As I walked through the doors of the QLN Conference Center in Oceanside California on a gloomy Sunday at about eleven thirty in the morning, I was reminded of the old maxim, “never judge a book by its cover.” Writing for a literary journal that seeks out and exemplifies diversity in writing, I was doubly reminded. With that said, I was still amazed at how much the So-Cal Comic Con resembled its much larger cousin, the San Diego Comic Con.
Large hanging draperies extended from a center chandelier in all directions, creating a cathedral-like effect that draws attention away from the corrugated foam ceiling. Everywhere I looked my eyes feasted on a veritable buffet of merchandise, memorabilia and of course, comic books. Action figures rested in plastic-windowed cardboard boxes, waiting to be released into the imagination of some passing fan. I had entered just as the Rob Liefeld panel was coming to a close, and in moments the room was packed from front to back with comic book fans from all across southern California, gathering to celebrate their fandom.
Genuine happiness and camaraderie could be felt among the inhabitants of the conference center as judgement was left at the door in place of the shared fascination of all things comic. All of the guests were quick to say excuse me, or offer a bit of information when I wasn’t sure why everyone was waiting in that huge line for some guy to sign their poster. (He created Deadpool, was the answer.) These people just love comics, and if you can get on that level, then they can get on yours.
My first stop was at the table of Perry Covington, author of a new series of YA science fiction/fantasy books called Child of Atlantis. The first book in the series, Ascension, is about a young Asian-American named Max who, under the tutelage of his strong, female, Atlantean friend Alana must try to rescue his kidnapped parents in a trek across Europe that shatters everything you know about history. I was genuinely pleased to see the promotion of a diverse fantasy story almost as soon as I walked in the door, and I really hoped it would be a signifier of what laid ahead in the comic sector.
Amazingly, however, even in the epicenter of So-Cal comic culture it was hard to find someone willing to actually speak about comic books and their proclivity away from diversity. Once I was met with an angry stare and twice with polite, but firm denials that left me wondering about the harm that could come from a few simple words. It wasn’t until I wandered into the back corner of the large, warehouse-esque building that I was greeted with the bright and bearded smile of Bert Simmons, owner of Bert’s Comics.
Although Bert claimed his ignorance of current comic material left him a bit lacking in his knowledge of trending diversity, he was able to offer some insight as to why I was having so much trouble finding any comics representing gay, trans, or gender-neutral characters. Being an aficionado of vintage comics from the sixties and seventies, Bert stated that many of his generation of comic readers stick to the time-tested and savored favorites from their nostalgic youths—a time where “diversity” meant wearing plaid leggings with a striped skirt.
And it was true. Everywhere I looked I could find stack after stack of twenty five-cent and two-for-a-dollar comics. Old comics. Comics whose pages still bore the newsprint type and ink that would rub off on your fingers twenty years after the press had cooled. There wasn’t so much of the newer, brighter, more graphically crafted covers like those that grace the racks of comic book stores nowadays.
And that’s fine, it makes sense to “take it back to its roots” when trying to get away from the hustle, bustle and massive draw of events like the San Diego Comic Con, where the Marvel and DC characters that started it all can often be overlooked in choice of the brighter, flashier heroes of today. But what that means for me, is that finding a new comic with at least some level of diversity in the protagonists and the stories focused around them, was going to be difficult. Finding a book was great, truly, but I was here for the comics.
In true comic book fashion, it wasn’t until I had given up and was working on making my way back out of the amoebic mass of people crowding the comics around me that I almost literally stumbled upon a diamond in the rough. In my desire to eke out a space for myself, I stepped up to a table with no one in front of it, a single person sitting behind it, and illustrations of women fully-clothed and not sexually fantasized adorning the cover of the comics displayed upon it. This was my first encounter with Jill Trent.
Jill Trent, as I would come to learn, was one of the “OG” diverse comic book characters. From her inception in the forties, her character challenged societal norms by being an intelligent, outspoken woman who utilized scientific inventions to help solve crimes. Oh, and she’s a lesbian. This character, awesome in her hay-day, has been revived and rejuvenated to be a powerful speaker for comic book diversity more than ever. Kyle Roberts, who was running the booth, told me, “Jill Trent—the comic and the character genesis behind it—is meant to give young female readers someone to identify with; a character not overly sexualized or marginalized.” With five different versions of the character as pulled from the minds of five different writers, Jill Trent is able to transcend multicultural and sexual boundaries often set forth in comic books. There’s a black Jill. There’s a white Jill. There’s an Asian-American Jill. Why all of these different Jills? Because, as stated by the editor, D.M. Higgins, “representation matters.”
And that was the theme that I left the So-Cal Comic Con with. Representation matters. No matter if it’s in books, movies or comics, every race, gender and creed deserves to have someone to identify with. Someone to be able to say, “I want to be like that.” And in the end, I guess I can say that here. It’s in the works. Diversity is finding its way into the comic world. Let’s just hope things pick up a little bit.
By: J. Zeiders