National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. The challenge, as detailed in the previous link, is to read a book about someone who doesn’t look like you or live like you, a book about a topic you don’t know much about, and/or a book in a format you don’t normally read for fun like a chapter book, graphic novel, and so forth. Diversity in format and topic is important too, and if you have a child this is a challenge you should consider giving them. Even if you don’t have a child, this is a challenge we should all give ourselves to make us more well-rounded people.
The panel was absolutely packed, with all the seats taken up and people standing all around the back and sides of the room. The discussion was engaging with all the panelists representing a different background and personal experiences informing their opinions on the importance of diversity. While not everyone saw exactly eye to eye on every aspect of the discussion, it was clear that everyone agreed that diversity is not only important in comics, but it’s crucial for future success of the medium. The room seemed to agree as well, with little challenge to the notion that diversity is important. And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you the amount of people, young and old, that looked on at Gene Yang completely awe struck.
This moment at MoCCA was a sharp contrast to the discussion going on at the Marvel Retailer Summit. Again, for those of you who don’t know, ICv2 was given access to cover the Marvel Retailer Summit. The coverage revealed that in many cases, according to what was discussed at the summit, retailers were not able to move books that would be described as diverse. In order to remedy that, Marvel Comics would try a more “meat and potatoes” approach that helped DC Comics find success with DC Rebirth.
Part of this discussion has to deal with legacy characters and who should identify as whom. This is nothing new as well. Yes, it’s new in that Marvel seemed to quickly be replacing top tier characters that have counterparts in multi-billion dollar movie franchises, but DC did this decades ago swapping out Hal Jordan with Kyle Rayner, Barry Allen with Wally West, all the different Robins, and so forth. Hell, Steve Rogers had replacements before Sam Wilson. All of these changes had some degree of success.
The real problem that I heard come up in all the many conversations I had on this topic were not that Thor was a woman or Captain America was black now, but that the changes wouldn’t last, which discourages people from diving into those books. I know that there are readers who are genuinely racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and Islamophobic, but it is more complicated than just that. It’s hard to throw yourself into a character and a story that you know isn’t going to end well.
I understand the frustration with Marvel over what has been reported from that Retailers Summit, but it really is more complicated than that. Many of the problems that have persisted in comics have been problems for decades, well before Axel Alonso and David Gabriel were in the positions they currently hold. The course corrections they’re talking about making aren’t radically different from anything that DC Comics has tried in recent history.
There is no easy solution to the problem of representation in comics because it involves multiple entities. How much of this is on Marvel to recruit diverse talent and invest in promoting diverse books? As part of Disney, the money should be there somewhere. What would it have to take and who would have to embrace that investment? How many characters could they invest in? In order to procure and retain talent that could create characters that could be diverse and a big hit, will Marvel have to change how they handle creators and the rights they hold on their creations so they don’t just take those amazing characters elsewhere? Is some or all of this a responsibility Disney and other corporations have and if so to what extent is all this their responsibility?
Retailers play a big role too. How much of a diverse comic’s success is on retailers promoting certain books more? And how much of this is on readers? If more readers tried taking Gene Luen Yang’s The Reading Without Walls Challenge would some of these books be selling better?
This can be a long discussion with a lot of nuance that I could keep going on about, but I know you have other things you’d like to read today so I’ll start wrapping this up. Before I go, I’d like to bring this back to MoCCA Fest. This year, like all the years I’ve gone, was filled with incredible talent that made me wish I could have dropped so much more money. Two graphic novels I did pick up are Everything Is Flammable from Uncivilized Books by Gabrielle Bell, a powerful graphic memoir, and Trish Trash: Rollergirl Of Mars Volume 1 by Jessica Abel, from Papercutz’s Super Genius imprint. It’s a gorgeous science fiction sports with a diverse cast of characters. If diverse comics and graphic novels are important to you, you should really check these books out too.
I already can’t wait for the next MoCCA Fest. Oh wait! I didn’t even get to Ghost In The Shell! Real quick, I’m not surprised it didn’t do well at the box office, but they’ll probably blame Scarlett Johansson as a woman lead in an action movie and/or the source material they adapted instead of acknowledging the problems with white washing.
One of the most exciting developments in the comic book industry in my lifetime has been the increased diversity, both in content and in creators. It is no longer a given that only straight cis white men can be writers, artists, or heroes.
It’s something we champion here at ComicMix. Many of our contributors (including but not limited to this person, this person, and this person) discuss these issues on a regular basis.
I really love this. As a reader, it means I have a lot more different kinds of stories to sample. More stories means a greater chance to find something I like, or something that challenges me, or something that shows me something I haven’t seen before.
As a writer, it’s something I find more difficult.
When you are part of a minority group, whether through race, religion, ethnic heritage, sexual and affectional preferences, gender identity, body type or otherwise, you pretty much know how straight cis white guys see the world. Almost all of our art, music, writing, cinema and entertainment is from the perspective of straight cis white guys. Cis straight white guys are the default perspective in modern culture.
So, as a white woman, I feel comfortable and confident writing characters who are white women and men. As a Jew, I feel pretty comfortable writing about Christians as well as Jews. My problems arise when I try to write characters who are different from me in ways I might not fully understand. For example, I’ve been attracted to women in my life, but I have no idea how one acts on that attraction because, for me, it’s never been strong enough to go for it.
