Comics Journalism 2021: Representation Matters: How do we promote greater representation in comics journalism? Whether making sure that writers from marginalized groups are heard, engaging with work from diverse viewpoints, or confronting institutionalized biases, comics journalists and editors have more responsibility than ever to make sure that their sites and staffs reflect the diversity of the comics audience and creative community. Join Heidi Macdonald, editor-in-chief of Comicsbeat.com, in conversion with Wendy Browne, publisher of the Eisner Award-winning Women Write About Comics, and writer/editor Tiffany Babb (The AV Club, Panel x Panel, Shelfdust).
A Comic-Con tradition is Heidi Macdonald’s comics journalism panel. This year, the focus of the panel was on diversity and representation in comics journalism. Our small but mighty panel featured Tiffany Babb of The A.V. Club and Panel x Panel, and WWAC’s own Wendy Browne!
What drew these women to writing about comics? Browne came in a roundabout way to the industry, starting with managing a professional association, and then with her own blog. Babb was a comics fan for quite some time, and her love for comics led to her changing her school thesis to focus on comics. (Fun fact: Babb also wrote for WWAC, focusing on comics in academia!) What both these origin stories had in common is opportunity. Both these women had supportive, welcoming platforms. And these are platforms that provide stepping stones for future careers. Heidi admitted (with a smile) that’s she’s poached writers from WWAC.
One challenge that every site faces is diversity in recruiting. How can sites promote and amplify marginalized voices? For Browne, it all boils down to trust. If you create a safe space, a space that shows active, long term commitment to equity and inclusion, people come and stay. But Babb cautions this is work. Site editors need to be proactive, finding the people you want on your site and not waiting for them to come to you. If your site is primarily white male voices, non-white, non-male voices are not going to come to you. It’s also key to look across to other industries for ideas. You may find a sportswriter who tweets a lot about comics is your newest and best comics writer!
Could the boys club of comics be on the way out? There are site editors who are realizing that the boys club is a relic of its time, working hard to help make the spaces for everyone else. Babb does remind us that the boys club is still there and still making an impact on the industry, but it’s important to separate comics from comics industry to comics fandom. Each of these has its own boys club, and each is different from the other. It’s a “weird, terrible net that’s pulling in twenty different directions” that still props up privilege. But marginalized voices are breaking through, as people recognize their own privilege.
Advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion is long-term work, and it is hard work. To prevent burnout, self-care remains essential, and our panel offered their own self-care tips. For Browne, it’s limiting her social media intake, and promoting community behind the scenes to keep writers safe. Having a strong comment moderation policy is essential. Both Babb and Browne agree that community is essential to prevent that burnout.
Comics journalism is not an industry that one goes into for the money. Most sites cannot afford to pay for their writers, so there is a tricky balance between putting out content but not burning out volunteers. WWAC has a Patreon, which Browne says does help keep the site running. And Browne does find it amazing that there is still a dedicated staff that works on a volunteer basis. Babb notes that diversity and discussions of equal pay go hand in hand. That may require more training and more patience on the part of editorial staff. Understanding of this structural inequality is crucial to not just hiring, but keeping staff on board.
We’re in a new golden age of comics. Webcomics, manga, kids comics, and queer comics are bringing in new readers. What gives our panelists joy? Babb loves Tillie Walden’s newest compilation. Also bringing Babb that joy is writing about it, “seeing my thought pattern,” bringing attention to more thoughtful engagement with our media. For Browne, it’s her women’s comics club and their specific focus on non-superhero titles.
An important question to consider is matching reviewers with books. With the rise of more diverse voices in comics, there is the temptation to find people of a particular identity to review certain books. But doing this kind of matching can come across as tokenism. Babb’s advice is to consider the complexity of the content first in making editorial decisions. It’s a tough call for an editor when you have freelancers that need the clicks or the paycheck. And it’s okay for White creators to cover books by people of color, as it broadens their worldview. The stronger the identity in the story, the more important it is to find someone of that identity to talk about it. Having the right vocabulary shows how essential doing your research is!
Whether it’s serving on my day job’s diversity committee or writing here, diversity is a topic close to my heart. I’m a manager at another comics site, and I left with some ideas on what we need to do to grow and further diversify our writer base. It’s a lot of work, but it’s necessary work that will benefit us long-term. And as someone who is considering dipping her toes in sports journalism, I have hope that the writing experience from comics plus enthusiasm on social media can make it work! (Don’t worry Wendy and company, you’re not losing me to writing about the New York Mets. At least not yet.)
It was also important that this panel was all female, and primarily women of color. When talking about amplifying marginalized voices, having a white man in the room is not ideal. That white man may have the best of intentions, but he is still a white man and still comes from a place of privilege. He does not have the experiences in this industry that Babb and Browne both have. They share their experiences, and the privileged can lift up their experiences to broader exposure.
There’s no doubt that change needs to come to comics writing. But there’s plenty of community, and it’s that community that breeds the innovation and change, the better future every writer deserves.