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Conventional Conversations: Diverse Voices Find Their Place at WonderCon

Updated: Apr 2

Diversity and representation were major talking points in upstairs meeting rooms at WonderCon last weekend, but what did they look like on the exhibition floor?

IMAGE 1: The cover art for "Carmina" by Diwata Komiks "tells the story of a troubled biracial young woman living in a New Mexico “trailer park” town who discovers that she comes from a powerful lineage." Image courtesy of Diwata Komiks. IMAGE 2: The cover art for "Elendil" by Andrea Rose Washington which "follows Abriana as she finds herself in the middle of an intergalactic war on an alien planet." Image courtesy of Andrea Rose Washington. IMAGE 3: The cover art for "Yoobies" by Nathaniel Villanueva, art by Rafael Dantas, and published by Odyssey Comics. According to the website, The Yoobies are "ready to show the world what they are really made of, that every person has worth, and that no labels can hold them back from being heroes." Image courtesy of Odyssey Comics
 

It didn't take long for one of the major themes to emerge at this year’s WonderCon, the annual pop culture convention held last weekend at the Anaheim Convention Center. Four hours into Friday’s first day, which began at noon, two panels started – one on the second floor titled “AAPI Representation in Comics and Media,” and another on the third floor, “Transcending Boundaries: A Celebration of Trans Creators in Comics and Pop Culture.”


A half-hour later in another second-floor room, the third of nine 90-minute sessions of the Comics Arts Conference, an academic-oriented series, began: “It's Complicated: Holding Out for a Female Antihero.”


Throughout the rest of the day, the scheduled programs, which ended around 9 p.m., included panels on Black representation in horror films and Middle Eastern and North-African American representation in the arts and entertainment media; a roundtable on race and animation in 2023; and spotlights on women, Asian and Black creators. On Saturday and Sunday, about two dozen panels and spotlights either focused directly on diversity and representation or hinted strongly at them


And it makes sense. The dual issues are part of a larger narrative that transcends the bounds of any pop culture gathering. They challenge the entertainment and media industries that symbiotically create the content and objects that constitute the cultural phenomena celebrated and perpetuated at conventions like WonderCon and its more congested and chaotic higher profile sibling to the south, San Diego's Comic-Con.


It's one thing to talk about the issues in the formal setting of a meeting room; that’s an informational exchange. But how do diversity and representation manifest in other forms of cultural exchange at WonderCon? In the social interaction among fans meeting and connecting and cosplayers posing for photo ops? In the creative exchange arising from fans interacting with artists? Or in the dominant mode of exchange on the 412,000-square-foot exhibition floor, the commercial exchange for most of the 900-plus exhibitors selling merchandise?


For the best perspective on that, who better to talk to than someone engaged in all four kinds of cultural exchange – those trying to sell something they created and interacting with potential customers by talking about their work? The best place to find someone like that is in the relatively small area of the exhibit hall reserved for approximately 70 independent publishers of comic books, graphic novels and their print media: the small press area.


What follows are perspectives from three publishers who create their own work and are also people of color. We asked questions about how diversity and representation impact them as business owners, creative artists and human beings.


Andrea Rose Washington at her booth during WonderCon. Photo courtesy of Andrea Rose Washington
Imagining What Isn’t There

 

Andrea Rose Washington writes the kind of novels she loves reading, featuring the kind of characters she lived with but never read about: characters like her.

  

“I was that kid in my bed under the covers reading with a flashlight,” says Washington, a Black woman who grew up in Washington D.C. “I read everything but really connected with the science fiction and fantasy genres. But I never saw myself as the main character and that’s who I wanted to be, so I decided I was going to write the story I wanted to read.”

 

Since 2016 she has created three series: one traditional fantasy, one urban fantasy and one science fiction. Though set in different times and on different worlds, each features a similar protagonist: a Black woman, a character Washington rarely encountered in her reading.


“I want to believe I can do anything, but all I read were stories where people like me were the best friend of the superhero or a sidekick. And that can create a mindset where you  don’t think you can ever save the day, and I wanted to save the day.”


