NYCC: DeConnick, Simone & Amanat on the Future of Female Fandom

The always industrious and self-starting Carol Corps didn't have to organize an event for themselves at this year's New York Comic Con -- because "New York" magazine's entertainment site did it for them. Vulture's Abraham Riesman put the panel together, placing writers Gail Simone ("Batgirl," "Tomb Raider," "Red Sonja"), Kelly Sue DeConnick ("Captain Marvel," "Pretty Deadly") and editor Sana Amanat ("Ms. Marvel," "Hawkeye," "Rocket Raccoon") before a big -- and filled to capacity -- panel room on Friday afternoon of NYCC.

Riesman began the panel by asking the guests if there actually has been an explosion of female comic book fandom in the past few years. "Let me give you an example," said Simone. "When I went to my very first San Diego Comic-Con just slightly around a decade ago, I think that the attendance was eighty percent male, twenty percent female. I never had any trouble going pee. Now the lines for the women's restrooms are extremely long and peeing is no longer an option." DeConnick then jokingly placed a plastic cup in front of Simone, just in case.

"I think that there's an important thing to remember too, that what you're seeing now, the influx of female readership and female creators is not a revolution, it's a restoration," said DeConnick. "Women have always read comics. Back in the '30s and '40s there was a girls' magazine that had a distribution of 300,000 copies per month and it was comics. Girls have always read comics... [In the decades since] women were discouraged, dissuaded, made unwelcome, and now for a plethora of reasons, women are returning. Not a revolution. We're not taking anything away from anybody. This is a restoration. There are enough comics for everyone. No one has to give up something. Say it with me now: equality is not a loss."

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There are many factors contributing to the rise of female fandom, with digital availability being key among them. Overall, though, Simone singled out what might be the biggest contributor to the rise of female fans. "I've seen the internet level the playing field," said Simone. "As many things as we could come up with to bitch about the internet, and all the negative crap, it has literally given people an equal voice and their voices can be heard. Used to be, publishers were not interested, they did not care; now I think they care a little more. They care about who their audience is."

"Comics are cool again," added Amanat. "My brother gets so mad at me. He was a big collector growing up and I actually didn't read superhero comics -- I read 'Archie' and 'Calvin & Hobbes' growing up. He gets so mad at me, he's like, 'Wait a minute, I always said this was cool back in the day, everyone thought I was a nerd and now my little sister is actually working in comics. How does this happen?'

"I think also the reality is our content has changed," continued Amanat. "We're telling a different type of story now. We're talking about different types of characters, and that is what people are paying attention [to]. They're paying attention because it's cool again, because they're seeing the movies, but at the same time I think characters are portrayed much more realistic -- as realistic as a super-powered being can be. But it's told from a perspective that I think is relatable on a bigger scale than ever before."

Riesman asked what it was like for Simone to enter into the sometimes-hostile sword and sorcery genre for her Dynamite Entertainment series "Red Sonja" -- particularly since the lead character has become known for her chainmail bikini. "There's a big difference between a character being written to look at and a character to believe in," said Simone. "When you flip that, it makes a huge difference in how people respond to that character. I never had a particular problem with her wearing a chainmail bikini. I did have problems with some of her backstory, which are no longer there in my version of Red Sonja. She's the type of character [that's] way more uncomfortable in formal [dress], way more comfortable in a chainmail bikini and she's chosen that. She owns it, it's her choice, and the art and story is not about her being in "Penthouse" poses or being made sexually available."

Considering the massive success of Marvel's "Ms. Marvel" series, the first issue of which has gone on to multiple reprintings, Reisman wondered if that type of success could be replicated. "I think it can be replicated, absolutely," said Amanat. "It's about getting the right people together with the right story. I think people were surprised; when this first was announced, people thought it was a gimmick. They thought, 'Okay, this is Marvel trying to put some publicity stunt out there to get more sales.' And it was literally me -- this little, short Indian girl -- being like, 'Hey guys, maybe we should just make this character brown. It may be interesting.'"

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After getting the go ahead, Amanat was tasked with bringing the series to life. "I ran with it. I got lucky and I happened to have an amazing creative team -- [G.] Willow [Wilson] and Adrian [Alphona], oh my god, they're amazing. They are so good at what they do, and we found the right story. I think that is something that was a year of development. We had a lot of bad ideas in the beginning. We changed and we scrapped it; the origin story changed so many times. We got to a place where both Willow and I connected with it. When Adrian came and brought Kamala [Khan] alive, I think that was really the moment where we knew we had something good."

