S.M.A.S.H. happened last Saturday in the Barbican Library. Three panels. Twelve guests. One hundred and twenty four people. Not enough chairs. It was great. (And – hey – don’t just take my word for it – The Hot-Doll Pages wrote cool things, Adam Englebright thought it was great and SILENCE! had a great time too).
Those of you who were there will know that at the start of each panel the guests opened with a short pitch sharing their thoughts and feelings on the subject in question. The written versions were not intended to be shared as such (one of them described their pitch as “a total braindump as opposed to any kind of organized thing” which I’m guessing is the feeling across the board) but having asked them all very nicely – and all of them being kind and gracious enough to say yes (thanks guys!): I thought it would be cool to share the stuff they wrote with the rest of you.
So here you go. Enjoy!
Is representation in comics important? Should characters in stories be diverse? Should comic creators be diverse? Should all representation be positive? Can negative representation ever be a good thing? And why does this representation stuff matter anyway? What difference does it all make?
I was a bit confused and angry when I first saw the questions Joel posed to help shape what we were going tail about. I know inequality has affected me through my entire lifetime- – why were were still talking about this? I thought the answers were easy. Representation in comics IS important. Should characters in stories be diverse: Yes; Should comic creators be diverse? Yes. Should all representation be positive: No. Can negative representation ever be a good thing: Yes. Why does this representation stuff matter anyway? What difference does this all make? This is my life we are talking about, and what do you mean *stuff*?!???
So why are we still talking about this? Clearly, because we need to. If you don’t think there is inequality in terms of representation both in and behind the pages of comics, then there’s plenty of information out there to prove otherwise. You might have heard that hundreds of European comic creators who are women organised to boycott the Angouleme Grand Prix nominations when the names of forty men and no women (from the entire world) were put up for a lifetime achievement award. And no men stood down until that rather public boycott and a behind the scenes letter writing campaign. And no men had stood down the year before then there was 39 men and one woman. Ambition and self-interest trumps equality and the common good. It happens. Maybe there is more to these questions. Why does poverty and inequality still win out, if what is important is so clear?
Comics is part of the entertainment business, a multi-billion dollar industry. Why should the people who run these businesses have a social responsibility? They’ve spent many years honing a white male fantasy figure. Why should employees of these companies rock the boat and risk taking bread out of their child’s mouth? For me, as a child, I bought into heroes being only white men, mainly ones who get the girl. My role models were men, and I didn’t know I was different. However, as I got older, society pointed out to me, again and again and again that I am. And lesser. Seeing comic portrayals of women or people of color being lesser or invisible is a way of keeping people in their box. Silence is death.
The original clause 4 of the labour party manifesto, written in 1917, goes:
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
I’m mentioning the commitment to idealistic social value AND representative industry here for two reasons.
1, It still gives us guidelines for an equitable society. Not only do people want to write their own stories, not just bringing in characters they can relate to, but whole worlds and ways of doing things. We could all do to listen a bit more.
2. The stories we read reflect the society we live in, but they also are a self fulfilling prophecy. What does it mean to get comfortable with stories without people of color? Isn’t there a social benefit in comics sometimes reflecting what we are- a diverse society of humans-, as opposed to what some people think we are.
Diversity does not come organically. that has been proven, pretty much, in the late 20th Century. If we are not careful, exclusion becomes default. Are we thinking about money, or are we thinking about everybody? There is a lot of pressure, for example, on social media, or in the workplace, to damp down mention of inequality. But If we stop asking the questions, then maybe we will forget.
Here are a selection of diverse thoughts about the state of diversity.
Perfection is impossible. Relax. “Progressive” imply change. There is no utopia, no stasis. Even the most radical in the room will be Germaine Greer one day. In 20 years time, almost everything all of us are about to say will be problematic. Especially, I suspect, the word “problematic.”
