In light of recent discussions and events in the world of comics, this was quite possibly the most important panel of the UK’s favourite convention, and one that took a decidedly positive look at the issues surrounding diversity – or lack thereof – in comics.
Indeed talk of women and sexism in comics in particular was rife, if secretive, at the convention, and it would have been great to have seen this panel given double the time to really get its teeth into the various topics it addressed. It remains however a huge highlight of the weekend!
Moderated by Louise Crosby of Leeds’ Laydeez Do Comics, the panel featured Mariah Heuhner (Angel, Emily and the Strangers, The Witching Hour), Howard Hardiman (Badger, The Peckham Invalids, The Lengths), Barry Nugent (Unseen Shadows), Gillian Hatcher (Team Girl Comic), Gary Erskine (2000 AD, War Story, Dead Boy Detectives), and Fiona Stephenson (Books of Magick, Judge Dredd, The Crow: City of Angels).
[Extra reading: You can read Mariah Heuhner’s brilliant blog here; enjoy an interview with Howard Hardiman on The Lengths here; enter the world of Unseen Shadows here; celebrate Team Girl Comic here; catch up with the Roller Grrrls here; and love the gorgeous pin up art of Fiona Stephenson here.]
Louise asked each of the panel to first introduce themselves and talk about their own work and how it relates to diversity in comics.
The below is a full transcript (with great thanks to Caroline Swan, one of my many fabulous transcribers!) as while I was originally planning on pulling quotes from the discussion, I quickly realised that not only was the entire discussion worth sharing, but that continuing that discussion either here in comments, or elsewhere as people respond, would be immensely beneficial. All slides are included for the full experience!
Gary Erskine: Hello? [audience laughter] Do I start talking now? Okay. Yeah, basically I’ve been working in the business for about twenty years, mostly mainstream work for DC, Dark Horse, Vertigo, everybody, but in doing so I get told what to do. I’m presently working on a project with my wife, we write together – it’s called Roller Girls. It’s about Roller Derby. It’s the ultimate team [comic] – 45 characters we have, 3 teams of 15, plus the extended family, partners, relatives… and in doing that it’s basically allowed us to touch on every aspect of society, the community of the girls, relationships and in some cases – without spoilers! – mental illness as well.
In this particular frame [Image: Roller Grrrls – Anna], we did a lot of trailers featuring each of the characters, at least the primary characters, and we will touch on cultural issues, disability, mental health and quite a lot of issues that affect us personally or our friends or we just want to address and I think the Roller Girls in its contemporary setting, without zombies, without science fiction, all the other conceits of the genre, allows us to do it honestly and with some integrity, with a lot of help from our other friends as well.
Do we have other slides too? [Image: Roller Grrrls – Erin] This one basically is Christina Aguilera’s song “Beautiful”. I know it sounds a bit corny but in fact working with my friend of mine who actually has a hare lip, especially on women, the idea that Disney portrays this illusion that having a facial scar or disfigurement means you’re evil or somehow not pretty. You see it in Judge Dredd with Mama, who I thought was an astounding character, but she’s bad. Why? Because she has a scar. Think about the way women or certain conventions are portrayed. Disney are the worst offenders but this one I’m proud of… the conception of what is beautiful is it surface or is it what is underneath.
Another of my favourites [Image: Roller Grrrls – Slide 3], the promise of education, expectations of family, reward of Roller Derby. Context – this is not an arranged marriage, this is just an Indian family who would wish, like most mothers, would like their daughter to get married but the girl obviously has Derby and university life and perceived freedom. So cultural issues and social dynamics within families.
This one [Image: Roller Grrrls – Jacqueline]– a very, very positive image of a woman and we sell this as a print, it’s called Derby Strength and people come back and go I didn’t realise she was a lower arm amputee. You shouldn’t, you shouldn’t have to recognise that or acknowledge it, she just is what she is.
And we’ve since found out that there’s a girl in Texas – Dirty Britches –please type that in carefully [audience laughter], who’s on a team in Texas. She was a librarian, she had no left arm and if you’ve ever seen this sport it’s very physical. She set up a league – not a team, a league – and ran it for eight years. Google, you’ll see the video footage of her online. This is a strong, sexy, confident, positive role model for women. That’s it. You really shouldn’t have to acknowledge anything else to do with our tattoos or anything like that.
