NYCC 2015: “We Need More Diverse Comics” Panel Discusses Historical Characters, Navigating Identity & Going Indie
New York Comic Con’s “We Need More Diverse Comics” panel kicked off at 11:15 AM on Thursday, the first day of the con, making it the first event that I attended after picking up my press badge. These speakers set a high bar for the rest of the weekend, as you’ll read.
The panel moderator, Christian Zabriskie, works with Urban Librarians Unite. The panelists included Karen Green (Columbia University Graphic Novel Collection), Eric Dean Seaton (TV Director, NBC, Nickelodeon, Disney), Vish Singh (SikhToons), Ivan Velez (Milestone Comics) and Alex Simmons (Black Jack, Archie Comics).
Zabriskie began proceedings by asking, “when you were younger, did you see anyone who looked like you on the page?” Most of the panelists responded in the negative.
Ivan Velez said, “Of all the comics I used to read, nobody looked like me or anybody in my family or my neighborhood. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized that was a harsh thing to live with.”
“I spent my life in India and the US,” said Vish Singh, “and I’ve not seen any characters in comic books who look like me. It reinforced the notion that, no matter where I go, I’m a demographic minority. The ultimate other, regardless of where I live. Unfortunately, that’s been the case, but I think it’s going to change soon.”
“It extended into television and movies,” said Eric Dean Seaton. “Until I saw Aladdin in 1991. There were a few characters, but they were never important enough. They were never top ten.”
“Superhero comics – the mainstream – is still a problem,” Karen Green added. “I grew up reading Archie. I’m in my late 50s, so I was reading Archie in the 70s. The 70s didn’t look like Archie, didn’t look like Riverdale … I spent my time looking for things that had people that looked like me, because I’m contrary that way.”
Velez went on to describe the idea of what he called “throwaway” characters and alternates: “things are changing now, but a lot of the stuff that I see now are ethnic versions of characters that are traditionally white.”
Seaton built upon that point: “the characters that they’re turning multicultural or women now, the original characters – we’re still side characters. Unless you’re going to the independent section, there’s no lead characters of color.” He also said, “We never really see people of color in the future. There will be one character that represents the entire race. For some reason, everybody of color never survives the future, and they were not in the past either!”
Zabriskie then asked whether any of the creators on the panel had encountered resistance to their work, to which a few of the panelists shared a sardonic laugh.
Seaton responded, “I would say, coming reasonably as an outsider because I came from TV, I was surprised by – I always get, ‘your book is good for an independent.’ You first hear, ‘this book is good,’ that’s all you hear. But as time goes on, you hear, ‘for an independent.’ There is a glass ceiling. People come by, sometimes you get the eye. They look at you like you’re selling CDs off the corner. You don’t have to like all the books. You’re at Comic Con – you have time to look through the book, look at the art, see if it’s worth your time. You’re wearing the Green Lantern shirt, but you won’t come over and look at the book? No creator is going to rush you away. I’ve found the resistance in the stigma that independents aren’t good.”
Ivan Velez described how he faced resistance while working within mainstream comics. “Not only was I openly gay, I was the only Puerto Rican. When I worked at Marvel Comics, I was the first Puerto Rican to have a monthly title there in the 80s. It was not like Milestone — going in there was like family. Sometimes when I went into Marvel, it felt like I was around the enemy. Not for everybody – some people have had more positive experiences. But that was my experience.”
Alex Simmons, one of the panelists who laughed openly at the question, had this to say: “Let me do the micro-version of it: Yes. To elaborate ever so slightly, the character Black Jack that I made back in the 80s is a soldier from the 1930s. It’s a man of color. The women, they have clothes on. It’s a period piece.” Simmons’ facial expressions and gestures during this description made it clear how his editors must have felt about those choices. “My personal favorite: ‘It has such a small niche!’ Fast-forward past all of that, to enough artists of different backgrounds and genders telling me, ‘yeah it’s a good idea, we’ll buy it, you may not make a living – but we’ll go for it.’ The book comes out, and aside from a lot of critical acclaim – which was great and surprising – we started getting fan-mail. This was at the beginning, the birth, of emails. We were getting emails from Cairo to Copenhagen. My question is, where are the brothers hanging out in Copenhagen?”
