By Guest Contributor Kendra James
Before we get to criticisms, let’s start on a positive note: Overall, I loved attending New York Comic Con this past weekend. Entrenched in one giant convention center with my fellow geeks, I was mostly able to ignore the fact that most of us had no way to contact the outside world…or the friends we got separated from in the massive crowds.
Waiting in line for panels was actually the best way to escape the crowds at NYCC which seemed to take over all of midtown Manhattan (I was nearly hit by a van on 10th Ave driven by what looked like Daenerys and Spider-Man) and, as suspected, Saturday’s panels proved most exciting. Here’s a brief wrap up of two major panels and some general NYCC news and observations for those who weren’t able to attend:
Hip-Hop and Comics Cultures Colliding
- “We’re starting on time,” said Patrick Reed, moderating the Hip-Hop and Comics panel, “which might be a first for a hip-hop event in NYC.” The panel featured Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels, Pete Rock, Johnny ‘Juice’ Rosado, and Adam Wallenta who were seated for the beginning of the panel. They were joined later by Ron Wilson, Ron Wimberly, and Jean Grae–but the panel did start on time.
- Darryl McDaniels started, proving to be a master storyteller as he related his personal evolution from a nerdy kid who identified with Peter Parker to a member of RUN DMC who ended up selling his comic-book collection for DJing equipment. The audience receieved quite a few long and hilarious stories from McDaniels, who unfortunately had to leave about twenty minutes early.
- “We were like the X-Men of hip-hop, being from Long Island,” Rosado explained at one point. “We were outcasts.” Yet, Rosado insisted, the borough of Long Island changed the way people looked at hip-hop the way the X-Men changed the way people looked at comics.
- McDaniels tied into the point well later, pointing out that one of the reasons that Marvel was so successful was its basis in the reality of New York City. Without fictional locales like Metropolis and Gotham to fall back on, Marvel heroes “repped” New York City in the same way rappers used to “rep” their hometowns (McDaniels was quick to emphasize the past tense of his point, also saying that one of the reasons hip-hop isn’t the same today as it was is because rappers don’t care about being positive representatives of where they’re from anymore).
- Thinking of the obvious connections, I was expecting someone to mention the Static Shock cartoon of my childhood right from the start. There was a comic turned into a fairly mainstream cartoon whose hero really did fight to a hip-hop beat. According to Johnny Rosado, that’s the way it was intended. After envisioning the Public Enemy crew as a sort of Avengers or X-Men of the rap world, he realized he needed to do his part by “kicking [the listener’s] ass with scratching.” He thought of himself as an comic artist, except his ‘panels’ were Public Enemy’s verses and hooks.
- Jean Grae reveals that she literally grew up above a comic book store, which was the cause of so much of her geekiness as a kid (she read Love and Rockets at a “too early” age). Like Rosado, she allowed comic panels to influence her rapping. Lacking the money for videos when started putting out albums, she knew that her writing had to be visual enough to hold a new listener’s attention. In other words, her lyrics needed to illustrate the panels because they didn’t have a video camera to do so.
- It became easier to visually notice the connection between rap and comics when new styles of art started to seep into the books in the 1990s. The change was obvious when the Kirby- and Romita-like style that had dominated books since the early golden era became peppered with panels from other artists that had clear graffiti and other non-white (manga mentioned specifically) influences.
- As graffiti artists tagged walls around New York City, the heroes of comics always had a tag before their names. McDaniels talked about how hearing the names the Incredible Hulk and the Amazing Spider-Man influenced rappers who were trying to choose memorable names. As Batman and Robin became The Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder, Afrika Bambaataa became Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, and Grandmaster Flash became Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Jam Master Jay’s name came only after McDaniels realized the connection and actually wrote Jay a theme song of sorts, based on the superhero cartoon themes of the 1970s. Pete Rock looked to different superheroes’ attributes to inspire his persona, telling us that he took the Hulk’s strength and applied it to his own drive.
- One of the best contributions came from Ron Wimberly, who admitted that he was “miffed when his book was labeled as a hip-hop book” because that’s not what he was setting out to do and, if anything, The Prince of Cats was more Shakespearean than anything else. However, after sitting on the panel he said he realized that it all just came back around to the art of sampling. Like Jay-Z sampling a hook from Annie, comic books often sample from other genres (whether they can admit to it or not) and mold those samples to fit in to a comic’s constraints. Wimberly goes into this in more detail than the panel’s constraints allowed over at Comics Alliance.
