Diversity and Comics: Why Inclusion and Visibility Matter: The past year has witnessed the growth of more diverse faces on the pages of popular comic books and in feature films. Despite the impact of the unprecedented pandemic, the deaths and storming of the US Capitol Building, the inclusion of people of color, women, and persons with disabilities and the LGBTQ community not only better reflects today’s culture and expand to a changing fan base, but it has also proven good for the bottom line. And, diversity in the comic arts has always been part of the industry’s DNA. Building on our successful past Comic-Con diversity panels, we will bring an award-winning panel together to challenge ongoing issues and push the conversation for inclusion forward.
Frederick Luis Aldama, PhD: The Jacob & Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities, University of Texas Austin; Founder Latinx Pop Lab and 2019 Eisner-Award winner
David F. Walker: Comic book writer, Eisner Award Winner (2020), (2021-nominee, Bitter Root) Bitter Root (Image)(Legendary Films): 2020 Eisner Award nomination, Naomi (DC) (The CW)
Nicky Rodriguez: Comic Artist, The Unlucky Ones and the Edge of Nowhere (Webtoons)
Deborah Elizabeth Whaley, Administrative Fellow, College of Arts & Sciences Office of the Dean, University of Iowa, Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking, Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime (University of Washington Press)
Erika Hardison: Fabulize Magazine (FabulizeMag.com)
Stanford Carpenter, PhD (moderator): Comics and Pop Culture anthropologist and Chair, Black & Brown Comix Arts Festival
Moderated by Stanford Carpenter
SDCC’s regular diversity panel returns for another year, once again during the pandemic. Bringing together comic writers, artists, and academics, both experienced and new to the field, this panel discussed the challenges facing marginalised communities in comics and what it means to be diverse in 2021 and beyond.
I watched this panel last year and couldn’t miss it this time around. While some of the faces were familiar, the panel also included newer comics creators who had refreshing insights to share about their experiences.
Naturally, the conversation opened with the pandemic and how the panelists have coped with it. Most of the positives about the pandemic were about being able to virtually meet people they wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to interact with. Deborah Elizabeth Whaley made an interesting point about the diversity of her online classes, saying she was surprised by the number of white students who joined the class in an effort to learn about Black comics and creators. It seemed to her that many students found pop culture a more accessible medium to learn about Black lives and history.
Another point that was made by the panelists was finding the time to make their comics. Though Erika Hardison said she didn’t really feel okay during this pandemic, she was able to create her own comic for the first time, a huge leap for her as someone who has mainly been a comics journalist. Nicky Rodriguez was able to spend more time sending pitches and queries during the pandemic, something she had not been able to do as an after school teacher.
It was long before the discussion turned to the negatives of the pandemic. Rodriguez spoke about missing the zine fests she used to love going to and how she’s eager to get back to them. David F Walker spoke of the increased isolation, and about feeling a mixture of depression and anxiety — depression about the events of the past, and anxiety about what’s to come in the future once we are all back to being around people. Frederick Luis Aldama was the most vehement of the panelists. He said that the pandemic had seemingly opened doors for marginalized creators but wondered whether that was going to last. Walker certainly didn’t think so.
There was a bleak outlook on diversity in comics from this panel, that I didn’t feel was there last year. For instance, Hardison pointed out that public and private library donors in the United States are actively trying to remove books about race because they have the money and means to do so. As a result, younger readers won’t have access to present history. All the work done to ‘decolonise our bookshelves’ is being undone. Hardison feared what the future would be like for her daughter, wondering aloud whether the history books would be kinder to someone like Donald Trump than he actually deserved.
Hardison’s point was a cause for concern but Aldama noted that even when stories by marginalised are included, they’re more likely to be based in trauma, because that’s the only way that white academics will legitimise it. But all it does is place marginalised people as outside and other. Aldama spoke of how few books there are that don’t centre on BIPOC or queer or trans trauma or their history, that just allow their marginalised characters to be. Later in the discussion, Hardison returned to this point, saying she created her magazine out of anger that there weren’t any magazines for Black people just being themselves.
Jumping off Aldama’s point, Rodriguez spoke of the recent issues with Own Voices, and how, instead of giving marginalised communities a safe space to share their stories, it became a way to either gatekeep or expose them so as to add legitimacy to the stories they were telling. Also, as Rodriguez mentioned, even if someone from a marginalised communities does share a story of trauma, it almost becomes the only thing they are allowed to write about.
It was also interesting to hear the panelists’ thoughts about colorism and othering within marginalised communities. Rodriguez spoke of the one benefit of virtual meetings being that she can openly talk about how Latinx communities are considered a monolith and a homogenous unit, thus excluding huge swathes of people. This was something that Rodriguez encountered too often in the zine fests she visited but didn’t feel comfortable confronting. Another plus has been the fact that she isn’t asked the same kinds of questions about diversity, which was an issue she faced during in-person events.
Speaking of in-person versus virtual, Whaley commented on how in-person discussions have often pitted the Big Two in comics (DC and Marvel Comics) against indie comics. But what Whaley has been finding in her online classes is that students aren’t reading the Big Two that much. They are more invested in Manga, Anime, and indie comics. She did note that the Big Two comics, while still having a ways to go, are making some strides in terms of diversity, and it’s not just indie comics that have a host of diversity.
When discussing what the next steps for marginalised creators should be, Walker asked his fellow panelists to keep doing what they’re doing because stopping isn’t an option. Paraphrasing Toni Morrison, Walker said that they needed to create what they weren’t seeing out in the world. They have already been doing this but they all have to collectively continue creating so that they can leave the world a better place for future generations. He also gave a different spin on what creators should aim to write or draw. Walker said that instead of trying to create something that you are inspired by, understand what absolutely repulses you and use that as the foundation to create the opposite. I have not really thought of writing in this way and my mind is blown!
Hardison suggested moving away from centering whiteness in comics and other media, and that it needs to be a conscious choice. White creators will continue to do so because for so long they have been the default, but marginalised creators need to create stories centering themselves so that they and people like them can see themselves.
Aldama brought the session to a close with a fascinating point — that it’s high time to stop talking about diversity in relation to whiteness, but instead to look within one’s own communities and discuss the issues of intersectionality, colorism, and othering there. What a note to end on.
I found this panel to be an absolutely riveting discussion but technically, it wasn’t very well-executed. The edits between questions were too jarring and it felt like we had sacrificed parts of the conversation in favour of length. Panelists often referred to a point or question that we weren’t privy to. Also, I feel the session could have been moderated better. There were long pauses when panelists were waiting on who should answer a question or speak next. Some direction would have been great. But despite those glitches, there were some profound insights and advice shared during this panel that I will definitely be returning to for inspiration.