Geeks of Color Go Pro! Diversity and Careers in Geek Culture at NYCC

Last year’s Geeks of Color Assemble panel was a highlight of NYCC 2013! A packed room discussed the ways race and gender are represented in comics, cosplay, and geek culture in general.

This year, super-moderator Diana Pho has gathered a fantastic panel for a sequel of sorts: how do POC create professional opportunities for themselves in a geek world that is stereotyped as all-white? A few things from last year’s panel remained unchanged, as the panel was still at 8:00pm, in a corner room of the convention center. However, the room itself was larger—the crowd still nearly filled it—and, encouragingly, there seemed to be more of a press presence.

This year’s panel included LeSean Thomas, producer and director of Black Dynamite: The Animated Series, as well as a story board & animation production artist on The Legend of Korra and the Director/Lead Character Designer for The Boondocks; Daniel Jose Older author of the upcoming Half Resurrection Blues, co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, and blogger for, among others; Alice Meichi Li, illustrator of Archie Comics’ Mega Man, Image Comics’ Elephantmen, Long Hidden, and the Harvey Award-nominated anthologies, Reading With Pictures and Dark Horse Comics’ Once Upon a Time Machine, among others; Tracey J. John, writer for games including My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, The Oregon Trail, and Disney’s Cars: Fast as Lightning; and I.W. Gregorio, surgeon by day, masked avenging YA writer by night, whose debut novel, None of the Above, comes out in spring 2015.

Diana Pho welcomed everyone, saying: “Last year we had Geeks of Color Assemble. We packed the room then and we’ve packed it now!” The crowd cheered. Then she asked her panelists for their origins, “Since all superheroes have to have origin stories.”

Tracey: “A long, long time ago in a galaxy far away…I went to NYU. In my senior year I interned at MTV, and got job at for these things called… music videos! When they started a video game site, and they found out I played World of Warcraft, they asked me to write about games. So I wrote for the MTV multiplayer blog. I freelanced, went to E3, and wrote for Wired, Forbes, Time, New York Post, Playstation Magazine…” After tiring of the freelance life, she took a position as a narrative designer at Gameloft, and just left recently to go freelance again.

I.W.: “How does a urologist become a YA author? I felt isolated as an Asian kid in a mostly white culture, so I escaped into books. And I wanted to be a writer, but in my family, there were two paths to success: law or medicine.” (This line get appreciative laughter from the room.) She continued writing on the side, but stopped during the 8 years of medical school. Until one fateful day when someone told her she could never be a novelist. (This line gets an angry growl from the room.) That decided her, though: W returned to writing, drawing on the stories she encountered as a medical student.

Daniel: “I was a paramedic in 2009, and a community organizer. I loved Star Wars and Harry Potter, but I couldn’t see myself in it, and kids I worked with couldn’t see themselves in it. So when I wrote my book, and Scholastic picked it up – well, they publish Harry Potter.” (Half-Resurrection Blues, about a half-dead cleanup guy, comes from Older’s life as a paramedic.) “This month is one year since I left that job. They have ARCs here, and it’s the first time I’m seeing my book.”

Alice: “I knew I wanted to be artist since I was 3. I grew up in Chinese restaurant in Detroit. It wasn’t a good idea to go out to play, so I drew on the backs of the placemats.” Her parents, worried about her future as a starving artist, pushed her to practical job, but while she was in the junior ROTC her sergeant saw her sketches, and told her she needed to go to art school. She worked at Forbidden Planet, and went to cons to make connections in Artist Alley, which began to pay off.

LeSean: “My story’s pretty basic. I grew up in the South Bronx. If anyone’s familiar with the subways north of 86th street, I grew up on 152nd, watched Saturday morning cartoons, and read comics. Comics were more a realistic goal for me – they’re cheaper to produce.” When he took a year off after an arts program in high school to work, his manager at Modell’s put him in touch with his wife, who directed designs for kids products. At first his “wannabe Jim Lee comic book pages” couldn’t get him a gig, but a few months later he was hired to do boys accessories. After working with Joe Rogers of Worldgirl, he met Carl Jones, who introduced him to Aaron MacGruder. “They needed people who could understand hip-hop culture and anime, and also create social satire. Hard to find that kinda talent in Hollywood. Hard to find anyone who can draw black people more than one way…” He reveled in his time on The Boondocks, saying, “most showrunners were white males, but to be able to work on a show where my boss was black, my characters were black, it was really liberating.” Now he and Carl Jones have teamed up for Black Dynamite.

