The need for diversity is unfortunately a hot button issue in comics, both in terms of characters and talent. Thankfully, a NYCC panel talked about the need for inclusivity with the likes of Andy Schmidt, Mags Visaggio, Sanford Greene, Heather Antos, and Vita Ayala.
It began with slideshows from Andy, which gave a concise overview of the general talking points. What surprised me was how practical he was in describing the need to diversity. The state of the industry is “kind of scary” because there are gatekeepers, especially in the US market who are overwhelmingly white, Caucasian, and Judeo-Christian.
However, practically speaking, he advised companies not put all their eggs in one basket. By having diversity, you get more readers, more money, etc. “From a business standpoint we are minimizing risk.” By hiring more people, that makes the overall business “more durable.”
From there, the panel was off to the races with impassioned, intelligent, and articulate discussion. I can’t even imagine any incel or hater confronting such well-reasoned dialogue.
Vita Ayala defended diverse superheroes, equating the variety of, say, Spiderman, with different flavors of pies. “We’re not saying you don’t get this pie anymore. Make more pies. Make 100 pies instead of five pies.”
Heather Antos concurred, saying, “More pie for everyone else doesn’t mean less for you…you can have Batman, but I want Batwoman.”
Sanford Greene picked up on this thread. “I’ve had some discussions…with folks, the old guard…I feel like I’m a part of that. But having those discussion, hopefully I showed them this world really is different.”
Later, along the same lines, he addressed any angry fans. “Change, period, makes people uncomfortable. [Fans] become tribal to some degree. This is my Hulk! Screw this Asian American guy!”
I was reminded of Roger Ebert’s thesis on empathy being the core of cinema (in this case, comics) when Vita Ayala said, “Empathy is like a muscle. It’s something you have to work at. We’re mammals and we’re selfish.” As a black woman, she said she’s been asked to empathize with cis white males constantly—but she’s OK with that. But many cis white males act offended when they’re asked to empathize with others. “If [you’re] not used to it, that stuff is more scary than, ‘this is my favorite character.’ That is, ‘I’m disappearing as a human because I can’t possibly put myself into the shoes of this other human being.’”
Mags Visaggio talked about the older controversy over Ice Man being gay, saying she was shocked at how vile some fans reacted. “They forget these characters are bundles of decisions creators make.”
As for the possible issue of pandering to diverse groups, which is a big criticism levied at comics, Vita deftly commented, “Pandering is one thing…[but] we want more of it.” And by “it,” she means more diversity than just a tip of the hat. Don’t stop with the bare minimum. Keep going and creating diverse heroes that can rival cis white supes.
On a more positive note, Mags said her comics like Kim & Kim have grabbed lots of completely new readers from trans and queer circles. “A lot read digitally because it’s a space they find intimidating,” but they go to cons just to see her.
Andy revealed that he talked to an anonymous creator who thought diversity would steal jobs from white creators. Yet, Andy pulled out another practical response, “Jobs are just going to really good creators. It’s up to us to make sure we can compete.” White cis creators have to step up their game to go against a full market now—which can only improve the overall state of the industry.
Within that topic, Vita said she’s been told she’s a diversity hire and that it’s really hard to be straight since everyone wants queer stories now. “My response to that is: maybe—maybe—I got into the door that way. I’ll give you that. I don’t think that’s true. You really think I could stay in this industry if I wasn’t good enough to cut it?” Heather Antos added to that saying that publishers are ultimately looking for good talent, not just different colored people as some might say. As an editor she admitted she’s conscious of diversity, “but that’s not how I’m casting.” Unfortunately, she said she’s seen fellow editors cast the same people over and over without looking around for newer, more fitting talent outside their circle.
There was only time for one question, but it was a sobering one from a girl who had parted ways with her agent because they said a story wouldn’t work because it wasn’t her story to tell. Vita, Sanford, and Andy acknowledged that it was a complex question, but agreed that this young writer had to write her own stories and that the empathy within her will connect with readers. Andy specifically advised her to get another agent that’s more compatible. “You’ve gotta find the partners, the people, the support that gets you and wants to help you move forward.”
Overall, the diversity panel functioned not only as a safe space for creators to talk about their experiences, but also as an hour plus of inspiration for other creators who’re struggling to enter a patriarchal field. But if the dialogue continues and more creators speak up and are supported by true fans, the comics field can grow and prosper better than ever. Find comics made by these panelists (and other diverse creators) and buy them. Follow these folks on Twitter. Support them, because you’ll be supporting the industry and the battle for good comics itself.
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