Wizards of the Coast brings their four-day extravaganza to the Midwest every August, setting up shop at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois. This year, the crowds began to form on Thursday morning, and grew until Saturday afternoon, when the convention space seemed more peopled than it has any previous year. The ethnic demography of Wizard World is a more or less accurate sample of the ethnic demography Chicago, but this year, I wanted to glean whatever queerness I could from the guests, panel discussions, and merchants.
Norman Reedus, Michael Rooker, Jon Bernthal and Scott Wilson of The Walking Dead maintained a strong presence in the Autograph Area—and in the hotel lobby bar after the convention floor closed. (And although Andrew Lincoln was not in attendance, fantasy illustrator Tom Wood was, and his natural appearance and attention to costume detail rendered him so Rick Grimes-like, that he got stopped for selfies everywhere he went.) Another prominent guest was Billie Piper, who played Rose Tyler, the fan-favorite* companion to the ninth incarnation of the doctor on Doctor Who and who is currently killing it as Brona Croft / Lily Frankenstein on Penny Dreadful. Also Jeremy Renner was there. If you like Jeremy Renner. But as exciting as all of that may have been, there were no (known) out performers, or queer representation in the celebrity realm.
One of the guests that stood out on the schedule Friday was Caroll Spinney, the voice actor and puppeteer for Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch) for 46 years, on more than 4,000 episodes of Sesame Street, and almost everywhere else Big Bird has appeared. This iconic character is one of only two Muppets to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he has a queer legacy. The connection of this iconic yellow bird to LGBT culture is significant, but historically, has not been mentioned much. The character was designed (based on a sketch by Jim Henson, of course), and the puppet was fabricated, by a gay couple named Kermit Love and Christopher Lyall, who lived in a loving domestic partnership for more than 50 years. Caroll Spinney was a close friend of theirs. Alas, this was not mentioned during his brief conversation, which was attended by hardcore puppetry fans and Jim Hensonites. If you want to learn more, please see I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.
Illustration of the inner workings of a famous puppet whose dads were gay.
Immediately following the conversation with Caroll Spinney was the panel "How Independent Creators Can Help Solve the Industry's Diversity Issues." I did not attend this panel comprised of able-bodied and straight-identified male creators (not that there is anything inherently wrong with those traits), but was relieved to learn that it was actually moderated by a person of color. All reports indicate that the conversation was focused more on representations of various ethnicities and abilities than on depictions of diverse sexual orientations or gender identities.
One glimmer of queerness in the official program was a special session of Speed Dating designated as LGBTPQ. It was nice to see that P (for pansexual) in the alphabet soup, but who has the energy to speed date at 11:00 AM on Saturday?
Some of us are still eating breakfast at 11:00 AM on Saturday.
Other notable panels on Saturday were a group of psychologists talking about The Walking Dead with the co-creator of Night of the Living Dead, and a presentation by Laika animation (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) about their handmade process.
Later that afternoon, Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin (who has made problematic comments about same-sex marriage in the past), and Summer Glau shared a couch for the panel "Inside Firefly." These 40 minutes of hilarity and cuteness began when the first person in line to ask a question deferred his place to a straight couple (in full mash-up cosplay) behind him, one of whom proposed marriage to the other. The proposal was accepted, Glau gave the couple a standing ovation, and Baldwin gave them some advice. Later, Fillion speculated about how well he could portray Booster Gold in a hypothetical Justice League film, because, in his own words, his niche is playing characters who are "vain" and "not too bright." And Glau acknowledged how much she likes She-Ra. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the majority of questions were asked by women, Fillion and Baldwin responded the most, and the soft-spoken and elegant Glau said very little during this panel.
As any other year, the exhibitors range from the relevant (arts and crafts paying homage to everything from Fraggle Rock to Æon Flux) to the only peripherally relevant (Lasik, MoYou nail art, and some kind of hot / cold pack). But it was the US Army recruitment booth, situated within earshot of first-person shooter games, that seemed almost predatory. On the other end of the spectrum was former military man Eric Paul Merideth, MEd, MS, RD, LDN, CHES, CPT (seriously, all those things) whose Health Heroes initiative encourages children to take charge of their health with a cast of characters who look like they might have been inspired by Ben 10, and who have their own independent comic series.