Hearing about girls sitting down and reading Ms. Marvel in the middle of a comic shop and breaking into tears would move anyone. Even a monster like me. However, as important this is, we must not forget the powerful effect on people other than those depicted. By consuming culture about people other than ourselves we flower, and our capacity for understanding and empathy expand. Diversity of culture we consume is one of the the best weapons we have to improve the world. In as much as I was saved, I suspect was saved by Tenar in Ursula Le Guin’s Tombs Of Atuan. I think that Rey may yet save a generation of boys.
It is heartbreaking when I speak to my female peers and say they’ve never had a female role model.
I often wonder how having female heroes effected Jamie McKelvie and my own work. We’re monsters, but I suspect less so.
Diversity is not just a social justice issue. Diversity is a formalist issue. Diversity makes better art, as it is truer to the world. The world is diverse. If the art our culture produces does not have the diversity of the world it pertains to show, the art is failing us.
As a creative community we are in a position where all but the biggest dinosaurs agree that diversity is good. We are all pro diversity. This is a problem, in the same way that almost everyone expresses anti-racist sentiments in a world when everyone, via the background radiation of society, is to some degree racist.
To quote Jordie Bellaire’s campaign, Comics Are For Everyone. However, that should not be confused with All Comics Are For Everyone. You cannot please everyone. That is both a truism and a directive. You should not be trying to please everyone. Ironically, the self-censorship makes less diverse art including less diverse world-views.
Creatives are not just a machine to deliver diversity.
Creatives are petrified in Writing The Other. To be honest, C reatives are petrified of Writing The Same.
I have a test for diversity. If you are using the Bechdel test in any seriousness, your writing about diversity is almost certainly pretty poor. This is surface level reading of culture. Really thinking about sexuality, about gender, about race, about everything needs to be deeper.
In a single work of art, Diversity is a zero sum game. To write a love triangle between men in Young Avengers I had to include more men. As such, I had less women than I’d like in Young Avengers. An expectation of full diversity inside any individual work actually limits the stories you’re able to tell.
Diversity is necessary but not sufficient. Treating bad art with good diversity kindly is worse than useless, because if we do then we are reducing the value of our critical opinion’s coin. As such, it worries me when I see articles about my books which have the #1 reason to read it being the diverse cast. That petrifies me.
The biggest problem in comics is the lack of diversity in the talent pool. Frustratingly, there is no quick fix for all manner of tedious economic reasons. There is a medium term fix. I believe , the industry will be almost unrecognisable. I am optimistic, god help me.
I think white men should probably shut up more. So I will.
I’d like to start by quoting some tweets, because we are living in the 21st C. They’re from the author Jacob Bacharach:
“…the ideology of liberal diversity is explicitly premised on a set of shared cultural values inherent to a narrow economic elite. It promises that anyone can be of good class and good taste if they eradicate any culture, being, and belief notalready held by the smart set. The end result is a unanimity of opinion under a patina of physical difference that represents no real, actual diversity.”
So, what would be real and actual diversity in comics? And is that where our energies are currently focussed?
to me, Liberal diversity always makes an instrumental argument. As in: hey Comics publishers there’s a goldmine of talent and audiences here!’ or less commercially ‘think of all those refreshing perspectives you’re missing.’ There’s still something weirdly subservient about this. Still focussed on what we can do for the white man.
Take the Angouleme controversy. What is ultimately the point of more diverse awards lists? There’s a bad reason and a good reason. The bad reason is validation which is really the buzzword for prestige. It’s like the #oscarssowhite controversy. If I came up to you and said 10 random old white guys had drawn up a good list and you were not on it, would that opinion bother you? So why then a jury’s? and why should i as a non white male comics reader get secondary validation from someone else’s already suspect initial validation?
Which brings us to the good reason, for awards and for diversity in general. Comics awards mean comics creators get more press hence more sales hence more time to make more work. The way out of instrumental diversity is to see things as a sort of reparation problem. If we’re to have a comics economy which relies on periodical sales boosts via awards then yes, we need to actively readdress those inequalities that have led so far to middle class straight white men getting the lions share of the cultural and actual capital to make art. That’s the struggle, less so whether Spiderman is gonna be black, in a comic otherwise mainly written and drawn by white men for a mainly white managed and owned company.