And this. [Image: Roller Grrrls – Professor] The backstory for this is, if you’re the David Beckham of your sport, and then you have an accident and you’re in a wheelchair… you’ve got a lot of psychological things to process about what you used to be able to do, what you can’t do now. Also, if you want a physical relationship with a person.
We’re following a blog of an actress who’s a very positive role model for the disabled and she’s very honest in her blog about personal relationships with either able or disabled peoples. Shannon Murray, she’s definitely worth a read. And we’re using her as a role model for this. As I say, it does provoke images.
When DC take a positive role model in the Oracle and then cure her, I think that’s basically saying to every girl that’s disabled saying you’re now a victim. You had a character that was a positive statement for disability, and then suddenly they’re negating that person’s ability… I think that was a big misstep by DC to do what they did with the Oracle. So this is our kind of reply – I think that’s it.
[Image: Roller Grrrls – Professor 2] Oh yeah, and yes – this is again, very very deliberate sort of statement of again how you perceive the disabled in this society. We’ve got a lot of people keeping us right on this, some of the topics we’re addressing, not just access issues to buildings but obviously mentally dealing with condition itself and obviously relationships which are a very very touchy subject. And that’s great. Thank you very much.
Oh! One more! [Image: Roller Grrrls – Teacher] Yeah, there’s a little … the term “derby wife” is just your partner on the team but it may well be your life partner on the team… again that opens up not all derby players are lesbians, some of them are heterosexual, some of them are parents with families, some of the guys are homosexual, what’s the problem? They’re people! You interact with them, you engage with them, there shouldn’t really be a problem.
Obviously this teacher will have the snide little comments from her pupils about her team, those awful euphemisms that pupils use. People are interesting, we’ve written that… don’t pigeonhole… we’re very much in danger of doing that. I’ll maybe bore you with that later on! I definitely think that’s the last slide! Yes. Thank you very much.
Mariah Huehner: I am mostly in comics, I’m an editor and writer, I used to work at Vertigo at DC Comics, and then Virgin Comics, [and] IDW. I’ve been freelance writing now for a couple of years.
Those are some of my illustrations! [Image: Mariah Heuhner – Balloon] Those are big paintings of monster girls. [Image: Mariah Heuhner – Monster Girls]
Right now what I’m doing is I’ve just written a short story for Vertigo for The Witching Hour, and I also write a comic for Dark Horse called Emily and the Strangers, which some people may or may not be familiar with. It’s a licensed book, it’s an all ages comic. It’s about a little weird goth girl who’s very creative and crafty and technologically savvy… and I kinda wanted to relaunch the character and make her a bit more appealing to people now.
Things that we felt were really important was that – at least I’ve noticed this – there’s this sort of aesthetic goes with being goth. It’s usually pale with dark hair, that kind of thing, and Emily very much fits that and we wanted to add a cast of characters, we wanted to make sure they weren’t just the same and with Emily that meant, I… didn’t have to push very hard, but wanted to make sure that a couple of other people in the book were mixed race and you know, just had a different perspective on things to push back against the character because I think girl characters have a tendency to be portrayed in a very limited way in a lot of books, especially in mainstream comics and we really wanted to make sure that that was not what we were conveying, that it was something a little bit more nuanced and more engaging for a just wide variety of people reading the book, especially for kids.
I’ve written things like True Blood which is, you know, for an older audience, so especially when it comes to, to a younger audience for me personally, the more inclusive the better.
I guess just for me, kinda like what Gary was saying is, I like to be active in that in my work, I don’t really believe in being passive about diversity. I don’t think it’s something that always happens organically with everybody’s work, so I try to stay very conscious of that when I’m doing something, which sometimes you can get criticism for tokenism when you do that, which I think is complete bullshit.
I think it is really important to just remember that the world is full of more people than just yourself. And to reflect that in your [work], especially work like comics where there’s really no reason not to do that. So I think that’s one of my other illustrations [laughs] That’s at my table here! So that’s kind of my… [phone rings, audience laughter]
It’s all right! Yeah, so that’s kind of my philosophy. I write a lot online, probably too much, and now I tend to be pretty active about just the issue of diversity in comics and feminism also. Cos the gender dynamic, I think, is something we need to work on as an industry and also sort of in peak spaces. So – that’s me!
