Comic-Con International: San Diego ran July 17–21 at the San Diego Convention Center, with its usual extravagant combination of artists
presentations, mass fandom, and promotional events. This year’s event was the 50th San Diego Comic-Con, and there was also a string of new programming to mark the occasion, which served as a reminder of how much comics and popular culture have changed since the first show in 1970.
The 1970 SDCC attracted about 300 fans; the 50th iteration welcomed more than 130,000. The show, and the industry itself, has evolved from being dominated by the superhero genre and a male fan base to a global showcase for pop culture. The North American comics industry must now respond to a market that includes women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community—a demographic mix only beginning to assert itself at the convention. The biggest changes in comics storytelling are being led by these marginalized fans, and the next 50 years will be driven by the stories that they care about.
One of the panels concerning social change in comics publishing was “Friends of Lulu: We Changed Comics,” a session marking the 25th anniversary of the now-defunct organization and celebrating the impact of its committed group of women founders, who fought ingrained misogyny and sexism in comics publishing and retail during the early 1990s. The panel showcased the “founding mommies” of FOL—including editor and writer Aninna Bennett; editor and Eisner Awards administrator Jackie Estrada; Heidi MacDonald, editor-in-chief of the comics news blog The Beat and a cohost of PW’s More to Come podcast; cartoonist Lee Marrs; cartoonist and comics historian Trina Robbins; and former FOL board member Liz Schiller—and revisited FOL’s beginnings.
After an initial meeting of about 30 women in 1993, FOL incorporated in 1994. The name is taken from the comics strip Little Lulu, created by Marjorie Henderson Buell in 1935, and is about the antics of its young heroine, who always outsmarted the boys.
Robbins described the comics industry in the early 1990s as “openly hostile to women and girls.” The prevailing—and erroneous—belief among male retailers and publishers of the time, she said, was that “girls don’t read comics, so publishers didn’t want comics that featured or appealed to women.” She added, “It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
According to Bennett, the goal in creating FOL was to build a “friendly but subversive organization to challenge these biases, but the industry still thought we were a bunch of man-hating feminazis.”
FOL went to the conventions and documented the numbers of women attending and which comics they read, collecting data to refute anti-female attitudes. “We were out to prove them wrong,” MacDonald said, which is exactly what they did. But even when presented with data showing women read and buy comics,“publishers just wouldn’t believe us,”MacDonald said.
FoL forged ahead creating a retailers handbook cleverly entitled How to Get Girls (Into Your Store) in 1997, which offered common sense customer service advice to clueless male retailers. FoL organized panels to showcase talented female creators, and published a regular newsletter as well as a series of anthologies of women comics creators, including Friends of Lulu Presents: Story (2001), Broad Appeal (2003), and The Girls Guide to Guy Stuff (2007). FoL founded the Lulu Awards to recognize female creators, because, Robbins said, “women couldn’t get an award from the guys.”
“It was great to be at the Friends of Lulu booth at conventions and have girls and young women come up to us,” Marrs said. “They could see that these comics were made for them.”
The “Expanding the Black Comics Canon” panel brought together a group of young and old, black and mixed-race creators, offering their perspectives on creating comics with African-American readers in mind. Panelists included David Walker, a veteran black comics writer and cocreator of Bitter Root (with artist Sanford Greene), a paranormal adventure series set in 1930s Harlem. Young artists on the panel included Ebony Flowers—author of Hot Comb, a debut collection of stories partly focused on black women’s hair, as well as on race and class—and Ezra Claytan Daniels, whose new graphic novel BTTM FDRS (with artist Ben Passmore) explores gentrification, race, and cultural appropriation.
The panel suggested that there’s a generational division: young book-focused artists such as Flowers and Daniels operate outside traditional superhero comics, unlike longtime superhero work-for-hire artists such as panelist Alitha Martinez. Martinez is a pioneering female Afro-Latinx illustrator who has worked in the comics industry for 20 years. But, she said, “I’m as invisible now as when I started.” She used the panel to retell a litany of indignities, including being made to illustrate black and female comics characters in a manner that emphasized sex appeal. Indeed, she noted, after 20 years working on major comics characters, this was the first year that she had been invited to SDCC.
