The topic of minority and women representation in comics was front and center in a Rose City Comic Con panel that featured Kelly Sue DeConnick ("Bitch Planet," "Captain Marvel"), Ibrahim Moustafa ("High Crimes") Jen Van Meter ("Hopeless Savages") and Gary Phillips ("The Rinse"). David Walker ("Cyborg," "Shaft") moderated the panel, which saw discussion that ranged from how women and minorities were portrayed in comics to how to write for characters who don't share your gender or ethnicity.
Deconnick, in particular, emphasized that writing women is, fundamentally, about writing people. "Women are as different as our numbers," she explained. "There are not four boxes that we fit into... That's not how people work.
"How do you know the character is a woman," she continued. "I dunno, because she has the secondary sex characteristics that we identify as 'woman.' How do you write a man?"
"I feel like sometimes my contribution is accidental," Van Meter said, attributing her status as an inclusive writer to happenstance. "I wanted to write about the world that I lived in, and it did not occur to me to leave out [women or minorities]."
Van Meter said that she didn't get a sense that anything she was doing was unusual until she began to write for more mainstream comics. In work for hire situations, Van Meter said that the inclusion of women and minorities was often seen as an extraneous detail. "I would get questions like, 'Do you really need that element?'" she said. "The process can be littered with people who think of non-centrist detail as some kind of speedbump for the reader."
DeConnick elaborated, saying that in a short, single-issue comic, "everything that's is there has to justify its existence... We have to justify the choice of making them female. That is not a fucking choice... It says that cis, white, straight -- that is a default human being, and any deviation from that default must justify itself as part of the plot."
Moustafa, reacting to trends where minority characters are often killed off in various media said, "In "High Crimes," I made a point that the first character who dies on panel is a white dude."
Citing the work of Zora Neal Hurston, a midcentury African-American author who was criticized for writing unsympathetic black characters by other African-Americas, Philips said that to his mind, representation means portraying minority characters who have problems, who have issues, or who are villains. "I don't feel the burden of feeling like I have to always show the character in a good light," he said. "You want to have the luxury of showing everybody on a whole range of attributes, good and bad. That's what you want as a writer. When it comes to the commercial world, you don't always have that luxury."
Deconnick and Van Meter also noted how, as white writers, they occasionally experienced anxiety about writing for a black cast. "What scared me about ['Bitch Planet'] was being a white woman writing an almost entirely black cast," Deconnick admitted. "I don't want to co-opt anyone's experience. I don't want to get it wrong... Interestingly, the only people who have come at me for writing a cast of black women have been white women, which has been fascinating... I am not speaking for the black experience. I don't know shit about the black experience. But I'm a writer and I have an imagination, and I know Cam, because I created her."
Van Meter expressed similar feelings about Black Lightning, saying it was huge because "they asked me to write a dude... Now I felt like I owed this black character and his family and his entire supporting cast so much energy, because I did not want to screw it up. But it was the most rewarding piece I've ever done, process-wise."
Deconnick emphasized the need for writers to create characters that are not necessarily like them. "I don't want to discourage people from telling about their world or their first-person experience, but if we only write about characters who are like us, we'll end up with a library of narcissists. We have to employ our empathy."
Asked what would be a good marker for some kind of success or end point for representation, Moustafa replied, "We're not going to be 100% diverse until a woman is writing and drawing Superman."
"We need to see that we are not so different after all," DeConnick added. "Which sounds like a 'Reading Rainbow' moment, but that's okay."
UPDATE 9/21/15 2:10 PM PT: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Ibrahim Moustafa's name. The article has since been amended.