- The panel finished with brief mentions of two topics that I wish they’d had time to get into in more detail: Reed acknowledged the problematic aspects of only having one female on the panel and pointed out that both hip-hop and comics are industries where the female voice is downplayed and not taken as seriously. This was followed by the assertion that, like many hero-origin stories, hip-hop was born partially in violence (via street gangs) but that history is always conveniently forgotten when the stories are being cleaned up and presented to American audiences.
Teen Wolf Panel (w/Tyler Posey and Jeff Davis)
- A bit of background out of fairness: I went into the panel not looking forward to having to interact with diehard Teen Wolf fans who reside in a fandom where hating on the main character, dismissing him with ableist slurs, and telling fans of color to stop “creating” racewank is common place. While I wasn’t overly impressed with the focus on the shipping campaign for characters Derek and Stiles (known as ‘Sterek’) towards the beginning of the panel, there were a few great questions asked during the Q&A that slightly restored my faith in humanity.
- I sat with a friend of mine to my left, a Latina on my right who was a die-hard fan of main character Scott McCall and with a group of Sterek fans behind me who were giggling and referring to Scott as “retarded” before anyone even walked out on stage. I knew I was in for an interesting hour.
- Many of the fans showed up in unofficial character lacrosse jerseys and hoodies, though none of them were wearing Scott’s. Tyler Posey calling them out made for the first slightly awkward moment of the panel.
- Maybe a fourth of the audience was vocally against the idea posed by the moderator that every fan is “married” to the idea of characters Stiles Stilinski and Derek Hale being featured as a couple.
- The biggest news out of the panel for me was when the show’s creator Jeff Davis revealed that one of the women in the main villain group for S3 is a character named Kali. The show is going to center around Celtic and Druid mythology for S3 (as confirmed by Davis), but he was quick to specify that the character of Kali is named after the Hindu goddess. Breakdowns for the characters aren’t up at my regular source yet–Davis said they should run sometime this week or next–but if this role goes to a white woman, all hope really is lost.
- One of the themes of season three was revealed to be the women of the show “finding their power.” I would think that to do this they have to acknowledge how the female characters have been consistently manipulated by the men around them…but that wasn’t mentioned, so we’ll see where that goes.
- The first Q&A question came from a bisexual fan who first emphasized how important it is to have well-written bisexual characters on television and followed up by asking if they would follow through with a bisexual Stiles plot-line since it’s occasionally been teased. I enjoyed that Davis’ answer included the defense line “one of my best friends is bisexual.”
- My favorite question started with, “I am sick of seeing white dudes coming out over and over again,” and ended asking Davis if he would be focusing on Danny Mahealani and his sexuality rather than Stiles and Derek. Here an interesting conundrum was broached: one of the best and most prevalent arguments against the focus on Stiles and Derek as a LGBTQ power couple in media representation is the fact that it erases the presence of Danny, a side character on the show who is gay and also happens to be a PoC (native Hawaiian). If fans shipping Stiles and Derek actually cared about the representation of the LGBTQ community on television, wouldn’t they be repping for the show’s only gay character? Danny was more of a background character during the first season but was more involved in season two as Jackson Whitmore’s best friend. However, it was confirmed this weekend that Colton Haynes who plays Jackson (and Kanye West in blackface!) won’t be coming back for season three. That seemingly limits Danny’s character, as Jackson was his main connection to the group. When answering the question Davis seemed to hint that Danny’s involvement in the next season might decrease, which would leave a hole in the greatly lauded supposed LGBTQ representation on the show.
- Overall, this panel made me long for the day when this sort of show (the campy paranormal teen drama) becomes more inclusive both racially and sexually and a PoC is sitting in Jeff Davis’ seat.
