Contemporary Comics Face, and Overcome, Diversity Missteps

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What brings a standing-room-only group to Hyatt Hanover F for a panel at 8:30PM on Saturday night at Dragon Con? Nerdy academic discussion about diversity in comics seems to do the trick. A round table discussion on Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Contemporary Comics, led by Dragon Con guests Kelly Sue DeConnick, Laurenn McCubbins, and Damien Williams, and Comics and Popular Arts Conference (CPAC) academics John Flowers, Tini Howard, Kari Storla, and Daniel Amrhein gave an enthusiastic and intelligent crowd a true treat and highlight of the weekend for many.

DeConnick kicked us right off with commenting on how disturbed she is that we have less diversity in media like television than we did in the 1970s. We’ve found an opportunity to bring more of Things Like Us into our worldview, but at the same time, it’s allowed us, far too easily, to slip into a place where all we interact with is people like us, and not challenging our focus like we did when we had a more limited media access.

Speaking to the idea of broader media access and marginalization, Flowers pointed out that “as you generate more and more works focused solely on marginalized people, produced by marginalized people, one of the limitations of that kind of diversity is the failure to recognize that within marginalized groups, there are dominate groups and there are subgroups.” He cited Empire as an example of one kind of black experience—and excellent portrayal of black characters on a very white network—but it only represents a single slice of a particular experience. Marginalized groups aren’t one homogenous whole, but media, and comics in particular, have a habit of representing them as such. Narratives tend to center around the dominant group within the marginalized group, which is a problem we need to address even while we build a larger space for all of us to exist within.

An early question sparked a heavy debate about how we interact and learn from each other, especially in hostile spaces, where others don’t accept our different life experiences. Flowers is teaching multi-cultural perspectives on women, gender, and sexuality, and is finding his way with being the person who is not living these experiences. His approach when he is a guest in someone else’s space is to listen, and not challenge it, allowing people who have let him in to be angry or feel their oppression, to keep his mouth shut and listen. This is the best way he feels to navigate these spaces, and encourages others to take a similar approach.

McCubbin reminded us all to seek out others who will challenge our worldviews, but don’t pat yourself on the back for following people different from yourself, and don’t expect them to educate you if they have a different experience than you. She also had some excellent advice about handling social media: “It is healthy for you to figure out what your boundaries are; just because someone @s you, you don’t have to reply. It is super healthy to say to someone ‘hi, these are my boundaries, you have crossed them, go kick rocks.’ And block, block heavily, and sometimes, hard is it is, go leave the internet for a while.”

Storla took up the issue of social media fragmentation, and the idea that twitter tends toward us finding Our People and not reading as many people of differing views, but often Facebook gives us a bit more of the outside perspective, because we have different social set in each place. She also allows two exchanges with someone who is coming at her possibly trying to talk over her lived experiences, and if after those two back and forth exchanges, if they still aren’t getting it, she employs the block button or option to ignore. It’s no longer, in her mind, incumbent upon her to educate or engage.

“I’m a human being; I’m telling you that this is something that hurts me, this is something that makes me feel lesser. You can say you don’t care about that, but you have to understand that that makes me want to end the conversation,” Howard expressed, ardent about defending herself against trolls and Nice Guys. “I want to talk to you, but go read a blog, if you’re looking for something you don’t have to respect. You can read that, and X out when you’re done.”

Amrhein, the only straight cisgender white guy on the panel, offered some excellent perspective as well, clearly demonstrating that he’s worked on himself and his privilege, and is still working on it. “If they’re unwilling to find even the least bit of common ground, like ‘I acknowledge that you to be a person, and I’m going to treat you like such,’ just bow out. Coordinate your effort, and put your energy in a productive direction,” he said.

Someone asked what we should do to make other people have a perspective shift, which had DeConnick proclaiming fervently, “If I could fix racism, and sexism, and transphobia, and homophobia, I’d have done it this morning before f*cking coffee. And I don’t do sh*t before coffee.”

The deeper answer to that question is that you can’t make people reach outside their comfort zones. We can’t control what other people do, and we shouldn’t try. Instead, we can, and should, branch out ourselves, reach beyond our comfort zones, beyond our experience, and lead by example. Talk about it, tell everyone you know, especially people who don’t share or necessarily search out that worldview. Give them books, show them articles, make them aware of different ideas, but don’t force anything on anyone. “You speak your truth, you live your values, and if someone comes at you, you say I don’t give a f*ck if you like it,” added DeConnick.

The powerful thing about the internet is you don’t have to have money or power to become visible. Everyone is making stuff, some of the stuff is good, some of it is bad. Hopefully with more real estate, people can choose what they want, and there’s more than a single outlet for your shared experience, Howard added.

A new-to-comics fan expressed absolute joy at the fact that the first thing they read was Loki: Agent of Asgard, and discovered a gender-fluid character, and also an asexual character, both of whom they identify with. They wondered about niche characters like that and what it was like to find that character that “is me!” This sparked the conversation into a direction of the idea of relatability and “niche,” versus us just being people.

Flowers jumped right in, proclaiming that “that’s not a niche, it’s just another representation of humanity, so to hear people say well, do you think there should be more niche black characters, I don’t think there should be more niche characters, there should just be more black characters. It’s another example of diversity of humanity.”

