Comic Books and Graphic Novels: Reflecting and Effecting Social Change

By Morgana RavenTree, Social Justice Committee Chair

Last month I went to Comic-Con San Diego.  I hadn’t planned to go but at the last minute I was able to get a Professional Badge. I’m not really into Cosplay or the flashy film and TV events in Hall H so I designed my own “social change/social justice” track.  I had to skip Thursday, but on Friday I began my program with “Diversity in Comics: India’s Superheroes on the Rise,” presented by Sharad Devarajan, the former CEO of Virgin Comics, which had a wide range of comics based on Hindu mythology serveral years ago.   Devarajan is now the co-founder of Graphic India, a company exploring the concepts of new superheroes inspired by ancient Hindu mythological characters.  GI’s current project is “Baahubali” a bilingual franchise of animated films.  The film clips he showed featured a “larger than life” hero meant to replace Western ideals of what a superhero should be.  It was a bit difficult to get a feel for the spiritual aspects of the films, but they are on my YouTube list of things to watch.

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The 2nd panel I attended on Friday was “Comics as a Force for Social Change.”  The multi-ethnic panel included Thi Bui, who wrote “The Best We Could Do” about her childhood in Vietnam.  One of the things I took away from this panel was the idea that with modern technology and self-publishing, anyone can write a comic book or graphic novel for very little money.  This provides an amazing opportunity not only for emerging writers and artists, but also for marginalized people to break out of stereotypes allowing People of Color, LGBTQ and others to explore the possibilities for new kinds of stories.  One of the questions raised during this panel is why the film industry continues to make and remake the same Spiderman/Batman/Superman film over and over instead of looking for new, more diverse superheroes.  The answer, of course, is that the film industry likes a “sure thing” and doesn’t think more diverse heros will generate money. Let’s hope The Black Panther proves them wrong.

On Saturday I covered 7 panels in one day, the last one being the most exciting (more about that later).  I began with Spotlight on Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim.  This married couple collaborated on The Poppies of Iraq, a memoir of Findakly’s childhood in Iraq and immigration to France.  Her family was able to emigrate out of Iraq because they were Christian, but when they arrived in France, they were treated as outsiders (everyone assumed because they were Arab they must also be Muslim, and anti-Muslim feeling was high in France).  Later, Findakly and Trondheim drew this watercolor inside my copy of the book:

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Fanbase: Press: Introducing Quince.  This 15-issue comic book is about Lupe, who discovers at her Quinceañera (15th birthday –  a very significant event in a Latina’s life) that she has superpowers.  Published in Spanish and English, the writers are attempting to give Latinas a new role model as a superhero.

Insight Comics; Focusing on Content and Creators.  I was a bit less certain about this panel.  While several of the creators were People of Color (like Nilah Magruder (M.F.K.)), Jean Dufaux made me a bit uneasy.  A French (i.e. white) creator who wrote Djinn, his covers seem to suffer from “orientalism”. I haven’t actually read his books, but to be honest, I’m not sure I want to.

A Dark Horse Celebration of Diversity featured several “writers of color” including the twin brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba from Brazil, Jose Pimienta from Mexico, and Irene Koh, a Korean-American currently writing The Legend of Korra (with a strong Lesbian subtext).  One interesting point was when Moon and Ba explained that in Brazil, they are perceived as
“white” and indeed, identify themselves as such, but in New York, they are considered “of color” and immediately identified as “foreigners.”

Perhaps the panel I was most excited about was Antar: A Middle Eastern Legend for a Modern Age.  This graphic novel will be published in 2018.  Based on the life of historical figure Antarah ibn Shaddad, son of an Arab father and his Ethiopian slave.  He was raised as a slave himself, and fell in love with his master’s daughter.  Eventually he won his freedom (and the girl) and became a great warrior and poet.  Being a pre-Islamic hero, there was no mention of what, if any spiritual path he followed, but the publisher hired Nigerian writer Nnedi Okorafor as she believed Okorofor would treat the subject with greater sensitivity than an American or European writer.  When this novel is finally published, I’ll be sure to get a copy and review it here.

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I also attended the panels Unconventional Comics, Women and Writers of Color Breaking Barriers, and on Sunday, Fantasy, Diversity and Inspiring One Another featuring another African writer, Tomi Adeyemi.

As general observations about Comic-Con, I noticed the increased number of persons of color participating in cosplay, and indeed, increased attendance by people of color.  There is also a continuing trend towards cross-dressing (i.e. men dressed as Wonder Woman, or women dressed as male superheros).  Not too many, but enough to be significant.

A couple of years ago I thought that the trend towards “social change” or “social justice” issues, diversity and inclusivity was a trend that might fizzle out.  That does not seem to be the case at all.  People of Color, LGBTQ and other “minorities” are making themselves visible as attendees, cosplayers, writers, illustrators, producers and publishers of new works.  This is a positive trend and gives me hope for the future of comics.

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