Diana: “I grew up in New England in a white town, I was always the only Asian girl in my class, I’m Vietnamese, but nobody knew where Vietnam was, because they never even talked about the Vietnam War in history class. I studied Russian in college, so when I graduated I had to decide: Do I teach? Work for the government? Go into publishing?” For Pho, a copyediting job with Kaplan led to working with Hachette, which led to a position with the SFbookclub. Pho then studied performance art, and her master’s thesis, on Steampunk Performance, led her to Tor Books.

Diana Pho turned to the audience for their questions, asking that they keep questions “tweet-sized,” and kicked the Q&A off with a question of her own: “What was one thing you wish you knew at start of career?”

I.W.: “As much as gatekeepers want it to seem like they’re the top, at the end, the author and creator is the boss. There are challenges for diverse authors… 50% of kids are poc at this point, they want diverse books! If people show they want diverse books, things will change.”

Tracey: “Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. [As a journalist] I asked Shigeru Miyamoto – why does Princess Peach need saving? Why can’t someone be black, rather than just different tans? Why can’t this Halo character be a girl? If there’s a female character – make her green instead of pink!”

Daniel: “We have this white Western narrative of becoming successful, flying away in a rocketship and leaving our community. We have to reimagine what success means for each of us. We need to build a community, rather than seeing it as networking, it needs to be a community who will have your back, who will give critique, and who will tell us the truth. There will be a moment when you only have your community, because your editor and marketing people may not have a clue [about the people of color issues you’re talking about], cause they’re white – and they might be fine folks, and I’ve found some – but you still need your community. We need like, Black Girl Nerds, talking about racism, about Sleepy Hollow!” (This gets a huge cheer.)

Alice: “You are the average of the five people you interact with in your life. You’re going to get lifted up with them, so you want at least three of them to be in a place where you aspire to be. One, an older mentor, two, an equal, comrade-at-arms, and three, someone you can mentor. It is all about community. If the person you talk to the most is always trying to get u to go clubbing on Friday instead of drawing, you’re not going to get far.”

LeSean: “…All the animation jobs are in California. I wouldn’t have stayed her this long…I love it here, but I would’ve made my pilgrimage a lot sooner.”

One person asked about the best path for a young person looking to go into animation.

LeSean: “Young people tell me they want to do “everything,” but there’s no job for everything. You need to compartmentalize, are you a character designer, maybe a background designer? Those are individual job functions. Know the industry you want to work for.”

One questioner asked how they dealt with controversial material, when “If you’re critical of white folks you’re racist, but if you’re not you’re an Uncle Tom, a sellout.”

Daniel: “I got called racist once cause the bad guy in a story was white. You have to go with your gut, and when the shit flies, you have to stand up for yourself and your work. go with gut and find people who’ll support you.”

I.W.: “Publishing is a team sport!

The next questioner asked about the creator’s role in society: “Do you feel a responsibility towards social justice storylines, and if so, how do you express that in your work?”

LeSean: “On The Boondocks we used to say we were social workers in animation. Not to belittle social workers… the first rule is it has to be funny. The second rule is it has to be genuine. And the third rule is that is has to make people uncomfortable. You have to get them to think outside of what they normally expect.”

The last question came from a journalist at Bleeding Cool: “Why do we still need to have this conversation? Why are we still on the outside looking in? Do you see any end in sight, a time when we don’t need to have a Geeks of Color panel, at 8:00 at night, in the corner…” This was met with laughter and applause from the audience.

Daniel: “This needs to be at 1:00 in main hall!”

Diana: “When we hit critical mass. When people don’t need to ask these questions because they already know the questions are there. When everyone is asking how popular culture functions.”

Daniel: “The media is still very racist, still very white. The job is to push the conversation forward so it’s not so circular. Recognizing that we’re here cause all the folks before us fought their fights, and that we’re fighting for those after us.”

Tracey: “We’re only six people up here. You [indicating the audience] have to persist in making and supporting these media and comics and games, writing about them, until the small things will add up. This panel will be needed every year for a while, but it is getting a little bit better.”

Alice: “We need diverse panels, to show that there’s a demand. When I was a kid reading Wizard, they had a list of the top ten writers and artists in the back, and it was like…‘white guy white guy white guy… Oh, Jim Lee! White guy white guy…’ Seeing that was discouraging, but us and people like us being up here will inspire the next generation.”


Are you inspired? Because I am. See you next year at 1:00pm in the Main Hall, everybody!


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