McCubbin has been interviewing cosplayers for a new project, and a thing that interests her greatly is the idea of crossplaying, or playing a character of another gender. With the caveat that her data is nowhere near complete, the core reason why people crossplay she’s heard so far was that representation matters. “If I identify with a thing, I will love and be passionate about that thing and I will feel whole, and that other people’s representation matters as well.” A particular moment she shared was a woman explaining her love for Bucky Barnes, and the reason for it was because “[Bucky] lost his agency, and I understand how that feels.” Women also crossplay because they are left alone more and are less sexualized in a crowd situation. (Side note, if you’re a cosplayer, and want to talk about why you do it with McCubbin, please reach out to her via twitter @laurennmcc)

DeConnick has been having meetings with network executives who are suddenly saying that they’re looking for complex female protagonists, and she finds that to be “thank-you Cookie (from Empire), is one big part of it, and thank-you Furiosa is the other part.” Once something makes money, there are conversations to be had; people will suddenly realize that they wanted this “for a long time,” as the dollars begin to appear. The way to find a home for things in the big media world is monetary, fortunately or not. Carol Corps are a prime example of how money talks; they bought a lot of things, mostly T-shirts, and Marvel took notice. Ms. Marvel is another great example, as the books are blowing sales figures out of the water. (“Not everyone can write the thing, but when you find the thing, give the thing a lot of money!” added McCubbin)

In talking about Batgirl and the epic mishandling of the trans character Dagger Type, McCubbin pointed out just how valuable mistakes can be, because the publishers have realized how badly they messed up and have been owning up to and trying to rectify their mistakes. “Failure is awesome, because you learn how to do better,” she said. We all have problematic favorites, there’s almost no way around that, but the key to being able to live with that is you need to own up to it, and acknowledge that your favorites have problems. You can still like them, because if we shunned all the problematic things, we wouldn’t have things, but we can’t hide the problems.

The question of metaphor-versus-literal representation sparked another deep discussion, kicked off by the obvious: X-Men. Amrhein spoke about how things can be amazingly metaphorical and give meaning to a true experience in certain X-Men runs, but also can be “this is an oppressed group of beautiful, beautiful, white sexy people,” white-washing and selling to other white people.

Storla took a stance not entirely against metaphor, but held a more cautious line with them. She’s worked in trauma studies, and it’s been examined that people without the experience of a trauma are incapable of understanding it on a literal level. If there’s nothing personal to relate to, you’re going to find yourself reading it as metaphor anyway. Therefore, the metaphor may go over someone’s head entirely if they’re without a framework to base their concepts in.

McCubbin was “super super literal,” she literally wants more black people writing, and pointed out the utter lack of black women working at The Big Two, both she and DeConnick only managing to come up with a single woman in editing at either.

Disability in comics is also a very important and very problematic representation point, as many character disabilities are fixed, or superpowers form from them. They’re displayed as enhancements on the good side, and on the bad side, disabled characters are, as Flowers described, the mutants on Muir Island, too much for “normal” people to handle.

Williams wondered at the difference, in comics, of disability versus enhanced ability, because if someone in comics loses a limb and gets a new, super-powered one, are they still considered disabled, even if they have more abilities than most people now? Overall, with the exception of Hawkeye and Jon in Sex Criminals, disabilities are badly crafted in terms of representation for actual disabled people, yet another thing we desperately need to change.

Possibly the high point of the entire panel for most of us came half an hour from the end of it, when Flowers and fellow CPAC presenter Ahmed Younis, (an audience member for this panel, but on a panel with Flowers on Monday) went essentially toe-to-toe about the merits of T’challa, (Black Panther) as representation of the black experience within comics. This 10 minutes of back-and-forth that ended in “vociferous agreement” (Flowers) had the rest of the room sitting back in nerdy joy, watching these two smart, passionate black men discuss the meaning of representation of themselves and their experiences. Round two will be on Monday at 11:30AM in Hyatt Hanover F, and it’s sure to be an excellent time for all!

Intersectionality was the close-out topic, mostly directed at-and answered by-DeConnick. She had a chance in Captain Marvel that she had messed up, and needed to rectify. As DeConnick made the Banshee Squadron, she had the opportunity to create a black character, but decided not to, based on historical accuracy. However the Banshee Squadron was armed and fighting aliens, which missed the historical accuracy mark as well. Her comfort level, she realized later, was in bypassing the opportunity for a black member of the Squadron for not forcing herself to confront her feelings on race. It eventually presented her with an eye-opening learning opportunity, to face, and fight, her default white-woman-of-privilege racist mode. When she was given a chance to write the Banshees again, she added a black woman, Jolene, who DeConnick describes as a “badass, and I love her.” These perspective shifts also have contributed to how she crafted Bitch Planet, with an entire cast of black protagonists, which has created a deep, emotional following in her readers.

“If we only write our own experiences and we only read our own experiences, we become a library of narcissists. There is no better way to understand that we have a shared experience of humanity than to try and write a roomful of people interacting with one another,” she said. And if you aren’t a writer, make sure you read them. Watch them. Seek out the stories that are yours, but also of those who are not yours, and share them. Share what moves you, share what scares you, share what challenges you, and never, ever run away from those things if there’s a chance for growth within them.

About the author

Brynna Owens Brynna Owens is a mild-mannered analyst of data by day, but by night, she's working on joining the Justice League. Cutting her teeth on fanfic before she knew there was such a thing (Frodo/Sam based on the books, anyone??), she's been writing since she learned that you put words together and form sentences. Her calling as a Professional Fangirl started with the X-Files, where she honed her writing and editing skills via fanfic that she finally had a name for, and discovered the amazing world of online fandom via IRC and AOL chats. And now, having written that, she feels old! She currently resides in Boston, is owned by a cat named Gandalf, aspires to save the world, and owns over 200 bottles of nail polish.

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