It’s not that the stories of people who are not either the default acceptable types or their female counterparts are not worth telling. I’m just not sure I’m the person who should tell them. It’s all too easy to stereotype someone who has different experiences than I do or, even worse, use them as archetypes and not real people. This article, although written about improv comedy, shows the how easy it is to unconsciously limit and even demean someone when you see only her differences, not her humanity.
The pitfalls arise, in my opinion, when the person in power sees those who are different only from this perspective. To use my previous example, I might be able to imagine, broadly, what being a lesbian feels like, but I don’t have any idea about the myriad obstacles and bliss in a dyke’s daily life. It would be all too easy for me to think my lesbian character is all about breasts and labia and coming out, and not how she thinks about getting the rent together every month, or whether a vegan diet is a good idea, or if she should make a play for the cute and possibly straight woman in accounting. She should be a fully-rounded human being, not just a contrast to the default assumption.
Does this mean I should avoid writing lesbian characters? There isn’t one single answer to that. It might be that I lack the skill. It might be that I should ask a queer friend to read what I write and point out where I’ve missed the point. It might be that I should just assume that, among my characters, there are queer people in roughly the same proportions as the general population, and let it go at that. In my real life, I know lots of people without knowing who they would prefer to have sex with. The same can be true in any fictional universe I create.
This might be useful things to consider as a writer. What about as a producer, someone who is, essentially, a gatekeeper about what amusements are available to the public? How does he consider the responses his audience might have, and whether that response is what he meant to convey? In this example, a video game company created a game that attempts to show a former soldier fighting organized crime in a fictionalized New Orleans in 1968. One would expect criminals at that time and place to be racist as all get-out. Does using the language that those people would have used add to the gaming experience or distract from it? What if it only distracts black players?
As we continue to explore this brave new diverse world, a bunch of us are going to make mistakes, some well-meaning and some no so well-meaning. If your mistakes fall into the latter group, you might think you’re a brave truth-teller fighting political correctness, but I think you’re an asshole.
For the rest of us, we’re going to have to take the criticism, absorb it, and see if we told the story we wanted to tell in a way that was understood the way we wanted. If we made a mistake, we have to try harder.
Every piece of entertainment cannot be all things to all people. Every story, every movie, doesn’t have to represent every possible experience. All people should be able to easily find stories with which they can relate, that make them laugh (and cry) in recognition.
Like many of the contributors on ComicMix, I spent the other week at New York Comic Con. In a continuing trend, attendance keeps going up with a greater representation of the general population, and with that, more programming centered around diversity.
Diversity in comics has been an important topic to me for years. Important to the point where those panels I prioritize over all other kinds. The Internet can tell me all the Batman announcements later. This year, I made it to at least one diversity focused panel (usually two) every day of the con. And because I’m so passionate about these things, I wanted to share with you all why these panels are important to me.
First off, and probably most importantly, they are safe spaces at the con. Knowing you’ll be in an environment with people who are either like you or at least empathetic can be and often is important to an attendee. Being othered sucks. It really sucks. Just being in a place where you can listen to people talk about their struggles being an outsider, and how they’ve made it work for them anyway can really be inspiring.
Second, they’re also great places to hear from creators of different backgrounds and become knowledgeable of their work. Truthfully, the goal of nearly all panels is to get you to buy the publisher or creator’s books and merchandise. As cynical as this may sound, the reality is the only way we’re going to get more diversity in comics is to actually buy comics with diverse characters in them. Crazy, right?
I had already been picking up DC’s Midnighter, the company’s only solo superhero comic with a gay male lead, written by Steve Orlando. I wasn’t aware of his Image Comics graphic novel, Virgil. After hearing him on a panel talk about Virgil as being a blood soaked revenge story and as “queersploitation” (a reference to blaxploitation films of the 70’s) I knew I’d love it. I went down to his booth in Artists’ Alley after the panel, picked it up, and already read it. I did in fact love it, but I might not have known to get it if I didn’t go to these panels.
FInally, they are helping to change the discussion in comics. Yes, social media is doing the day to day work, but diversity panels at these cons provide an opportunity for the publishers and creators to roll out their new books that will better reflect the changing demographics of comic readers, and gauge reactions. Sunday’s Culturally Queer panel moderated by Geeks OUT‘s Joey Stern opened up a conversation about queer representation in comics between the panelists where they differed greatly on what makes for good representation. This is an important conversation to be having. There is not necessarily a uniform right way to have representation. There are certainly some uniform wrong ways, however.
The biggest example of a change in the discussion that I saw was Thursday’s BOOM! Studios panel moderated by their President of Publishing and Marketing, Filip Sablik. The panel discusses the Push Comics Forward movement, which is actively setting out to make the comic industry more diverse over the next 10 years. However, the panel was made up of all white (or white presenting) panelists, with eight men and two women. Though there was some queer representation, Filip Sablik actually addressed this at the beginning of the panel, stating that they do have more diversity in their talent pool, and it just so happened that the people able to make it to the con and who were able to attend this panel for the books they wanted to highlight were mostly white male creators. I thought this was incredible. I give BOOM! Studios credit for addressing this. I don’t think we would have seen something like this happen even last year, and that’s a testament to the publishers and creators putting themselves out there on the issues of diversity in part because of these panels and that some of them are listening to us.
If you were at New York Comic Con last week and didn’t get to any of the diversity focused panels, definitely try to at the next con you go to. Even if you’re a straight cis white guy, there are so many new and exciting stories coming from women, nonwhite, and queer creators that you might end up loving just as much as I do.