The Other Is Who We Are: Representation in Comics’ Panel at Rose City Comic Con 2015

“I want to get past the conversation that merely repeats that we need more diverse representation in comics,” says Cyborg and Shaft writer David F. Walker at the start of the panel titled ‘Representation in Comics.’ Eariler in the day, I spoke to Walker about this ongoing conversation in the comics industry and we shared a mutual dissatisfaction with the stagnation that the discussion has recently seen as ideas about how both comic creators and readers can further this ideology have failed to take tangible form. Along with people of color writers, Gary Phillips (Angeltown), Ibrahim Moustafa (artist on High Crimes) and white women writers Jen Van Meter (Hopeless Savages and Felicia Hardy: aka Black Cat) and Kelly Sue DeConnick (Bitch Planet, Captain Marvel, and Pretty Deadly), Walker explored why greater representation needed to be thought of as more than a marketing buzzword employed by some comic publishers. Responding to Walker’s question about why greater representation in comics was vital to them, Moustafa stated that growing up with his mother and sisters as well as a person of Middle Eastern descent he noticed the lack of both gender and racial representation in comics. Meter gave her take, saying that this lack of representation can often be attributed to the popular assumption from publishers that “non-centrist traits are a speedbump for readers’ accessibility.” The panelists all agreed that this assumption holds that there is a default human being whose perspective is most easily digestible by a comic audience, Meter saying that such an attitude “poses everyone else [who does not fit that default (aka white male heterosexual cisgendered people) as ‘the other.’

As to how they try to do their part on increasing representation in comics beyond being minority writers themselves, the panelists offered a few examples as to how they’ve done this in past work. Walker spoke about coming on board for Cyborg with the idea to highlight Victor Stone’s pre-Cyborg genius intellect, a canonical trait of the character often ignored by other writers. By highlighting Stone’s genius, Walker wanted to add further dimension to a character that’s come to be known mostly as a brawler. Talking about her work on Bitch Planet, a comic starring several black women, Deconnick stated that she never wanted to co-opt the black experience. Deconnick then went on to talk about how her characters in Bitch Planet are not meant to be taken as a monolith for the black experience, but should instead be viewed as individuals with their own wants, fears, and shortcomings. “We’re not writing writing a tick box, we’re writing a character,” she added. In regards to how he tackles representation, Gary Phillips stated that he “writes the world he knows, or the world he wants to know.” Talking about a recent gig drawing for FXX’s Major Lazer television show, Moustafa described receiving visual reference materials for some crowd scenes, which prominently featured mostly white people even though the comic takes place in Jamaica, a country with a majority black population. In instances such as those, Moustafa says, he works to diversify the bodies drawn in his projects, subverting tropes by ensuring the first character death in High Crimes was a white male.

As the panel came to a close, I asked them what they would recommend comic readers do in order to further representation in comics. Beyond the typical ‘buy comics from diverse writers,’ Deconnick said right away that fans need to buy merchandise, citing sales as the main thing that would motivate corporations that diverse representation was something comic fans wanted. Secondly, the panelists recommended that comic readers become comic pushers, recommending comics to friends or taking them to a comic store. They also recommend preordering books in order to show publishers that you want comics written by diverse creators, and about diverse characters, and said it’s vital that readers let their retailers know when they like a comic so that the retailers can then recommend the comic to others with similar tastes. Lastly, they recommend walking friends through digital comics platforms like Comixology, stating that such platforms may appear inaccessible to those unfamiliar with them.

When the panel ended, it was apparent that the writers could talk more about the subject for quite a while. With diverse comics constantly at danger of cancellation, it’s imperative that readers work towards doing what we can to ensure that comics continue to develop a space that’s welcoming to readers and creators of all backgrounds.