Recap: Gender and Color in Comics

By Aayesha Siddiqui

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Some of us ladies had the pleasure of attending Harvard Book Store’s author panel “Gender and Color in Comics” on Monday, February 6, 2017.

If you missed it, the full video of the event will eventually be available on the Harvard Book Store Channel.

In the meantime, here are some transcribed quotes from the evening.


Panelists: Joel Christian GillMildred Louis, and John Jennings

Moderator: Heide Solbrig of the Boston Comics Roundtable

Guide to reading transcriptions:

… means some words were omitted, often for clarify/flow

[text in brackets] means that text is paraphrased or inferred, sometimes due to audio recording quality

Joel on building empathy through sharing stories

When two people meet—whoever they are, no matter what they are—the first thing they start doing is telling their stories…When you think about the stories that I’m telling in Strange Fruit and Tales of the Talented Tenth, it’s like I’m trying to do that for the entire community of people of color…I think that for the last 300 years of media representation, the media has in a way acted like a parent to society. When you teach a kid an apple, you show them an apple and you say, “Here’s an apple.” And eventually they see a picture of an apple and they say, “There’s an apple.” And what the media has done to people of color, LGBTQ, women, any people of color—is saying, “Here’s what a black man’s supposed to look like.” Like the media’s said this: dangerous, predator, lazy, whatever…So when people see that person, they immediately see not the actual man. This is the thing that Ralph Ellison was talking about in the beginning of Invisible Man when he says you can’t see me…you can’t see me because you are looking at something completely different. So by telling the stories of people like Bass Reeves and people…or the Buffalo Soldier Cyclists that I’ll be talking about in Strange Fruit Vol. 2, I’m telling these stories and showing people…what you’re thinking about is not true…If you live in the South and you go to a college, a predominantly white college, they don’t know anybody black. The only thing they know is what they see on television, and so people have this preconceived notion of who you are. So if I can tell a story about Betsy Stringfield, this 5’2″ black women who in the ’30s and ’40s rode a motorcycle all over the country, like that completely breaks the stereotype of what you think women are supposed to be, especially women in the south, especially black women in the south. She was not matronly. She was not a mother. She was not out chasing men. She was like, “You know what, I’m going to get on this bike, and I’m going to do my thing.” And that’s what she did, right? And so by telling these stories, I am sharing the stories of the black community. I believe that if we share our stories, then that’s how we build empathy. When we empathize with each other, that’s when we build our humanity. And I think that’s what we’re losing over the course of the last couple of years; we’re losing our humanity. And by sharing those stories, that’s when we bring that back.

Mildred on keeping some gender tropes alive because everyone is worth saving

I’m a huge cheese ball and romantic. I love stupid tropes everyone thinks should die. It’s been interesting making comics because there’s kind of this movement where people are like, “OK, damsel in distress—that needs to die”… And I personally don’t want [those tropes] to die. A lot of it is because I feel like it’s not very easy for you to suddenly look at a trope and say that it has no worth when you’ve spent a very long time growing up seeing yourself in that trope. And what people seem to forget with things like damsel in distress is that it’s inherently saying that you as a person in this situation is worth saving, and you have value, and you can be protected. While I understand why people are like, “Get rid of this because it reinforces sexist ideals and problems in society,” I still feel like it holds a place, especially when it comes to marginalized people who have never had an opportunity to see themselves as actually being worthy of being protected, worthy of value, worthy of saving, worthy of flat-out existing…As far as I’m concerned, I’m not done with [these tropes] yet until everyone gets an opportunity to see themselves in those valuable and sensitive positions. Once we are over it, and we’re like everyone’s been saved, everyone feels good, then I think we should move on. But until then, that’s a lot of what my focus is.

Mildred on normalizing race and identity

I just normalize [race] entirely. There’s no pointed remarks…Everyone in my stories [are] people of color; they’re of marginalized backgrounds and identities. That’s just a given. And a lot of that is just because I feel like people function too much on that if it’s anything short of white, cis-gender, heteronormative people, that you have to make a huge big deal about it, like new fanfare, this is the “magical black person who can give you all this guidance.” It’s just obnoxious to me. So I have my three main comic ideas, one that I’m currently rolling out and two currently in development. One is high fantasy, and the other is sci-fi. And the only thing I want to do is help normalize race identity in all these genres. There’s no reason whatsoever why it should be anything else other than normalized.

