SDCC@Home: Discussing LGBTQ+ Representation With Comics Creators Rupert Kinnard, Jennifer Camper, and Tara Madison Avery and Prism Comics

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With San Diego Comic Con going virtual this year due to the coronavirus, there seemed to be more space for those panels and voices that might usually get crowded out by blockbuster films and television shows with massive followings. Prism Comics, a non-profit organization that supports LGBTQ+ and LGBTQ+ friendly comics, comics professionals, and readers, hosted three panels exploring comics and popular media. Links for all three panels are available below. 

Last week, as Comic-Con@Home was kicking off, 4 Your Excitement sat down for a virtual roundtable with a group involved with LGBTQ+ comics to discuss the growth and impact of representation and what the future of LGBTQ+ comics looks like. 

On hand were Ted Abenheim, President of Prism Comics and self-proclaimed “comics geek”; Tara Madison Avery, a comics creator, owner of Stacked Deck Press, and Prism Comics board member; Rupert Kinnard, a comics creator who created the first ongoing gay/lesbian-identified African-American comic-strip characters; Jennifer Camper, a comics creator and organizer of the Queers & Comics Conference; Gladys Ochoa, the Prism Awards Chairperson; and Jayne Whitaker, the PR and Social Media Chairperson for Prism Comics.

The discussion started with the topic of representation, which looks different than it once did. “Growing up, before we had the kind of representation we have now, you sort of took whatever representation was there, whatever you could get,” Avery said. That often meant reading certain identities into characters who were not explicitly queer. 

“I think of Batman and Robin,” Kinnard said, referring to depictions of the two superheroes from the 1950s and 1960s.

“Totally queer,” Camper responded, laughing. 

“No matter what they were trying to sell us, we didn’t care,” Kinnard said. “We thought, ‘No, something is going on.’”

Now, adults, college students, teenagers, and kids are seeing themselves on screens and in comics far more often, and it’s making a difference. Abenheim has noticed the surge in interest from younger audiences, including parents bringing their 9 and 10-year-olds to the Prism booth during conventions. He recalled meeting one young girl who was afraid to come out, but after seeing herself in comics, she learned to be proud of who she is and even had the courage to start a gay/straight alliance at her high school.

Whitaker, too, can speak to the effect of increased representation personally. She grew up being told queer identities were wrong so even after coming out to herself, she didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. Then she saw Nickelodeon’s Avatar: Legend of Korra where two main female characters had a romantic relationship. Whitaker felt if a children’s show could portray queer relationships, she could talk about her own identity freely. 

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What Mainstream Media Gets Right and Wrong

For all of the positives of LGBTQ+ representation in media, there are some frustrations as well. For example, burdening one character with the responsibility of representing an entire community. 

“With only the one queer character, there’s this pressure on the creator [of], ‘Well, what am I going to say about my experience with this one single character?’” Avery, a trans woman and bisexual activist, said. “There’s a part of you that doesn’t want this character to be unsympathetic or have any flaws so that you present a positive image but then there’s also a part of you that says, ‘Well this doesn’t really speak to my experience.’”

The answer, Avery pointed out, is obvious: include more than one queer character. And when you do that, it opens up a lot of possibilities. Every trans, bisexual, or gay person does not have the exact same experiences so why should fictional characters be so one-dimensional?

“I think it’s a real privilege to be able to create flawed or even evil [queer characters],” Camper, a lesbian comics artist, graphics artist, and editor, said. “And it took me many, many years before I felt comfortable doing that. And it’s only in a place where there are, like Tara said, a whole bunch of queer characters from all different aspects of the queer community that then you finally get the freedom to have characters that don’t have to represent the picture-perfect life. And I feel like that is a real privilege and it only comes in a culture where there are multiple examples of queer characters and it’s still not true in all of the world.”

Another frustration with popular media is when LGBTQ+ experiences are reduced to tokenism and big studios pat themselves on the back for having the “first gay kiss/couple.” 

“It’s a whole bunch of other people congratulating themselves for representing us but not really representing us. Just using us as a fancy badge and then asking for our money,” Whitaker explained. “But at the same time, there’s something to be said about the progress.”

Ten years ago LGBTQ+ characters basically weren’t a presence at all in blockbuster films. However, the lack of quality representation in a lot of popular media is why organizations like Prism Comics are so important. As Whitaker commented, Prism can point to queer comics and say, “Look at these stories. Look at how much better they represented the LGBTQ community. Take some influence from this.”

Comics have an important advantage over film/television too. Whereas the latter may worry about losing a key demographic if they don’t water down or eliminate LGBTQ+ representation, comics don’t have the same commercial and editorial voices dictating their creation. 

“As a comics creator, it usually takes fewer people to put a comic in motion than it does a motion picture or television show,” Avery said. “There are fewer commercial barriers to getting the finished product in front of people so that gives LGBT creators a much more direct path from their vision to their intended audience.”

That’s essential for many reasons, including, as Ochoa pointed, that comics are often a safer, more accessible method of creating and engaging in queer media. 