Barry Nugent: Hello! Yes. Off to a great start! My name’s Barry Nugent, I never actually ever expected to be sitting on a panel talking about diversity, it’s totally something I tend not to do, I tend to reflect diversity in the stuff I do rather than sit on a panel, talking about it. This actually isn’t a comic, but bear with me! [audience laughter] [Image: Barry Nugent – Fallen Heroes] This is a novel that I wrote called Fallen Heroes which is effectively a pulp adventure with lot of different characters. It’s quite a diverse novel, I didn’t write it because I wanted to say something about diversity, I just wrote it because I wanted it to reflect the world in which I live.
Just to give you a bit of background actually, I’ll tell a bit of a story I haven’t actually told anyone – I’ve been writing since I was eleven years old, and now I’m in my forties [audience laughter] and till I was about 16 all of my central characters were white, never black, always white.
One of my friends asked me, why do you always write white characters, why are there no black characters, why are they always the best mates or the sidekicks and why do you do that? What I realised that was it was a conditioning of everything I was reading had filtered through, and that was a bit of a wake up call for me, and that sort of changed my perspectives, and that I pretty much lived down the road to all of you here.
To give you the example, pretty much most people you see who are into comics, not sort of book people, always ask me why have you got either Samuel L Jackson on the front cover or Nick Fury on the front cover, as if to say that a bald-headed black guy… anyway… [laughs] and this was before Nick Fury really… so.
Basically what happened was I got approached by a few guys who really enjoyed the novel and decided that they wanted to adapt it [Image: Fallen Heroes, Comic]. So we’ve done two issues of that so far – this is Jason, he’s one of the characters. He’s actually part Chinese, part British.
And basically, that led to Tales of the Fallen [Image: Tales of the Fallen], an anthology of comics, and these are all characters that span out of the novel, and these are all sort of standalone stories, and what I say to people is you don’t have to have read the novel to read the anthology.
And as you can see, Napoleon, he’s actually a bad guy; The Reverend, who’s a bit of light and a bit of shadow; and Steph – Steph is ex-Navy intelligence and I love her [laughs].
It’s really important for me in books that I write, with the female characters to not do them a disservice because in my own life I’m always surrounded by quite strong females, the main one of which being my mother… but she was one of the driving forces in terms of every female character that I write. I don’t like wishy-washy female characters, I don’t like the way they’re portrayed, why I actively do something about it. That’s probably the one thing I actively do… and anyone who’s worked on Unseen Shadows projects.
Anyone here worked on Unseen Shadows? Tara? [Tara: I’m here!] Tara, tell them I do great female characters! [Tara: You do great female characters!] [audience laughter]
This is Tales of the Forgotten [Image: Tales of the Forgotten], which is the next anthology, which is out now. That large fella there, he’s black… and he’s Ben, he’s the world’s greatest thief. That’s my other thing as well, that sort of thing, not to play up to stereotypes, he’s black so he’s in a gang, whatever. He’s basically like the Saint, like an international thief.
Kathryn, in the corner there, she’s the criminal profiler, very very good at her job, and the character behind is Bob. But with Kathryn again she’s quite a tortured soul and again I don’t think she plays up to any sort of stereotype for females. She’s very different from Steph, she’s more military based.
Forgotten Warriors is my next book [image: Forgotten Warriors], hopefully will be finished some time soon! [laughs] And that is Steph on the front cover.
That again is sort of really active decision that I came up with with the guy who did the cover, that I wanted Steph to be on the cover, because I thought it was quite nice having Napoleon on one cover and a woman on the next cover, and I wanted Steph to look like a military person but not a sexy… you know what I mean. I wanted her to look realistic. And we worked really hard on that and hopefully we’ve done okay.
This is the point where I hand over to someone else! [audience laughter]
Fiona Stephenson: Hi, my name’s Fiona and I’ve been doing comics for about 20 years. When I first started coming to comic conventions there [were] hardly any women, not creating, they didn’t even attend – just no women at all. So it’s great now to come to a comic con and I think it’s about 50 people here – I’m looking at the audience and there’s a lot of women. People used to say to me why do you like coming, when it’s just wall to wall men… it’s kind of a strange thing to say!
I’ve been letterer for 2000AD and Warhammer and I’ve done colouring for Vertigo – in fact I worked with Mariah for a while. Vertigo’s a great place to work because, well, most of the people in charge were women and still are I think, and then I moved on to doing pinup art… now I feel like a bit of a fly in the ointment on the panel as I deal in stereotypes.
