Feminist Comic Creators Celebrate Non-Compliance, Champion Inclusivity

The line for Emerald City Comicon's Being Non-Compliant panel erupted down a massive hallway and circled two corners, with fans in Captain Marvel sweaters and fierce "Bitch Planet" and "Lumberjanes" cosplay gathering to see some of the most iconic feminists currently working in comics. Seats filled quickly and soon it was standing room only as Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer, "Bitch Planet," "Captain Marvel"), Noelle Stevenson (writer, "Lumberjanes"), Erika Moen (creator, "Oh Joy, Sex Toy"), Kate Leth (writer, "Edward Scissorhands," "Bravest Warriors") and Spike Trotman (editor, "Smut Peddler") took the stage. Moderated by Patrick Reed, the formidable group assembled to discuss the future of representation and diversity in comics. te"Do we have children in here?" asked DeConnick. The room was silent. "All right! What's up, bitches?" she shouted, as audience burst into applause. As the writer of "Bitch Planet," the series from which panel took its name, DeConnick was the perfect voice to rally fans into an excited frenzy before Reed took over.

"We are at the forefront of a wave of creators that are kicking down doors and redefining the role of women in the comic book world," he began. "As a reader, a feminist and a parent seeking comics that can show young girls an image to look up to, I'm on stage with people that I respect the most and am inspired by professionally and personally."

To kick things off, Reed asked the panelists what being non-compliant meant to them.

DeConnick shared first. "Every once in a while, I'll get a Tumblr ask where somebody says, 'If somebody is non-compliant, is being non-compliant actually compliant?' In the world of 'Bitch Planet,' the people who are labeled non-compliant have been marginalized and criminalized for being who they are. I can't speak for the people that have adopted the label in real life, because I'm sure their reasons are as varied as they are, but what I think of when I see them sporting it, is that the statement they are making is that they are a person that doesn't fit the box that is assigned to them."

Pulling from society's obsession with policing women's appearances, personalities and relationships, "Bitch Planet" is set in a world where being anything other than obedient is a crime -- a crime that DeConnick would inarguably be guilty of. "I refuse to see myself through your eyes," she said, speaking to the spirit of her characters. "I refuse to see myself as imperfect. You will support me or you will get the fuck off."

Reed asked the rest of the panel if there were times they'd worn the tag of non-compliance. "All the time," Leth responded. "I make comics for children, which I got into by making comics about my feelings and sexual orientation. One of the first things I set into doing was introducing more diversity and more queer characters. It took me a while, but I'm getting there. I managed to get lesbian mermaids into 'Bravest Warriors.'"

Reed continued by noting that several panelists, including Stevenson, create comics for kids as well as decidedly adult material -- did they have any difficulty going back and forth?

"We can kind of get away with a lot of stuff," said Stevenson. "Kids aren't dumb -- they might not get something, but they're going to figure it out. What I write naturally skews toward young adult and all ages. I swear slightly more when there aren't children around, but not that much."

"You might be surprised in the overlap of artists that have worked in both 'Adventure Time' and 'Smut Peddler,'" Leth added, referencing Trotman's successful erotic comic that dominated Kickstarter in 2014.

"Hi, hello, I'm Spike, the editrix of 'Smut Peddler.' I'd show you a book, but I've already sold out," she said, smiling at the crowd.

Moen added her experience of teaching summer comics workshops for 13 to 16-year-olds while working on her own educational sex comic. When "Oh Joy Sex Toy" came out, one parent called to confirm that she wouldn't be showing it in class. "Of course I'm not going to show them porn in class," she said. "I made the conscious decision that I don't want the overlap of working with younger teens and adult content. I don't want to get sued by a parent. Nobody asked me to and nobody put any pressure on me, but I stopped teaching that class."

The question then arose about the potential conflict between creating entertainment and making a statement. "No one is going to believe me when I say this, but I don't actually set out to write political pamphlets," DeConnick said. "It's always story first, and before that, character first. It's born of character. I think that I have some very strong feelings about some things -- and in particular ideas of fairness and justice -- and it turns out that they meld beautifully with concepts of feminism, since they are the same fucking thing. I'm not really trying to teach, I'm just venting and maybe, if I'm lucky, to do it in a way that will make you laugh...or want to punch something."

