The Push Boundaries Forward: Gender, Diversity, and Representation in Comic Books panel at New York Comic-Con opened with a quick but illuminating crowd poll. Moderator David Brothers asked how long people had been reading comics, and the loudest response was for only five years, an answer that spoke to how the market’s current wide-range of comics is attracting new readers.
“I don’t know what we’re going to talk about exactly because there are so many things that we can cover,” Brothers said as he introduced the panel of Darryl Ayo, Jeremy Whitley, Marjorie Liu, Amber Garza, Joey Stern and Shannon Watters. To open, he shared a scene from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s “New X-Men” in which Emma Frost says, “The whole world is watching us now. We must be nothing less than fabulous,” a quote Brothers feels well-represents diversity in comics. “Diversity is fundamentally about including everyone and everything, but because we’re having this conversation, we’re trying to actively include people as opposed to having included them from the beginning… Diversity in the industry comes from the top down, but in the culture, diversity comes from us.”
He then asked Watters why she focuses on young women and gay characters in her comics. Normally people have broad, global answers for why they make comics, but Water’s response was different. “I’m making comics for 13-year-old girls. Obviously, my sensibilities as a queer woman informs the choices that I make, like hiring decisions, creative decisions, the series that I pursue to greenlight. But I’m really lucky to be at a company with a lot of folks who share that enthusiasm.”
Garza and Stern were asked what brought about the inception of Geeks OUT, an group created to “celebrate our shared geekiness and to focus and promote our own unique LGBT voice within that community.” Stern said it began five years ago following what was then NYCC’s only gay panel, a hugely successful event. “I wanted people to know comic fans are not just straight white men. There exists already this diversity, there exists already these fans, and we’re desperate for anything out there. So we’re buying whatever we can that has this stuff, and no one’s acknowledging it.”
“It’s been evolving,” Garza added. “We’re very cognizant and want to be inclusive. When we say LGBT, we really want to be LGBT. And maybe some more letters out there.”
Brothers wanted to know if diversity is a default setting for Liu’s work. She said a lot of it has to do with her youth as an Asian-American spending time at her grandparent’s laundry, and being asked at school, “‘What are you?’ And I would say I’m Chinese-American, and they’d say, ‘No, you’re not.’ That question of otherness, of what it means to be a mixed race, that question of diversity and inclusion, has stuck with me throughout the years.” This resulted in diversity feeling natural in her writing, rather than something on a checklist, but representation is still fully on her mind.
Whitley said the origins of his book, “Princeless,” came from trying to find comics for his daughter, whom he described as “a young woman of color.” “I was looking for books with characters that would look like her and that she’d be able to relate to, with interesting stories that she could see herself as a hero, and also would be appropriate for her to read… I couldn’t really find what I was looking for, so I started putting it together myself.”
The discussion shifted to authenticity in diversity, something Ayo expressed insecurity about. “I was sort of in this cycle where there was my life in reality, and then there was the media telling the world what black people were and what black people were about. It’s a cycle that everybody is a part of, and what happens is you start to believe that there’s a certain way to be a certain person. Even though no matter what you do, you are that person… Anything you do is an authentic experience.”
“Especially in the world of comics, where you’re writing a story about, like, there’s a monster,” Stern added. “If you’re not writing your actual memoir, then you should have no problem with including diverse characters.” People have to examine their work, he explained. “Really think about like, why are they white? Why is this guy a guy? Does that have to be that way?”
“If you’re going to have a gay character, their only character trait shouldn’t be that they’re gay,” Watters added to solid applause.
Whitley made the point that people often misinterpret what it means to “write what you know.” “People tend to interpret that as write only from your own experience and perspective — and that’s stupid. What write what you know means is don’t write things uninformed.” He said people can write do research to write about World War II, and you can talk to diverse people if you want to write real diverse people. “If it’s more difficult for you to talk to a person of color than it is to research World War II, then you’re doing something wrong… Honestly, diversity is not hard — you just can’t be lazy about it.”
Things got a little heated when Stern said, “For me, I prefer bad representation to no representation. Growing up, there are lots of terribly gay stereotypes out there in the media, but I was so happy to see them.” While he felt that it was satisfying to then find a comic character who turns all those terrible stereotypes on their head, Liu feels otherwise. “As a person of color, I’m deeply allergic to bad representation.” She said she was “done” with white writers trying and failing to represent diversity. “If we don’t have writers and creators who are diverse, I’m sorry — the optics are great, but they won’t last. We can’t have lasting stories that are meaningful and powerful if we don’t have the structure in place, if we don’t have people of color behind the scenes telling our stories.”
Brothers wondered what all that meant for having gay or minority villains, a tough line to walk. Whitley said the problem is solved as soon as representation becomes the norm. “If you have plenty of good black heroes in the stories, and it’s not just this one gangster character — he could be a great gangster character, but if he’s the only black guy in the story, then all of the black characters in your story are gangsters.”
The floor was opened to questions from the audience. A Spanish speaking immigrant asked how underrepresented people can gain power in pop culture. Watters said, “Push dollars towards what you support, what you want to see, what you want to believe in,” she said, before adding to great cheers, “‘Stonewall’ did terrible last weekend, guys!” Stern added that talking about the artists and books that support your views can also help.
A teacher dressed as American Chavez asked if diversity starts with those directly teaching the kids or the creators. Ayo noted that having characters on the page was important, but having people inexperienced in diverse cultures behind the scene can cause problems. Specifically, he mentioned Synch from “Generation X,” a “perfect” character who happened to be black. “It felt like someone was trying really hard not to offend me, and that offended me.”
A unicorn in rainbow pants asked how she could go about adding people of color to her own story, which currently has only white characters. Whitely warned her not to “confuse diversity with colorblindness. Because being colorblind when telling a story is a bad thing… That’s misrepresenting other people.”
“It isn’t just a matter of having a checklist,” Liu added. “It’s not about having Asian Person #1 or Black Character #2.”
Finally, someone asked if the panel was annoyed by having another white Peter Parker as Spider-Man in the movies. “They’ve already spent $1.2 million dollars telling Peter Parker’s story on screen!” Watters contested.
Though Brothers noted that Peter Parker is always going to be Spider-Man, one girl stood up in the crowd and said she grew up with John Stewart as Green Lantern and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. “When people were like, ‘Oh yeah, [Green Lantern’s] white,’ I was like, ‘The fuck?!'” People laughed, but the point was made. â€¨
Regarding Spider-Man, Liu said, “I don’t put it past anyone. Hollywood keeps producing films in which Asian people are played by white people.” Someone in the crowd called out the recent Tiger Lily casting for “Pan.” Liu went on, “I’m saying if that is still a thing, then okay, entertainment still has a lot of work to do. So yes, we should have Miles Morales as Spider-Man. But I don’t think it’ll be soon.”
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