The women I paint are, well, they’re what everybody’s perception of what the ideal woman is and most of my buyers are women, and later on maybe we could discuss why women like to see pictures of pretty women, you know, because you’d think they’d want to buy men but they don’t.
In fact one of my first jobs I did, I painted a man, he’d got long hair and somebody, this man, wanted to buy it, because he thought it were a woman, when I pointed out it were a man with long hair he didn’t want to buy it! So commercially for me I’m basically pandering to the stereotypes. So as a feminist it’s a bit of a quandary. So maybe later on we can discuss that. [laughs]
As you can see [laughs] the people are always shocked when they find out I’m a feminist but when I was at college people used to criticise me for wearing skirts and wearing make up and for me, being a feminist I make my own decisions, I don’t want to swap being told what to do by one set of people just for another set of people to tell me what to do. So basically that’s me.
That’s some of my colouring work. That’s me done. I’m sorry but I can’t remember what the titles of the colourings are.
Gill Hatcher: I run an all female and female identified collective in Glasgow called Team Girl Comic or TGC for short. What we are is we’re a collective for basically anyone who identifies as female in Scotland who wants to have a go at making comics so we have a very diverse group – we have people who are professional artists, people who are just starting out, who are aspiring to be professional, and then we just have folk who like to draw and want to do it for fun and they have other jobs and careers and this is just a little side project for them. I started it three years ago.
I’ve been making my own comics in Glasgow for quite a few years and selling them locally. I didn’t really have much awareness of what was going on outside Glasgow, but in Glasgow looking around me I kind of realised I’m the only girl, I’m the only woman doing this, everyone else was guys, I felt I wanted some friends, some female friends who were making comics. So I looked around, couldn’t find anyone but then I realised there were a lot of women in Glasgow who were making comics but they weren’t getting out there, they weren’t making that extra step of getting them printed and selling them. We thought it’d be fun if we try and set up this little group.
We started off very small – I thought it was just going to be a one off, one or two issues, not really getting anywhere beyond Glasgow and then suddenly I realised there’s this huge demand for not just the anthologies which we bring out three times a year but also just the sense of community and the support network we have, we have a lot of meetups and do a lot of events every time we bring out a new book… there’s just a little support network there for people who…and not just because they were women on the Glasgow comic scene but also people who were new to comics and not sure how to get started, we were there to help out as well.
So now we’ve been going for about three years and we’ve just put out our ninth anthology and as you can see when I first brought it out I thought it would be a little local thing and I wanted to do it as a pastiche of old girl comics and things like Bunty or even girl magazines in the ‘90s like Girl Talk because when I was growing up and I read things like The Beano and The Dandy and then when I came to the girl comics, the ones that were supposed to be aimed at me, I just thought they were rubbish and wasn’t interested in them.
I wanted to do all this like that but better because it’s actually done by women with stories that you want to tell. Obviously now we’ve got a lot bigger and there are about thirty-odd people who contribute to the comic and they all use the same covers and share writers and a lot of the women are now taking ownership of the group, it’s no longer my little project, we’re a big group and everybody checks in and helps out and now we’ve progressed in that.
Howard Hardiman: Hello there. My name’s Howard Hardiman… this is a badger [audience laughter] [Image: Howard Hardiman- Badger] I started out in comics probably about 6 or 7 years ago, drawing a little lonely badger wandering around in south London. I had no idea that anyone would ever read it as I was drawing it on post it notes and putting it on Flickr.
And then suddenly this thing that was about me being a little bit depressed because of an injury that meant I had to stop working as a sign language interpreter – diversity strand! [laughs] – suddenly everyone kind of projected on it and had people going “it’s a really lovely book about autism” and I was like “yes, yes it is!” [audience laughter]
I had one really fascinating review – it kind of varied from things like to that to… there was one reviewer in South London, as it was set in Brockley, because Brockley means “place of badgers”… I’m so imaginative! One of the reviewers said “he’s there as a cipher for modern south London because he’s a mix of black and white” and I thought “oh my god that’s terrible!”. [audience laughter]
But going on from that I more recently have made a comic called The Lengths which is based on interviews with male sex workers in London and isn’t a verbatim retelling of that story but probably more me being really grumbly about some problems I think are quite common in the gay community or in how people approach relationships or in how much ketamine they used to do.
