It's taken me awhile to get to writing about this panel, long enough that I might have just let it remain in my mind as a series of interesting questions and thoughts placed there by the panelists on the Body Diversity in Comics panel at Emerald City Comicon a few weeks ago. But the intense sense of participation in the panel stayed with me firmly enough to make me want to try to capture some of what was said.
Sarah Gaydos, Casey Gilly, Jody Houser, Sina Grace, Sabrina Taylor, and Ed Luce participated in the panel, bringing with them a variety of personal and professional perspectives on comics. The room was packed, by the way, giving a sense of inclusion in a very helpful way, and like all the best panels, there was a sense of informality in the conversation.
One of the first topics discussed was what characters the panelists had come across who made them aware of body type limitations in comics. The biggest problems they had faced as young people were discovering that characters who had a mainstream atypical body representation were simply being used as a narrative device: such a character would find ways to change that aspect of themselves in order to become more mainstream looking through the course of the story. All's well that ends well, it seems. It should have occurred to me in the past that this is a classic problem of introducing difference in mainstream comics—the plotline usually encompasses a return to the status quo, but hearing this from the panelists really clarified the issue for me.
The conversation took a more hopeful turn, though, when the panelists spoke about themes of "transformation" in comics that gave a greater sense of freedom for characters. In these scenarios, where characters might literally change form, like Jem breaking into her rockstar self, power is given to the character to express that their "personality is bigger than their body type", and defying the expectations of the reader isn't a bad move, either. Casey Gilly pointed out that if we don't include body diversity in our comics, we are removing their ability to shape the future, since "stories are a place to learn compassion and a different view of humanity". Rather shamefully by comparison, comics have been much slower to embrace inclusive characters than children's literature, and this observation rang true for many of the panelists, who could vividly recall discovering characters in children's books who finally seemed to represent their perceived difference as kids.
For Gaydos, there's a practical aspect to all of this, too: why would you disallow realism in a comic if it's useful to you? Realism demands a range of body types in characters, or even in things like crowd scenes. "People only want the ideal, but life happens outside the ideal", as Sabrina Taylor succinctly said. Gaydos added some practical advice for writers of comics: write diversity into panel descriptions. If it's not suggested, the default might miss out on presenting a swath of humanity in a realistic way. Editors, writers, and artists often work quickly on comics by necessity, and detail gets left out that could make a big difference in the texture of comics if we don't actually think about making these changes.
There was an underlying dissatisfaction in the panel with the influence of the entertainment industry on comics in terms of publishers deciding "what sells" and therefore limiting the stories that are told. The "lowest common denominator" approach results in a total lack of diversity as decisions are made—often by people who don't know the comics industry or fandom—that only traditional mainstream superhero characters sell. Though this trend continues, fans are, of course, beginning to speak up and show the market what they want. The immense success of Valiant's new Faith comic, written by Jody Houser, is a prime example. This isn't "pandering" to fans, Houser stated, but instead good "marketing". The proof is in the outcome with Faith.
A really interesting and valuable addition to the panel was discussing the presentation of age and ability in comic characters. The panelists "namechecked" The Fuse, published by Image Comics, and written by Antony Johnston, which features an older female police officer. Sina Grace said he was very "optimistic" that a greater age-range of protagonists was coming soon to comics, especially after the success of recent films depicting more mature heroes, like Mad Max: Fury Road. But it's going to take change at the "top levels of decision making" to really transform the current comics market into one that includes a wide range of body types in its storytelling, Gaydos concluded.
The question, of course, is what the average fan or even comic creator can do to help enact that change. Pre-ordering and consciously supporting comics that will help us move forward are key. That means actually thinking about it and committing to it. Are we prepared to take those steps?
There are very few people who fit the narrow body types that are often presented in comics, and even those who might, probably don't want to see an unrealistically narrow portrayal of human characters in the comics they read. So, it's just a matter of realizing that comics are for us. Not for some idea that corporations may have of what fans want to read or see. It's not often that comics fans are accused of being radically realistic in their outlook, but this is definitely the place to start.