Gay Geek About Town: Comics, Culture, and Society Symposium at UIC

On Thursday, April 20, the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center, the African-American Cultural Center, and the Arab American Cultural Center sponsored a half-day symposium hosted by the University of Illinois at Chicago. At a time when diversity is considered controversial (despite being necessary), this felt like the perfect event to attend before the bombardment of commercial announcements that would threaten to drown out anything important at C2E2.

From left: Valentino Zullo, Dr. Mark Martell, Leila Abdelrazaq, Michi Trota, and Dr. Nadine Naber


After hurrying through the twists and turns of UIC's campus to make my way to Addams Hall, I found myself in an intimate setting akin to a conference room, complete with coffee and munchkins, where Dr. Mark Martell introduced me to two of the speakers before everything got started. As he introduced Valentino Zullo, LSW, Martell spoke on how comics is a medium for education and social change relevant to our current sociopolitical climate. They are "not for escape, but are narratives about society."

Zullo, a PhD student at Kent State University with an MSc in Social Administration, gave a presentation titled "She's Got to Be Fast, She's Got to Be Strong, and She's Got to Be a Man: The problem of female identification in superhero comics." Wonder Woman was the obvious centerpiece of this lecture, and Zullo opened with quotes from her creator, William Marston, describing her as 'psychological propaganda" and Gloria Steinem about how she "made [women] feel good about [themselves]."

After accurately describing the New 52 as "Make Comics Great Again," Zullo provided a short synopsis of DC Rebirth and its focus on the idea of legacy: "We have two Atoms, two Flashes," he explained over a collage depicting Robin, the Green Lantern, and Aqualad. The problem is that only male heroes have legacies, while female characters don't have mantles to pass on to anyone. To add insult to injury, 2017 marked the 75th anniversary of Wonder Woman, and in her first Rebirth appearance, she didn't speak. "No words," Zullo said, describing her situation and the appropriate reaction to such an injustice.

"Women don’t have a history in comics, and if they do, it's violent" with "no chance to identify with a female predecessor." Indeed, even when women do get to carry on legacies, the "mantle-holding character," or core identity, is a straight, white male. To emphasize this, Zullo showed slides of Batgirl and the new Wolverine and Hawkeye. "Women are never given the chance to individuate themselves." In the rare instance when a female legacy exists, it either becomes too complicated (Rachel Grey, who inevitably takes on the name Summers, or Donna Troy) or is lost to history entirely (Catgirl).

During World War II, however, there were several female superheroes who led their own books, including the Blonde Phantom and Miss America. After the war, there was a significant "erasure of women," with Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham providing the final nail in the coffin, describing Wonder Woman as a "morbid ideal." In telling the story of female superheroes, Zullo also shared the story of the original Batwoman, created to dispel Wertham's idea that Batman and Robin were a gay couple. She existed just to be a love interest for Batman, quits being a superhero to please her male counterpart, and is literally reduced to an object to be looked at by the end of her own story. She is a character representative of the control of women of power in comics history.

Zullo ended his presentation with recommendations for the audience: Mockingbird, Ms. Marvel, The Unstoppable Wasp, and Genevieve Valentine's runs on Catwoman and Xena: Warrior Princess. He explained that the only true reason any of these characters experience any kind of backlash is sexism. "Why else would someone who's never read a comic in his life suddenly care if there's a female Thor?" he asked. "I don't even care about Thor!"

Michi Trota was the second speaker, delivering her lecture "We Are More Than Sidekicks: Exploring identities as Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders and building communities through geek culture." A self-described "geek of all things," Trota provided detailed geek bona fides, including a picture of her as Princess Leia from kindergarten. She was featured in The Chicago Reader's People Issue 2016 as a Geek-Community Builder, and has been on panels with Gail Simone and Scott Snyder.

She quoted a piece she cowrote about Doctor Strange with Dawn Xiana Moon, describing how "stories tell us how to see each other." She attributes geek culture with giving her a common language to speak with other people and metaphors to understand the world around her. Unfortunately, she rarely got to see herself or people like her reflected in the stories she loved so much.

"Who were my heroes?" she asked in front of a slide showing Red Sonja, She-Ra, Jean Grey, the Ghostbusters, and Jean-Luc Picard (for which she made no apologies, "though we all know Sisko's the best."), among others. "What do all these characters have in common?" There were Asian American characters, but they were not prominent (and in the case of movies like Sidekicks and the Ghost in the Shell remake, they weren't included at all). Asian Americans were "mostly a sidekick, sometimes a villain, and rarely the hero."

Trota asked us to imagine what effect this would have on how we see the world and ourselves. She related how her own fiction in the early days of her writing was all about white characters. "I have whitewashed my own sense of self," she explained. She experienced comfort and horror when she realized that all Asian Americans have done this to themselves, internalizing what they've seen. She addressed certain criticisms, such as "Aren't these just stories?" and "Why does this matter?" and "Can't we just ignore the bad and go make our own?" To this last point, she replied: "Try it." Making money off geek culture is "so not going to happen!" she added with a laugh. As to why stories matter, she played a viral video that still makes me get a bit misty eyed.