So understandably when I started approaching publishers with it there were a little bit of an odd set of responses to it – I have a feeling that a lot of it is that gay characters in comics – you either want porn, or you want something where they’re basically whitewashed into being straight people but men… and stuff that actually talks about the problems that are… it’s a book in which everyone’s a man and everyone’s a dog and I’m not sure if it really counts as gay anyway if they’re all dogs. [audience laughter]
But then because I’d kind of done something that was very deliberately just about men I then went onto start writing a superhero comic called The Invalids where I thought if I was gonna write a superhero comic I wanted to give power to the people who would need it the most, so it’s a set of teenage disabled Edwardian girls with superpowers, and we’ve done two pilot issues of it so far and it’s been an interesting one for me trying to find the voice I want to do it in so it will be back next year.
And I think I’ve kind of gone from thinking well I’ll kind of make it all ladies and lah-de-dah but no, I’m angry, I just want it to be really aggressive and bloody so when it comes back expect a lot of brutality.
Louise Crosby: Thank you.
[audience member asks the name of Howard’s other comic]
Howard Hardiman: It’s called The Invalids… it’s out of print at the moment, it’ll be back next year.
Louise Crosby: All these guys have got desks and so on around the festival so if you want to read anything you’ve heard about, they’re out there.
Barry Nugent: I’m not there but I will be outside! [laughs]
Louise Crosby: Okay. The second question really is Thought Bubble has previously held at this time a women in comics panel and this has evolved into the diversity panel – do you think this was a valid move by Thought Bubble organisers, and what would you hope this panel achieves? Mariah, can we start with you?
Mariah Huehner: I mean, I’m always glad when any convention takes an active stance towards diversity because I think sometimes at some conventions, especially larger ones, there can be… kind of like they’ll toss out one kind of diversity panel, everyone on it is a white dude, and you’re like, that’s not really the same thing at all! And that can be an issue and sometimes they do things and you think it’ll be a conversation and instead it’s a bunch of people trying to say stuff and trying to be funny and it’s not really getting anywhere.
To me it‘s about not just saying there’s a problem with these things but it’s about finding solutions to it and helping people understand why it’s something you want to address in your own work and something to look for in other people’s work and how people are actively doing things about it in lots of different ways.
One of my favourite conventions to go to is GeekGirlCon in Seattle and it’s a very welcoming kind of environment. It’s a smaller convention but they do a lot of panels and a lot of them are very academic, they can be a little dry, but the overall vibe is very much like here, which is sort of like make stuff and make things you wanna see and make things that reflect your life and things that you’re looking for.
I think that’s always kind of what I’d want anybody to take away from a conversation like this, which is that there are so many different stories to tell and there are so many different kinds of characters to tell it, that you don’t need to be limited to one point of view, and even if it’s something you haven’t personally experienced, you should seek out different perspectives on it and seek out different ways of looking at the world, because I think you have a better time when you do that and have a better exposure to the general sort of kind of wonder of life… that sounds really corny but it’s true.
One of the projects I’m proudest of is Womanthology, the Heroic and Space anthologies, where the whole point of the project was finding female creators who hadn’t been previously published and pairing them with people who did so people got a really cool experience of working with people with a lot and learning a lot and the feedback for something like that is something that means a lot personally, you can really see the result of that and seeing people really inspired to do more work. That’s what I want from something like this.
Barry Nugent: Yeah, as I said at the beginning I don’t do panels like this one so I was a bit nervous when they first asked me… I think that’s probably why I took such a long time to reply to your email but I think when we started talking I felt so much better because to be honest, it’s not having a go at any other panels I’ve been to like this but there’s sometimes people [who] just want to shout but don’t actually have anything to say.
And for me it’s not about sitting, I can sit here quite easily and tell stories about things that have happened to me and all that sort of stuff but that’s really not changing anything. What I want to do is sit here with like minded people and talk about the ways that we try to change things. And that’s why I think it’s important to have these sort of panels.
I do think it’s great that now we’ve got diversity panel rather than just women in comics panels or black guys in hats panels [audience laughter] it’s 12.00… and because you know the world is a diverse place and even if you read my book, or read the comics, I’m not making these things, they’re actually there, I’ve had people calling out to me saying it’s great you’re doing this – I’m not making any stand, I’m just a guy that likes blowing stuff up! But I want to do it in a diverse mix of people because you know you look at the sort of friends that I have. I have a diverse bunch of friends, it’s a diverse world so I just reflect the world that I live in, I’m not making any sort of stand.
