#BlackComicsMonth Diversity in Comics Panel (My view from the back row)
Hosted by the energetic Miz Caramel Vixen, the founder of Vixenvarsity.com, the #BlackComicsMonth Diversity in Comics panel featured a wide variety of panelists from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and sexualities. They also work in vastly different comics genres from Mildred Louis writing and drawing a Magical Girl webcomic with women of color called Agents of the Realm to David F. Walker, who directed a documentary about the blaxploitation genre and currently writes Cyborg for DC Comics and much more. One of the panelists, Mikki Kendall, only recently broke into comics with the Swords of Sorrow: Lady Rawhide/Miss Fury one-shot and is more well-known for her pieces about intersectional feminism for XoJane, The Guardian, and others as well as prose fiction. Vixen let each panelist speak their mind about what diversity means to them, and they often tied in their thoughts with their comics from Genius (which I scored a free copy of) to Princeless and even Batman.
Artist Afua Richardson kicked off the panel by talking about her Image comic Genius, which is about a 17 year old black tactical genius, who lives in South Central L.A. She uses her tactical skills to break down the gangs while also taking down the corrupt members of the LAPD. Richardson gave a simple, yet powerful definition of diversity as giving a proper representation to everyone and not depending on archetypes, but giving characters nuanced portrayals.
She was followed by Christine Dinh, the brand manager at BOOM! Studios. In recent years, BOOM! has made big strides in LGBTQ and female representation with books like Lumberjanes, Giant Days, and Bravest Warriors. Dinh’s work is a huge part of this as she helps creators get publicity while representing the BOOM! brand to the comics reading public. She closed by talking about the growing demographic of 12-18 year old girls reading comics like Lumberjanes and the rise of progressive indie and webcomics. This was a great point because many of BOOM!’s finest creators originally (or still) began with webcomics, like Kate Leth, Noelle Stevenson, Ryan North, and Kat Leyh.
Jeremy Whitley, who got huge applause for his Misty Knight and Danny Rand story in Secret Wars: Secret Love, went next. He talked about how he wrote Action Lab’s Princeless as a princess story for everyone and especially his biracial daughter, who didn’t have as many heroines to look up to, that looked like her in all ages story. Later, in the panel, Whitley talked about how Princeless #1 originally only sold 700 copies, but Action Lab stuck with the title, and it ended up being nominated for an Eisner and getting a spinoff called Raven Pirate Princess featuring a bisexual princess named Raven Xingtao. He concluded by saying that a big goal of Princeless was showing young boys that women could be heroes, and it reminded me personally of how the female characters in the X-Men, like Kitty Pryde, Storm, and Rogue, did a similar thing for me growing up.
Mikki Kendall, a feminist non-fiction and fiction writer, talked about how she couldn’t find any Static Shock merchandise for her sons, who were big fans of the black superhero created by the late Dwayne McDuffie. Supposedly, this was because there wasn’t enough demand for bedding, action figures etc. featuring the character. This led to her talking about making the diverse stories we want to see for herself, and this idea later spilled out into the Q and A when several panelists gave a black female comics artist in the audience to make the stories that she wanted to read and tell and not care about the Big Two or other people’s measures of success.
A late addition to the panel lineup was actor Chad Coleman, known for playing Tyrese in The Walking Dead. He is also involved in the multimedia project Treadwater, which started out as a graphic novel and is becoming an animated film and video game. Coleman stressed that Treadwater will tell many different people’s stories while Vixen interjected about diversity isn’t just about race, but also about mental illness and sexuality. She talked openly about her PTSD and history of panic attacks, and how Scott Snyder helped her out when a 12 year old relative tried to kill herself. This was where the panel got emotional, and Snyder hugged Vixen. She then told the audience to buy Batman #44 (co-written by Snyder and 100 Bullets writer Brian Azzarello), and that it was significant to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Scott Snyder then began to talk about mental health, and about how when things get dark, you feel like a “funhouse mirror reflection of yourself”. He talked about comics gave him light as a kid when he was growing up in New York City in the 1980s and wanted to go out to Chinatown, get a fake ID etc, but couldn’t. He also talked about how characters like Batman inspired him and helped him get past his own self-hatred even now. Richardson interjected by saying, “Art is super medicinal.” Mikki Kendall followed up on this and talked about how there’s no point to escaping into a fictional world that doesn’t want you. She talked about escaping into books as a kid, and how she decided to write about black girls from her own experience, who were not completely stable, but could be the princess or hero.
Shawn Pryor followed up this and talked about when he was president at Action Lab Entertainment from 2010-2013 that he felt like a “chocolate chip in a sea of milk”. He talked about how even when Princeless got nominated for an Eisner that the more he built at the company, the more excluded he felt. This put him in a dark place, but he ended on an up note by thanking New York City for funding 35% of his KickStarter for Cash and Carrie, an all ages comic featuring a black boy and white girl as middle school detectives. The book looks adorable, and I definitely want to pick it up.
After this, Vixen Varsity told the audience, “We can do more than just draw.” which is a barb at Marvel and DC for hiring some black artists, but very few black writers. Currently, Marvel only has two black writers: Ta-Nehisi Coates on the upcoming Black Panther series and David Walker on the recently announced Power Man and Iron Fist. Walker spoke next and talked about how he felt like he was preaching to the choir, and he had been on many diversity panels at recent conventions. However, he still feels like it is important for people to hear the truth about diversity until it is the norm, which he connected to the recent incident with the Texas 9th grader Ahmed Mohamed, who was arrested for bringing a clock into school that a teacher thought was a bomb. He said, “Diversity means a young Muslim isn’t a terrorist, but a really smart kid.” Walker concluded his talk with something that could act as a thesis statement for the whole panel, “Diversity isn’t a marketing tool. It’s an ideology.
Then, Afua Richardson and Shawn Pryor had a short conversation about Marvel’s controversial hip hop variants. Richardson pointed out that some of the outrage was misplaced, like one white critic thinking that black artist Sanford Greene (Runaways) was white. She followed this up by saying that most of Marvel and (especially) DC’s main characters have been around since World War II, and that we can’t rely on them to create diverse characters and sometimes you have to create your own. Pryor said he didn’t have a problem with the artists finding work through the hip hop covers, but that he didn’t like that Marvel only had three people of color working on the first 14 covers that were announced and claimed that hip hop and Marvel comics had always been side by side.
The final two panelists to talk about diversity were Midnighter and Virgil writer Steve Orlando and Agent of the Realms webcomic creator Mildred Louis. Orlando talked about how Virgil, which is a comic about a gay Jamaican cop who gets revenge against the men who kidnapped his partner, is the next step in the exploitation genre by having a black, gay male action lead. He talked about the pressures of writing the only Marvel and DC book featuring a queer male lead, and that he couldn’t fulfill the needs one of group with one person. Louis talked about how Agents of the Realm began as a joke, but then evolved into her own magical girl story featuring black and Latino women in the role. She echoed Richardson’s earlier idea and told the audience not to wait for the Big Two to pick up their idea, but to create their own with the Internet allowing creators to build an fanbase organically.
The #BlackComicsMonth touched on a wide range of subjects and truly showed that comics are for everyone and not just cisgendered white males. Diversity can be found in a variety of comics, and it definitely motivated me to seek out Genius as well as Cash and Carrie and the first volume of Princeless.