“I also think that reading comics is a really intimate experience that’s often done alone in a private place,” Camper added. “So people can read comics privately and see themselves represented in these forms both visually and through the narrative, [which] is incredibly powerful. And it’s a sort of safe way to access those stories.”

The group was delighted to talk about how LGBTQ+ representation in comics has blossomed over the years. Back in the day, there were individual creators like Camper, Kinnard, Howard Cruse, and Ivan Valez producing queer stories that “you didn’t see elsewhere,” Abenheim recalled. “That, to me, was what was important about the medium, that there was the opportunity for people to do this even if they didn’t have to be, like Tara said, in the mainstream. And now, it has just burgeoned into the mainstream and diversity within that as well.” 

Prism Comics has been a part of that growth. The organization provides an annual financial grant to emerging comics creators: The Prism Comics Queer Press Grant. In addition, the annual Prism Awards, which recognize, promote, and celebrate diversity and excellence in the field of queer comics, have been instrumental in “helping queer artists and cartoonists,” Ochoa said. The five categories for the awards (Short Form, Webcomics, Small to Midsize Press, Mainstream Publisher, and Anthology) allow for works of all types to be recognized. They also help “bolster and encourage creation” within and outside of the queer community, Ochoa said. 

“The Prism Awards has been really influential in not just the people submitting but future creators,” she continued.

For Kinnard, a gay, African-American cartoonist, attending the Queers & Comics Conference has been very affecting. 

“Every time I go, I get introduced to younger cartoonists who, within their works, they’re really exploring their unique place in the queer world of comics,” he said, giving the example of being a young person who has bipolar disorder and is queer. “It seems so amazing to me the explosion of experiences that we could never imagine… it does nothing [but] enrich our reading experience.”

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Looking Ahead

Of course, there are still strides to make when it comes to diversity, even behind the scenes. “As a person of color, I already feel that pressure,” Ochoa said, “because there’s those stereotypes with being Latinx that if you draw, you must be an amazing muralist or you must love graffiti.”

Diversity and all of the conversations around it are part of what Kinnard has always felt he could explore in comics. Readers could be exposed to the experiences of marginalized groups, communities, and ideas that otherwise they may never learn about. When he first created the teenager superhero, the Brown Bomber, in 1977, the character was clearly African-American, but not obviously gay. However, the Brown Bomber’s impact was still felt. 

“Even that one African-American character, even before I revealed that he was gay, the whole point of my strip was to have one character be a spokesperson for marginalized communities across the board,” Kinnard remembered. 

He used his comic to support students of color and women’s rights and speak about class issues and income inequality. Later, when he introduced Diva Touché Flambé, the Bomber’s lesbian sidekick, the world of his comic opened up even more. He felt able to talk about racism and sexism in the LGBTQ+ community as well as outside of it.

“One of the things I’ve come to really embrace about the world of comics is that you realize the unique places we all inhabit within that world,” Kinnard said. 

When asked what stories, creators, and allies we most need right now, Abenheim answered, “I think that trans and BIPOC community foremost.” While comics have made big advances in telling gay and lesbian stories, he feels it’s time to cover “new areas.” He noted that Prism has received many requests for comics that discuss asexuality and polyamory. 

“Everybody’s looking for mirrors of them and their own experiences so all of the underrepresented stories are the ones that need to be told and actually that’s exciting,” said Camper.

“It’s the intersections,” Avery commented. “It’s not just having a queer person but a queer person of color who has an identity that people aren’t familiar with.” As the LGBTQ community grows, everyone in it “deserves their time in front of the camera or on the page,” Avery noted.

Ochoa observed how we have seen phases of representation for the LGBTQ+ community such as tragic coming out stories and killing off queer characters. “So at this point, I hope the next phase we have isn’t going to be as bad as those two, where it’s more acceptable to make characters that live and thrive and that their identity is there but it’s not the main focus.”

Kinnard echoed that sentiment. “When you see any form of art that has a character that’s integral to the story and somehow along the way you find out that they’re… LGBTQ, there’s something really fascinating to me about it. I love the novelty of that,” he said, adding that a decade ago being gay or black in a story would have been a character’s entire identity. 

He’s also quick to recognize that doesn’t mean we need to stop having characters address race or LGBTQ+ issues. “We don’t need to have one without the other,” he said. “It would just be more refreshing.”

Plus, the reality is, audiences have more access to information than ever before. “Google has been invented,” Avery laughed. “You don’t have to come with a dossier that explains [a character’s] existence and justifies them.”

“I think it’s really nice as a creator to assume that you have an intelligent audience and that you don’t have to do topic 101,” Camper added. “You can just assume that your audience knows all this stuff and tell the story from that point… The audience can learn and educate themselves to get to where we as creators are.”

Check out some recommended reading from the roundtable and the links to Prism Comics’ three Comic-Con@Home panels. Members of this roundtable and some of the creators on the list of recommendations are part of those panels.

Recommended Comics and Graphic Novels:

Prism Comics’ panels at Comic-Con@Home:

Stephanie Coats