He says, sitting on a diversity in comics panel [audience laughter]. But I think what I’m beginning to discover is that a lot of people do need to hear these things and do need to know about ways that they can do things… people are scared. You know, I have people coming up to me and asking me how do I write my characters? You just write them. You know, I don’t have a chart for how I write characters, white characters, middle aged characters, women, I just write and learn from my mistakes. Unless you’re out there trying you’re never going to get anywhere. My advice is to just get out there and start doing it, stop talking about it. I’ve just ranted a bit haven’t I? [audience laughter] I’m gonna stop now.
Gill Hatcher: I do think that it’s been a step in the right direction to change to a diversity panel, though I did enjoy the women in comics panel last year – I was in the audience – and I do run an all women collective but I think that’s quite a localised system. You come to Thought Bubble and there’s loads of women and it’s really progressive and I think that Thought Bubble definitely should be moving towards diversity. In Glasgow I did feel there was a need for a women’s collective but here, there’s plenty of women.
I believe it should be a positive discussion not used as an excuse to go on a rant. Particularly when I started TGC it wasn’t about making a big stance against sexism it was more of a positive move towards creating something that was friendly and inclusive and a support network rather than something to make a big political statement.
It’s funny that apparently people have overheard conversations with guys who were just talking about comics with naked women in them and saying “I can’t wait to see the look on Gill Hatcher’s face when she sees this comic.” I’m not gonna do anything! I’m not interested in you. It’s not like… I’m gonna just keep doing my thing and you can do your thing if you want, it’s not really about getting angry and getting political necessarily. There’s definitely a place for that but at the same time it’s really good that we can have a positive discussion instead today.
Louise Crosby: Howard, did you want to say something?
Howard Hardiman: Yeah, I think that you know, your token queer cripple here, I think there’s a really good point made about if there’s issues around barriers being faced by one minority group or marginalised group then if you’re just talking to that group then what are you going to be able to change? Whereas with this you get a lot more intersection of… you know, and so I will learn about diversity strands that I wouldn’t necessarily… I think that’s a really good thing, and it’s also really good to find allies.
It’s actually okay to talk about this thing if this isn’t necessarily what you experience yourself, as long as you’re not horrible. Or if you’re horrible you’re horrible in a really good way! [audience laughter]
I just think that the whole idea of diversity is a little bit odd because what I really see it as is just being real.
Because if you look at a normal population, roughly half are male, roughly half are female, there’s a little gap of people who aren’t, there’s a percentage who’ll be disabled, there’s a percentage of different skin colours and to not have that is weird. I think that’s one of the points to kind of think about with a lot of the comics you see where it’s mostly straight white men and maybe a token lady and a token black guy… that’s weird! That’s really weird. So really it’s just to keep underlining that to people.
Gary Erskine: I think there are actually attempts by the mainstream publishers – Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and IDW… I’d rather not include Image as I think they actually are doing really creative positive things… very European in their sensibility.
I think that the disappointment is that when they do introduce either transgender or homosexual characters or disabilities, as I mentioned in the New 52 when they say “Barbara Gordon you’re cured!” That’s a great “**** you” to anyone who saw that as a positive role model, they’re suddenly someone who’s a victim who needs to be saved and that’s a very, very bad message by DC, that was a real lost opportunity.
When they do it, I think sometimes they have the best intentions but I think the problems is that they have to do it within the confines of the genre and they have to dilute it down to a very… almost patronising token issue. As someone who when I worked on Dan Dare, Garth Ennis was very very clear in Dan Dare to make sure that it was in the future very much like Gene Roddenberry in Star Trek, show our real racial mix, that everyone gets on in the future. As someone who’s Scottish that lives in Glasgow we generally have an Indian and Pakistani community rather than an Afro-Caribbean community so for me I do the best that I could and I still get told off for not including enough black people.
Even with Roller Girls where we’re deliberately trying to make sure that we… you mentioned before the tokenism thing – if you don’t have a black character you’re racist, if you do have a black character you’re tokening to make up the odds, or there’s not enough females, you’ve put in a female, you’re pandering to an audience. It’s like, it should just be about the reality as best you can you know. I’m Scottish, in Glasgow, I have certain demographics that I’m familiar with and I try as a creator to push beyond that. You just have to hope that you do that honestly. I’ve already been addressed for not having enough – a gentleman in Birmingham said “people of colour also play roller derby” – it was a very valid point, you saw there we had the Indian girl, and the black character that we have– her trailer hasn’t been released yet.
