A number of panelists took part in the Body Diversity panel at Emerald City Comicon on Saturday afternoon, including Casey Gilly, Sarah Gaydos, Steenz Stewart, Valentine De Landro, Leia Calderon, Jen Vaughn, and Tini Howard. Following on from an excellent panel on the same subject last year at ECCC, this session suggested some positive development in comics for representing diverse body types, but on the whole, reminded us that there’s still a long way to go. That doesn’t mean the subject was met with defeated attitudes—the panel was very upbeat and body-positive and displayed the energy and clear communication necessary to help promote change.
Tini Howard, currently working on Magdalena, from Top Cow, said she is really happy to be including a character who is neither young nor old in her comic because those characters seem to be strangely absent in comics as a whole. While her main character is very fit, she looks like a 32 year old woman, not like a younger or more idealized woman. Presenting a “grown woman who works out” was a step in the right direction and “crucial” to the series, Howard said.
Sarah Gaydos said that in editing Jem, from IDW, one of the important things the comic has done is to show a wide array of body types in the characters. Casey Gilly added that one thing she really likes about the comic is that there’s no “value” of “standard pretty” needed to give characters a spotlight.
Jem (IDW), The Backstagers (Boom), and Lumberjanes (Boom) were all comics praised for showing variety of character and body types for a younger generation by panelist Jen Vaughn.
Asked about the intersection between body diversity and racial diversity, panelists spoke about the need to be “genuine to ourselves” and “respect our readers”, but being careful not to “diminish the intent” of the book by trying to please everybody.
If you have the ability to push the boundaries, one should do it not simply because you feel you have to, but in order to do something new, panelists said. There’s not much wrong you can do with that intent, they said, especially if a new reader might see themselves in comics for the first time and stick with the medium.
Gaydos said that we need to grow the industry, and in order to have a thriving industry, this forward movement is necessary. She wants to reach all the people out there who don’t even think about this issue currently, she said. Reflecting the world around us is the best way to expand the medium and it makes for better stories, too, she added.
Addressing why we have these preconceived notions of what a body should look like in comics, Gilly said that the reasons behind tying racial choices to size and shape in comics can be destructive. Sometimes creators are using size and shape of characters to communicate values before we even get to see what the characters are thinking and saying. In short, racial stereotypes included in body types are just that—stereotypes that diminish diversity rather than increase it.
Howard said that some of the stereotypes we have about people of color exist because those qualities have been fetishized by the dominant racial group. It’s not necessarily making a brave leap to include diverse body types simply because no one has seen bodies like this before, but more that you haven’t seen them in the MEDIA before. You have seen them in real life, they are just not represented in comics, which is the problem.
Asking for a wide range of body types to be represented in comics is also about breeding compassion, the panelists said. As much as it’s about creating stories, it’s also about including different perspectives through different body types and experiences, which creates compassion in readers. Regarding a certain “pairing system” in any comics with romance or erotica, putting only certain body types with other similar body types is also really limiting, panelists said.
For artists in comics, having diverse friends is a good way to make sure you will represent diversity in your work, some panelists suggested. It will affect your work, and taking a chance to learn about the wider world can only contribute, they said. Gaydos added that hiring consultants can be a good move to make sure there’s a deeper level of accuracy in speaking on behalf of communities in the comics you create.
The increasing number of trans characters in comics is a positive thing, an audience member noted, but including different body types for trans characters would be the next positive move. Gaydos said that it starts with getting work for a wider array of artists and writers, too, and retailers then need to support that diverse material in their shops, too.
An audience member reminded us that including more body diversity for male characters is also a major issue, to applause. Gilly said that in the show Daredevil, the presentation of Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin was really interesting because he was presented as having impeccable clothing and presentation, even shown in his orderly closet. This reflected a personal value in his body type rather than his clothing acting as an expression of self-loathing or self-neglect, which is more common in shows featuring larger characters.
There may be a problem in that there’s no particular agenda in showing different male body types as noted by readers, panelists said. The double standard is very clear. If you show different male body types, it doesn’t alter the story, but the same situation in representing female bodies becomes a big discussion point with backlash. It becomes a more obvious part of the story and a thematic subject.
Regarding age representation in comics, the only characters over 30 are usually moms, an audience member observed. The comic The Fuse was namechecked for having a spectrum of age and size, including an older female protagonist. The next Star Trek TV show is going to have a “distinguished lady”, Gaydos said. The video game Overwatch, Howard said, is unique because the characters are over 30 years old, including an older Egyptian woman.
An audience member asked about reflecting disability and neurodiversity in comics. Jade Street Protection Agency, from Black Mask Studios, was suggested for including a non-verbal autistic female character, as did Postal from Top Cow for including an autistic male narrator, both presenting autism in characters in different ways. There’s also a convention for disability in comics, happening in Seattle this year, Howard added.
All in all, the discussion was lively and continued for the whole timeslot allotted for the panel. There was a distinctive sense that the details behind progress had shifted this year—moving from needing representation in comics to discussing how representation, once there, can still be problematic and need some fine-tuning. That’s a benchmark of progress, showing there’s now some material to critique rather than simply an absence of representation. Though compared to wider mainstream comics, diversity of body type is still very limited.