Panel Recap: Women, Diversity, and Comics: A Non-Compliant Discussion About the Comic Book Industry

G. Willow Wilson, creator and writer of the new Ms. Marvel, featuring Kamala Khan (a Muslim Pakistani-American teenage girl living in New Jersey) skipped New York Comic Con this year to join us at GeekGirlCon for the very first time. We were thrilled to have her here in Seattle for a non-compliant discussion of women, diversity, and comics.

Moderator Sabrina Taylor set the tone by telling us, “We are here, as Kelly Sue DeConnick would say, to smash the patriarchy.” (DeConnick is the creator of Bitch Planet, a comic about “non-compliant” women in a dystopian future who are sent to a prison planet for transgressions both major and minor.)

Women, Diversity, and Comics: A Non-Compliant Discussion About The Comic Book Industry. GeekGirlCon 2015 at Washington State Conference Center in Seattle, Washington. October 2015. Photo by Sayed Alamy

Panelists Sabrina Taylor, Heather Harris McFarlane, and G. Willow Wilson. Photo by Sayed Alamy

Sabrina Taylor and panelist Heather Harris McFarlane described themselves as being on the front lines of the comic book industry, working in local comic book stores and meeting readers every day. It’s easy to forget, when reading negative stories about the industry, that young girls come into their stores excited to get into the community. Things are changing in the comic book world to make it more welcoming for those young girls; McFarlane pointed out that the best-selling single issue for her this past year of selling comics was the new Thor #1, in which a woman took up Thor’s hammer.

What about inside the industry itself? asked Taylor. Does G. Willow Wilson feel welcomed there?

Actually, said Wilson, she feels more welcome there than in the culture at large. In geekdom, “nobody’s weird, because we’re all weird.”

She recounted a story from the first big con she attended as a guest, San Diego Comic Con, a few years ago. A ‘big, Viking-looking dude’ came up to her, asking, “Excuse me, are you G. Willow Wilson?”

Women, Diversity, and Comics: A Non-Compliant Discussion About The Comic Book Industry. GeekGirlCon 2015 at Washington State Conference Center in Seattle, Washington. October 2015. Photo by Sayed Alamy

G. Willow Wilson. Photo by Sayed Alamy

“Yes,” she said apologetically. “I guess I kinda stick out.”

“It was the nose ring,” replied the Viking dude in all sincerity.

At a con, she guessed, her headscarf doesn’t stand out so much when the person next to you is in full Sailor Moon cosplay.

The geek world, however, isn’t a paradise free from discrimination. “We still grapple with the same issues as the culture at large—they are part and parcel of living in this country.”

Of course it’s disappointing when gatekeeping geeks cause an uproar about efforts toward inclusivity, but even that is dying down somewhat. “They seem to be getting sick of it themselves,” said Wilson.

When the black Spider-Man was announced, she said, the comments were more like, “It’s the end of the world!” Then, black Captain America: “It’s the end of the world!” But later, when Thor became female: “Ugh, I don’t like it.” And Kamala Khan? That just elicited an unhappy zombie groan.

For someone committed to fighting the fight of inclusivity in geek culture, it’s a hard line to walk. On the one hand, you want to defend the culture that you love (such as when Wilson wrote a strong rebuttal to a misguided critique from a comics outsider in the New Yorker). But on the other hand, you don’t want to give anyone a free pass.

There’s this idea that media is a finite pie—by taking a piece of the pie for diverse characters, there won’t be enough left for straight white men. But that idea is based on strange expectations about what people will connect with.

Women, Diversity, and Comics: A Non-Compliant Discussion About The Comic Book Industry. GeekGirlCon 2015 at Washington State Conference Center in Seattle, Washington. October 2015. Photo by Sayed Alamy

Audience members line up to ask questions. Photo by Sayed Alamy

That guy at SDCC, for instance—when he approached Wilson he had tears in his eyes, saying, “This was my high school experience.” As a second-generation Polish immigrant, he was always the kid with the weird-smelling lunch. He was always torn between the culture of his country and that of his parents.

If girls of color can love Bruce Wayne and Steve Rogers, why can’t Viking-looking guys love Kamala Khan?

Was it hard to pitch Kamala? asked our moderator.