The next slide featured a quote from Trota's essay "Finding Yourself in Fandom" overlaying a still from the 2015 film Advantageous: "Escapism isn't truly escapism when you keep finding the same microaggressions, erasure, and stereotypes." This led to an explanation of "intent vs. impact," most notable in the film Doctor Strange, in which the intent to help women, who are still underrepresented in the MCU, led to the impact of continuing to erase Asian representation.

"This is why community is so important," Trota explained. She learned from the geek community about such issues as intersectionality, gender expression, and how to distill concepts through a common lens. "Geek culture makes ideas less intimidating to tackle." Unfortunately, this shared community also had drawbacks. Trota said it was "heartbreaking" to realize she was accepted in geek culture, as long as she didn't bring up axes of marginalization. She would never be entirely off her guard in the company of people she was supposed to feel safest; there would always be "background radiation" of people trying to enforce the status quo.

Fortunately, AAPI-related media does have more diversity today. Trota was the first Filipina to win a Hugo award in 2016, one year after Cixin Liu became the first Asian to win a Hugo for The Three-Body Problem (also the first translated work to win). In 2017, three Filipinas are up for Hugo awards, and there are a larger number of Asians in geek properties. "All the X-wing pilots of color survived Rogue One!" she enthused. She showed a graph from Jeff Yang's Quartz article "Whitewashing Hollywood movies isn't just offensive—it's also bad business" that revealed how eighteen whitewashed films have actually lost half a billion dollars. She spoke on the #whitewashedOUT, #AAIronFist, and #YourModelMinority campaigns on Twitter.

Trota concluded by providing actions we could take: Find your people and build communities; support and hold each other to shared principles; be vocal and visible where possible; and be willing to engage, listen, and learn. "We need to point out the things that are amazing."

Last but not least, Leila Abdelrazaq spoke on her graphic novel Baddawi and her tireless efforts seeking justice for Palestinians displaced and murdered by Israeli forces. Dr. Nadine Naber introduced her as "a model of what it means to have art in grassroots campaigns." She wanted to use this opportunity to share about her work and the representation of Arabs and Palestinians. Baddawi began as a webcomic dramatizing stories from her father's childhood. While gathering material, Abdelrazaq realized that many of the stories in Palestinian communities did not exist outside of these communities; she wanted to change that.

On October 30, 1948, Israel committed a massacre of Palestinians that Abdelrazaq's grandfather managed to escape through the fortuitous circumstance of being a postman, and was therefore absent from his village that day. Her father grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, hoping to return to his home someday. It has been 70 years.

Abdelrazaq explained how important it is to incorporate Palestinian culture and stories, and to help her audience recognize how it can be erased and appropriated. She refuses to include rhetoric that removes blame from Israel for the atrocities and indignities that Palestinians have suffered. She feels no obligation to tell the story of her oppressor. Instead, she makes a conscious decision to tell Palestinian stories. She joked that, despite this, she is most often challenged by other Palestinians.

At the University of Bethlehem, a Palestinian challenged her to "hold [Israel] accountable," to which she replied, "That's not my role." Later, she expanded on this point by declaring, "I'm not gonna be Joe Sacco,” a reference to the revered cartoonist/journalist who has written comics about Palestine and little-known Israeli massacres.

Other issues that "come up a lot," Abdelrazaq said, were the issues of how to tell stories truthfully without worrying about making all Arabs look bad."Is it irresponsible not to contextualize it? To be Palestinian is to be political; people politicize you," Abdelrazaq explained. Despite Palestinian people "being forced into the role of spokesman," she wants them to be free to tell their own stories. This is where comics is so essential.

"Comics is a great way to engage people in stories they might shy away from." She had started writing for zines and small presses, and discovered it was the perfect medium for the stories she wanted to tell. She talked about her new project, the publishing imprint Bigmouth Comix, which is meant to bring the diverse voices of Palestinian culture together and be distributed. There is a huge comics culture in the Middle East, including festivals and conventions. She shared artwork from the Cairo Comix Festival, and many anthologies of which people in the US aren't even aware.

"So much energy is spent explaining ourselves, trying to justify ourselves, when there’s so many more stories…so many different experiences of the Palestinian diaspora." Abdelrazaq’s voice had more than a hint of relief as she expressed this obvious benefit to being in such a different environment than what she normally encounters here in the States.

She ended by voicing her frustrations over people who "instead of lifting up a Palestinian voice, [comes] parachuting in who thinks they have all the answers" but offered up hope that others would "use power and privilege to lift someone up who's been experiencing [these conditions] for 70 years, especially when we’re already being marginalized and shut out."

I learned a lot on that gray afternoon in a concrete building on the south side of Chicago, about the types of stories comics can tell and how they can tell them. I look forward to applying these lessons, and hope others will as well.

Devin Whitlock's picture
on May 3, 2017

I've enjoyed comics since I was ten years old, but won't reveal how long ago that was. I'm a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago, and can usually be found at a local bar with a book in one hand and a drink in the other. I'm so happy to be contributing to Geeks OUT!