Joel on saturating the media landscape to show that groups often perceived as “other” are really just like everyone else

Somebody [on Twitter] will say, “Why does it have to be an all-black this?” Or, “Why do we have to have more black that?” I think that the more we put that stuff out there, the more that we saturate with stories like…How To Get Away With Murder and stuff like Empire—the more that stuff goes out there, the more people will see that black people are just like everybody else. We are not magical negroes. We’re just like everybody else…That idea of normalcy that I think black people need, people of color need, queer people need – it’s about talking to somebody and them being gay is not even remotely the most interesting thing about them. Me being black is not the most interesting thing about me…like I don’t want to have that first conversation with anybody about being black. “Oh! So tell me what you think about being black.” I’m like, “No!”

I fist bump in wintertime because that’s the way you keep from getting a cold in a college. I had another faculty member say, “One day you gotta show me how to do all that stuff.” I’m like, “I’m just shaking hands, dammit! Why does it have to be a thing? I’m just trying to get the flu from sick students.” The more and more we talk about these things, we need to saturate the market with this stuff so it’s not a surprise when people see. When somebody shows up with a partner that’s the same-sex or a different race, people aren’t gonna be like, “Oh, I didn’t know you were—” No! It’s just gonna be like, well, that’s just the thing.

If anybody’s ever read the book Lock In by John Scalzi, there’s two things that happen in that book that I think is really amazing. And one of them is that his main character is black and you don’t find out for like 3 chapters. He doesn’t make a comment about that until he starts to describe that his dad was a superstar basketball player. And the other thing is there’s a CEO who’s like sort of evil but you’re not really sure, and he’s married to another man, and it’s not a thing. It’s just about the CEO. His husband made him a drink. You don’t have a conversation to talk about the equality of being gay in this book; it’s just a normal, everyday thing.

And the more we make those things normal, the less we’re going to have to make arguments about representation in media, because it won’t matter. We just need to put it out there. We need to saturate the market with these things so when people see it, they just go, “Oh hey, yeah, that’s the way that is.”

John on race as design and the black body

Being trained as an academic and graphic designer, I think about how…education has helped to write the black body in a particular way. Recently, I’ve become interested with what I call critical race design studies, thinking about race as a design object and thinking about the ephemera that actually is our world and supports that notion of that particular stereotype…This notion of fixity is something I’ve really become obsessed with. And so black subjectivity is something I’m really interested in. How do you actually, again, look at those distortions of black bodies or the text of black body…I’ve been obsessed with thinking about rewriting that text or analyzing that text.

We started doing research and found that there is a system in the mid ’90s of underground independent black comics community. There are black comic conventions that have been around since the mid ’90s. And then this gentleman named Turtel Onli, who some call the father of black indie comics, who was actually taking independent black books, driving around, selling them out of his [car], putting up spin racks in barbershops, creating an alternative distribution system…I call it the Comics Chitlin Circuit. How do we utilize the same types of distribution that we used when black music was called race music? I like race comics, that’s what I do, part of what I do. So I’ve been trying to create a system of black cons all over the country. So I cofounded the Schomburg Black Comic Book Festival, which now brings six/seven thousand people a year into the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in the middle of Harlem.

I think of [the notion of the black body] as a really big design problem…rethinking how the body is seen or disrupting the different types of stereotypes. So when you walk into the Schomburg on that particular weekend, it’s one of the blackest spaces on earth. The ashes of Langston Hughes, some of them, are literally buried in the foundations of that building…And for a couple of days, black is the default. You come in there, and everyone can be themselves…I like that idea. It’s thousands of kids (because it’s mostly families) who will never not see themselves as being the subject or never not see themselves as being the hero.

Mildred on those who criticize or devalue love/romance stories

How did you forget to be human? It’s hard not to feel that way because I feel like people forget how incredibly healing and empowering love in and of itself is.

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