By Cass Pineda
Speakers: Charles “Zan” Christiansen, Chris Shoemaker, Daniel Ketchum, Ivan Velez Jr., Jackson Martin, Rica Takashima
I was excited to see this event on the schedule, and I would do just about anything to make sure I was there to hear what was sure to be an important discussion about queer representation in comics and the importance of the medium to members of the queer community. I was not disappointed.
GeeksOUT.org, an outreach program dedicated to the queer comic-loving community, had a strong presence at the panel, outlining their mission and emphasizing what people like me (and you) can do to help at risk-teens. They were lead by Charles Christiansen, founder of Prism Comics and writer of The Power Within. Marvel Associate Editor Daniel Ketchum was also present, helping to illustrate the history of queer characters in comics. Creator of the semi-autobiographical manga Rica ‘tte Kanji!? Rica Takashima was there to put in her two cents as an author with stories centered around queer characters. They were joined by Ivan Velez Jr. of Tales of the Closet Ivan Velez Jr., along with NYPL Associate and Anti-Prom organizer Jackson Martin; moderated by Chris Shoemaker, the Young Adult Programming Specialist at the New York Public Library, it was a room with a friendly, jovial atmosphere, and for the first time in a long while I felt myself surrounded by people I could really relate to.
The first topic brought up concerned the increasing visibility of queer characters in comics, which is related to the increasing visibility of comics in general, resulting from the growing availability of media. The history of queer representation in comics is a rocky one, beginning with hyper-stereotyped, flamboyantly gay characters, though the same could be said of any minority that has found themselves within the pages of a comic book. This is where Ketchum jumped in, pointing out that Marvel has had a long history of diversity in their titles, beginning as far back as the X-Men, which some interpret as a gay or queer narrative. It isn’t difficult to see why: the X-Men are mutants, born with strange powers that set them apart from the “normal” people around them, often resulting in their persecution and mistreatment.
Marvel continues that pattern today. One of their recent series, Runaways, has a leading lady who happens to be a lesbian, Carolina. She discovers she is actually descendent from a race of aliens, and must cope with her extraterrestrial origins as well as her own emerging sexuality. Carolina struggles with something many teens also face, often without support groups to help them through it: am I normal?
A good point brought up by the panel following this line is that an important part of representing the LGBTQ community is reminding the audience that we are not “the other.” It is also important to reassure at-risk youth who are dealing with finding themselves that they are not alone, and that things really do get better.
Shoemaker and Martin expounded on the importance of libraries in reaching out to kids. Stories as tools are important, since people open up comics or novels and see themselves, or the people they want to be, written on those pages. Manga has become a growing trend in the states, and a force capable of convincing kids who normally wouldn’t be reading to come into libraries. Unfortunately, library books tend to be stolen or lost, and as funding is cut for critical programs across the country, many communities can’t afford to restock. But, like a caped crusader sweeping in with an ear-blasting sound effect, Christiansen is here to save the day: people can send messages to ThePowerWithin.org, where they will donate books to libraries and youth groups for free.
Of course, they can’t do it without help from readers, comic-lovers, LGBTQ communities and their allies. GeeksOUT.org organizes many events and outreach programs in New York City, and are open to donations to help fund them. You can find them, as well as ThePowerWithin.org, on Facebook, and learn how you can be involved. Don’t be afraid to also look closer to home, in community centers, GSA clubs at local schools, or, of course, donate to your own nearby library.
While the LGBTQ community grows, so do LGBTQ characters in comics. While in mainstream comics the ratio is still dismally low, independent publishers and authors provide the representations that at-risk youth (and even at-risk adults) and their allies yearn to see. Comics hosted on the internet are almost infinite, but with some searching, you can find a few gems. The panel assured us that the days of equality are coming; Ketchum even jested that he would like to see an “It Gets Better” campaign starring the Avengers, who in no small way have helped to bring comics to the fore of pop culture. Young and old alike can look up to these heroes and there is potential to spread positive, hopeful messages to those who really need it. Whether you hear it from all-powerful Thor, your family, your friends, or community leaders, there is a glimmer of hope and belonging when someone tells you that it really does get better.