Panelists David Walker (Luke Cage, Shaft, Cyborg), Ryan Benjamin (Teen Titans), Uraeus (Jacyen Wise, Black Heroes Matter), Karama "Blerdgurl" Horne (theblerdgurl.com) and Faith Cheltenham (YesBlackPeople.com) participated in Saturday's "Black Heroes Matter" NYCC panel hosted by Carl Varnado (Blacks in Gaming) which drew a packed crowd.
Everyone on the dais wore special "Black Heroes Matter" T-shirts provided by Uraeus, who started the movement.
Varnardo started off the panel by asking was about what media representation of black people first made an impression on them with Varnardo recounting how watching the Real Ghostbusters and seeing a black — Winston Zeddemore — save the day was revelatory to him as a child and made him realize that black people like him could be the heroes.
Walker talked about Superman The Movie – when he saw that as a child, he was angered that the only black person in the entire movie was a pimp with two lines: "Say, Jim! Whew! That's a bad outfit!" Ever since, he has been determined to improve the representation of black people in media: "That's my mission," he said.
Ryan Benjamin talked about growing up on the Virgin Islands, and how the only black people he saw on TV were in a Spanish-dubbed version of Fat Albert that was on Telemundo. He says he never wore shoes there — it was only when he came to America that he felt he needed to.
Benjamin said that when he was young, he never felt any prejudice. "I was never exposed to racism until I set foot on this continent," he said. He had been asked in an interview, "What is like to be a black artist in the industry?" and he'd said, "Never really thought of that — never really saw it." Then he met Uraeus and became aware of the rise of Black Heroes Matter movement and became inspired to join up.
Blerdgurl said Uhura in Star Trek was very important to her. She was the only black girl in her whole high school from K to sixth grade. She said she was often "the only black woman or even woman wherever [she] went," which made her relate to Uhura. She recounted that as the only black woman, she was sometimes the only one who knew what was going on societally, and had to translate things for others.
Uraeus talked about the experience of getting toys and entertainment for his kid and realizing, "Wait a minute — we are not represented here." He knew this had to change because he says we desperately need black youth "to believe they can take on any challenge." "It's critical they believe they can save the world, because they might have to," he said. "I always say the hero is not in the comic book — the hero is you." So he began campaigning for better representations of black heroes under the slogan "Black Heroes Matter".
Varnardo asked the panel about whether they thought it was a good idea to "rehash" or revive characters from the blaxploitation era.
Walker, the writer of Marvel's Luke Cage series and several Shaft miniseries, joked, "You're talking to me, right?" He said that when Luke Cage first debuted, he and his friends would laugh while reading it, saying, "Do you know anyone who really talks like this?" He said that originally, "Luke Cage was written by white people who did not know any black people."
He said that his desire is always to "give black people back their humanity — that's what they first took from us." However, he has "evolved as a character" to someone with a wife and kid: "Not just, you know – [someone who would say] 'you better have my money, honey!'"
Blerdgurl expressed complex feelings towards older black characters — her first reaction to the news that Black Panther was being revived was, "Black Panther? Are we really gonna do this?" But she admitted her initial thought was that it was going to be Jungle Action, and instead it was revamped and updated to where she enjoyed the comic series.
Now with the upcoming movie, the property is huge and has jumped to the mainstream – but she says that because Black Panther is a Disney property, ultimately, is why it's breaking through. She says if you want more realistic representations of black people, there are series like Queen Sugar or Atlanta that need to be supported.
Walker then piped in complaining about the new Shaft movie — they are doing it as a comedy, which he thinks is insulting.
Cheltenham argues representation is improving, but black people "need to get paid," and that when big corporations make movies or shows with black people, it is ultimately not people of color who see the financial benefits. Therefore, smaller projects need support.
Blerdgurl talked about the Iron Fist Netflix show — she is constantly being asked why it wasn't a bigger hit and why it didn't "break Netflix." Her answer is that it had nothing to do with the show's ethnic makeup — "It was the writing!"
And the opposite is true for Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur — people ask her how that can still be published given its poor direct market sales. "But it's in Scholastic, it's in Barnes and Noble," she says, and its appeal is pretty simple: "It's a girl on a dinosaur!"
She emphasized the importance of all-ages comics and warned publishers, "If you don't have a comic for a kid, you will go broke."
Walker agreed, saying, "We need new readers — most current readers are about due to qualify for AARP." He noted that you can buy "guns, ammo, and milk" at Walmart, but not comics, which has to change.
Uraeus urged the audience to go to small independent shows like AwesomeCon — small shows where you will meet independent creators — some good stuff is out there. He said he has been attending indie shows for a decade now, and "Marvel guys are always there taking notes".
Walker said that people ask about other media, but he just wants to make comics. He said that everyone needs to promote comics with diverse leads: "We need to preach outside this room." He pointed out that while the panel room was packed, showing clear interest in this issue, Luke Cage still sells poorly. "If all we are doing is talking to ourselves," he says, "then we won't make any progress."
Benjamin recounted how earlier at the con someone in a wheelchair came up to him encountering a fan in a who asked him "What's up with that [Black Heroes Matter] shirt!? Are you guys a terrorist group?" He said he replied with: "No, it's about uplifting people," to which the questioner said, "Well, as long you do the Martin Luther King thing and not Malcom X." The crowd expressed extreme disapproval at the statement.
Benjamin then mentioned that he is a student of Muay Thai Martial Arts, which led Blerdgurl to interject – "Wait, did you use Muay Thai on a guy in a wheelchair?" "No," he said, but he used the Muay Thai to give him a "verbal slap" and put him right.
BlerdGurl then talked about people misunderstanding the point of the Black Lives Matter movement, which they equate with Black Heroes Matter. "It's taken as 'nothing else matters', she said. "Of course all lives matter — that's not the point." She says it's to highlight black lives because sometimes she feels she is considered less of a person in society.
She then talked about the controversy of the new show from Game of Thrones creators Benioff and Weiss, Confederate, and her objections to the series exploring an alternate world where the Confederacy still exist: "Why shouldn't they do it? Well, because slavery!"
Uraeus noted that of the 100 top grossing blockbusters, only 10 feature black leads, "and half of those are Will Smith," he said. "So 90% are white leads. So why are we not saying white heroes matter? Because it doesn't need to be said." Our culture already celebrates many white heroes, he pointed out.
A very well spoken and clearly distinguished questioner (BC's own Ray Flook) asked about all the recent social media pushback against comics series and characters becoming more diverse. Walker said those same people used to say things like "segregation works, God wanted us separate," and to disregard them entirely. "I'll see them in hell," he said. "I'll be on a different level, though."
He did say that the diversification of properties was happening for commercial reasons. "These big companies — they are not after us; they are after our money."
Blerdgurl said that whenever you change established characters, "of course there will be a backlash." She said she personally want characters that are brand new rather than ethnic variations on established ones.
Cheltenham then closed up by again pointing out the mass of people in the room and the interest in this topic, but said, "We all need to pass information back and create networks to effect real change."
Finally, Varnardo organized a group photo featuring the panelists and all the audience standing together so he could show how big and popular the panel and the Black Heroes Matter movement has become.