To go along with an environment free of toxicity and full of heartfelt enthusiasm to go with the water stations, pronoun stickers, and the best press lounge in my five years of covering conventions, Flame Con also had nuanced panels on a variety of comics and pop culture topics with panelists, who represented a broad spectrum of voices and experiences. I attended three panels at the con: “Fan Activists Assemble!” about practical ways members of fandom can effect sociopolitical change, “Fangirl… But then Make It Fashion” an entertaining, yet wide ranging panel about the larger cultural context of character designs and costumes, and “Telling All Ages Queer Stories” about LGBTQ representation in all ages comics.
Fan Activists Assemble! (Saturday)
“Fan Activists Assemble” was hosted by Elana Levin of Graphic Policy Radio, who also trains digital organizes and is a new media mentor and also featured a guest appearance from journalist and podcaster Jay Edidin of Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men fame. Pop culture has always been intertwined with her activism beginning with her love for the X-Men comics, and her current passion is bridging those two worlds via the tool of the Internet. She also talked about how social media and the ability for protests to “trend” has helped the way they are viewed in society unlike in the past when protesters were arrested or beat up by the police, and their narrative was shaped by traditional news media.
As Stephen Duncombe said, “Scratch an activist, and you’re apt to find a fan.” At the beginning of her talk, Elana Levin stated many strengths that fans can bring to the world of activism, including community building, thinking beyond the world we exist in, and practical skills like art, writing, social media posting, and even meme and GIF making. Fans don’t have to reinvent the wheel and form their own organization and can bring their talents and fresh POV to existing organizations from larger ones like GLAAD or the ACLU to smaller, local ones.
Next, Levin brought in Jay Edidin as a case study of fan activism when he confronted Dark Horse Comics for having healthcare that excluded any coverage “…related to gender dysphoria and transition” while claiming to be an LGBTQ friendly company and featuring the Pride flag on their Twitter profile. Edidin used to be an employee of Dark Horse Comics and has been a journalist since 2007. He couldn’t go public for a while because his ex-husband worked for Dark Horse, but seeing the company’s Pride Day tweet led to him confronting the company. With the help of comic book creator, Mariah McCourt, an open letter stating a demand for expanding Dark Horse’s healthcare coverage was drafted and signed by many comics professionals. Dark Horse changed their policy a day before the letter went public.
Elana Levin showed that this action fit an effective four part organizational strategy. There was the goal, which was for Dark Horse Comics to have trans inclusive healthcare, the target was upper management because they have the power to effect change in the company, the “ask” was for comics creators to sign the open letter, and the message was for Dark Horse to basically put their money where their mouth is and support the LGBTQ community through their actions and not just through rainbow logos. Jay Edidin added that using the letter format was important because comics creators are vulnerable on their own.
Later, in the panel, Elana Levin gave examples of how social media and hashtags are able to shape discussions like the conversation around having an Asian American Iron Fist that cast a shadow over Finn Jones’ eventual casting as him in the Marvel Netflix show. Even if this didn’t end in a “win”, it started a conversation, and Marvel later did some race bent casting by having Tessa Thompson play Valkyrie in Thor Ragnarok and Zazie Beetz play Domino in Deadpool 2. Levin also laid out practical rules for hashtags, including keeping them short and simple and only using two per tweet. An example was using #WakandatheVote and #BlackPanther in a tweet about registering voters who were in line for the Black Panther film. She also reiterated the importance of having a specific goal, targeting decision makers, and having a clear ask in online activism using the Harry Potter Alliance’s efforts of having the franchise’s chocolate frogs made with fair trade chocolate and opposing North Carolina’s anti-trans HB2 “bathroom bill”.
The panel concluded with Levin engaging the audience in their own activism brainstorming session with an audience member discussing the need for more asexual representation in pop culture and comics and using FlameCon as a venue to make a case for this. This led to a side discussion about the importance of fun in activism and helping keep people engaged in cause from free pizza and T-shirts to crafting GIFs like one of the Dora Milaje from Black Panther metaphorically confronting ICE.
“Fangirl… But Then Make It Fashion!” (Saturday)
“Fan Activists Assemble” was immediately followed by the “Fangirl… But Then Make It Fashion” panel, which was moderated by Geeks Out’s Aaron Reese. The panelists were comic book creators Little Corvus (Deja Brew), Yoshi Yoshitani (Jem and the Holograms), Terry Blas (Dead Weight), Irene Koh (The Legend of Korra), and Jen Bartel (America). After breaking the ice with a fun discussion about favorite candies, Reese started out by asking about the difference between cultural inspiration and appropriation in character outfits. Bartel stressed the importance of “cultural and historical context” in fashion while Koh gave the positive example of the Bangladeshi character she introduced in the Legend of Korra comics as well as time periods where there was “cultural exchange” between European and Asian cultures.
A negative example given by Koh was Queen Amidala’s outfits in Star Wars, which she said were inspired by North Asian and Mongolian fashions and demeaned the original culture. Reese added that Padme had dreadlocks in a deleted scene from Revenge of the Sith, which led to the realization that most of the design and fashion choices in Star Wars are cultural appropriation beginning with the “white guys dressed like ninjas” that Terry Blas used to describe the Jedi Knights. Blas said that unlike Star Wars which exoticizes or “others” its Asian influences, Avatar: The Last Airbender respected Asian cultures even though it wasn’t created by Asians and was superhero stories for people who didn’t have superheroes that looked like them.
The discussion then turned to the popular video game Overwatch where Yoshi Yoshitani criticized the character Doomfist, whose map and character is supposedly inspired by Nigerian culture, but he is half naked, has tusks, and looks like the creators never did research on actual Nigerian fashion. She said that Hanzo and Symmetra had good designs while Irene Koh poked fun at Hanzo’s obsession with honor. Aaron Reese said that the issue with Overwatch was that the game designers focused on environments instead of character looks.