- As I’d hoped, the Marvel Now! Avengers panel featured writer Jonathan Hickman talking more about the diversity in his new Avengers series. During the Q&A someone asked a direct question which essentially reflected what Arturo pointed out here. Hickman’s answer varied a bit from his last quote, starting on the Avengers film: “You start with a movie that was five white guys and a white lady, and you’ve got to add Wolverine and Spidey in there because we like money.” Concerning his new series, he added, “Well, over half are new characters that we’ve introduced that are what you’re asking for.” followed by, “I think you’re going to be happy as we move forward with this stuff.” I’m not sure how reassured this makes me, but we’ll see what happens as issues hit the shelves. For coverage of the entire panel check here.
- The idea of cons a safe space for all types of nerds in attendance is an idea I always harbor until I arrived at the Con and have to listen to someone who thinks they’re clever wax poetic over the differences between “Normal Cosplay” and “Fat Cosplay.” If any readers attended the weight-loss panel on Saturday or have any body-image experiences of their own from the weekend that they’re comfortable with sharing, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
- In more actual comic news : DC has canceled Blue Beetle…Marvel’s Ant-Man movie has a release date while we’re still not getting a Black Panther film…Kieron Gilliam’s Young Avengers run replaces Patriot with Miss America Chavez while also adding Kid Loki and Noh-Var (Diversity: there can only be one… and aliens!)…the first volume of Brian K Vaguhn’s Saga is out on October 23rd (though some stores already have it on the shelves). Along with that I’d recommend trying to get your hands on Ron Wimberly’s The Prince of Cats that was mentioned in the hip-hop panel above.
- Also on the cosplay note: that white Luke Cage featured on ComicsAlliance and Kotaku this weekend was actually wandering around with me for a good deal of Friday. (Full disclosure: he’s on my lease). As the sole PoC in that group of friends, I was the unofficial barometer of “Is This Offensive?” while they filmed a Youtube satire. Admittedly, my ideas on white cosplayers appropriating Black characters are ever-changing but, as cosplay becomes more and more popular, I think it’s an important discussion to continue having. Should a little white girl be allowed to dress as Korra (and, boy, were there a lot of them!) if Korra is her absolute favorite character? I think so because I’m a Black girl whose favorite character was Belle from Beauty And The Beastwhen I was five. The circumstances are different obviously: as a young Black child I don’t have nearly the variety of characters who look like me to choose as my favorite and, out of those few who I do have, an even smaller number are bookish and imaginative like Belle. And, of course, this stems from years of state and societal sanctioned oppression. That said, I always try to be open minded about these things because cosplay is supposed to be about paying homage to your favorite characters, and sometimes you just can’t help who your favorites are. As long as it’s done without offensive racial attributes added in addition to the costume it should be fine. On the other hand, there will always be a part of me that wonders why, out of the hundreds of characters created that cater specifically to them, they had to choose someone that belongs to us.
If your NYCC schedule wasn’t specifically tailored to be an experience where you were exposed to a diverse range of race, gender, and sexuality topics, then it was likely that you simply wouldn’t be. It’s not uncommon, but for the average NYCC attendee the Con was about as white and heteronormative as a CBS sitcom. Given that I was purposely attending varied panels I didn’t experience this as much as Sue of DC Women Kicking Ass, who tweeted that she’s considering calling her own Con writeup, “What room is the straight, white, male comic fan panel in?” She points out that to hear anything about diversity in comics (race, sexuality, gender, or otherwise) or see diverse panelists, she had to attend panels that were specifically about those subjects. Overwhelmingly, these issues weren’t addressed at the larger, company-based panels, meaning that many readers are allowed to escape and gloss over topics that should be spoken about among a wider (White) audience.
How do we fix this in the long run? Is the answer creating a PoC-focused con as Arturo once suggested? Is it a matter of more outlets like Racialicious pitching panels at large conventions? Or is it just a larger problem within the comic industry in general that remains out of our hands? While I would love to see more race- and sexuality-themed specific discussions at NYCC, the burden of exposure shouldn’t fall only onto the backs of the oppressed minorities. Nor should be we regulated to only our own hourlong panels.
In the end NYCC, and any Con, is the experience you want it to be. In choosing the panels and signings you want to go to, you’re tailoring a personal fandom experience. It’s unfortunate that we’re still at a point where it’s entirely possible to tailor an experience that doesn’t require you to think beyond the Straight White Male’s box of tricks. Or, as I like to call it, The Avengers.