I was dealing with some people doing commissions for someone in New Zealand – had a great report on Facebook privately and then she turned round and said “when are you going to put in any transgender characters?” And that was like wow, that is something with the friends I have, we will introduce, we need to introduce the main characters, build the trust of the audience, show that we’re not pandering or doing any tokenism and more often than not when you hear the spiel at the table the amount of people who understand what we’re dealing with… our lead story’s cancer by the way.
We also run with mental health issues, you try and sell that to a major publisher, they won’t even touch you with a bargepole. We’re printing, producing, writing, distributing ourselves because we have 100% editorial control over everything. When someone says you can’t have a character smoking or you can’t have a character that’s disabled or cancer’s a bit of a downer…. fuck you!
It’s like Viper in Glasgow, was diagnosed with breast cancer, 35 years old. She ended up as a gentle exercise taking up the sport, came back, had a double mastectomy, had another bout of chemo and two years after that she’s playing on the Scotland team in the World Championships in Canada. That’s the sort of positive story, not some bullshit fairytale, this is real life we’re trying to promote, and we’re doing that with every facet of this story.
Positive messages that, yeah there’ll maybe be some bad characters, but you have to write from your heart, you have to write honestly from what you know, if you don’t have any experience of being black, or gay, or disabled, or cancer, or mental health or cultural issues, speak to someone who has, and take on board their experiences and write as honestly – if you write honestly, you can write anything. We can’t just write about ourselves, or it’s just a diary. You have to write about other characters. Do it with integrity, you won’t fall down. It’s as simple as that.
Fiona Stephenson: For me personally I think just to be visible is important. Last year I was on the women in comics panel and I think we all felt that we didn’t have any particular issues with the industry working with us, we’d not had bad experiences, we just all felt it was important to be seen. So it’s great when you go round the comic cons and see lots of women on the other side of the table creating and doing things. I think that’s what’s important, just be there.
Gary Erskine: I’ve been working with Shelley Bond on Dead Boy Detectives, after Karen Berger left, these two women are two of the most powerful people at DC at the moment, and about the most creative people. I think it’s positive, not tokenism like “let’s make sure it’s equal”, they’re just bloody good at their job. They get good people together, good creative projects there, and it’s very very positive. It’s just doing it normally, it’s not “here’s a woman doing it!” They’re just good at their job. It’s certainly a lot better than it was when I started 20 years ago. I think it is getting better, there have been a few missteps along the way but it’s a lot better now.
[Louise Crosby asks for audience questions]
Audience Question: One thing that’s not quite been touched on, there’s not that many people who are, what’s the best way to say it, slightly overweight… what’s your view on body image in comics? We touched on a bit about being teased… but what’s your view on that?
Mariah Huehner: I have some views on that. Yeah. Body image, I was actually saying at my table, I have this art up on my site, and I got this anonymous comment saying are you ever going to draw fat women? You know, at first I was like, what a nasty comment, then I was like, they actually have a really good point as I have a tendency not to do that in my own artwork and things that I’m doing and body image is something that’s very important to me personally… I think that for a lot of women that’s very true.
In comics, I think, outside of mainstream comics you find it, I think a lot more independent comics have a much wider variety of body types. Then there’s artists like Ross Campbell who just makes you feel better about yourself, it’s just an automatic thing for him, different body types, but mainstream comics I think definitely needs to work on that.
I think some folks do it, it always depends on the artist but the nice thing is it depends on the style that’s being used, different artists are like sort of… [refers here to Fiona Stephenson’s pin up work] I was just looking at those and they’re cheeky, they’re fun, there’s personality in them, they’re not just like dead-eyed, here’s some boobs! There’s a personality there and it’s not like anti-sexy or anything, it’s just [that] there needs to be a broader definition of sexy. But also, showing disabilities and things… it’s not about things being beautiful, it’s that there needs to be a much broader definition of that across the board. So, yes.
Barry Nugent: Um. We might need to go through some slides again to get to the slide I want to talk about. That’s Steph… yes, that will do, that’s fine. [Image: Kathryn, Tales of the Forgotten] This is Kathryn, I tried to find a great shot of Kathryn I think that’s quite cool, let’s focus on the bottom panel there.
