Even before the panelists arrived in the room for Friday’s “Diversity, Representation, and the Changing Face of Mainstream Comics” at Emerald City Comicon, “Wonder Woman” writer/artist Phil Jimenez moderated a lively discussion amongst the audience members about personal definitions of diversity. Jimenez then turned the question, “What does diversity mean to you?” to the panelists: writer David Walker, artist Yasmin Liang, “Lumberjanes” and “Nimona” writer Noelle Stevenson, “Lumberjanes” artist Brooke Allen, and ComicsAlliance Editor-in-Chief Andrew Wheeler.
“Diversity means making sure that your art and your work reflects what we see every day,” said Liang. Walker added that he aims for, “art that reflects what I’d like to see every day as opposed to what I tend to see every day. I want to see characters that don’t look like the same characters I saw when I was growing up.” Wheeler said that he found it important, “not just for the stories to reflect the audience, but for the people telling the stories to match the audience. You don’t have to have diverse people telling diverse stories, but it helps.”
Jimenez asked when the panelists first saw characters that represented them in comics. Liang cited Cassandra Cain as Batgirl and how seeing her was “the most exciting moment.” Stevenson said she connected with Carrie Kelley “because she presented so androgynously,” and also because they both have short red hair. “That was a big moment,” she said.
Walker said his first time seeing himself in media was the black astronaut in the original “Planet of the Apes” on network TV in the ’70s. “I remember my neighbor looked at me and said, ‘They’re going to kill that black guy.’ I think I was 4 or 5 at the time.” Walker joked that he’d “rather die in ‘Planet of the Apes’ than be alive in ‘Good Times.'”
Allen said she was obsessed with “Johnny Quest,” and connected to the character Jessica Bannon. She was also a fan of Bunnie D’Coolette, the “Sonic the Hedgehog” character with metal legs.
Jimenez said the first characters he identified with were not due to a similar appearance, but because of their personalities. Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman, he said, “Were characters who were strong, physically powerful, but they also had a very wide emotional range in a way that male characters were never allowed. I remember thinking that was very profound, the idea that a super powered character could be loving and didn’t have to be an alpha male, because I knew that I could not be that alpha male.”
Jimenez then asked the panel if they found it easier or more difficult to write diverse books for independent publishers. “That’s a complex question, because you can put it out there, but how does the audience find it?,” Walker answered. “My friends are putting out product that no one is buying.” He cited the cancellation of “Concrete Park” by Dark Horse as a quality comic featuring minorities that did not find its audience in time.
Stevenson added that when creating an original cast for a smaller publisher, like her series “Lumberjanes” with BOOM!, there was more opportunity for diversity to “grow organically.” When assembling a team from existing characters, such as “Runaways” for Marvel, Stevenson said it was a challenge: “How do I fit this all together when everyone is watching and waiting to see what happens to a character that they care about. That is very scary.”
“Do you find that there is a lot of camaraderie among women in the business?” asked Jimenez.
“We’re not supposed to talk about the feminist illuminati,” joked Stevenson.
More seriously, Liang said, “We all want to succeed, we all want to tell stories and make comics together.”
Stevenson said she considers visibility of women in the industry important. “I never had thought of comics as a career for myself as a kid. I just didn’t see myself in them at all; I didn’t even think twice about it. And the first time I went to MoCCA Fest in New York, I saw women,” she said, “and that was when I started creating comics.” Her hope for the comics industry is “a better community all around where we can all be safe and creative. And we have to do that by supporting each other.”
To wrap up the discussion, Jimenez asked if the panelists considered the comics industry friendly to diverse people and diverse ideas. “We’re on a panel called ‘Diversity in Comics,'” said Stevenson, “I feel like that speaks for itself. We’re here because there’s a need to talk about it and it’s something that we need to address as an industry.”
“Right now, it’s not talked about as much as it should be,” Walker agreed. “In terms of the audience, 47% of the audience are women, and 53% of the audience are people of color. The fact that we still have to have conversations about diversity is pretty obvious when the numbers are like that for the audience but the content and creators are not reflective of that. And that’s what we’re working toward. I live for the day when we don’t have to have these panels anymore.”
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