Although Simmons’ work does clearly appeal to fans of many backgrounds, he did clarify: “Ultimately, yes, there are people whose minds are myopic by choice or by upbringing or association. They cannot see the forest for the trees because their eyes and nose are up against one. They don’t even know there are other trees.”
Before this point on the panel, Vish Singh had not spoken much, but the moderator and other panelists turned to him and asked him to share his experiences in particular. Singh opened up: “I’m not really a comic artist, I’m mostly an editorial cartoonist. People give me a lot of flack, and I spit out comics with a lot of turbans and beards. I’m like an accidental cartoonist, an accidental performance artist.
“9/11 happened, and I basically had to live from my home for two weeks. I couldn’t step out without people threatening me … A few weeks later, I saw a cartoon by a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, Mark Fiore. He had a cartoon called ‘Find the Terrorist.’ He featured a character in there with a turban and beard, who looked like me. That, to me, was sort of a lightning bolt. That’s how I got my start. I started creating cartoons on my laptop. There was an audience, a global audience, mostly turban-and-beard people, but slowly other people.”
Many people may know Singh from a viral photo-shoot that he did in a Captain America cosplay; he was also wearing a Captain America costume at this panel. The idea for the photo shoot came from the photographer Fiona Aboud, and Singh felt resistant to the idea at first: “I have all eyes on me all the time. I’m trying to hide. But I’m going to wear a Captain America uniform? Like, ‘in case you’re not looking at me, please look at me’? I walked out two years ago, Central Park, with this skin-tight – not this costume, an older costume – it was like people flipped a switch. I had people coming up to me, cops coming up to me. I got pulled into weddings. I was like, wow. We did this for nine hours and hundreds of people took photos of me.
“We have a fictional character from the 1940s, Captain America. I don his uniform, and people show me respect. There was only two young Latino teenagers who called me a terrorist. But I have heard from soldiers in the army, retired veterans, telling me they love me. It’s a comic book, but it’s an image that breaks down barriers.”
Zabriskie asked the panel next about the hiring process within the comics industry, and the lack of diversity among creators.
Alex Simmons had this to say: “The average human being, unless he or she has been indoctrinated into hatred and ignorance, knows the world is diverse. They see it day in and day out. Whether it’s a gender thing or a romance thing or race or culture or language. It’s a mixed bag. [But] media insists, ‘no, it’s actually this.’ And people who are bathed in a particular type of media tend to sort of, like, zone. They get almost hypnotized into not seeing what is, not living what is. That, to me, is all about an alarm clock going off: ‘Hey, look who’s here!’ ‘Oh, right, cool.’
“I used to be the ‘oh well, you’re different’ guy … My mom didn’t raise me to be nationalistic or to have barriers. I was meeting people, going to homes where black people had never gone before, I guess. I would get people going, ‘you’re different.’ But we’re all different.”
Simmons then described his work for Archie Comics; he began by writing four 22-page stories about Chuck Clayton, one of the few black characters in the Archie canon. He described the editors at Archie Comics asking him, “Why do you think people consider Archie ‘white bread’? We have Raj, we have – there was a Japanese girl. And we have Chuck.”
Simmons described his reaction. “I said, ‘… that’s nice.’ How many ways can I – the conversation went on, and what I did was, I said, ‘Let’s pick up some of your property.'” The editors protested at first, pointing out that their main characters were historical and couldn’t be changed. But Simmons said, “Look at the background shots. Cafeteria shots. Concerts, bands. Look at the diversity. If you just started there, you would get less remarks about it being a white-bread world in Riverdale.”
“I got to do a comic called ‘Clash of the New Kids’ where we introduced a whole new slew of diverse kids to the school,” said Simmons. “And they’re still using them.”
Ivan Velez went on to describe a different problem in the hiring and creative process: the lack of mentorship opportunities for marginalized people. “They just don’t see the potential in kids of color,” he said. “The white kids – they see potential. There’s this thing called ‘brown blindness’ … People just accept the way things are. That’s what happens at these conventions, people will go and pick up DC and Marvel.”