“I’m still fighting an uphill battle,” Martinez said. “No one asks me what I want to work on.” She also embraced the freedom and accomplishments of Daniels and Flowers, who in turn recognized Martinez’s struggles, praising her for paving the way for minority artists to publish what they choose.
Pop culture is being transformed by technology and new business models—such as streaming media, digital content, and crowdfunding—and all of these category-changing trends were represented in one way or another in the programming featured at this year’s SDCC. The annual Publishers Weekly panel, “New Publishers, New Plans,” (organized by Heidi MacDonald), offered a look at the future of the comics publishing business models, using six new or expanded publishing programs as examples.
Panelist Ted Adams left his post as CEO of indie comics house IDW Publishing to start Clover Press. Adams said he was burned-out running a large public company. Clover, he added, will be a “progressive, eclectic boutique” house with a small list backed up with marketing. By eclectic, Adams noted, he means that he will experiment with a variety of models, and Clover will be a direct-to-consumer venture, using crowdsourcing and direct sales to build an audience audience before offering its titles to the direct market or the book trade. Also, he emphasized, no periodical comics, “the comics shop market is oversaturated with floppies.”
Andrew Arnold, editorial director of HarperAlley, HarperCollins new graphic novel imprint, and Liz Frances, founder of Street Noise Books, are both offering graphic novels in the traditional publishing model—author copyright, advances and royalties—but with separate approaches. HarperAlley expands the category at a Big Five publisher and Arnold will focus on middle-grade, YA, and, despite being a part of HarperCollins Children’s Books, adult graphic novels. Panelist Liz Frances, a former book designer and founder of Street Noise Books, is working with new artists to develop graphic nonfiction and #OwnVoices memoirs from artists who are from marginalized communities, such as people of color and LGBTQ artists.
Panelists Sebastian Girner of TKO Studios and Stuart Moore of Ahoy Comics are both looking to transform how comics are published. TKO produces “elevated genre works,” Girner said, and bypasses the book trade and direct market distribution, selling its titles directly to consumers and direct market retailers. But TKO also offers a “binge” model: each of its initial series are available immediately in all formats—periodicals, digital, or trade paperback. “There’s a market for people who don’t want to go to comics stores,” Girner said.
Moore, one of the original editors at DC’s pioneering Vertigo imprint, described the Ahoy Comics list as a “funny Vertigo,” offering a list of unusual and humorous genre comics.
Panelist Tyler Chin-Tanner, publisher of A Wave Blue Press, is offering a model that combines the direct market release of periodicals with book collections. AWBP was founded in 2005 and is now focused on original graphic novels, anthologies, and art books. The publisher is launching what it calls its premier line. The first issue of each series in the line will be released in print with additional material. The rest of each limited five- or six-issue series will be released in digital, then collected in a trade paperback collection of the series two months later.
Speaking on the black comics panel David Walker, who has self-published, worked for DC and Marvel and published in the book trade, offered a vision of the future that included artist run self-publishing. Walker is also the founder Solid Comix, a crowdfunded publishing platform, that will release some of his works.
“When you publish with DC or Marvel you’re a sharecropper. You don’t own anything you’re working on. If it’s not a hit it will be cancelled, even if you’ve put years of work into it. “Self publishing gives you a lot control and you don’t have to pitch your work to someone who doesn’t get it.”
To illustrate, Walker told the audience about a white editor who said to him, “I don’t get it. Why do the white supremacists hate black people? Can you explain that?” Astonished, Walker declined to explain, and the conversation with the editor got “ugly,” he said. “If you own your book project, you can nurse it and keep it in print as long as you want—and there’s no one saying stupid things to you.”