I attended my first comic book convention ten years ago this summer. I was about to leave home for college and decided that it was time I fully immerse myself in my nerd habits. I made myself a Dark Phoenix costume and never looked back.
In my ten seasons as a con-goer, I’ve cosplayed, worked as a vendor, and covered conventions as a member of the press; I’ve still never attended a con as just a consumer. Over the last two years I have become more involved in creating comics as an editor of Ladies’ Night Anthology, and this past March I tabled for the first time at Chicago Zinefest. Shortly after, I accomplished another first con-going experience: I became a panelist.
Despite experiencing conventions in so many different ways, panelling wasn’t something I considered as an option. Panels are for experts and professional comic book creators! They only let really important people sit behind the table and answer questions, right? It had never occurred to me that panels could also serve as a platform for more important discussions than say, “when are they going to bring Wally back?” Part of that perception changed for me after seeing panels like the one for “Chicks Dig Comics” featuring creators from the anthology of the same name; and “Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl,” a frank discussion of the gatekeeper mentality within fandom. The topics covered in these panels went beyond the formula of “press release followed by Q&A.” The moderators didn’t dodge the hard questions, they were the ones asking them. These felt more like conversations and less one-sided than most discussions between creators and fans. After nearly a decade, I had finally found the less superficial side of comic cons.
At the same time that I was finding an appreciation for the growing diversity in panel programming, I also began my first experience as a comic creator. In October of 2013, after nearly a year of hard work and facing the challenges of self-publishing, Ladies’ Night Anthology Volume 1 was released. Along with an immensely talented group of women, many being first time creators like myself, I had served as an editor. Our comic was on shelves for a whole month before we began work on the next volume. One of my fellow editors suggested we apply for a panel at C2E2. Panelling was an intimidating prospect, but going through the paces of self-publishing gave me a little more confidence and a lot more to talk about as well.
Part of the reason I found the idea of panelling daunting was the fact that I really didn’t understand how panel programming worked. Panels are not something that con organizers bring together, it is something they curate. Once a panel organizer has secured their speakers, moderator, and a topic, they then send a proposal to the con organizers. Applying for a panel at C2E2 was simple; it was a lot like writing a very short grant proposal. Together with my fellow Ladies’ Night editors, Caitlin Rosberg, Lauren Burke, and Anissa Espinosa, we decided the topic for our panel would be about our experience hosting the monthly Ladies’ Night event at Graham Crackers Comics. We would also discuss our experience creating the anthology and how both of these endeavors foster a community centered around the local comic shop. It was a topic that we had never seen discussed previously at conventions and we hoped the organizers would see the benefit in hosting this discussion. We were grateful to be accepted and were given a great time slot on Saturday morning as well. Organizers of other diversity and community based panels contacted us to cross promote. Not only was this beneficial for getting the word out, but panelist extraordinaire Michi Trota of Geek Melange was a wonderful resource for us as first time panel organizers. Panels that Michi helped organize such as “Opening the Clubhouse Doors: Creating More Inclusive Geek Communities” and “Glass Ceilings, Missing Stairs & Gatekeepers: Geeks Still Deal With Sexism” are both available online for viewing.
Our panel, “Creating Community: Hosting Ladies’ Night at Your Local Comic Shop” was well received (you can watch it in its entirety at the end of this article). I had gone in prepared to deal with combative questions, individuals with off-topic concerns, even technical difficulties (which did come up—note to first timers, bring every cable imaginable for connecting your laptop to a projector). My two years of experience as moderator for Graham Crackers Ladies’ Night had paid off handsomely. We didn’t have a moment of dead air, the slideshow worked as planned, and the attendees were attentive and presented thoughtful questions. We had hoped for a larger audience, but considering the appeal of our panel was on the topic rather than the speakers (talented, independent creators with growing local appeal), it was a good turnout.
Anxiety over my qualifications and fear that anything and everything would go wrong quickly dissipated. The next thought that occurred was: why hadn’t I done this sooner? After going through the submission process, I realized panels only existed because of the people organizing them, not the conventions. Con organizers do have the final say in what is included in their programming, but the choice cannot be made without bringing an option to the table. Like our self-published anthology, we strove to create content that we wanted to see at the convention.
Seeing the difficulties other panels faced this year at C2E2 has also encouraged me to continue panelling. Friend and colleague Shanna Wallace, manager of Graham Crackers Comics in Edgewater, was asked to be a panelist and share her perspective on creating comics as a retailer. “It’s More than Drawing: Exploring Other Careers in the Comics Industry” would have been an even better panel if the moderator had bothered to show up. The “Fierce Females in Comics” panel, which featured prominent women in comics like Amanda Conner and Jill Thompson, began with an off-color joke from moderator Jimmy Palmiotti about how to pick up women in comics. C2E2 is doing a better job than most cons when it comes to diversity within their panel programming, but there is still room for improvement. You can be a part of the solution by creating your own opportunities for discussion.
If you want to see more diversity amongst panelists, or more diverse topics in general, consider organizing a panel. Being an experienced speaker helps if you want to moderate a panel, but careful preparation will go a long way to hide your nerves. Confidence in your subject will also help convince con organizers to include your panel in programming. Pick topics of discussion that you feel deserve a spotlight and have not been featured extensively—broad topics like simply women in comics have been done time and again. Think of the conversations you are having online and amongst friends, expand on those concepts, and approach individuals with the expertise to discuss them. Don’t be afraid to approach big names for your panel either! A tweet can go a long way in securing a high-profile speaker to expand your potential audience. There are many roles within the world of comics; creators are not the only potential candidates for speakers. Seeing more diversity in panels will in turn inspire others to reconsider their role as well. Despite the vocal and active online community, a large portion of readers don’t engage with comics beyond their weekly visit to their local comic shop. If you are reading this article, you are probably more actively engaged in the comic-book community than you think. Reconsider your place in comics; if you have something to say, create your own platform. If you want to see comics become more inclusive and you have the motivation to do something about it, panelling is a good place to start.
Here is the full video of our panel “Creating Community: Hosting Ladies’ Night at Your Local Comic Shop.”