By Andrea Ayres
Five years after the first Women in Comics panel, how much has changed and how much has stayed the same? Do we even need diversity panels anymore or are they passé? Those topics and much more were discussed at the Thursday’s Women in Comics: Race, Gender, and the Comic Book Medium panel.
Moderated by Regine L. Sawyer (WinC founder) along with guests Jewels Smith ([H]afrocentric), Vanee Smith-Matsalia (writer, educator), Jay Justice (cosplayer, activist), Alice Meichi Li (comic book artist), Leen Isabel (Pole Dancing Adventures), and Jules Rivera (comic book artist).
The illuminating hour long discussion answered the obvious: Yes. Panels like this one, that bring diversity to the forefront and are moderated and paneled by women of color are still necessary. Vanee Smith-Matsalia said the conversation about whether or not we still need these types of panels will be over when women of color, when diversity is seen in the boardrooms, when everyone has an equal seat at the table. “Until we are everywhere, we’re gunna keep talking. We’re gunna keep making noise until someone is listening.”
Alice Mich Li says that while she feels there has been some progress since the inception of the WinC panels, there’s also been a lot of tokenism. “There’s been a lot of lip service to diversity with no substance.” Much of that, Li says, comes from having a diverse cast of characters on the page, but not a diverse set of creators behind the page.
The panelists called the minimal progress a plateau, a point where there’s been some progress in terms of diversity and representation but not nearly enough. The panelists remarked that there might be a breaking point, a point where large publishers and distributors of comics will either change or the readers and consumers will go elsewhere. Justice believes that’s already happening with indie stores and Netflix occupying larger spaces in readers lives. How do we move beyond merely having one black character in a comic book, how do we move beyond tokenism in the industry and culture? Jules Rivera says that kind of change depends on the right people having the right conversations with themselves in the mirror and the willingness to change.
Regine asked the panelists how and where they found their stories represented, for teacher and curriculum developer Vanee Smith-Masalia it was a question she answered with clear conviction. “I went through nine grades never once being taught literature but I never saw myself.” Smith-Masalia implored the audience and comic publishers to ask themselves, “Why do these things exist, is it by accident?”
When thinking about oppressive literature or problematic pieces of pop culture, Smith-Masalia encouraged everyone to ask themselves difficult questions. Questions people may fear the answer to like, “Why do I need this? What is feeding into this oppressive culture? Ask yourself those questions before you can pose it to everyone else. Do I love something that much that I am willing to hurt everyone else around me. That’s what we need to start asking publishers. These are the questions.”
Each of the panelists had talked about the importance of critiquing the work of others and bringing to light problems and depictions of tokenism, but moving beyond that to creating your own spaces is vital. That’s part of why Leen Isabel says she created Pole Dancing Adventures. Each of the women expressed a kind of exhaustion with the expectation that is placed on people of color to be happy with crumbs at the table for doing the same work, if not more as white persons. That’s why this conversation will continue to happen, that’s why these panels continue to be important. These discussions will continue to be necessary until representation is so ubiquitous it is not questioned.
About Panel: The Women in Comics Collective (WinC, pronounced “Wink”) is an international organization that highlights the merit and craft work of women working in the comic book and multimedia industries. Their membership is made up of artists, writers, educators, filmmakers, show producers, art gallery directors, cosplayers, game developers, bloggers, and toy makers. Focusing on female and racial representation in comics, fandom, and the industry, panelists include moderator Regine L. Sawyer(writer, publisher, WinC founder), Jewels Smith ([H]afrocentric writer and creator, activist), Vanee Smith-Matsalia (writer, educator), Jay Justice (cosplayer, activist), Alice Meichi Li (comic book artist, illustrator), Leen Isabel (cosplayer, artist, creator of Pole Dancing Adventures), Jazmine Joyner (comic book store owner), and Jules Rivera (comic book artist).