The next topic was body positivity, and Reese gave a shout out to Rose Quartz and the curviness and softness of characters in Steven Universe as well as the strength of Antiope from the Wonder Woman film and the other athletic “hunter/gatherer” Amazon women. His bad example was Psylocke, and a slide showed an example from both the comics and Olivia Munn playing her in X-Men: Apocalypse. Little Corvus made a good point that the difficulty that the panel had thinking of examples was a big problem in pop culture. Terry Blas used the example of his comic Dead Weight about a murder mystery at a fat camp where the characters are drawn as fat in different ways that reflects their character instead of just having the same body shape.
Bartel said that she had done covers for the character Faith from Valiant Comics and liked her as a representative of body positivity, but said that she wished she could redesign her costume into something that the superheroine would actually wear. In connection with this, Blas said that some male comic book artists spend hours of research getting a jet engine part right, but don’t consider fashion in their work. This led to a discussion about female superhero body types with Yoshitani saying that there was pressure on female superheroes to be perfect for everyone. Irene Koh said that she wished superhero artists took inspiration from ESPN: The Body Issue, which shows how different kinds of athletes have different body types.
Other topics discussed by the panel, included gender expression and how this was handled better in anime than in Western comics with Little Corvus making an excellent point about how Mulan could be non-binary as she explores different gender presentations in the 1998 Disney film. Another topic was color washing where Reese and Koh strongly criticized writers who described people of color like food. The panel ended on a positive note with Reese, Blas, and Little Corvus talking about how the Runaways from the Hulu TV show and America were good representations of teenage fashion and their clothing choices made them seem like they were real people.
This panel reinforced the idea that careful attention to a character’s heritage even through something like a piece of clothing makes for a richer reading or viewing experience, and it also challenged me to look at media that I have taken for granted for instances of cultural appropriation. Star Wars was a big one.
“Telling All Ages Queer Stories” (Sunday)
The final panel I attended was on Sunday and was about all ages comics created by LGBTQ creators. The panel was moderated by Paste’s Steve Foxe and featured Chad Sell (Cardboard Kingdom), Barbara Perez Marquez (Cardboard Kingdom), Molly Ostertag (Witch Boy), Lilah Sturges (Lumberjanes: The Infernal Compass), and James Tynion IV (Justice League Dark). Foxe began by asking what kind of LGBTQ characters whether positive or negative the panelists came across when they were young adults.
Tynion said that he mainly read superhero comics growing up where there wasn’t a lot of LGBTQ representation except for homophobic jokes and said he connected to the X-Men as well as webcomics with gay characters when he was in middle school. Sell said that an issue of Superman from the early 1990s scared him into possibly not coming out when two gay men were chased out of town and then rescued by Superman. The point he got from this story is that if he came out as gay, he would be forced to run away. Sturges’ first experience with a trans character in media was The Crying Game, but she said until Lana Wachowski made her 2012 speech that trans characters were portrayed as either pathetic or deceivers. She said that she enjoyed writing Jo as a happy trans kid in Lumberjanes. Perez Marquez talked about how she didn’t grow up with LGBTQ characters, but did connect with queer coded” characters like Spinelli from Recess.
Foxe’s next question was that in writing stories about LGBT youth that the panelists drew on their own childhood or an idealized one. James Tynion said that his science fiction series The Woods about a school being transported to a different planet drew on his own experiences as an out queer high schooler while his series The Backstagers about theater kids was more idealized. Molly Ostertag said that she wasn’t out as a lesbian in high school, and her upcoming queer high school girl romance was a vision of what she wanted as a teenager. However, she didn’t want to talk down to teens or avoid the realities of homophobia. Lilah Sturges said she felt a moment of doubt writing about the happy romance between Mal and Molly in Lumberjanes, but said she was able to write it because Lumberjanes like their relationship is a true utopian vision. Barbara Perez Marquez’s work on Cardboard Kingdom was more true to her life as a young queer Dominican girl while her webcomic Order of the Belfry was pure wish fulfillment about lady knights who kiss.
The discussion shifted to queer content filtering and pushback about LGBTQ content from editors and publishers. Tynion made a good point about how companies realized there was money in queer audiences and said he got some pushback in his superhero books and relatively none in his all ages comics for BOOM! Ostertag said it was easier to “push the envelope” in regards to LGBTQ content in comics versus television where she rarely interacted with the people who pulled the strings. So, it was much easier for her to explore gender roles in Witch Boy where a boy wants to try girl magic and not boy magic and harder to have a same gender couple holding hands in the background of an animated show. Sell and Perez Marquez talked about the “sneaky” representation of Cardboard Kingdom which are stories geared to 9-12 year olds and don’t have labels, but do explore things like same sex attraction and gender nonconformity.
Then, the panel basically transformed into a pure celebration of LGBTQ YA stories. James Tynion talked about how in Backstagers that he began with subtle representation and then had two of his leads, Jory and Hunter, become boyfriends by the end of the series. Lilah Sturges said that she enjoyed writing a pre-teen trans coming of age story in Lumberjanes because it’s not sexual and is a pure statement about what does it mean to have a gender. She also revealed something adorable that will make fans of the series smile when they read her graphic novel. Chad Sell talked about how he chose writers for The Cardboard Kingdom based on their own personal experiences that they could bring to the “neighborhood” of stories.
The panel ended in Q and A where an audience member asked about how the creators as adults captured the voices of today’s young people in their comics. Barbara Perez Marquez made the excellent suggestion of having kids or teens like in a public library’s graphic novel or anime club to beta read their scripts and give notes on what they liked about the scripts.