It is not much a stretch of the imagination to say that the contemporary moment is fraught on many fronts. There is growing racial tension. There is a growing economic upheaval. The animus against immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees us enjoying a resurgence in the highest echelons of politics. There is no denying that much of the (imperfect) progress that was slowly building for minority groups has been stymied. Yet, when the times prove to be an obstacle for progress, the ability for art and narrative to elevate the discourse and raise consciousness for pressing matters of import cannot be understated. Art and narrative—the key components in the creation of any comic—are also the essential elements needed to reach wide audiences and reorient perspective in a manner that is relatable and—more importantly—immediate.
It was this latter point that was the main thrust of Reading and Raising Our Voices: From Comics to Community Organizing, a meaningful panel that took place at the San Diego Public Library on the Thursday of SDCC. The panelists—all of whom are involved in creating or transmitting stories that focus on little-known historical events or that wrestle with the underlying notions of identity—presented a free-flowing but highly introspective discussion about the cross section of personal histories, gathering truth, and presenting visions of the world that differ from the history books. It was all gripping and informative material.
Moderated by Chloe Ramos, the Library Market Sales Representative at Image Comics, and featuring David F. Walker (The Life of Frederick Douglass), Henry Barajas (La Voz De M.A.Y.O. Tata Rambo), Candice Mack (manager – systemwide Young Adult Services at the Los Angeles Public Library), Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer), and Ezra Claytan Daniels (Upgrade Soul), the panel delved into the nature of writing comics that speak to the brokenness of social issues while also providing a positive outlet for growth and social change. For Barajas, the Director of Operations at Top Cow Productions, he used his great-grandfather’s story of registering the last-recognized Native America tribe (the Yaqui) to look at how untold history promotes a new view of the present.
“I wanted to document what was absent from the history books,” Barajas said, “and I wanted to find out why both American and Tribal history books failed to illuminate and the important achievements of this effort.”
Walker ruminated on the stated mission of his efforts as a comic creator. In lieu of other means of conveying history, Walker was plaintive in his query: “Why do I have to be the one to educate the masses?” Yet, he was also steadfast in answering his own question: “If you can help bring the truth to people, then you have to carry that load. This burden happens to be ours.”
Kobabe’s offered a different perspective owing to the fact that eir book is a memoir rather than a non-fiction rendering of history: “I approached my book by saying that ‘I’m an authority who is going to answer your questions.’ I signed up for an educator role… I knew what I was getting into.”
Kobabe pointed out: “All humans have something that is too scary to share.”
When asked about influence, the range of inspiration ran the gamut: from Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which Barajas read in high school and was the only book to hold his attention in class), to Langston Hughes, to Charles Schultz and John Lewis, the diversity in the material was a stark reminder that change can come from any source.
When asked about the social justice agenda of comics, Daniels (who arrived fifteen minutes late due to a delay on his train to San Diego) was matter of fact: “I need to be on the front line risking my life. But I have to ask what is the best use of my time as a creator? My excuse is that my time is better spent trying to communicate my ideals to a wide audience. But, you can’t make this stuff in a vacuum. You should always have an ear to what is happening on the front lines. Mack concurred: “Connecting people with more information” is vital.
When I asked the panel if comics have more of a visceral power to promote empathy than other forms of media, the panelists were in agreement… mostly. “As a creator, I think about that a lot,” said Walker, but he acknowledged that comics might not be the most essential means to convey this emotion.
Mack added: “It’s your own brain filling the gaps.”
Barajas followed up: “You meet the people who create. There’s a certain level of kinship and you’re not forced to hear the sound. This makes social justice topics relevant. This is authentic stuff.”
It is this “authentic stuff,” perhaps, that keeps readers coming back for more stories that go beyond the standard template of heroics. And it’s an exciting time for both readers and publishers to experience stories that touch the heart and spark the mind.