The most thematically arresting panel on Sunday's schedule was "The Most Racist Panel Ever!" And, unlike the now-infamous Bill Willingham-moderated, all-male panel at Gen Con which was called "Writing Women-Friendly Comics," this panel about diversity in media was moderated by Asian-American super geek Tony B. Kim of Crazy 4 Comic Con and was actually a multicultural group that included co-creator of Super Sikh comics Supreet Singh Manchanda, and vocalist and journalist Dawn Xiana Moon.
I was looking for as much diversity as I could find, and the Sugar Gamers booth was jolt of sweetness and energy. Founded by Keisha Howard in 2009 as a safe space for female gamers, Sugar Gamers has crystallized into a multiethnic, multimedia social group that includes elements of make-up, fashion, and tech. Member Nikki Lynette has had her music licensed to various television networks, and her song “Now It's Monday” was featured on the soundtrack of Sense8 (season 1, episode 2). Member Mika Kenyah founded the casting agency Sugar and Spikes, and herself had a cameo on Orange is the New Black. Their ever-expanding Project Violacea, which Howard describes as a "transmedia platform," allows writers, illustrators, game coders, and cosplayers to participate in collaborative, interactive world-building.
Flawless Raven cosplay by Kat DeJesus of Sugar Gamers.
My most memorable discovery this year was Chicago-based comic creator Kiki Jenkins. Fit snugly at her well-adorned table in Artist Alley, the writer-illustrator showcased her pin-ups (for example, Neon Genesis Evangelion characters in an Art Nouveau style) and her original series Idolon. Her visual style recalls shojo manga and Alphonse Mucha in equal measure and the narrative of the Idolon comic is a lesbian love story that celebrates unabashed uniqueness, and the challenges of navigating your way through new experiences. Or, in fewer words: recommended!
Cover of Idolon issue 1 by Kiki Jenkins.
My most personal queer geek moment was my conversation with Dan Parent, writer and illustrator of Archie Comics, who created Kevin Keller, the first openly gay character in the series (introduced in Veronica issue 202, September 2010), who has since become a permanent member of the Riverdale gang. Parent is also the creator of Veronica's cousin Harper Lodge, who is a multiracial wheelchair user—and perhaps most importantly a fashion designer (introduced in Archie issue 656, June 2014). When I asked him if there might be room for a transgender character in Riverdale, he responded: "I hope so! I mean, I've thought about it. I hope that there is! I would be fully supportive of a transgender character in Riverdale. I'm up for it, so I hope that it will be something that will happen in the near future." We paused, glancing at the multitudinous stacks of Archie books on his corner display. And then, “I mean, I’m looking for more to say here, but...The answer is yes!” When I confirmed that there is room for everyone in Riverdale, he replied: “There is. There is room for everyone in Riverdale. And now, there is so much more awareness of the transgender community, with Laverne Cox—who is a great actress, by the way—and Caitlyn Jenner, and so forth... I see more young people (who are trans). I've been thinking about my son's school, where there are kids who are transgender who can actually talk about it now. They're actually out about it. And it's probably saving kids' lives because they're seeing that people are functioning in society as transgender. I think it's fantastic. And I'm up for it in Riverdale!"
And I'm up for more diversity and inclusiveness everywhere. As an LGBT person (all right, maybe an LGBTPQ person), it can be difficult to be reminded that I am a minority within a minority. But these little moments—these conversations shared over the blaring announcements about which oddball celebrities were signing autographs in which exhibit hall—reminded me that inclusivity in geek culture has a strong pulse.
In fact, the only real disappointment of the entire weekend was the $10 admission price to the dance party in one of the ballrooms at the hotel on Saturday night, which until this year had been a memorable bonus included with the ticket price.
Because, really, why?
*Not this fan, though: I'm a lifelong patient of Martha Jones.