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The Voices of “Women of Color in Comics” at NYCC

It doesn’t take a fine-toothed comb to see that since comic strips became comic books, most heroes and heroines fall within a certain criterion of characteristics. Although a good portion of these characters may be of alien descent or take upon a vessel that serves as their way of passing on planet Earth, for the most part they’re white, middle to upper-middle class males. While this may have been the norm following the emergence of comic books as we know them back in the ‘30s, it does not reflect contemporary society and its makeup.

Similarly, the over-sexualization of female characters has been a long-standing practice in the comic book industry—repeatedly referred to as “the Boys Club.” Take into consideration how female characters are drawn and sometimes treated—disproportionate body archetypes and alter-egos that are given subservient roles.

In recent years, more attention has been paid to creating an all-inclusive comic universe, and now we’re seeing that artists and writers are taking steps towards establishing and representing more progression and diversity in comics. Major steps have already been taken—for starters, the New York Comic Con Program Guide includes the new Captain America, formerly the Black Falcon, and the new female Thor—but it doesn’t begin or end with the development of alternate character stories.

As part of the effort to open up discussion about the inequities that permeate the overall industry, New York Comic Con put together the “Women of Color in Comics: Race, Gender and The Comic Book Medium” panel. The panel, led by Regine Sawyer, brought various artists, writers, models, and more to discuss diversity, specifically relating to women, in comics. They also touched on “Con-sent,” Comic Con’s anti-harassment movement targeted at cos-players and how they treat and interact with one another. To speak on these issues Regine was joined by Alitha Martinez, Jamila Rowser, Juliana “Jewels” Smith, Alice Meichi Li, Vanessa Verduga, Barbara Brandon-Croft, and cos-play model & “CON-sent” advocate Geisha Vi.

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In a packed room full of folks that equated to a potpourri of industry fans, writers, and artists, the all-female panel expounded on their own experiences with diversity that later informed their careers and or fandom for comics.

Much of the discussion revolved around the established foundations of the comic universe and how the methodology is still a bit antiquated. While most women on the panel explained that the modern industry misrepresented them and stifled them–resulting in them creating characters, stories, and more to reflect their own identities– Alitha Martinez sang a different song. A question was posed to the panel asking what from their own personal experience they try to convey in their work, to which Martinez replied:

I work for mainstream, so I can’t convey anything more than the style I bring to the book. I have to do as I’m told…exactly as I’m told or they will “quickly replace me,” and there’s a lot of young artists out there who would love it. For myself…I learned to write and draw above the board, so I try not to dilute it with myself. I don’t talk/speak of myself and that comes with how I entered. It was not easy to show your portfolio to people; they’ take it and say, “Well…you don’t draw like a girl!” What does that mean? I have no clue. But I quickly learned that this–what I wear–was going to be a problem, so I had to shrink away from that. I think that affected me throughout. People write comics about themselves now and what they’re doing, but I prefer not to do that. I’d rather do as I’m told to do, and for myself I just want to tell a story like the stories I grew up on.

It’s a bit of a jarring argument from a woman on an all-female panel, but it truly reflects her personal opinion and vantage point. Verduga, Smith, and Brandon-Croft all have original titles under their belt and were opposite Martinez on the spectrum. They each cited that their personal experiences heavily inform their work and allow them to present valuable characters and stories that help to expand on comic narratives and reach past the typical comic demographic.

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To give an idea of how the comic community is contesting these stereotypical disparities, Regine asked cos-play model Geisha Vi and self-proclaimed Girl Geek and blogger Jamila Rowser speak their mind. Geisha explained how she doesn’t let her inherent physical appearance deter her from fully engaging in cos-play. She refuses to succumb to stereotypes when it comes to donning costumes because at the end of the day, she isn’t just doing it for her, but for others out there who see her as a role model.

