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Ta-Nehisi Coates Discusses Race, Mental Health, and ‘Underboob’ at Comic Con

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Most Comic Con panels are filled with middling, softball queries, but last night New York Comic Con kicked off with the considerably more compelling “Race & Sexuality,” one of 33 diversity-themed panels taking place throughout the four-day convention. 

The hour-long conversation featuring Ta-Nehisi Coates (Black Panther, Between the World and Me) at his first-ever Comic Con, Tee “Vixen” Franklin (#BlackComicsMonth, The Outfit), and Steve Orlando (Midnighter, Virgil) was moderated by Jonathan W. Gray, an associate professor of English at CUNY.

In a room filled to the brim with people of color, queer community members, and allies all clamoring for more representation in the comics industry, this group dove deep — fast. Gray and the panelists tackled more than just race and sexuality; they broached mental health, working with artists about visual representation, and how to include characters different from oneself. Here are some of the most enlightening moments from the evening.

On diversity:

Ta-Nehisi Coates: [On expanding the Black Panther world] I didn’t even think much about diversity or anything like that. It felt really natural. You know, the kind of “diversity” I think you’re thinking about is like ham-fisted “We have to get X, Y, and Z in.” But I think actually if you check yourself — if you’re aware of certain habits that you might have, certain ways of looking at the world — you can open yourself up a little bit to everybody’s world. Suddenly things feel natural.

You don’t actually have to insert black people. You don’t actually have to insert queer people. You don’t actually have to insert women. If you look around, they’re right there. They’re all around you.

Tee “Vixen” Franklin: The old me three years ago was like, “Ohhh, diversity!” But this me — here, now — I’m over that word. You can use it to describe… the weather. They use it so much, but it’s really all about representation and inclusivity. Every time I have a panel, we have women of color, LGBTQIA creators, we have creators with mental health illnesses, disabilities. It’s all about inclusivity.

On the “audacity” of queer comics:

Steve Orlando: It feels audacious because of the drought of representation and depiction of queer romance and queer sex acts in fiction. I never put anything in the book that I didn’t think you would see in, for example, Dick Grayson. I wouldn’t put anything in the book that you wouldn’t see Black Canary and Green Arrow do. [What I was doing] was subversive by the fact that it was Midnighter and Apollo.

When I was like 12 — I probably should not have been reading the books I was reading — Kevin Smith had Green Arrow going down on Black Canary in a panel. At the time, I was like “What does that mean!?” Honestly, from my own mindset, [Midnighter] is actually pretty tame, but it’s interesting because people have not seen this and have not been given what they deserve in so long.

This is what I said internally: We’re gonna be confident about it. We’re not going to have any shame or second-guessing about it. And anything we see, you could see a straight couple doing.

On going independent:

TVF: If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself. When it comes to the comics industry, you’re not going to find a lot of… as you can see, I’m disabled. I rolled up the ramp, you had to help me on the chair, it’s real life. I’m a queer, disabled woman of color. I want to see myself in comics. Nobody else is doing it, so I gotta make it. And that’s really the bottom line.

Yes, you can bitch and moan if you want to, but it’s only going to go so far. You gotta put your money behind it and find the right connections and you have to get the word out there. You have to push. It’s hard work. But if you really want it done, if you want to talk about things like Mr. Coates just said— [Coates: “Please don’t call me Mister!”] So my homie right here just said, it’s not diversity, it’s real life. Once you open your eyes, this is what you see.

I hate the word “diverse.” It’s a buzzword. [What it’s really about is] who you are as a person. That’s not just your color or someone being queer. It’s someone who also has schizophrenia. It’s someone who is disabled or genderfluid. It’s you. We don’t see these in comics. If you do have a pitch and say, “Here you go Mr. Editor,” about a teenage girl who cuts herself and is bulimic, it’s like, “Oh, thank you very much for your time.” That’s really the conversation you’re going to get because they don’t want to touch it.

It’s too scary. It’s too real. So do it yourself. You guys [Coates and Orlando] are lucky. As I tell everybody: It’s more than just the “Big Two” [Marvel and DC] up there.

On underboob and the male gaze: 

TNC: I swear to god, we have more conversations about the presence of underboob than anything else. [Laughs] Like why is that here? You know what I’m saying? When we did Ayo and Aneka [in Black Panther], my greatest fear was that. I was like, “My god, if I get an artist that does this old, sort of male-gaze, sexy lesbian thing… it would be the worst thing.” So in the script, it’s very explicitly written: “Please don’t do this… Make this human.”

I have to say it is a constant effort and vigilance to make sure that once folks are included… that depiction is as you intended. Sometimes you’re even checking yourself to make sure you’re doing justice to the people there. It is a shocking amount of work; I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, but it really is surprising. I guess it’s like traditional comics: you do something for so long and it gets built into the DNA of the thing, so you’re always trying to extract it.

On being representation:

SO: Every book that I’ve written — which is perhaps sad to admit — is basically a version of Die Hard. Why does John McClane have to be going after his wife? You can be that person and be queer.

I would never want people to be afraid of representation, but I would want them to understand the responsibility of it, the weight of it. It’s easy when you’re living wherever to say “Oh, this is a comic strip.” But it’s never just a comic strip… When it comes to queer references — something I feel like I can speak about — I want there to be queer characters. That’s life.

But there are certain things I think you shouldn’t speak about. If you’re like, a straight guy from Iowa, don’t tell the coming-out story. That’s ours. But that doesn’t mean don’t put queer characters in… It’s the time, it’s the research. It’s not just secondhand and articles or whatever. It’s firsthand research. It’s being in touch with people who are living it day-to-day and giving their perspective and using that to make it something.

On continuity and history:

TNC: I’m one of those people who really came up in the Eighties and early Nineties reading comics when you couldn’t Wikipedia stuff. There’d be like a little star, a little asterisk next to something like “See Issue 251” and then I’d go and try to find Issue 251. There was no other option for figuring it out. And in that world, continuity was a good thing.

When I got the assignment for the Black Panther, I wanted it to fit snugly into recent events for the comic book. It was an opportunity to completely reboot the thing and start from the jump. I really believe that in comics, history matters.

On #BlackComicsMonth:

TVF: It was a problem that I was noticing that there were really not that many black creators. You’ve got plenty of characters, but there just wasn’t enough — or should I say, that many new [comics by black creators] out. So I decided to take an oath, Green Lantern style. I just made it my duty to promote black comic creators. It started out just during Black History Month, a little 28-day thing. I found that there were more than just 28 black comic creators, so I had to continue month after month. Then every month ended up being Black Comics Month.

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