Because otherwise with a focus on surface difference and not material difference, we’re in danger of forgetting the final goal, that the Death of the author means the death of the comics author too, diverse or otherwise.
Comics were cool in my school. I was a massive Susan Cooper and Alan Garner nerd and just started secondary school when the X-men cartoon hit UK TV screens. Comics found their way into games in the video arcade, spray painted on walls and on Rap records. In my inner city school the dweebs listened to BritPop (that’s why I hid my Suede CD in a 2Pac CD case).
I saw comics as an exciting, positive and, because of its links with black youth culture, an inclusive art form. All that changed when I was 14 years old and started creating my own comic characters. I showed my art teacher my character designs of my own version of The X-Men and to this day I remember her critique: ‘these are great, Ramsey, but out of twelve characters, two of them are women and only one of them is black’. Mrs Gordon was that weave-free, Kente headband wearing ‘woke’ teacher you’d find in an inner city school. She wanted all her students be aware of the machinations of the outside world & I had been made aware that I had obliviously regurgitated the values of nineties mainstream comics to the detriment of my own identity.
I learnt then that not only was Art a personal vison of the world, constructed from its creators biases, but also the danger that it poses for readers that aren’t reflected in the dominant vision of the medium.
In 2009 I went to my first small press comics event. It was completely revolutionary. Growing up only knowing mainstream comics these handmade pamphlets filled with wildly idiosyncratic approaches to storytelling were strange and dazzling. I felt like a Rock fan from the sixties who’d grown up thinking you’d have to practice arpeggios in your bedroom 24/7 for 10 years before starting a band, and have your album perfectly recorded, going to their first punk gig and seeing every belief you had smashed to pieces. Everything was immediately accessible and the possibilities were endless. As Brandon Graham wrote in an issue of King City: ‘you can take a pen and paper out of a dumpster and make the best comic ever!’ but if that was true and comics were a hugely accessible and democratic medium – taking an anthropological scan across that hall that day – it was mostly male, mostly white and mostly middle class.
Why is that?
For me the double whammy of culture and money was a factor. Coming from a cultural background that never saw comics, or Art even, as anything but a frivolity, so I never saw comics creating as anything more than an exhilarating hobby. When I got into comics as a kid being raised on benefits in the nineties * cue violins * comics were a quid and sold at my local corner shop. Inflation and the direct market boom killed that. Of course there are libraries but with PS4, smartphones & Superhero movies what kid would want to read a comic? ‘’Comics are LONG!’’
Who has the will of agency? As I heard Greta Gerwig reply when she was asked why playwriting didn’t occur to her until her drama teacher suggested it to her – ‘’All the playwrights I was taught at school were men. The great female playwrights came to me in college but when you’re young if you don’t have examples it’s hard to imagine yourself doing it’’.
Who are the gatekeepers of that scene & how do they represent it? Art is subjective so when a critic or an editor or a reader is selecting what the best piece of Art is it’s often something that they feel best connects to you or relates to you so when the majority of the gatekeepers tend to be a certain gender, race, age and sexual orientation that judgement is bound to be skewed.
The hard truth is there’s a lot of content out there and most Films, TV shows, Books and comics suck but when you have a system that where POC, Female or LGBT artists that work in a mainstream Artform that isn’t diverse – their being conspicuous in their minority leaves them more open to judgement than their white male peers. Rosie O’Donnell told an anecdote on a podcast of her early days on the stand up comedy circuit when a club owner told her that if her act did not go well that he would not book another woman because the three previous female comic he booked bombed. She told him if he gendered his decision making on men he wouldn’t have any acts in his club at all. Critics when choosing between two mediocre works, tend to choose the one they relate to which tends to be the white male straight option.
This is not malicious bigotry. It’s just that this industry was built according to the values of those that initially built it. The world has changed and has made it possible for a diverse spectrum of people to be artists but the system has not changed to accommodate them. It’s up to artists, editors, critics & educators to challenge and subvert these entrenched values so to make it possible for future artists and audiences to freely imagine fictional worlds that reflect the eclectivity and pluralism of the real world we actually live in.