 “I guess I put a little bit of the “pro-femme” within the fact that I tend to do mostly female characters. Each time I wear a costume–before I just did it for fun–as the years went on and people start to recognize me and what I do I start to realize–like most celebrities, not putting myself out there, but just as a person in the public eye–you tend to end up being a role-model and represent things. Even if you don’t think so, other people will see that within you. So, I started to take things more seriously with my selection of characters…tried to be more out there. Like, what people haven’t done; what people like myself haven’t done. My “Starfire,” I think, was a pretty big moment for me because beforehand, no one that looked like me particularly had done her and gotten as much press. So when I did it, I did it because I was plus sized–that’s a part of me–I tan–that’s a part of me. I’m proud, and I don’t think you have to be too out there to be a sexy character. I was told that George Pérez actually gave me credit for my Starfire when he saw me last year, so that was a really big step. I put my love of myself into what I do, and I hope other people see that too.”

Jamila Rowser touched on the significance of the experience of readers and fans. When asked about the “changing face of comics,” Rowser replied:

 I think this type of panel shows two things–exactly what Alice said–the demand and the growth of women and women of color fans and creators of comics, but also the need for more representation and accurate representation…because there’s a lot of misrepresentation of women in comics, but those are white women. So, it’s like “OK, we’re not even in there to be misrepresented.” It’s like we’re getting there, we have our couple…we can all name the women of color characters in comics by name, and that’s probably because there isn’t enough. We shouldn’t be able to name them all…it’s always Storm, because we’re like “Oh, that’s somebody that looks like me. I belong here.” When you don’t see people in something that you love that look like you, you feel like you’re not welcome, I think that’s why it’s so important. The fact that there are so many young women who are reading comics now, our voice is bigger so we can be louder. People will hear us more. We can demand things that will affect change in the industry since we’re becoming such a large percentage of it.

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Rowser’s statement was partially spawned by artist Alice Meichi Li’s testimonial about some of her influences and her exploration of the “heroine’s journey.” It proved to be an idea that somewhat ruffled some feathers, with many asking Li why a woman couldn’t simply just go on a “hero’s journey.” To which she explained that even at a physical/anatomical level, the journey could never be the same:

 “We all want to be a hero, but what is different about being a heroine instead of a hero? That is all in how people perceive you, how people perceive your body, and how people react to that. How people treat you in regards to the outside also mold who you become on the inside. So the “heroine’s journey” is completely different from the “hero’s journey,” I feel. These are themes that I explore in different goddesses that I study, portraying different aspects of them in my work.”

The most interesting point of the conversation came when artist Alitha Martinez took time to reflect on everything the other members of the panel contributed. Alitha established early on that she was somewhat of an outlier of the group, coming from a more traditional setting where she chooses to keep her personal life and experience out of her work. While she feels like women and women of color going the indie route is a step in the right direction, a “Trojan Horse” approach may be a better way to kick that door in and have those yells for equality not ring on deaf ears:

 “I’m listening to what everyone on the panel has said, especially about your questions of diversity and people wanting change. But being on the side that I work for, women seem to be on the fringe. I mean, I hear you shouting, but you’re shouting at a bubble that can’t hear you. If you don’t come in to where the 1% is, nothing is ever going to change. If you stay writing your own comics, and your own stories and not coming up and beating down the doors of Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and the others, then nothing is going to change. They’re never going to make a black character you’re satisfied with, an Asian character you’re satisfied with…they’re satisfied with the status-quo. I’m a purveyor of the status-quo and I see nothing coming in because women tend not to approach the editors, nor do they come up to the big companies. They seem safe on the outside. It’s safe to shout from the outside, but coming up to a convention with your portfolio and its not just filled with manga and your own ideas, but Superman and Wonder Woman drawn out five pages for them to see in a way that an editor can understand. I do not see, and I have not seen in the last 14 years. That is something big to me: if you want change, you’ve got to make it happen, and you make it happen by bringing your portfolios and your ideas and submitting to the bigger companies. You can’t expect some old 50-year-old guy to know whats in your heads. It won’t happen! He can’t relate; he can’t relate to any of you. If you want it, you’ve got to show it yourself!

The discussion of diversity and the role of women in comics is one that requires more than a panel during a 4-day convention. The two are hotbed issues in the world of comics where new alternate universes are emerging from the different publishers, taking a look at alternate storylines and origins of characters of some long-standing fan-favorites. While some steps are being made in the march towards a more progressive and all-inclusive comic universe, there is still much work to be done. Judging from this panel and the diversity of the crowd that turned up to hear these women ripple the waters, the future looks bright…colorful if you will.

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