“Actually,” said Wilson, “Ms. Marvel was pitched to me by Marvel. ‘We want to do a new teenage Muslim girl hero, and we want you to write it.’ I said, ‘Y’all are crazy. I can’t write an issue of Superman without getting hate mail about how I’m writing a homosexual socialist attack on America’s values. But if you want to jump off that cliff with me, I’ll go.’”

She expected it to tank after 7 issues or so, but issue #1 turned out to be the best-selling issue in the history of digital comics, and Marvel were calling her up regularly saying, “What do you want to write this week?”

Voting with your dollars works.

The audience had some interesting questions during the Q&A portion of the panel.

“What’s currently out there that you love?” asked the first. “And what would you want to see more of?”

Sabrina Taylor is excited about Moon Girl, which technically isn’t out there yet, but will be this fall.

Heather Harris McFarlane wants to see marginalized characters whose marginalized identity doesn’t define them.

G. Willow Wilson said that it used to be when non-comics readers asked for recommendations, she didn’t know what to tell them. Now there are so many great comics. She mentioned Rat Queens and Nimona as particular favorites, saying, “We’re in a second mini Golden Age.”

One thing that comics haven’t yet tackled well, she said, is disability. Most prominent disabled characters have their superpowers compensate for, or negate, their disabilities. How do you portray disability when supers do things better, stronger, and faster?

An audience member got up, teary-eyed, and identified herself as a Muslim woman. Ms. Marvel was the first comic she ever bought, and it converted her to being a comics fan. Her question for Wilson was, what went into the decision to have Kamala not wear hijab?

It was something Wilson thought about a lot. She wanted the character to be representative, and the majority of Muslim high school girls in the US do not wear hijab. This has a particular effect on their experience in this country; they are often ambiguous in ethnicity, and mistaken for other cultures. However, they still feel a strong connection to their Muslim community.

She also wanted to subvert the expectations who thought the book was going to be “The Hijab Wars.”

For these reasons, even though Wilson herself wears hijab, she decided that Kamala would not wear it.

The next audience question was about the idea of voting with dollars. That, the questioner pointed out, hands power to the people with money. What can people without money do to help?

Social media is one big place you can make a difference for relatively little money. Witness what happened with Spider-Gwen; she was originally a side character in issue 2 of a crossover event, but people loved her enough, and made enough noise on social media, that she was given her own series. Then, people with money bought the book—an example of both halves working together.

What about the movie industry? the next questioner wanted to know. Are the Big Two trying to make improvements to the diversity of their cinematic universes?

The panel were more hesitant in this case. While to a certain extent you can vote with your money—buying tickets for movies that are more inclusive, and not buying tickets for those that aren’t—US domestic audiences are becoming less and less the main target audience for big Hollywood movies. China, Russia, and Brazil are expanding markets, and their audiences have different priorities. While the decisions are made in the US, the money increasingly comes from elsewhere, which means that the potential and the challenges of international markets are increasingly the focus of filmmaking decisions.

Other audience questions were about more representation for specific groups—queer folks, trans folks, people with autism spectrum disorders, and more. Comics, the panel said, are a great medium for bringing these issues to the fore, a form of education for people who may not realize that folks around them are struggling with these issues.

Women, Diversity, and Comics: A Non-Compliant Discussion About The Comic Book Industry. GeekGirlCon 2015 at Washington State Conference Center in Seattle, Washington. October 2015. Photo by Sayed Alamy

The panelists. Photo by Sayed Alamy

Since comics publishers feel that known characters are less of a risk, one way to get more representation is to lobby for diverse side characters to get their own books. Talk to comic shop owners and employees—since they place the orders, they are in fact the publishers’ main customers. Subscribe and pre-order books. Go to Ladies’ Nights and Queer geek meetups such as the ones at the Comic Stop in Everett, or Phoenix Comics and Games in Capitol Hill, Seattle.

Buy indie books, or books from smaller publishers like Image; they’re the trailblazers for inclusivity in comics right now. We don’t have to wait for the Big Two to catch up.

The audience is changing faster than the industry, which means that we need more writers, editors, and artists with diverse experiences. Even a couple of years ago, it would have been hard to imagine even such progress as we’ve already made, but this panel was a call to arms for our audience—and for you readers out there—to help make that change happen faster!

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