There were two comics-focused panels on the large 1-E stage Saturday at NYCC: The first was Cup O’ Joe, where several Marvel comics creators got together to discuss upcoming releases that were not related to the superhero line, and the next was DC’s New 52 panel.
One of these panels was much more comfortable to sit through than the other.
At the Marvel panel, announcements were made about an upcoming George Romero comic, along with the re-release of Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman. Both of these announcements were well met with enthusiasm. Equal enthusiasm met talks of the new books coming up for both She-Hulk and Black Widow. When the panel opened up for questions, only one of them was diversity-situated; one fan was eager to know why none of Marvel’s female superheroes were headlining their own films.
“Watch Captain American 2,” they said, most of the panelists smiling.
“That’s still not a headliner—it’s not her name in the title,” the fan insisted.
“Yes, you’re right—but watch Captain America 2.”
Whether they were saying that Black Widow is about to steal the movie from under Cap’s nose, or maybe subtly hinting that the sequel sets up a solo Widow movie, it generated interest. The panel then proceeded to talk about the books for She-Hulk and Agent Romanov that were incoming. They gave the standard “buy these books to let us know you support these characters” spiel, the old vote-with-your-paycheck hat. While nothing new, it was at least vehemently put and to the point.
Frankly, it’s not as though Marvel needs to instruct fans in this vein (a recent article over at Vulture illustrates that point very well)—the all-female X-Men run has received all the attention it rightly deserves, the current FF Fantastic Four team is mostly ladies (and one of them is transgendered), and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run of Captain Marvel has fans dream-casting her movie all over the internet. We’ve got Miles Morales still heading up Ultimate Spider-Man, and Northstar married his boyfriend last year. Diversity is getting closer and closer to law in the Marvel Universe, and it doesn’t seem as though comics fans are balking; tellingly, that one diversity-based question had to do with the Marvel movies, which aren’t doing as fine of a job with representation. Marvel fans have higher standards now, and want the creative teams to know that they’re keen to see more.
When Cup O’ Joe cleared out, the New 52 panel started up, and it all seemed fine until the questions began. The problem became apparent when one fan pointed out that DC had killed off so many of its female/non-straight/ethnically diverse characters recently that it was starting to feel like tokenism to her. Panel moderator John Cunningham, the VP of DC’s marketing, was quick to assure her that tokenism was never the intent of anyone creating these comics… and that the concern was perhaps something that “you [the fan who made this comment] are bringing to the table.”
It was all downhill from there.
I understand that fielding these questions is difficult and supremely awkward from a professional standpoint. But what’s staggering is that the panel did not seem to be expecting them. Considering DC’s current track record and the heat that they’ve been receiving from all corners of the internet over (just lately) Batwoman’s lack of marriage and Harley Quinn’s drawing contest blunder, did it not occur to anyone that fans were going to air their queries in person? Mind you, none of these questions were tactless or angrily voiced—they were all considered, carefully worded, and evenly researched. Cunningham took the task of handling most of them, but his irritation was palpable; none of these questions were responded to with good humor or even the slightest suggestion that they were welcome.
On the flip side of this, practically every question or comment that called attention to diversity was cheered by the very sizable audience at the panel. People cared. They wanted answers, too. One wanted to know why Cyborg seemed like an afterthought in the Justice League, another was curious as to why Wonder Woman’s trousers and awesome leather jacket had been nixed in the New 52. (Although I personally wouldn’t have posed the question with the words “What happened to Wonder Woman’s clothes?” because there is no reason to shame Diana for her awesome thighs.)
The panel became all the more awkward when DC began handing out prizes to fans who asked “good” questions. Not a single person who asked something challenging received an e-reader or a special not-sold-anywhere lithograph. One audience memeber who asked the stock ‘how do I break into comics?’ question received such a prize, along with a fan who wanted to know how it was possible to breathe inside a particular helmet. Cunningham made sure to say, “Now that’s my kind of panel question,” as he handed a prize over, making it abundantly clear that the more challenging questions were aggravating him.
Which is not to say that anyone in a similar position wouldn’t feel harried or put on the spot, but handling those situations with grace could make DC Comics look so much better in the long run. Handing out a prize to someone who posed a less complimentary question would have made DC look mature in the face of criticism, and let fans know that their opinions and concerns were still being heard, even if the company line was to disagree.
When one fan stepped up to point out how few women were employed by DC currently (she had some bonafide statistics at her disposal) and ask what was being done to combat that gap, she was assured that this issue was constantly considered by the people in charge—which is about the party line you’d expect in that scenario, but was now mired by the snippiness in which previous answers regarding diversity had been delivered. Artist Nicola Scott (who notably worked with Gail Simone on Birds of Prey and Secret Six) went on to assure the audience that she had never had difficulties as a woman in the comic industry, and that her experience might have even been better for it. While it is refreshing to know that Scott’s personal career has not been marred by sexist undercurrents, it was an odd assurance to make after that particular question had been raised.
It also had the unfortunate affect of seeming callous in regard to the experiences of other women who have faced sexism in the comics world, and have chosen to be vocal about it. Kelly Sue DeConnick was in a similar position to Scott on Marvel’s Inhumanity panel on the same day—the only woman on a panel of men. But DeConnick has been outspoken about the need for different perspectives in comics, and has never shied away from how difficult the industry can be for female and minority creatives. In the Women of Marvel panel on Sunday, she told the audience, “I think that the message is that no one is ‘other,’ that white males are not the ‘default human being.’” Encouraging words for fans in need of outspoken professionals who want to see everyone’s stories told.
Conventions can be tasking for professionals talking about their work. Fans generally never have problems complaining about what they don’t like, but there are ways to handle criticism in a manner that is productive instead of defensive, especially when dealing with topics as important as inclusion and representation. Assuring fans that their thoughts are being considered, that their concerns are not flat out annoying, that they have every right to want to see themselves reflected in the fiction they love—those are all good starting points. Perhaps the real problem is that DC Comics doesn’t even make the cursory effort to head these questions off at the pass, to give them a place at their table. The Women of Marvel panel was a perfect way for fans with diversity in mind to gather and ask away to group of people who shared their concerns. DC had no similar programming, leaving all those fans with questions with nowhere else to ask them.
It’s time for DC Comics to start thinking ahead. Time for them to make an effort and at least attempt to convey that they care about these issues. If not, they can probably count on more convention experiences just like this one—and they’ll only have themselves to blame.