2016 was my fifth consecutive year attending New York Comic Con. In those five years I have yet to wait in line for a single celebrity-stacked headlining panel. This is not to throw shade at people who do, I just hate lines and I tend to gravitate towards the panels on diversity and indie comics. My first article for GeeksOUT was about a really compelling panel on Diversity in Science Fiction that was inspired by the Sad Puppies Hugo Controversy. One of my favorite panels at Reader Con in 2015 was an all male panel about Making Toxic Masculinity a Villain. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good diversity panel. This year’s New York Comic Con was no exception.
A recent article by Marlon James for Literary Hub raised some excellent points about who diversity panels really serve and questions what effect they actually have. Maybe the comics industry isn't a good parallel, or maybe I haven't been around long enough to see the stagnation, but I always find them worth my while. Speaking from my own experience, the most stimulating panels I have attended left me feeling empowered. I almost always walk away with a book or two added to my never-ending reading list. In 2014 I went to the NYCC #WeNeedDiverseBooks Panel. It was placed in one of the smallest panel rooms (leaving lots of people unable to get in) and, due to some late cancellations, the panel itself wasn’t very diverse. Comparing that to 2016, every diversity themed panel I attended was in an appropriately sized room. There were more of them than I could possibly attend, and each one that I did still filled every seat.
I was able to make Friday's Moving Beyond the Strong Female Character, which featured a discussion The group made an odd decision move the panel table off of the stage and down to the floor, which made it impossible for anyone aside from the front few rows to see them. I think it was meant to symbolize putting everyone on equal ground , but the professional AV Technician in me (the job I actually make money doing) cringed at the last minute changes to the functioning setup and I'm don't think it had the the desired effect. The group talked about a wide range of issues that women face in the comics industry. There is the need for more complex women characters, as well as more women in publishing and editing roles. They also emphasized the importance of publishers doing anthologies, as that's how many women are able to break in.
I was also able to make it to Black Heroes Matter panel on Saturday. Black Heroes Matter started as a Flash Mob organized by comics writer David F Walker at San Diego Comic Con earlier this year. It became a surprise viral hit when comics writer URAEUS showed up to it wearing a Black Heroes Matter t-shirt. The panel itself covered a wide range of topics, form how well the big two publishers are doing to the history of black creators in comics. There were ten panelists, ranging from writers and artists, to bloggers and academics. My only complaint was that there wasn't enough time to really allow everyone to speak.
Perhaps the most interesting panel I attended this year was Thursday night’s Conversation about Race & Sexuality. Moderated by Jonathan W. Gray, the panel featured Steve Orlando (Virgil, Midnighter) Ta-Nehisi Coates (Black Panther, Between the World and Me) and Tee “Vixen” Franklin (#BlackComicsMonth, Mental Health Anthology). What was billed as a conversation about race and sexuality turned out to be a more expansive discussion that included disability, sexual assault survival, and the deliberate steps taken to getting the “writing the other” correct. Steve Orlando —a white man— talked about Virgil, which featured an entirely Jamaican cast. He also share some funny anecdotes for getting the straight artist he was collaborating with to draw realistic depictions of gay sex. Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke at length of about the queer relationship between Anyo and Aneka in Black Panther, and the lengths gine to make sure the characters were tastefully represented. Tee Franklin spoke at length about the need to self-publish or publish independently in order see the type of representation that she needed as a queer, disabled black woman, saying “if you want something done right, just do it yourself.”
All of this is not even mentioning the panels that I wasn't able to make. There was Black Comics Month, Body of Evidence: How We See Ourselves in Comics, Queer Culture: LGBT in Pop Culture, Be Your Own Superhero: Intersectional Feminism in Comics, and that's only cherry picking from the list. I'm also not the only one who noticed the uptick in the focus on diversity at this year's convention. So what does all of this mean? After all, it's not like the fanboys who protested Finn and Ray taking the lead roles in The Force Awakens were in attendance. For all these moves towards diversity, there's still Sad Puppies and Men's Rights Activists in the greater fan communities polluting the well.
If the end goal of diversity panels is to eventually reach a point where we no longer need them, what actions need to be taken in order to achieve that? Marvel has received acclaim for pushing the envelope with Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, but that doesn’t preclude them from being called out held accountable for casting Tilda Swindon for the role of an Asian character. The increasing presence and commercial success of queer superheroes, black comic writers, and complex female characters does not circumvent the need for Independent Comics to continue challenging the paradigm. It doesn't relent the importance of fans financially supporting the work that they love and want to see more of. It doesn't change the incentive for writers and artists to boldly create the work that they want to see more of. The increase of panels discussing representation of race, gender, disability and other intersectional themes in comics is a mark of progress, but it can't be where this ends.