We Are Comics Banishes Stereotypes, Showcases Community

Fri, May 16th, 2014 at 6:58am PDT

Comic Books
Casey Gilly, Staff Writer
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A few weeks ago, sparked by the continued harassment, abuse and narrow-minded assumptions about the authenticity of women in comics, Rachel Edidin put the call out on Twitter, asking if anyone was interested in starting a photo campaign to showcase the true diversity found in the comics community. The photos would contain personal statements about people's experiences, united under the banner of "I am comics." Within minutes, she began to receive responses, indicating that yes, other people were into this idea. Other people wanted to help. Other people shared the same frustrations as Edidin, and saw the importance of broadening people's perceptions of what a comic book fan, creator and industry professional look like.

We Are Comics was born.

While the site is just a few weeks old, the response has been incredible. Professional creators, including Gabriel Rodriguez, Cory Doctorow and Chris Roberson, have contributed, displaying their solidarity against harassment and abuse. Likewise, hundreds of comic fans have shared their photos and stories, creating a beautiful, humbling collage of unique voices, united in speaking out against the misconceptions of what a comic book nerd looks like.

CBR News caught up with the five key players behind We Are Comics -- Edidin, Arturo Garcia, Jen Vaughn, Sigrid Ellis and Elle Collins -- for a discussion about the site's mission, their collaboration and their individual backgrounds in the comic book industry.

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CBR News: How did the idea for We Are Comics come about?

Rachel Edidin: I've worked in the comics industry for eight years, and in that time, I've been continually frustrated by the invisibility of the diversity of the industry and readership. Comics -- the professionals and larger community I've worked in and had contact with -- are so much more than the narrow target audience of straight white dudes between 18 and 49, and they always have been.

Rachel Edidin Is Comics

It kind of came to a head a little over a week and change ago, after yet another female comics professional and journalist had gotten yet another slew of rape threats, and I was seeing -- not universally, but silence from a lot of our male peers; and from others, hearing that, well, she's not really comics, even if she's a decade-plus industry veteran, because she's female, because everyone knows that the voices that matter are, again, the ones from that narrow, narrow stereotype. I wrote this furious open letter, and it included the line, "How dare you pretend that this is not your problem? We are comics, too."

And then I sort of stuck on that: What would it take to show -- not just claim, not just pull out stats and numbers, but really, concretely show that? That comics is so much more -- and, by extension, that that kind of violence against a member of the community is violence against the community itself. To break down the Someone Else's Problem field, and show a definition -- and face -- of comics that's easy to ignore only so long as it's relegated to the margins; and to give people who are part of that narrow target a place and impetus to stand up in solidarity with us.

I wanted to do something big, and something visual. Comics are, after all, a visual medium; and, again, it was important to me to show the face (faces, really) of comics readers and creators, in all their fantastic diversity. My original idea was to try to find a photographer to collaborate with, and make it a photo essay, but I was impatient, so I made a sign, took a quick selfie and started sending e-mails.

How did you all, as a team, come together to work on it?

Edidin: Arturo has been involved from the start -- he got in touch and offered to help when I was muddling the idea around on Twitter -- and I reached out to Sigrid and Elle pretty much immediately. All three of them are amazing writers and voices for diversity in comics and geek culture; all three bring really different perspectives, fantastic judgment and a lot of experience writing and organizing online. Jen came on very shortly after that. She's a publicist at Fantagraphics and a social media beast, and we are super lucky to have her, as well as Becky Hawkins, who's helping out with behind-the-scenes organization.

Can you tell me a little about each of your backgrounds and how you know one another?

Arturo Garcia: I became acquainted with Rachel and Sigrid and their work via Twitter before signing on to this project.

I grew up in Mexico, reading comics and watching sci-fi/fandom shows with the approval of my mom, who also read sci-fi and fantasy novels. So the idea that comics are a "white thing" simply never took hold in my life.

Arturo Garcia Is Comics

Currently I serve as the managing editor for Racialicious.com, where we address questions regarding race, social justice and pop culture; I'm also an editor for The Raw Story, a progressive news site.

Jen Vaughn: I met Rachel via a superhero and feminist craft swap back when she was an assistant editor at Dark Horse, intimidating and awesome. She had a story idea she was playing with and I wanted to draw some comics so we made (my) first comic and zine back in 2008. Rachel even let me stay with her one summer when I interned at Top Shelf. We've been friends ever since, as I went from grad student at the Center for Cartoon Studies, working at the Schulz Library to marketing manager at Fantagraphics while drawing comics on the side! Becky Hawkins and I met at a bunch of different shows over the years. Everyone is new and a welcome bonus to We Are Comics.

Edidin: I spent seven years as an editor at Dark Horse Comics. In February of last year, I quit to go freelance. I write and edit comics and prose, design publishing programs and cover pop culture, science and the intersections of gender and geek culture, mostly for Wired.com.

Jen and met in 2007 via a feminist-themed Craftster swap, made a handful of riot grrrl superhero zines together -- I think technically both of our first "published" comics as creators -- and have stayed in touch ever since. The only person I've known longer is Elle -- she was the intimidatingly-cool-on-a-pedestal-older-sister of a college friend of mine, and we reconnected years later via overlapping Internet circles. I've been following Arturo and Sigrid's work for ages, and have been lucky enough to get to know both of them better in the last couple years -- Arturo, via Twitter; Sigrid, via both her writing and my contribution to the Chicks Dig Comics anthology, which she edited. Becky is a local friend and cartoonist.

Sigrid Ellis: I'm an editor, a writer and an air traffic controller. My air traffic job has a core principles that carries into my other work. If I see a problem, I have to do something about it. I never have the luxury of sitting back while someone else fixes the situation. It is always my job to ensure the safety of the flying public.

I co-edited "Chicks Dig Comics" with Lynne M. Thomas, which is where I met Rachel. I co-edited "Queers Dig Time Lords" with Michael D. Thomas. I was a co-founder of Fantastic Fangirls. When Rachel asked me if I wanted to be a part of We Are Comics, I answered in mere seconds. This is exactly the sort of thing I advocate.

Elle Collins: Despite what she says, before we got to know each other, I always thought of Rachel as my sister's intimidatingly cool college friend who found a career in comics. But either way, I'm glad we got over our mutual intimidation and became friends. I've been an avid comics reader for as long as I've been able to read, but Rachel really inspires me with the way that she applies her politics and her academic background to her work with comics, and geek topics in general. I used to sort of compartmentalize all of these things, like I think a lot of people do, but more recently, I've found ways to synthesize.

My background is in film theory and criticism, and when I got out of Film School, all I wanted to do was take the critical tools I'd gained and apply them to something that I enjoyed more than film (which I was pretty burnt out on in that moment), and that's when I re-embraced comics in a big way, and started to see myself as a comics critic as much as a comics fan. I built a space for doing that, and although it can be tough to find the time in balance with my day job, writing about comics has become one of my favorite things to do. You hear a lot of people in geek circles say that picking something apart critically ruins the fun for them. For me, it's just the opposite -- picking something apart and finding what's going on inside it is my favorite thing to do with the stuff I love.

Elle Collins Is Comics

What is it about this project that makes it so important?

Garcia: Many of our readers at Racialicious, besides being women of color, are also members of fandom communities. And I feel it's important for us as part of a progressive blog to be part of this campaign.

Vaughn: Comics creation is quite small, so you tend to see the same people over and over. But comics readership is much broader; you'll find a variety of people who support and enjoy the same hobbies. The special part of We Are Comics, as with many crowdsourcing projects, is that it gives anyone in the public a voice with which to share their story.

Edidn: As I wrote above, my experience in the comics industry diverges enormously from the comics industry as I think it's popularly perceived. Even much of the coverage that's nominally advocating for diversity -- all those "Where are the women?" "Where are the people of color?" articles -- have the nasty side effect of erasing the fact that women, queers, people of color are already here and always have been, reinforcing the idea that we're somehow Other to comics, making it way easier to write us off as somehow less than "real" as creators and fans. And yes, we need to push for more, but it is unacceptable that that push further marginalizes vulnerable and underrepresented groups. I wanted to do something different. In the same breath, to highlight what exists and agitate for more. More people, more diversity, but also more visibility and more acknowledgement.

I'm going to self-plagiarize and add: In a purely mercenary sense, this is important because comics are limiting themselves into extinction, catering to a target audience that will inevitably die out, that is already doing so. Acknowledging the actual breadth of the actual -- and more, potential -- base of readers and creators is vital to our survival.

But, from a human angle, it's also just the right thing to do. Why wouldn't you want that breadth of representation? That's the question we should be asking.

Ellis: For years, I have been working to increase the voice of folks who have always been a part of various fandoms, yet whose presence is systematically erased, appropriated, marginalized and ignored. It drives me crazy that everything outside of straight-white-man gets classified as Other, as an exception, as somehow not-the-standard. Joanna Russ's How To Suppress Women's Writing came out in 1983, and it is still being practiced today, every day, everywhere. Writer Saladin Ahmed is researching how the Comics Code excised people of color and women from comics. Or, in a historical example, after the death of Genghis Khan, the written records retelling how his daughters ruled wisely and well after him were defaced -- the daughters of the Khan were literally cut from the pages of history by their brothers, lest anyone remember their rule.

It just -- it makes me furious, with the anger that comes from helpless frustration, to see this replaying over and over again. It's an endless tide of privilege supporting privilege to maintain privilege on the unconsenting bodies and minds of most of the world. The world is so much greater, so much wilder and bolder and stronger and smarter than the dominant narrative would have us believe. We lose so much. We lose minds and heart and skills, we lose innovations and discoveries and gifts, gifts of soul and art, we lose those things every hour of every day because we silence The Othered Majority.

Sigrid Ellis Is Comics

What a fucking waste. How much smaller, sadder, weaker and more pathetic we are as humans, because we won't stop privileging straight white men at the expense of every single other person.

Collins: I'm a transgender woman -- part of becoming an activist is that I find myself directly stating this publicly more and more -- and transitioning has had a profound effect on how I interact with fan communities. Even before my transition, I considered myself a feminist and felt that I understood the problem with how women were treated in geek spaces (although it wasn't being discussed as much back then), but it was nevertheless really eye-opening to experience how differently other fans started treating me as soon as they began to see me as female. This is said quite a bit, but from my perspective I can vouch for it being 100% true: If you don't think that women are treated worse than men in comics fandom and the geek community (and, let's be honest, most other spaces), then you've never existed in those spaces as a woman.

Also, as I've gotten more deeply involved in online comics communities, I've encountered such an excitingly diverse array of people who love, write about and work in comics. Other queer and trans folks, people of color, people with disabilities, people on the autistic spectrum. And when the oppressive voices within comics try to Other all of us, it drives me up the wall that they're attempting to erase not just me, but all these other great people who I've met as well. When Rachel asked me to help with this project, it felt like a really direct way to stand up and say, "Hey, we're here, and we matter." And I think comics needs that right now.

What kind of a community are you hoping to build?

Edidin: I want to make it clear that this is a community -- communities, really -- that already exists. I want to see the definition and public face of comics -- as an industry and community -- expand to reflect that, and to invite more of the same, and to create a rallying point for people who are fed up with the exclusionary bullshit that comics have allowed to define them for decades.

In practical terms, we are super grassroots. We're taking a page from Carol Corps and saying that, while we may be a central organizing point, this is a campaign and community that by definition belongs to everyone.

Vaughn: To build? A more inclusive community or, even more, to dissolve the lines and barriers that exist within all the comics community. Everyone is welcome. Comics is like a band bus (I'm thinking of rock folk band, Steeleye Span) where members jump on and off, no one is chided for not knowing "enough" or not engaging in the same way. We all contribute, we all connect. Hell -- -we're promoting literacy! There's room to learn and grow and, of course, be merry.

Ellis: I want to make visible what is already here. I want to make visible the people I see at every convention, the people I talk to on Tumblr and Twitter, the people who submit their fiction to "Apex Magazine." We are here. If we are building anything, it's only the connections between people who might not otherwise know about each other.

Jen Vaughn Is Comics

Elle: While Rachel and Sigrid are right that the diverse community already exists, I feel like it could be bigger and more welcoming. There is all this great stuff going on in comics, but I'm afraid there's a lot of it you'd never know about if you were looking in from the outside. If we can help put a less intimidating face on the comics community, it can only lead to more diversity, which will lead to an even more welcoming public face, and on and on like that.

Garcia: Like Rachel and Sigrid, I look at this project as the latest confirmation that the realms of fandom are far more extensive than the industry has been ready to accept. It wasn't that long ago, after all, that DC Comics was still telling retailers it wanted to target (presumably cis-hetero) men between 18 and 34 with its advertising.

It's important to point out that this problem isn't exclusive to comics; it's rarely mentioned that most of the attendees to early Star Trek conventions were women. And yet, that's been coded as a male-only domain for decades.

What has the response been like so far?

Edidin: So awesome. We've had hundreds and hundreds of responses, with people worrying that theirs didn't get through -- our queue is literally weeks long. And that's just the direct submissions, not including people who've posted in their own space.

Garcia: I think the responses have been great, but ideally, I'd like to see executives at the Big Two either add their own submissions (as we've seen leadership at other publishers do) or outright condemn the kind of misogynist violence we often see when women critique the industry status quo.

Even if they are "a small percentage" of the fanbase, the fact that these types of elements always respond with such vitriol in defense of a comics industry that prioritizes white men as protagonists and white male fans as its clientele should be raising some major flags for DC and Marvel as to what kind of people are out there "protecting" their business practices.

Are Marvel and DC knowingly courting the racist/misogynist/homophobic demographic? Probably not. But a show of condemnation for that behavior would take away that element's biggest argument: That it's defending The Way Things Should Be.

Where do you see the current climate in comics culture, and what types of change/conversations are you hoping to inspire with this project?

Ellis: Gail Simone says this all the time, and I think she's correct. The change is already here. All this racist, misogynist, privilege-soaked bullshit is a lashing out from people who can feel their comfortable position at the center of their world slipping away. What the rest of us need to do is not let their panicked death throes scare us back into silence.

We need to stay visible, keep talking, speak and write and network and communicate. We need to reach out to each other across the unfortunate historical divisions between activist factions. Feminism needs to talk to queer activism needs to talk to anti-racism groups and we need to find our common ground. Where we can't find common ground, we at least need to cover each other's backs.

The change is already here.

Collins: There's so much great stuff going on in comics right now! From "Ms. Marvel" to "Lumberjanes" to "Hip Hop Family Tree" to "Smut Peddler." Unfortunately, there's still this tendency to push everything that's not built for the straight white male demographic out to the margins. And that makes everything feel precarious, like the bottom could drop out at any moment. But there are so many of us now, who are tired of being pushed out, and it's time to push back in.

Garcia: The thing about these types of conversations is, they're a chance for our communities to expand on what it means to be "positive" about comics. Conversations about diversity, about representation -- about remembering to show people even basic respect if you disagree with their critiques, for crying out loud -- are just as necessary for comics fandom to grow and mature as seeing superheroes plastered all over your local multiplex might be.

It's not "negative" to want to expand any of those things. On the contrary, it encourages creators and executives to invest more heavily in non-white, non-male figures, and a reminder to fans who are not white males that they and their communities have worth, too. Because for too long now, we've allowed companies to define "positive" conversations as being about nothing but spending money on the status quo.

What have been some of the most memorable contributions you've received thus far?

Vaughn: You've got to be a fan of the multi-generational ones. Like Mike and Serenity, so proud of her SpongeBob comics! Anyone who did it in their poorly lit bedroom, probably wearing pajamas, they were moved to speak then, and take a picture on the spot.

Edidin: God, all of them. I keep opening our inbox or scrolling through the queue and finding myself in tears. As Jen said, the multigenerational ones are amazing, and the people speaking up for the first time, but the ones I keep grasping for are the publishers who are standing up officially for inclusion and diversity. That the actual gatekeepers of comics are doing that feels really significant to me.

Also, the people comics have made a difference to. Comics have been a huge touchstone for me, something that gave me points of identification I didn't have anywhere else, and I think that's important to see, especially with superheroes, that what they represent matters. These are things that change people's lives -- not always in big dramatic ways, but I think it drives home part of why inclusion is so important.

Collins: On a personal level, I'm always happy to see other trans people. For decades, transgender folks were encouraged (often required, in fact) to sit down and keep quiet about who we are. That's changed a lot in the last decade or so, but it's still incredibly difficult and intimidating to stand up and say, "This is who I am, and I matter," and I'm incredibly proud of the people who manage to take that step.

Ellis: Goodness, I don't know. There's a lot of bravery in the submissions.

I think my favorites are probably from the people who are speaking up for the first time. I have been speaking up for a long time. It gets easier as I go. But the first time, the first six times, the first five years of times -- it's hard to start out. It's hard to find your voice, especially when everything in your world tells you you have nothing to contribute.

So, yeah. Y'all are my favorites, you folks out there clearing your throat, tapping the mic, taking the picture and standing proud. I see you, there. What you say matters. You matter.

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TAGS:  we are comics, rachel edidin, arturo garcia, jen vaughn, sigrid ellis, elle collin

 
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