But in the book, Kathryn is described as overweight and I won’t say who Kathryn’s based on as she might kill me [laughs] but that’s really important to me that she was. And when we worked on Historia [in Tales of the Forgotten] which is what this is called, I was quite clear how I wanted to portray her… the artist was a woman but that wasn’t the reason she was chosen, she was chosen because her art was great. I gave her the description from the book and she nailed it with her first sort of character sketch.
Again it’s… the reason I did it is, you know, the world is full of people of different sizes and shapes. I have characters who are in incredible shape but there’s a reason for that, but with Kathryn she’s, yes she’s overweight but in my mind she’s a stunner, that’s how she’s written in the book. I don’t even know if I’ve answered your question! [audience laughter] I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I am aware of body image when I write and I try to sort of reflect that in the comics, so there is something for everyone.
Howard Hardiman: I think there’s a really basic point about character design when you’re drawing – having different silhouettes is really important and if everyone has same kind of off the shelf body type they’re not going to be identifiable if they’re seen from a distance or seen in different sorts of things. Quite apart from it being a really important thing to do, generally to have different body types, it actually just makes sense visually. On the sex meetup adverts thing [Image: Howard Hardiman – The Lengths, Profile Page] you could see that there’s a broad range of different silhouettes, and it isn’t me going “ooh we need to have a character who’s large”, it’s that you want to have silhouettes that people can tell apart.
Audience Question: Do you think that the Paralympics and our [UK’s] success has helped push things like disability because we now see a lot more people on tv as well as film?
Howard Hardiman: No. [audience laughter] I think that in some ways it’s really great because there’s been positive images of disabled people, [but] I think that there’s a heroic narrative around disability and that that I find really problematic.
As a person whose impairment causes constant pain I don’t really like that kind of thing where it’s like, “oh look at the things you can do!” Because all I’m really thinking about is there’s so much stuff I can’t fucking do, and actually having these things like “look at that heroic disabled person overcoming that”, and that’s a really common thing in comics, that it’s through moral victory that you are cured or through moral weakness you are disabled. There’s a little bit of me that worries that the Paralympics plays into it.
However, the opening ceremony was amazing, that was a lot more “fuck you” and that I really like! And apparently she had to tone it down! Because I know the woman who directed it, and yeah she was told to tone it down because it was more political.
Barry Nugent: On a side note, the guy who does the coverage on Channel 4, Ade? He’s a mate, that’s all I wanted to say. [audience laughter] It really annoys me that he’s become very very successful. [audience laughter] Take that any way you want!
Louise Crosby: Gonna squeeze in one very quick question.
Audience Question: I was just gonna ask, have you experienced much in the way of… I suppose discrimination in fandom, like I’ve seen online quite a lot of “ah you know geek girls, they’re just fake geeks they’re not properly into these things they’re just doing it to get attention” or whatever. Do you experience that in what you do?
Mariah Huehner: Yes. [audience laughter] Waaaay too much. I’ve gotten myself into a slight amount of trouble in the last couple of weeks/couple of years talking about that particular topic a few times. Because we’ve been working very hard to keep this very positive because I think that’s the most important thing but at the same time if you don’t acknowledge the problem you can’t do a fucking thing about it.
So… the “fake geek girl” thing makes me so angry, it’s like my head’s on fire. Because it’s the stupidest, most obnoxious, hateful, just dumbass thing I have seen come out… it’s just so stupid! “There is fake geekdom” is not a thing, there are no scary girls coming in and making geekdom bad, it’s just obnoxious. It’s just an excuse to be really shitty to people who are just trying to get into something.
The best thing you can do for people who don’t know as much about something as you or whatever is to be like “hey look I’ve got this stuff, let me show it and share it with you!” That’s what people should be doing, not spending their time being shitty trolls on the internet and yelling at people and talking about their outfits, it’s just ridiculous. That infuriates me.
Louise Crosby: Okay, I think we’ll have to round it up, finish there. I will say that Laydeez Do Comics, if you haven’t been to a meeting, they do run in London, in Leeds, Chicago, San Francisco and a few other places, so if you can’t find one near you, maybe you need to set one up which is what I did…
For now I’d really like to thank our panellists. [applause]
Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Currently working on a PhD, do not offend her chair leg of truth; it is wise and terrible. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter.