The 16th annual Black Panel hosted by Milestone founder and creator, Michael Davis, opened up in black at Comic-Con International 2014 -- no, really, the whole room was covered in darkness due to a power issue. After about a minute of darkness, Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" blasted from the sound system as Tatiana El-Khouri introduced panelists Cree Summer, Orlando Jones, J. August Richards, Erika Alexander, Kevin Grevioux, R&B sensation Ne-Yo, and Michael Davis, who approached the Podium in a black leather jacket and matching Kango.
Davis, began with his usual jokes as he recounted a moment from last year's Black Panel, during which Orlando Jones said to him, "The power of social media, and the power of the thing we do like the Black Panel, which isn't about the power of promoting new things, but about the power of how we reach people is what this is all about."
Stopping mid-sentence, Davis whipped off his glasses and posed for the photographer. The room erupted with laughter and as if on cue, he leaned back towards the podium and finished his statement, "When cable TV got big, black people came to cable TV late because we couldn't afford it -- but then again, after awhile we figured out how we didn't need to afford cable. … The power of community and the power of how to reach people along with that of diversity is why for the first time on the Black Panel you see three women sitting up here."
A roaring cheer emitted from the crowd as Erika Alexander threw up her hand. "If it were up to me it would nothing but women sitting up here on the Black Panel and it would be held in a Hyatt Suite," said Davis, not missing a beat.
Already used to Davis' joking candor, both Alexander and the crowd laughed. Moving on, Davis turned to the crowd and -- without any humor in his voice -- said, "The Black Panel is really about achieving a place where people who want to be the Next Orlando Jones," he said. "Who wants to be the next Orlando Jones? Where people who want to be the next Tatiana, who completely showed up at the Black Panel one day and now she's responsible to single-handedly getting the film 'Dark Girls' on the Oprah Network. This all started when she sat in the audience and that's what the panel is all about."
Davis opened up the floor for questions from the audience, reminding everyone that the panel was about them more than about him and his fellow panelists.
The first question came from a young woman who asked, "What do you think we all can do as a diaspora to work together in order to spread diversity?"
Richards said the young woman was a friend that he met at a previous con, which sent the room into a cheering frenzy. Once the applause died down, Richards directly addressed the query.
"As you know my family is from Panama, I grew up in a Spanish speaking household where I'm happy to represent West Indians, I'm happy to represent Black Hispanics in the work that I do -- as well as African Americans since I grew up here in America as an African-American," Richards said, "but the stories could include characters from all over the diaspora, which they don't right now, we have Storm of course and the Black Panther."
"I think the thing that people can do is represent themselves," Jones added. "In representing yourself, representing your family, representing what you know you can tell the most accurate, the most authentic story about your experience and experiences that are native to you. I think in doing so you automatically spread diversity."
Grevioux address a question about how the inclusion of African-American characters has further advanced Comic-Con and the panelists' careers.
"I think a lot of blacks and Hispanics' entry into the comic book world is really what has inspired the proliferation about more and diverse characters," Grevioux said. "I've been going to Comic-Con since I was 12 -- even though everyone looks at me and sees movie guy, I'm really a comic guy, and that's what I really started creating with. It's you people that have inspired me to create more African-American characters; that's why I created the Blue Marvel for Marvel [comics]."
The topic of Falcon becoming the new Captain America was brought up, leading the panel to address how far the African-American community has gotten to reaching the point of being identified as creative talent, rather than specifically Black creative talent. "I've been very lucky to play so many super heroines and so many characters that are not African-American," said Crew Summer. "I get to play white boys, inanimate objects. In regards to animation I find myself representing everyone."
"The representation in music is great," Ne-Yo added. "There's still some segregation in music, but it's different because nowadays high school kids are just listening to music, they don't care where it comes from, what you look like, they just want music. As far as comics are concerned it's in a good place but it's not in a great place. I feel like the 'Man of Steel' still comes off gimmicky, which is what we have to get away from, and again that just comes from the diversity of people that come to Comic-Con and letting it be known that we want more representation."
Jones fielded a question about how young creative talent can get their work out in front of other people. "You can shoot video on your phone, you can edit video on your phone, you can upload video you shot to the internet right now; so your ability to put your message out there is not being hindered by anyone, it's getting others to participate," Jones said. "Trust me, if you watch it and you create an audience people with money will show up."
"I feel like if we can take the emphasis off the racial element and make it about good quality then people will pay attention to it," Ne-Yo added.
At some point a fan's question to Richards about his credits (or lack thereof) in-between "Angel" and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." had the actor up and out of his seat, stating "That's a lie!" He continued to run down a list of shows to which he had starred in such as "CSI: Miami," "Conviction," "Raising the Bar," "The 4400," "Warehouse 13," "Farewell," as well as a list of current shows before he dropped the proverbial mic, and then walked to the podium and dropped the real mic before returning to his seat. The room went crazy with a standing ovation.
The panel also addressed a question about the lack of younger African-American teen comic characters. In response, Davis expounded on the creation of the Milestone character Static Shock, saying the character was what would it be like if "Spider-Man was Black and cooler?" He further explained that Hollywood's disconnect with the creation of similar characters for a young audience doesn't come from a lack of creators pitching ideas, but from those decision-makers who don't get it.
"My husband and I started out making a comic book with no idea how to really go about it," said Alexander. "But we believed in ourselves and so we created 'Concrete Park,' which is a story that involves young people modeled after the city of God."
The event ended with Jones previewing a new emoticon app iROC Emoticons, which is to be a series of cultural emoticons with uplifting messages for all the cultures of the world.
The Black Panel lived up to its creed by offering up sound business and creative advice that any aspiring creator no matter the medium could use to push themselves forward towards an industry that is slowly looking to diversify its characters and stories.