In a discussion during the “Women in Comics” panel, held at the Los Angeles Public Library’s Vernon Branch last weekend, five female comics creators examined the current state of gender equality and overall diversity in the comics industry.
Diversity has been an important theme for the publishing and pop culture industries in recent years, from numerous conversations at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference to the ongoing advocacy of We Need Diverse Books.
Indeed, the demand for diversity and the changing demographics of the comics industry and fan culture in general—particularly the increase in female fans and professionals—is driving the programming and booming attendance at comics festivals and pop culture conventions around the country.
This LAPL-hosted panel expanded on that discussion, turning a critical eye toward diversity in comics material and comic book publishing.
Panel organizer and young adult librarian Corinda Humphrey recalled how her grandmother worked in Disney animation in the 1930s—a time when male and female creators were literally kept separate. “They were not to be fraternizing with the men,” Humphrey explained. “And they didn’t let women [write] story.”
While many of these institutional boundaries have since been lifted, the panel examined the ways that other subtle discriminatory measures have left a lasting mark on future generations of women. Panelist Sarah Kuhn, the creator of Heroine Complex, a DAW Books series about Asian American superheroines, recalled how gender and ethnic boundaries restricted her imagination.
“I didn’t see a lot of Asian American women, especially mixed Asian American women, ever being main characters, if they were even there at all,” she explained. “Growing up, I didn’t know I could be a main character, because I never saw it. Subconsciously, I made myself a sidekick in my own life.”
Christina Strain, a Korean-American colorist and writer that works on the Marvel series Runaways and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, said that growth of diversity in the industry helped pave the way for her to work on the award-winning projects: “All these things I’ve been able to do came from the fact I’ve worked with diverse teams. We all wanted to see a little bit of ourselves in it. That makes a huge difference.”
While working as a writer on the Syfy Network’s adaptation of Lev Grossman's novel The Magicians, Strain pitched three Korean characters for the first episode. Without her presence on the writing team, she said, the show’s producers would never have considered creating those characters.
Cecil Castelluci, writer on DC Entertainment’s relaunch of the comics series Shade, the Changing Girl, reminded the panel’s attendees that fans can ensure that comic book publishers include diverse characters in their products. When readers love a character or series, they need to “support it, support it, support it!” she explained.
The increasing popularity of book format comics—graphic novels—is also helping to support diversity, Castellucci said. She outlined how fan input at a crucial stage in the monthly periodical comics publishing cycle can help save a series.
“Monthly comic book sales [tend to] dwindle after the first issue sales. But they get a boost when collected into a graphic novel,” she explained, highlighting the importance of trade paperback sales for up-and-coming voices and new series.
“A comics series can be tanking after the first few issues in a monthly comic book, but [the publisher] will wait to see before they cancel it,” Castellucci explained, in order to see how the monthly series will do once collected in trade paperback.
Comic book veteran Strain agreed, sharing a story from her own career about the growing importance of book format comics: “Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane survived for the many years it did purely because people bought trade [book collections].”
Despite the industry’s long history of excluding minorities and women, Kuhn also acknowledged that great strides had been made toward more diversity in comics. But she cautioned that it’s not enough to simply have diverse characters. “We also need to look at the other side, so we can see diverse creators who are writing their own stories,” Kuhn said.
Panelist Talya Perper, the writer behind the Steven Universe: Anti-Gravity graphic novel from Boom! Studios, encouraged young creators to take the diversity problem into their own hands.
“If you notice there’s no character representing what you represent, you have to make it. You just have to do it,” she concluded.