Trotman agreed, adding, "People will characterize anything they disagree with as overly political. People have characterized comics not about white CIS dudes beating up other white CIS dudes, it's activism. Suddenly people feel as if what they like is being threatened, and you aren't there to find a space for your voice, you're there to silence them. Dudes who talk about feminism as if they think a gynochracy is on the horizon. We don't want what you've been enjoying all this years -- keep enjoying it! But let me have what I want and have the same room for what I want and be enough of an adult not to be threatened by that."

"There was this guy obviously trolling the other day," said Stevenson. "I had posted a panel from a comic I'd done of a teen Wonder Woman story where she was just eating ice cream, playing DDR -- really offensive stuff. There's one panel where she's standing with all her friends, about to fight someone and she's like, 'Get behind me sisters!' And this dude comes and says it's sexist against men, and its okay because it's against dudes. I know what this guy is about, I know we're not going to have a good conversation so I'm like, 'we're going to have fun.' So I send him a tweet saying that what I actually meant to put in the panel was 'Kill all the men, matriarchy now!" And it escalated very quickly from there to him sending rape threats."

"And then you blocked him and it was censoring!" said DeConnick.

"No, but I took his little fedora icon and I drew a farting butt on it and sent it back to him," Stevenson added with a laugh.

"I'm working really hard on saying 'I wish you luck on your journey,'" DeConnick said, speaking to her coping mechanism for dealing with jerks. "I'm not really wishing luck. I'm wishing all sorts of other things."

Reed brought the discussion back to thinking about comics for kids, wondering if it felt absurd to DeConnick, as a parent, to learn that some people consider making comics aimed at everyone a controversial endeavor.

"It's not weird to me as a parent, it's weird to me as someone that has worked in Big 2 mainstream superhero comics that are supposed to be about fairness and the underdog and taking care of people that are less fortunate," DeConnick replied. "Motherfucker, you cannot support Captain America and be like, 'Bitches get out!'"

"When you work in independent comics and you voice any level of social critique at anything, the response is 'make your own.' So when you do, and it's really successful, they don't like that very much," Trotman continued.

"Vocal minorities," Leth hissed, referencing Image co-founder Erik Larsen's recent remarks regarding the influx and influence of new, predominantly female, readers. The audience laughed and clapped enthusiastically.

The panel then discussed the creators that they look to for inspiration. "I'm a super dweeb if I say Kelly Sue, but if I don't look at her, its fine," Leth began. "And I hate to bring it up, but all the women that have dealt with GamerGate in the last year. I think Anita [Sarkeesian], Brianna [Wu] and Zoe [Quinn] are the bravest people. They've had to deal with this constantly. I get so fired up about it, but I don't even want to talk about it online, even though I 100% support those people and know that the people attacking them are wrong. I look at them and think if they can get through it, so can I."

"I know in ten years, Anita and Zoe and Brianna and everyone getting a bucket of shit from these people will be fine," said Trotman. "They'll be rollin'. All the little angry teenagers that are telling me that it's about ethics...they'll look back and see the intense, ridiculous irony of what they did. This will be something they hide from their girlfriends and wives and moms -- if someone brings up sexism, this will be on their minds. These people are young and they have no idea what to do with this energy, and when they're our age, this will horrify them."

"I like this future where all of these shitty kids grow up to be not-shitty adults," added Stevenson.

"People like us will never hate them the way they hate us," Leth replied.

"Oh, I don't know about that," DeConnick smirked before changing the subject. "So! Heroes!