The floor then opened up to questions from the audience, prompting a discussion on how to keep the female fandom's momentum going. "The one thing I really appreciate and love and notice that's slightly different between female fandom and maybe the rest of comic book [fans] is it's very, very interactive," said Simone. "We have the best female cosplayers. I get presents of knitted characters that I've created -- [female fans] are participating in it. They're not for the most part just reading the comic and moving on. It's very interactive."

Another fan asked for advice on how to respond to men that threaten female fans with violence, citing a Captain Marvel cosplayer's decision not to come to NYCC following threats of violence. "'My people punch dinosaurs,'" said DeConnick. "Change is hard, and when I am my best self, I try to love and understand them through this difficult time where they think that somehow something is being taken away from them. When I am not my best self, I think, 'Ha ha ha ha ha motherfucker.'"

"This has been happening -- I went through this from the time I put up the Women In Refrigerators site," said Simone. "Death threats, violent evil things being said -- the truth is you look for support where the support is, you tell the rest of them to fuck off, and do what you want to do."

"And turn to your sisters, you know," added DeConnick. "We have each other, and that is important. One of the things -- and this is going to make me sound like I have a tinfoil hat, but it's a fact -- one of the things they will try to do is they will try to turn you against each other. That's how they win. It's this bullshit where they're like, 'Well, would Carol or Wonder Woman win?' You guys, they're both good guys. They wouldn't fight, dumb ass -- they would bury you."

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A Miss America Chavez cosplayer asked Sana Amanat about her experiences being a woman of color in the comic book industry. "It's a very unique place to be, because I'm identifying with a few different minorities," said Amanat. "Being a woman of color in particular is tough. Being a woman of color who's Muslim is really tough, especially right now. 'Ms. Marvel' is sort of the anthem against a lot of the hate that Muslims have received, quite frankly. I hate saying this, but for me, I did measure myself against other women or other young girls who were white and looked nothing like me because that was sort of the ideal. The ideal was the blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman. My niece is blond-haired and blue-eyed, so nothing against that at all. But it was hard [because] you never really measured up against that. Your version of beauty wasn't what you look like, and the media didn't show that either. So it took a really long time for me to be comfortable in my own skin and to feel empowered in who I was. The benefit of that, once I got out from under the covers and started feeling a bit more comfortable in my skin -- it means I could go through anything. It means I could sit at Marvel Comics at a table with a group of older white men and tell them I want to pitch a comic about a Muslim American in a country where there's hate ads for Muslims in the MTA right now, on the subway ads."

The topic of gatekeeping came up when a female fan shared stories of what happens when she wears comic book t-shirts around male comic fans and asked how she should deal with it. "I dunno, make fun of what he's wearing?" said DeConnick. "Call him on it. 'Dude. Really? Really? This is your thing, this is the hill you're gonna die on?' No one gets to make you feel less than. No one gets to make you feel like they get to decide what you can like. Nobody." DeConnick then waved the fan to the stage where she gave her a hug and offered her more words of encouragement.

Toward the end of the panel, an aspiring writer asked the panel if they had any advice for men wishing to write realistic female characters. "Pretend they're people," DeConnick immediately answered to applause. "Look, it's a smart ass remark but it's a question I get asked a lot, and the thing is, when we start to imagine ourselves as so very different, that you cannot project yourself into another gender and write that character, your perspective as a storyteller is going to be incredibly limited. 'Write what you know' is a fallacy and it's lazy.

"You're an artist, you're an empath; you think of that person as a real human being and you create them as such," DeConnick continued. "I find it inexplicable that there are men who will write aliens with no problem whatsoever, but the idea that 'I might have to write a female' is very peculiar. Or the notion that as women, we should only be given the books with female leads because this is what we can do, whereas one of my favorite writers in the business is Brian Bendis. Brian Bendis brought back to life for me the character of Jessica Drew, and no one ever said, 'Brian Bendis writing Spider-Woman? But he is neither spider nor woman!'"

"And if you're writing a female character and you recognize that character, throw it away and start over please," said Simone. "We need as many diverse female characters as we can possibly have. We have enough of the same 'strong female character' written with different hair colors. You've got to get three dimensions in there and make them a real human being and not like anything else you've ever read before."

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