Seaton echoed these concerns, elaborating: “If everybody in this room supports the independents, supports the books of color, supports the women, then things will change. Everybody has Facebooked or whatever when Star Wars will come out. But how many people do that for stuff that’s not known? That’s how the word gets out.”
Singh described how important it is to learn about other people’s experiences. “Don’t ask ‘where are you from,’ that’s a terrible question,” he said. “But, what if I were to ask everyone in this room what their stories are?” He teaches kids how to make comics, and he’s been fascinated by their heroes: “they create these grandma characters. We don’t think of grandmas as superheroes, but they do! Adults lose their fascination and imagination … I’m guilty of it, too. That’s why I spend a lot of time with kids.”
The first Q&A questioner described her frustration with the phrase “there are no new stories,” especially with regard to mainstream superhero comics. She also described her own frustration with trying to get a job. In response, Velez encouraged her to consider independent comics rather than mainstream: “There’s this profound truth about American comics – and I steer them away from DC comics – because every creator does not get a piece of the pie. They use you, they throw you away, you get nothing at the end. Not even health insurance. I always tell the kids, be independent, do your stuff, sell it on the web. If you want to work for DC comics, work for them – then go do your own stuff.” Vish Singh added, “You know, you have the internet. I would not be on this panel as a cartoonist without the internet.”
Alex Simmons did not necessarily agree. “That is absolutely a path, an open wonderful path. But I also think we should not shy away from banging on the big doors. It should not be timidity; it should not be, ‘oh, you got that locked up.’ Because the gatekeepers don’t have it locked up as well as they used to. Some of them are ignorant due to someone not goosing them enough, not using the cattle prod. Yeah, I said it! It is our job to get in there and affect something. If we only affect it for a little while, well, then, we did something.”
When asked about crowd-funding, the panelists had a lot of positive reflections to share. Seaton pointed out that a lot of independents have succeeded via that route, and added: “I think Marvel’s paying attention. They’ve made some announcements – announcements of books that weren’t even being published that now they’re gonna bring back. The catch is … a lot of these characters that the crowd-funders are doing, they need to build more of a body of work, not just a one-off. As cool as Superman is, at first he couldn’t fly, there was no Lex Luthor. That’s years of people building him up.”
“Patreon is really helping people survive,” said Ivan Velez. “Also, think about grants. There are grants available. I just got a creative capital grant. It’s to publish my comics.”
As part of the larger discussion about whether independents should consider crowd-funding or whether they should try to break into mainstream spaces, Karen Green reminded the audience of the history behind the comic book industry: “There’s an irony because – the industry was founded by Jews who were marginalized, they couldn’t get jobs in advertising, so they went into this industry that was considered like the bottom feeder of the arts. It was a time when people wanted to assimilate and be American. They wanted to ‘pass,’ in the many ways you can interpret that. Now that ‘bottom feeder’ industry has become a million dollar industry. They’re still sitting on the shoulders of guys who created this all-American, white bread world. They’re terrified to take any sort of risk.”
Vish Singh elaborated about the complex idea of ‘American’ identity: “When I first did this, I did not do this as a political statement. I created a two-dimensional character, and this photographer was like, ‘let’s short-circuit people’s perceptions out there.’ And it worked. So I guess it’s a political statement. Somebody might be saying, ‘oh, he must be very patriotic.’ That’s your perception. Somebody might say, ‘wow, he’s a very weird guy.’ That’s a perception … I don’t want to play off Captain America. I don’t want to have to play off ‘this Arab-looking guy is playing Captain America.’ I want people to see me and think, ‘oh, this guy’s American.'”
Seaton then described how hard it can be for marginalized characters to break out of those narrow perceptions: “We never see anybody of color or women save the world. They just save their neighborhood, or their issue. But when you see minorities doing things that are bigger, you open your mind to it. Not just us, everybody opens their mind to it.” Then Ivan Velez quipped, “But you know how it is, if you put more than two people of color on a team, there’s an issue!”
The panel concluded with each panelist reflecting on independent comics they enjoyed, as well as boosting their own work. Velez also mentioned the Hernandez brothers’ alternative comics.
(image via Fiona Aboud)
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