Despite ‘Diversity Mission,’ Denver Comic Con Held an All-Male Panel—About Women
The popular Tumblr page “Congrats, You Have an All-Male Panel!” draws attention to conferences held around the world that all have one thing in common: None of the panelists is a woman. The page uses tongue-in-cheek humor—each photo is stamped with an image of David Hasselhoff giving a thumbs-up—to show that the lack of representation is not just an oversight by conference organizers but a function of how women are excluded from leadership positions in cities and industries across the board, from technology and science to advertising and theater.
Over the weekend, the page added another all-male panel to its growing collection, but it was especially confounding because of its subject matter: women. Titled “Women in Comics—Creators and Characters,” the talk at Denver Comic Con lacked any of the female illustrators its panelists purported to know so much about. The irony was not lost on attendees like Christy Black, a self-described “geek girl” and comics fan who live-tweeted the panel, which she said was more like a lecture about the early appearance of women in comics in relation to men.
“When I asked why there weren’t any women on the panel I was told because it was a [late] addition and they couldn’t find any,” Black tweeted. Jason Jansky, a spokesperson for Denver Comic Con, suggested that the outrage—which exploded on Twitter—over the panel’s absence of women was misguided, because it was an academic look at female comic book characters, not “anything to do with industry bias.” In a statement issued to Comics Alliance, he said, “I think it’s important to point out that it was a panel that took an historical view of women characters in comic books rather than the current role of women creators in the industry or diversity in comics—of which DCC has many with appropriately diverse panels.”
The statement seemed to affirm—rather than assuage—concerns raised by Black and the Twittersphere and raised all sorts of questions: Wouldn’t a woman’s perspective on female comic book characters be valuable? Should a panel turn a blind eye to gender and racial bias simply because its panelists come from academic rather than industry backgrounds? What constitutes an “appropriately diverse” panel? And why is it “appropriate” for some panels and not others to include a range of perspectives?
What Jansky was likely referring to is the convention’s newly announced “diversity mission,” which, believe it or not, was an inaugural initiative at this year’s convention.
Denver Comic Con calls itself the “only comic con with a diversity mission,” and its website emphasizes inclusion: “We want everyone to feel comfortable and part of our community. Our programming is no exception, as we strive to provide a variety of sessions for the LGBTQ community, women, and people of color.” Organizers touted panels such as “Beyond Bechdel: Queer Femmes and Women in Comics” and “Coming Out of the Costume: Comics and Sexual Identity.”
Still, Denver Comic Con’s diversity initiative, no matter how well-intentioned, can hardly be considered comprehensive without taking an inclusive approach to all panels—not just the ones programmed to address diversity. It’s all the more important considering that comic book conventions are attended almost equally by both genders, according to Jason Aaron, who is writing the new female-led Thor series and was interviewed about the industry’s gender gap by Five Thirty Eight.
According to a Publishers Weekly report released in March, women ages 17 to 33 were the fastest-growing group at comic book retailers across the country. While industry experts say the reported demographics of comic book readers are not always reliable, market research conducted by Facebook last year showed that men and women liked comic book fan pages at a nearly equal rate, even though females characters are largely underrepresented in the releases of the two major comic book publishers, DC and Marvel.
The silver lining to Denver Comic Con’s unfortunate all-male panel is that it inspired a group of attendees, including the admired comic book writer and artist Trina Robbins, to create their own spontaneous, all-female counter-panel. Dubbed “Women in Comics NOW!”, the Monday event featured input from playwright Crystal Skillman and comic book artist Joelle Jones, according to the website Bleeding Cool. It likely inspired the kind of inclusive discussion attendees might have expected from a panel about women in comics.