Early on in my descent into the comics world, I went to a keynote panel at Heroes Con. The topic had something to do with diversity in books; it’s been so long now that I don’t remember the title. As is typical for diversity panels, eventually somebody asked why representation matters, and Jeremy Whitley, the panel’s token white man and creator of Princeless, mentioned a time that a fan had come up to him and, clutching a copy of his book, thanked him for a single scene in which the protagonist (a young Black girl) complains internally as her mother struggles to pull a brush through her hair. As an aspiring editor, I was fascinated. That was the moment I began to understand how telling specific stories about small moments could be key to representing experiences and making readers feel seen.
There’s an incredible amount of discourse surrounding representation, even within communities who all agree that it’s vital. Almost all creators worry that their portrayal of identities and experiences outside their own will be inauthentic; many creators from marginalized communities worry that writing from their own experience will be branded unmarketable, uninteresting, or even harmful to the group that they are trying to represent.
All of these concerns have merit: straight white people have written an incredible number of disappointing stories centered around token characters meant to represent entire demographics, and mainstream publishers have shown systematic disinterest in publishing stories outside of a straight, white, mostly male perspective. When marginalized creators do get a seat at the table, they are often expected to tell the “objective” truth about their demographic. Due to how few stories are available, each one bears a disproportionate amount of weight in representing the experiences of an entire race, sexuality, or social group. This puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on marginalized creators and often subjects them to much harsher criticism than their privileged peers. However, small presses and independent creators have proven, time and time again, that own-voices fiction resonates in ways that are deeper than just “telling a pretty good story.”
The stories that make an impact are often the ones that are specific, the ones that tell their characters’ stories not just through the capital-p Plot, but also through little things. Like the way a mother wrestles with her daughter’s hair, the silly AIM-style away messages that pop up when a chat client is onscreen, the brand of hot sauce that’s always on the kitchen counter, or even just familiar piles of knickknacks and papers on the kitchen table. These things, which are so easy to shrug off as set dressing or basic framing, are the reason that Night in the Woods and ELEMENTS: Fire resonated with players and readers even when they didn’t have a whole lot in common with the protagonists.
The importance of specificity in stories is incredibly apparent in the case of Bingo Love, Tee Franklin’s debut graphic novel, with art by Jenn St-Onge, colors by Joy San, and letters by Cardinal Rae. In early 2017, Tee set out to write a story about queer Black grandmas in love and proceeded to do exactly that. Since then, the book has raised over $50,000 on Kickstarter (and far more in convention and online sales) and has been picked up by Image to debut on Valentines day.
While Bingo Love is entirely fictional, it’s easy to see how the Tee draws on many of her own experiences to begin building the world that her protagonists, Hazel and Mari, inhabit. Tee’s experiences as a Black woman with grown and teenage children, as a lifetime resident of New Jersey, and even just as someone who’s spent a lot of time in bingo halls help make the story feel alive, and create moments and characters who feel as though they’re rooted in reality.
Very few people who read Bingo Love will see their exact story, beginning to end, told within Hazel and Mari’s. But it’s easy for readers to see their own experiences in the details: the emotional journey Hazel’s daughter goes through just off-screen, the comfortable but vital role that Hazel’s therapist plays in her life, or even the incomprehensible tendency for important life events to happen in the middle of Sunday bingo. For me, a white, able-bodied, asexual twenty-something, the moment that resonated the most was the flat look that Hazel gives her husband as he rants about her identity, with no apparent interest in letting her speak for herself.
Hazel and Mari aren’t Tee—they aren’t anyone—but their lives are rich and detailed enough that it’s easy to identify with some part of them. That easy resonance, combined with the authenticity created by Tee’s commitment to telling a story about and for her own staggeringly underrepresented demographic (i.e., happy queer Black women over the age of 40) and some incredible visual research by Jenn St-Onge and Joy San, means that not only can people find something to hang on to in Bingo Love, the book also helps familiarize people with the experiences they don’t share.
People are complicated, and lives are messy. It’s impossible to write a story about The Black Experience, or The Trans Experience, and those who try are doomed to write a washed out, distorted version of a life that is not their own. But abandoning the need to cover every possible base in one fell swoop and writing about an experience, a single character whose life is specific to their own background and situation, allows for details that help readers find connections to characters who are as different from them as Hazel and Mari are to me. Stories that are specific build not just empathy but understanding. And they’re usually more fun to read, too.