The recent MoCCA Arts Festival, held in New York City, featured a panel with National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang, who delivered a presentation on his Reading Without Walls Challenge. The panel also focused on areas of diversity that included gender roles and the need for minority authors.
Yang is the creator of the award-winning graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers and Saints. Joining him on the panel were writer Damian Duffy; comics creator Hazel Newlevant, the editor of the gaming-comics anthology Chainmail Bikini; and comics creator Whit Taylor. Jonathan Gray, associate professor of English at John Jay College at CUNY, moderated the panel.
Yang is spending April touring the country to encourage readers to take the three-part Reading Without Walls Challenge: 1) Read a book about a character that doesn’t look or live like them, 2) Read a book about a topic they don’t know anything about, and 3) Read a book in a format they don’t normally read for fun. Readers and others who are involved are encouraged to tweet about the challenge using the hashtag #ReadingWithoutWalls.
This challenge applies as much to adults as to children, Yang said, and maybe even more so. “A lot of us as adults, we figure out where our comfort zone is in the media we consume and the people we hang out with,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but we should go outside that. Especially if you have kids in your life, you need to model that.”
Although he didn’t put it in quite those terms, Duffy went out of his comfort zone when he collaborated with artist John Jennings to adapt Octavia Butler’s acclaimed novel Kindred , a story about traveling back to the time of slavery, into graphic novel format. Aside from the trepidation that comes with adapting a beloved classic, he said, there was also the difficulty of depicting racialized and sexualized violence and the violence of American history.
“None of these things is solved now or easily resolved,” he said. “We still have a lot of trouble talking about it.” He credited his editor, Sheila Keenan, with encouraging and helping him capture the spirit of the novel.
Newlevant spoke of a more positive take on diversity. In Chainmail Bikini, female and nonbinary creators tell stories about their experiences with video games, and most of the stories are about the games the creators loved and the games that shaped their lives, rather than the sexism they experienced. “I think it inherently pushes back against the idea that games are for boys and everyone else can slide in through the cracks in the door,” Newlevant said. “We have as deep relationships with these games as any man does.” At the same time, the anthology format is a useful one for raising the profile of new creators who have not done long-form graphic novels, by making their work widely accessible in a book format.
Taylor said the inspiration for her comic What Is Race? came from the rise of the “alt-right” and scientific racism, trends that have grown in visibility since the 2016 election. The comic, which is published on the political cartooning site the Nib, aims to “deconstruct what we mean when we talk about race,” she said. Her conclusion: “It’s more of a social construct than a biological reality.”
Gray brought up a recent news report of a Marvel Comics executive who claimed that books featuring women and people of color were not selling well, although he challenged that claim: “It turns out, though, if you plot Marvel’s sales, all the books are not selling. So maybe [Marvel should] invest in not having every month be a massive crossover event, and tell standalone stories.” The audience applauded, and Duffy commented, “It honestly reminded me of Whit’s comic a bit, talking about something that’s a social construct as if it was a quantifiable thing.”
“The diversity level is complicated,” said Taylor. “On some level I see a push that’s very surface-level: Let’s include characters that look different but not develop them as characters or stories—not develop nuanced stories," she said. There’s also another systemic issue to contend with in the industry, she said: “People tend to congregate with people they know, people they have been brought up with”—and that extends to the comics industry, where personal relationships often open up opportunities for creators.
For Yang, the path toward diverse comics starts outside the studio. He described the advice he got from his creative writing professor in college, when he was attempting to write about his Catholic faith. “She told me that you should never write about religion directly,” he said. “You should try to live out your faith and then write your life. I think the same advice can apply to diversity. If you try to write about diversity directly, it will come out like a tract. It will come out like you are preaching about something.”
Yang told attendees: “You should try to live a diverse life, and then write out your life, because then it’s no longer clean. It will have tattered edges, because it will be lived. It will be like a well-worn T-shirt as opposed to something that you just bought at a store, and it will feel more authentic that way.”