As comics fandom continues to diversify, so too do the industry’s characters and creators. David Walker, Ramon Villalobos, Jen Wang, Erica Henderson, Irene Koh and Marcus To gathered at Emerald City Comicon to discuss this topic with each other, and the audience. Throughout the panel, the creators discussed their experiences as minority fans and creators, what media they gravitated to, and the importance of a more diverse comics industry.
During the panel’s introductions by moderator David Brothers, Villalobos drove home the paucity of Latino and Hispanic representation in pop culture. “When I saw the Bechdel test,” he said, “I created the Villalobos test where [you note] when you see any Mexican. Any Mexican! Because there’s so little representation.” As an example, Villalobos pointed out that “Party of Five” only passed this very low bar in the show’s fifth season, despite being set in San Francisco.
“I drew a lot of inspiration from Bruce Lee,” Walker said, when asked which characters the panelists identified with growing up. “I wanted to be Chinese when I was a kid. Bruce Lee was the first nonwhite badass that I could see, and I thought, ‘This’ll do.’… When you don’t see anyone else who looks like yourself, when you’re the invisible other, the moment you see someone else who’s the other, you’re like, ‘That’s it!'”
“Seeing Margaret Cho was amazing for me,” said Koh. “There [were] no Asians on TV… and everyone has this idea about demure Asians, and I cuss like a sailor… Seeing a pervy, bisexual woman on TV was amazing, because I thought, ‘Oh, that’s me.'”
“One thing that was awkward for me is that I grew up in America with my white dad, and then twenty Chinese people who were super-Chinese,” Henderson said. “I remember watching ‘Smallville,’ and they made Lana half Asian and I thought, ‘I don’t want to watch this show, but I’m super into it!'”
“I used to think Paul Stanley from KISS was black,” Walker said, explaining that he interpreted Stanley’s pattern of speech as characteristically African-American, and could not see his skin beneath the makeup. “Then a picture of him with no shirt on showed up in a magazine, and I was like, ‘Damn!'”
“With Luke Cage, the most important relationship in his life is with his daughter. You don’t see that, usually, in film and television and comics,” Walker said of his work on Marvel’s “Power Man and Iron Fist” series. The writer also pointed to his goal of deepening Cyborg’s troubled relationship with his father in the DC hero’s solo comic. “You don’t see some of that subtlety and nuance… The first step of oppression is to rob you of your humanity, and humanity is in those nuances.”
“One of our main ladies in there is brown,” said Koh of “Afrina.” Though she’s of Korean lineage, Koh grew up in Tokyo, leading her to speak Japanese better than Korean. She later went to school in Connecticut where “I was the only Asian in my school for a long time… I wanted to be a pretty white girl for a long time… I was doing these insincere stories and drawing only pretty white girls.” Now, her comics work include numerous character types.
In “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl,” Henderson attempts to portray an accurate looking New York City. “It’s New York!” she declared. “The percentage of one type of person is pretty large. Every single type of person is there [in the crowd scenes]. When we’re specifically in New York City, it’s weird to only have white people.”
The first audience question asked out the portrayals of indigenous people such as Native Americans, Inuits and Pacific Islanders in comics. “As a single creator you can only do so much, especially if you’re working in corporate comics,” Walker replied. “I’m constantly looking through the Marvel database and seeing what characters I can bring in.” He found one, a Native American character called American Eagle. “Even if it’s just a couple pages, it’s the beginning” Koh also suggested “Moonshot,” a series by and for indigenous creators.
Another audience member brought up the recasting of popular characters, such as Sam Wilson becoming Captain America, and Jane Foster as the new Thor, and asked the panel whom they would recast.
Henderson’s answer was immediate: “Iron Fist as Asian.”
“Yeah, make Iron Fist Mexican. I agree,” Villalobos added.
To lamented that there was no longer a built-in mechanism to bring in more diverse characters at DC.”I felt like DC had a thing going with the legacy characters,” he said. “The new guys would come on, and the guys from the past would move on. They opened that door. Now they’ve shut that door.”
Toward the end of the panel, To and Walker had a slight debate over the current crop of comic book creators and fans. “I feel that our generation is a unique generation. A lot of us probably didn’t have a lot of money growing up,” To said, specifically pointing to the children of Asian immigrants. “We have more money now. We want to buy comics. We want to watch movies… But the people making those still think that only white men have money to spend.”
“That’s not true,” Walker disagreed.”They know that. They get it but they just don’t care. Part of the reason why they don’t care is because there’s a very vocal minority of fans who are the old school fans, and they are a force… They know the numbers… But they’re scared… Change in and of itself is a scary thing. If that change involves losing power or the illusion of power, that will mess you up.”
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