Picturing History, Comics Creators in Conversation | Comic Con 2016

Drawing an exuberant crowd, the panel "Race & Sexuality: A Conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tee "Vixen" Franklin & Steve Orlando," moderated by comics scholar Jonathan W. Gray featured veteran comics writers and newcomers alike.

(l. to r.) Jonathan W. Gray, Steve Orlando, Ta-Nehisi Coates,
Tee “Vixen” Franklin
Photo courtesy of Leah Schnelbach

By 8 p.m. the lights had dimmed on the show floor of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, signaling the close of the second day of the tenth annual New York Comic Con (Oct. 6–9). Yet the energy level of fans was far from winding down, as many made their way to the basement auditoriums, for the evening’s final panels.

Drawing an exuberant crowd, the panel “Race & Sexuality: A Conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tee “Vixen” Franklin & Steve Orlando,” moderated by comics scholar Jonathan W. Gray (English, John Jay Coll., CUNY), featured veteran comics writers and newcomers alike, including Orlando (Midnighter; Greetings from Virgil), Coates (National Book Award winner for 2015’s Between the World and Me; Black Panther), and Franklin (founder, BlackComicsMonth.com).

Leading the discussion was Coates, whose September release, Black Panther. Vol. 1: A Nation Under Our Feet, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze, marked not only the Atlantic correspondent’s comics debut but also an official relaunch of Marvel Comics’ Black Panther,   aka T’Challa. Originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, the king of the Wakanda universe was the first black superhero to appear in mainstream comics.

When asked about what went through his mind while creating the new series, Coates said, “I love history…. The first thing I did was to make sure I was getting a sense of [the comic’s] continuity.” The celebrated journalist, whose nonfiction largely focuses on deepening our understanding of the African American experience, reminding us that “history matters,” went on to describe the process of rereading earlier Black Panther stories in order to move the modern narrative forward accurately. Fresh faces in Wakanda, as conceived by Coates, include Black Panther protectors the Midnight Angels Aneka and Ayo, a lesbian couple who have been praised as “breakout stars.” Of these characters, Coates remarked, “It felt natural, not X, Y, Z, or formulaic…I wasn’t thinking about inserting blacks, women, etc. [Rather, I wanted] to bring to life those who are all around us; they’re people.”

Echoing Coates’s assuring tone, Orlando, who is gay, spoke plainly: “There’s no reason not to write [queer] characters.” He then posed some pretty fundamental questions: “Why does [the male character] have to have a wife? Why not a husband?” As his own success proves, there’s definitely a market for these stories.

Acclaimed for his writing on the series Midnighter, which stars the adventures of the titular masked superhero along with his husband, Apollo, as members of the rogue team The Authority, as well as the stand-alone graphic novel Greetings from Virgil, about a queer Jamaican cop struggling with issues of self- and peer-acceptance, Orlando noted that discomfort among audiences is to be expected. He talked about the risk involved in producing “queer revenge fiction” yet asserted that “queer narratives can always be bolder”: people need “to not be afraid of representation.” Somewhat surprisingly, Orlando claimed that the telling of these narratives belongs solely to members of the LGBTQ community. Addressing those not so identified, Orlando stated, “Don’t tell the coming-out story. That’s ours.”

Franklin, who set out in January 2015 to honor black comics creators during February, Black History Month, by creating the website Black Comics Month, which has since expanded to preview works year-round, perhaps best articulated the topic of representation in mainstream comics. “The bottom line,” said Franklin, “is I want to see myself in comics—disabled, queer, woman of color.” To achieve this, she simply advised writers and artists, “If you want something done, you have to do it yourself.”

Advocating self-publishing as one way to dispel stereotypes, the author bravely shared her own battles with depression and called for a more open dialog about mental illness. She powerfully recounted reading her first Ms. Marvel story: “That book, seeing Ms. Marvel handle [her struggles] helped me handle [my struggles], and [it being] a matter of life and death, saved my life.” The sentiment seemed to be felt by all in the room as the hundreds gathered there related to that moment, when the right words at the right time were all we needed to pull through.

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