"I want to mention someone -- I don't consider them a hero, but someone extremely educational as comics went for my benefit and the benefit of the world," said Trotman. "I was into 'Cerebus,' a comic by Dave Sim. I read his guide to self-publishing and I knew that's what I wanted to do with my life. It was when creators' rights thing was first on the scene, people saying maybe put stuff out yourself, and that really spoke to me. I thought Sim was the coolest dude. So I started reading 'Cerebrus' and I got to the issue that was about how men are sources of light and women are sucking black voids that devour light, and sucking black voids were sucking creativity --

"That was extremely shocking and disconcerting to me. This person I agreed with on a deep level, and he had a therapy-deep loathing of what I was as a person. It put me in a bit of a tailspin wondering if comics was full of people like this. I came out the other end, and was like, yeah, I don't even care. Should I not do anything? No, suck my entire ass," finished Trotman, as the room shook with cheers.

The conversation then turned to the misguided perception that comics created by women were too emotional. "When 'Captain Marvel' got announced, well, before it got announced, some dude on Twitter -- The World's Saddest man -- was like, 'now it's gonna be all about feelings,'" said DeConnick. "There is more kissing and more romance in a single [Brian Michael] Bendis comic than in every single comic I have ever written put together! And I am a huge Bendis fan; I love Brian, but that idea that I'm a lady so these are going to be a particular kind of comic doesn't hold. It doesn't hold within one person, let alone the spectrum of gender identity."

"How are Batman comics not about feelings?" asked Leth.

"I think we all have seen enough reality TV shows by now to know that men have plenty of feelings," said Trotman.

"Are we gonna talk about 'Ink Master' now?" Stevenson asked excitedly, referring to the competitive tattooing show on Spike, which is known for intensely dramatic reactions from competitors that rival every other reality show.

"So many tears rolling down bearded cheeks..." mused Trotman.

"I've never seen so many feelings in one place," Stevenson finished, as everyone laughed.

Reed then changed the subject and asked the panelists to share the joyous aspects of their career and what they found personally encouraging.

"This entire room," Stevenson said looking out into the crowd, which had grown even more as people had non-compliantly crowded in.

"'Bitch Planet' sold 45,000 copies," said DeConnick. "Issues #1, #2, #3 went to second printings. The book that was supposed to end my career could end up putting my kids through school."

"For the second 'Smut Peddler' project, I needed to come up with a snappy title, so I decided on 'Lady Porn Conquers Earth,'" said Trotman. "The goal was $20,000. It funded in an hour. It was the most popular project on Kickstarter for three days. It ended up pulling around $183,000 and is still above the fold as the most popular comics projects of all time, and the third most popular for 2014. It was a really big deal that I was not prepared for. The print run was huge and the response has been fantastic. A lot of people are really interested in the book and the money from that run is going to finance a lot more pornography. I have the satisfaction of being a one person business -- a rinky dink indie publisher who is handing out $3,000 for 20 pages of work. And that feels really good. And the best part? I don't answer to fucking nobody."

"I've been able to hire my husband full time on the sex-ed comic I'm doing. It's supporting two people from sex toy sales," Moen shared. "My Kickstarter got $69,000. Here is something terrible -- I got the email for the final total and it said $69,169 and at the very end, the VERY end, someone pledged one dollar. And then it said $69,170 and I was like -- I don't want your fucking dollar!"

Reed turned the panel over for audience questions, the first one being from a new comics fan and a digital artist wondering if there was room for her in the community.

"Yes!" shouted everyone.

"Porn funded my technology. When I was traveling and staying in LA, I didn't have a scanner. So I used my 'Smut Peddler' money to buy a Cintiq," said Leth. "And I definitely told the dude at the MAC store that I was buying stuff from drawing lesbian bondage porn."

A father of three young girls thanked the women for writing comics he could share with them, especially his eldest daughter who had fallen in love with comics. He wondered what the panel thought he could say to continue encouraging her.

"Tell her that there's room on the stage," said DeConnick.

The next audience member asked the panel how they thought the gaming world could recover from GamerGate and what could be done to prevent something similar from happening again.

"Listen to women," Trotman said immediately. "Believe them when they tell you what has happened to them. When you see injustice out there, say something. Don't automatically question the validity of a woman's story. Be a good ally."

And finally, what advice did they have for someone wanting to start a non-normative comic?

"You have to start now," DeConnick said passionately. "You don't have time. I am 44-years-old, I am fucking tired, I waited too long. Start now. Start now. Start now."

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