Washington had the imagination to at least wonder why someone who looked like her wasn’t in the books she read. But she recognizes that not everyone has the gift to see what isn’t there.

 

“It’s important for kids to see themselves in what they read or watch,” she said. “For a little girl to look at the cover of a book and say,  ‘Look, that character has hair like mine,’ or who gets a joke because her family tells it. To feel connected to someone who seems to understand where she is coming from,” even if that someone is a fictional character. “Everyone deserves to connect with themselves in the media they consume.”


Not a Monolith

Mark Nazal,  founder of  Diwata Komiks, which launched in 2021, wants the lived experience of creators to infuse the stories in the comics published by his company. And because  Diwata is a Filipino American company, that experience will be Filipino American.


However, that doesn’t mean the stories will be the same.

 

“We may all be from one place racially speaking, but we are not a monolithic group of people. Just as the Philippines has over 7,000 islands and more than 100 languages, Filipino Americans have different experiences and backgrounds. So there are many different and talented storytellers in this community and we want to do our part to bring them to the forefront.”

 

Currently, Diwata, which is centered in Studio City, has three titles: “Carmina,” written by Nazal and Erica Juliet, "Darahug: A Visayan Folk Horror" written and illustrated by Kael Molo, and the “Carnal Tales” series written by Bambi Eloriago-Amago. All are illustrated by Filipino artist Rolan Amago and meld Filipino folklore and myths with new elements inspired by the creator’s subjective experience.


Mark Nazal, left, is founder of the Filipino American comic company Diwata Komiks. He and Erica Juliet, right, collaborated on the conceptualizing of one of the company's flagship characters, Carmina. Photo by Joel Beers, Culture OC
 

Diwata’s next project is "New Icons," an anthology of eight stories written by eight Filipino Americans that will be available later this year. Nazal, who was part of the design team that won an Emmy for a 2017 episode of “Gotham,” is one of those creators, both for Carmina as well as another character in the anthology named Anton.


His experience in creating that character speaks volumes about the importance of media representation.


“Originally I wrote him as a white kid. I never thought someone who looked like me could be the hero because I never saw anyone who looked like me being the hero,” said Nazal. “What representation truly means is people feeling they can be whatever they want to be, but if you don’t see yourself in a particular light and don’t have any role models to (emulate), it limits what you think you can be.”


Diversity of Thought

Marcus McNeal’s concept of diversity in the comics of his Chino Hills-based Odyssey Comics publishes isn’t about stories featuring characters whose ethnicity is central to their identity, but in giving creators of all backgrounds the chance to tell whatever stories they want.


“Everybody is welcome,” says McNeal, who is Black and as Odyssey’s editor-in-chief oversees production of nine titles, including two that he has created. “We have artists from every walk of life, every race, every sexual preference, even across the political spectrum a little bit. But where we have people from diverse backgrounds, they’re also diverse in thought, and I think that’s the most important thing.”


The scope of the titles Odyssey publishes, which range from swashbuckling and horror to science fiction and comedy, reflects that diversity of thought, McNeal said. 


“We have a little bit of everything. We aren’t interested in what people write about or what ideas they express, we are interested in character-driven stories with some kind of emotional depth that speak for themselves.”


“What’s been interesting about our talent is that they don’t necessarily write characters that reflect their race or gender,” McNeal continued. “I think they appreciate the opportunity to write from a different perspective than the one they live every day.”


McNeal’s comments might seem like an outlier at a convention where the subject of diversity and representation was central to many panels held over the three days. 


But if diversity is partly about recognizing differences to promote understanding, and if representation is about authenticity, then McNeal’s views champion both, because he’s only being true to himself. Unlike Washington and Nazal, he did see characters like himself while growing up: in the Marvel comics he started reading at age five with strong Black characters like Storm leading a very diverse lineup of X-Men, and where Luke Cage – despite the awkward jive talk written mostly by white writers – was always the hero.


“Then when I got a little older, the biggest character was Spawn (who was Black), so I think I came into fandom at the right time, when people’s mindsets were already starting to change.”


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