Despite the panel’s late hour, about 500 people filled one of the larger rooms at New York Comic Con to hear “Black Panther” writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Midnighter” writer Steve Orlando, and creator, editor, and activist Tee Vixen Franklin speak on the “Race and Gender” panel, moderated by City University of New York professor Jonathan Gray. The conversation went deep into storytelling and representation; as Coates said, “If you check yourself, if you are aware of certain habits you have, certain ways of looking at the world, you might open yourself a little bit to everybody’s world view, and suddenly things flow naturally. You don’t actually have to insert black people, you don’t actually have to insert queer people, you don’t have to actually insert women, because if you look around, they are right there. They are all around you.”
Coates was talking about his storyline about Ayo and Aneka, two members of the Dora Milaje, the women bodyguards of “Black Panther” lead, T’Challa. In the first issue of Coates’ run on the series, Ayo rescues Aneka from prison, and it is revealed that the two are in love.
“I spent a lot of time reading comics about the Dora Milaje,” Coates said. “In most of the books I read, if not all of the books I read, the story was told through the eyes of T’Challa… I was interested in what the perspective of someone might be who has given up their entire life to be basically a bodyguard for one man, and when the entire organization is women, and when they address that man as ‘Beloved,’ what about the love they have, themselves? What about the love that they might have for each other? We were at a point in history where Wakanda had broken down, and it just occurred to me, what about two Dora Milaje who happen to have had love for each other and have suppressed it out of duty for the king, but that sort of social conscience they had might be fraying — what might happen in that world? From then on, I just wrote it.”
Nonetheless, he worried that the depiction of Aneka and Ayo’s first kiss might turn into a “male gaze sexy lesbian thing.” “In the script, when they first kiss, it is very explicitly written, ” he said. “Make this human. Get out of the way. It almost has to be like we’re not looking. It has to be between them. [Artist Brian Stelfreeze] really, really pulled it off, but I have to say it is a constant effort of vigilance to make sure that once folks are included … that the depiction is as you intend it, as you thought about it.”
Orlando took a matter-of-fact approach to Midnighter’s romantic life. “It feels audacious because of the drought of representation and depiction of queer romance and queer sex acts in fiction,” he said, “but I never put anything in the book that I didn’t think you would see for example Dick Grayson do. I didn’t put anything in the book that you wouldn’t see Black Canary and Green Arrow do, but it was subversive by the fact that it was Midnighter and whoever he is dating, or Midnighter and Apollo.”
“Anything you could see a straight couple doing in a T+ book, they can do,” he said. “There’s no reason why they shouldn’t. It’s kind of hard for people to argue with that.”
Gray asked Orlando about his graphic novel “Virgil,” which is about a Jamaican police officer, and how he felt about writing it given that he was neither Jamaican nor a police officer.
“It was something I wanted to do, but I didn’t take it lightly in any way,” he said. “Approaching these things, I think about how do I feel about representation and people dealing with queer characters that are not queer. I don’t think that you must be from a community to tackle those things, but I think it’s a different type of working process… When it comes to queer rep, something that I feel I can speak about, I want people to include queer characters, because as you guys said, that’s life, but there are certain things I think you shouldn’t tackle. Put the characters in. If you’re a straight guy from Iowa, don’t try to tell the coming out story. That’s ours. But put the queer characters in. Relating to ‘Virgil.’ it’s the time, the research, and it’s not just secondhand, countless articles or whatever, it’s firsthand research, being in touch with people who are living it day to day, and giving them the work, and respecting their opinion and using that to make something.”
“If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself,” said Franklin, who runs #BlackComicsMonth and not only creates her own comics but is curating several anthologies, including one on mental health and one on Afrofuturism. “I’m a queer, disabled woman of color,” she said. “I want to see myself in comics. Nobody else is doing it so I gotta make it.” She agreed with Coates’s statement that diverse stories reflect real life: “Once you open your eyes, it’s what you see. I hate the word ‘diverse.’ It’s a buzzword. It’s life. It’s who you are as a person. That’s not just color or someone being queer, its’s someone who also has schizophrenia. It’s someone who is disabled or gender fluid. It’s you, and you don’t see these in comics.”
Franklin later commented on the choice of Roxane Gay, a novelist who has never written a comic before, as the writer of “World of Wakanda,” a series about Ayo and Aneka. Gay will be the first black woman to write a Marvel comic.
“I know people were upset and were complaining because of Roxane Gay, and that’s only because of the fact that there are black women who are established as comic book creators,” she said. “There were many who are established who could have written this book.”
While she said she wished Gay well and would support the book, Franklin said, “The fact you had to go outside to find something that’s already in house, that’s why I say you’ve always gotta do it yourself, because if you’re a woman of color in this industry you are going to be overlooked. Period.”
“That’s hard to answer,” Coates said, “because I think by that logic, I probably shouldn’t write ‘Black Panther’ either. There are any number of accomplished African American writers who could have come in and done a great job.”
“I think one of the issues is the structural issue of the pipeline,” Gray said, pointing out if editors like a creator’s work, they may ask them to recommend others. “You’re right, those other voices should already be there,” he said. “They should not just be looking at Ta-Nehisi and saying ‘Hey, can you recommend anyone?’ It should be a broader thing. That is a really problem of the industry not necessarily the people.”
During the question and answer session, a Romany man spoke about the depiction of Romany people in Marvel comics and asked what could be done to make it better. While Coates pointed out he was a writer, not an editor, Orlando had a different take. “When I see people that are being undeserved, I try to do everything I can to give them a face and, knowing what that drought of representation feels like for people, to do it as much as possible,” he said. “The answer to me is that it is on us because these decisions are not going to be made top down. It’s up to us to show why this is important and create characters that dispel these types of stereotypes and show people they are untrue.”
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