This past Wizard World Comic Con convention featured actors and actresses from The Walking Dead, Firefly, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, and Doctor Who, but there were also several panels that dealt with the politics and social justice of nerd culture. Panels such as “The Battle for Multicultural Heroes” and “Horrible, Horrible, Horrible Stereotypes in Comic Books” discussed issues of representation and diversity in comic books, television and movies.
On Saturday, June 21 I sat in on the panel “Civil Rights and Social Justice Movements as Reflected in Comic Books,” moderated by Doctor Thomas Strange. The panel hoped to examine “how we’re doing as a culture, because we are a culture, we are a nerd culture,” Dr. Strange introduced. “Are we being inclusive? We are responsible for our own culture,” Dr. Strange emphasized, highlighting one of the central debates within contemporary Comic Con culture—the role that producers and consumers play in perpetuating negative and problematic stereotypes or disrupting normative sexist, homophobic or otherwise discriminatory attitudes towards various communities. Michael Manning, comic book author and writer, started off the panel with a discussion of Marvel’s X-Men and their ability to “reflect any minority that has been oppressed.” His section of the panel focused on sanctuary cities and illegal aliens, explicating how the X-Men storylines perfectly parallel public response to immigration within the United States.
The panel also discussed representations of LGBTQ communities in comic books. Dan Parent, an author and writer most famous for his work on the Archie comics, spoke about the character Kevin Keller, who was introduced to the Archie comics in 2010 and was the first openly gay character to be featured in the cast. Tom Boucher talked about Marvel’s Alpha Flight team, which featured two Native American characters, a handicapped hero and the gay speedster Northstar, and mentioned Batwoman coming out of the closet in 2006. DC Comics, however, prevented Batwoman (Kate Kane) from marrying her longtime partner Maggie Sawyer, a decision that instigated many of the panelists and audience members to comment on the issues, such as marriage equality, that still need to be appropriately dealt with within the comic book community.
Laura Hargreaves, author of the blog Pretty Nerdy Things, also led a discussion about women’s issues in comic books, focusing primarily on the history and progression of Wonder Woman comics. Hargreaves talked about Wonder Woman’s status as a feminist icon, as well as DC’s failure to give Wonder Woman her own movie or television series. This section on gender led into a brief exchange on issues of sexual harassment at conventions, sparking movements such as Cosplay is NOT Consent and Hollaback!.
The panel provided a space for fans, writers and artists to express disappointment with the way certain civil rights issues have been handled by comic book creators, as well as note the important steps the industry has made toward inclusion and equality. As Dan Parent said, it is “better creatively to write stories with a broad array of characters” and comic books present a perfect medium to confront and unpack lingering social issues and prejudices in our society today.