Solving the panel representation issue at Cons

25 JULY 2015

We didn't hear much about sexual harassment this past SDCC season, but the Con world is humming with a different outrage: the failure to include women on woman-oriented panels. This happened last spring when Denver Comic Con had an all-male "Women in Comics" panel and now it's happened again with GenCon offering an all-male panel on "Writing Women-Friendly Comics." The latter has since scurried to include women, but in both cases the initial explanations were similar: We didn't know who to invite or we only knew a few women and they were all busy. It was like a nerd version of Mitt Romney's Binders Full of Women.

Of course, you can see how hard it would be to find women. It's not like we're half the world or something.

Now a huffy person might counter with, But women aren't half the comics industry! Most creators are male! It's just panel math! But it's a little more complex than that. While certain nerddoms and fandoms are weighted by gender, there are certainly enough women creators that organizers can come up with participants with a little effort. Take a look at publishers like Boom, Image, IDW, Oni, Fantagraphics - female colorists, writers, pencillers, editors and more abound.

But effort is where it falls apart. Reaching out and finding a woman creator is apparently just too strenuous for some organizers, who tend to go, "I'll ask around. Wait, I only know two people who fit that category and they're both busy. Okay, I tried."

Resources for Representation

This is an age where the word culture has been elevated into a flag of homogeneity. From New York corporate offices to Hollywood studios to Portland art collectives, people tend to hire and promote people who look like them. People who "fit into our culture," people who "seem like our kind," people in the same social circles with similar political values and education and wardrobes. And sometimes that extends to asking people to sit on Con panels.

It's rarely deliberate; it's just how it shakes out. I've worked in several creative fields and it's exceedingly rare that I see anyone look beyond their network, consider clips or portfolios from strangers or track down talented outsiders. Some of it is ego ("I'm the important one so you need to come to me") but a lot of it is innate human laziness and habit.

Will that change soon? Probably not. But as someone who believes - apologies for the cliché - that life begins at the end of your comfort zone, I hope panel organizers get less comfortable about going with who they know. If you're influential enough to be on a panel at a Con, you have a responsibility in terms of representation. It's not show and tell for you and your cronies. It's content for attendees and you need to provide the richest content possible. That includes having women on panels about women, queer people on LGBTQA panels, people of color on diversity and racial dialogue panels.

Which brings us to Comic Book Women, who put out a press release after the GenCon dustup. Comic Book Women started at ECCC this March, and now the organization serves as an advocacy group for women in the comic book industry. They made it clear this weekend that they can offer candidates for any organizers who need a female professional guest or panelist.

Gail Simone gave them her endorsement: "I get asked to be at a lot of cons. Last year, I turned down over 120 events all around the world, even though I accepted as many as I thought I possibly could. Having Comic Book Women as a resource to offer to convention organizers will be really helpful. Our hope is that we can add a wider range of voices to the many great conversations about comics at these conventions."

And ultimately that's the end game here: helping organizers find relevant and appropriate talent. This shouldn't be viewed as an exercise in political correctness, but rather a tool to open up a more engaging and accurate dialogue. That's one reason we go to Cons, right? To learn, think, explore, discover? To that end, having a wider assortment of panelists with a varied range of experiences is a great thing.

So if you're putting together a panel, event or anthology in the near future, you may want to make a note of these resources:

Comic Book Women will work to find female guests "who can speak on all aspects of the comic book process."
Cartoonists of Color offers a resource for anyone looking for a cartoonist of color for a project or panels on racial diversity.
Prism Comics can suggest LGBTQ creators for events and projects.

It's a start. The Internet made a minor fuss over the fact that San Diego Comic-Con was 50/50 male/female this year; that seemed like a yawn of a statistic to me but then I remembered the number of comic shops that assume I'm there for the manga, the number of Con attendees that try to cut in front of me at a booth because they assume I'm just the girlfriend of the guy paying for his comics rather than waiting to pay myself. Our world still has some cobwebs and stereotypes clinging to it. It's probably going to take groups like Comic Book Women to brush them away for good.



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