“You Can be Mythic!” Ta-Nehisi Coates, Steven Orlando, and Tee ‘Vixen’ Franklin Discuss Race, Sexuality, and Representation in Comics

Thursday night New York Comic-Con hosted “Race & Sexuality: A Conversation”. Moderated by CUNY professor Jonathan Gray, the panel included indie comics writer and publisher Tee “Vixen” Franklin, Steve Orlando, who has written for DC’s Supergirl and Midnighter as well as Image’s Virgil, and Ta-Nahesi Coates, whose run on Marvel’s Black Panther has shaken up the world of Wakanda.

The room was absolutely packed, but more than that, the audience was engaged. Every joke got an explosion of laughter, many comments were meant with spontaneous applause, and when Q&A time came, the line reached the back of the room (not all of them made it up to the mic) and each question was probing and thoughtful—too thoughtful, since many of them were outside the scope of what could be covered in a single panel.

Gray told us that this was not only Coates’ first time on a comics panel, it was his first-ever Comic-Con! Coates assured us, “I felt right at home, as soon as I saw Luke Cage over there,” waving to a great classic Luke Cage cosplayer.

Gray kicked off by asking Coates about the reception of the Midnight Angels—Aneka and Ayo, two Dora Milaje warriors who have left their traditional roles and become fugitives together. While the crowd cheered at their mention, Coates self-deprecatingly joked, “If you see people on the internet who love it, you can’t tell if it’s the same 20 people.”

On why he was drawn to these characters, Coates said: “Many of the male figures in T’challa’s life had been killed. So the only people who were left in his life were women, like the Dora Milaje, and their story was told through his eyes. I was interested in what the perspective might be of a person who’d given up their entire life to protect one man—I mean, they address that man as “Beloved.” What about their love for themselves? What about their love for each other? Now that the social contract in Wakanda is fraying, what will happen to those feelings?” Coates further talked about Ayo and Aneka becoming lovers, and said “I think if you check yourself, you can open yourself to everybody’s worldview. You don’t have insert Black people, you don’t have to insert queer people, insert women—they’re already all around you.”

Gray then turned to Orlando, asking him to talk about writing “audacious queer comics” for a mainstream publisher. Orlando replied that while he expected a lot of “discomfort” when he pitches storylines, “I never put anything into the book that we wouldn’t see Dick Grayson do. It’s interesting the reaction—when I was 12, I probably shouldn’t have been reading the things I was—but Kevin Smith had Green Arrow going down on Black Canary on panel! So my stuff is pretty tame… queer characters should be able to do everything straight couples do.”

Gray turned next to Franklin and asked her to speak to her role as an independent publisher. She replied by talking about the need to go beyond pat calls for “diversity” in comics: “I’m a queer, disabled, woman of color—and I want to see myself in comics. But if I want it, I have to make it. You have to put your time into it, your money behind it, push, get the word out!” She continued, saying, “it’s not ‘diversity’—it’s real life. Look at this crowd.” She waved to us, indicating the mashup of races, genders, and cosplay choices in the room. “Diversity is such a buzzword, but it’s real life. It’s you, it’s someone who’s queer, someone who’s schizophrenic…” Franklin talked a bit about her work curating comics anthologies that deal with mental health issues, and reminded us, “It’s not just the Big Two out there!”

In discussing Steven Orlando’s Image series Virgil, the panel ended up touching on a controversial topic in the literary world right now: should writers tell any story they want regardless or race or cultural experience? Or should people stick to writing what they know? Orlando chose to write Virgil, the story of a Black, queer Jamaican man, because he wanted to look at his own experience of queerness through the eyes of another culture. He compared it explicitly with two unlikely inspirations: Django Unchained and Die Hard.

“The whole media thing around Django… so many people said it was ‘risky’, but I think it should have been bolder. It’s not risky to say racism is bad—if you disagree with that then you’re an asshole! If they wanted to be risky, Django should have been hunting for his husband instead of his wife.” Orlando continued “I think everything can be a version of Die Hard—why can’t John McClane be going after his husband? You can be queer and be John McClane.” (This met with possibly the largest cheer of the night.)

Orlando further explained that when working on his book, he asks himself “How do I feel about representation? How do I feel about people who aren’t queer writing queer characters? I looked at what I want from straight writers, and how I would want them to understand the responsibility of that work.” It is with this same mentality that he approaches writing from a cultural perspective other than his own.

Franklin talked about her Twitter project, #blackcomicsmonth, in which she highlighted black comics creators each day of Black History Month, “…but there are more than 28 black comics creators! So I just kept going with it.” Franklin ended up setting up panels of Black comic creators, and is now working on a project to create an Afrofuturist comics anthology, which will be on Kickstarter in 2017.

The audience questions touched on a myriad of issues. There was a bit of a debate about the upcoming Roxane Gay comic World of Wakanda, which will continue the story of the Midnight Angels. Franklin pointed out that rather than finding someone “in-house” Marvel chose to bring a writer in from the literary world. Coates said that by that logic he shouldn’t be writing Black Panther, and Franklin assured him that she loved his work, and looked forward to Gay’s, but that she wanted to point out that mainstream publishers seem to see women of color who were already creating in the comics world. Gray added, “It’s fine to hire from outside, G. Willow Wilson and Marjorie Liu came in from outside, but those other voices should already be there!”

A man of Romany descent pointed out how often the Romany people are cast as “Gypsies” and stereotyped, and asked what they felt they could do about issues like that. Orlando replied, “We can operate in our sphere, and create characters that don’t fit into stereotypes. When I see people being underserved I try to give them a face, and I do it as much as possible. It’s on us as writers, because these decisions are not going to be made top-down—we have to show people that the stereotypes are untrue.”

When asked how writers can change the dialogue so that “we see more intersectionality” Coates was quiet for a moment, saying, “When I was 9 or 10 and started reading comics, Marvel was by far the most diverse thing I’d ever seen. It struck me in a particular way and made me feel at home. So when I write I try to think about what the next frontier is, but right now… I’m always debating in my head about art’s real ability to change things and change people.”

But the next question came from a professor who assigns Coates’ Black Panther to his Remedial English class at Queensborough Community College, and his students love it and are reading avidly because of it, so that should probably assuage some of Coates’ worry. The professor asked about action figures, and while the writers had no real say in that aspect of the comics world, Orlando said, “The big issue is that when you’re young, you want to see yourself. No child should ever have to disconnect and think that they can’t be the star of their own imaginations. And you don’t want to get in the way of anyone knowing that they can be the hero of their own story. No matter how mundane your life might be, you can be fantastic, mythic.”

And the panel ended on a note that underlined just how important these stories can be. When the panel was asked for their own origin stories as comics readers, Franklin said that it was Captain Marvel that did it. After going through a traumatic time in her own life, she read Avengers #200. “That book is why I’m here today—here meaning alive. I couldn’t handle what had happened to me, but watching Carol Danvers handle it helped me. It saved my life.”

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