Tuesday, 28 February 2012
LONDON SUPER COMIC-CON: Panel Parity
I spent this last weekend attending the inaugural London Super ComicCon at the Excel Centre in London’s docklands. A great show by anyone’s standards, and despite the (requisite) doomsayers in the run-up I’m certain the event will be back in next year. As is Correct Protocol at these things – particularly in light of certain Real-World shenanigans I shan’t bore you with – I spent a goodly chunk of the time politely swozzled in the bar. Embarrassing flashbacks and associated photographs are already cropping-up. But amongst the slew of wonderful humans with whom I connected or reconnected, this convention was also notable for a slight controversy I happened to create. And I’d like to tell you about it, because it Matters.
Let’s start with fellow writer, spiky-haired awesomenaut and all-round good egg Paul Cornell. As you may have heard, Paul’s been doing a lot of thinking about one of the Big! Important! Issues! currently troubling the comics industry: to whit, that women are invariably underrepresented – and frequently absent entirely – from the Panels which form the core of most conventions. It may sound strange to those of you outside the comicsphere that so much importance is placed on these little 40-minute chunks of Q&A waffle, usually conducted before not-quite-packed audiences, often with abstruse names like “Getting The Foot In The Door”, “How To Draw The Kirby Way”, or “The Importance Of Sequential Flow”. But in an industry composed entirely of freelancers, without Shareholder-Meetings, Executive Boards or even Watercooler Moments, panels are very much the public face of our tribe. And – with a few notable exceptions – they’re almost always a massive sausagefest.
A lot of people don’t think that’s a problem. The argument is that there simply aren’t many women working in the industry, so why should you expect them to be represented on panels? Which is… well, it’s a bloody lazy argument – there are loads of women working in comics – but, sure, okay, fine, let’s be blunt: there are fewer women working in mainstream superhero comics than men. True fakt.
Paul’s contention is this: if we comics-people want our industry to become a genuinely gender-blind place – that is to say, a place in which a professional is judged on his, her or its merits rather than the shape of their junk – then we need to do something about the elephant in the corner: the Where-Are-All-The-Women question.
Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect genuine parity. Maybe – let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute – there really is something fundamental about the medium of “Juxtaposed Pictorial And Other Images In Deliberate Sequence” which attracts male creators and male readers more abundantly than females (bullshit – there isn’t). Or maybe you disagree that with better gender parity would come a maximisation of the perspectives, approaches and ideas entering the comics world and that an increase in quality would inevitably follow (it would). Maybe you’re just not interested in getting more women in the industry, let alone more women on panels. But at the very fucking least we should all want to protect the medium we love from cheap shots and lazy clichés. At the moment it’s all too easy for the lip-curlers and sneermonkies of the world to dismiss Western Comics as the sole preserve of thirtysomething-plus men in teeshirts who never properly grew up because that’s the only face of comics they ever see.
Which is terrible. And I say that as a thirtysomething man in a teeshirt who never properly grew up.
Paul’s idea is that you can’t expect true gender parity in comics unless you create the conditions to facilitate it. Even if one has to dabble in positive discrimination, even if one must expect outraged cries of “tokenism!”, “political correctness gone mad!”, “patronising cockcentric condescension!”, it’s worth it. So Paul created a movement he called “Panel Parity” in which he planned to exercise the only real power he has – like any of us in the weird world of industry conventions – to make a difference. Paul pledged that whenever he’s invited onto a panel which doesn’t feature at least 50% women, he’ll surrender his own seat to a female speaker. Even if that means tracking down someone less “well-suited” to discussing the topic at hand than himself. Even if it means disappointing people in the crowd who travelled to the show specifically to see him talk. As long as Said SheGuest is able to contribute in some way to the conversation, Paul feels her presence on stage is more valuable than his own. Which is a brave and important and splendid thing to say.
As a result of the campaign Paul’s inevitably going to find it difficult to get invited onto panels at all. Being a nice chap he’ll invariably inform convention organisers of his intentions ahead of time, and they – if they feel unable or unwilling to shuffle things around in accordance with his 50/50 request – may feel it easier to simply UnInvite him. To its great credit the London SuperCon did its best to compromise on his behalf: gently removing him from a talk about DC comics, but placing him instead on an equally-divided m/f panel judging attendees’ cosplay outfits. A good start.
I’m not much of a Conventioneer, to be honest. The most I get out of the majority of these shows is the chance to meet some readers, promote a gig or two, catch-up with the industry zeitgeist then spend whatever quality-time remains with my industry friends in the pub. I don’t expect much – I guess I don’t ask much either – and all-in-all I’m a pretty terrible candidate for flag-waving do-gooding firebrandery.
But at the show this weekend I happened to find myself in a rather liberating position. I had nothing to promote and no material to sell, and had been invited to appear on a panel titled “How To Write A Comics Script” alongside a bunch of guys – men – whose reputations and claims-to-fame were all significantly greater than mine. It was vanishingly unlikely anyone attending that panel had paid to enter the show simply to hear me waffle about Panel Progression and Gutter Efficiency, and so I was to all intents and purposes disposable.
So I did Panel Parity. I spent some time before the session visiting as many booths as I could, looking for a woman who (for whatever my opinion’s worth) would provide the attendees of the panel with a valuable contribution. I didn’t want to hijack the event with a big flashy statement and no value-for-money, nor piss-off my fellow panellists, nor make the audience feel gypped – so believe me when I say I totally lucked-out by finding the exceedingly excellent and enormously talented Tammy Taylor. When I shyly told her what I was planning she jumped at the chance to appear, and promised to be waiting in the front row of the audience.
I warned the panel organisers what I wanted to do before just going onto stage. I felt like a shithead for being disruptive – particularly to the wonderful David Montieth of Geek Syndicate, who’s genuinely one of the Nicest Men In Comics and didn’t deserve the headache I might’ve caused him. But I was impressed at every step by how understanding these guys were – wishing nothing more than that I’d given them a little more notice (which, frankly, was the one thing I couldn't easily do – as Paul’s situation demonstrated). In the end I was allowed to open the panel with a little speech about what I was about to do and why, an apology for being disruptive and a promise I’d make myself available in the pub if anyone wanted to discuss “How To Write A Comics Script”. And then I invited Tammy onto stage, grinned like an idiot while the audience triumphantly welcomed her, and slunk into the Naughty Seat at the back to wait for my cheeks to stop burning.
The panel was a joy. If I’d had any fears about reactions from any quarter they were extinguished instantly. Tammy was articulate, insightful and brilliant. The other panellists – who had every right to be pissed-off at the interruption – instinctively and naturally included her in the requisite banter without weirdness or condescension, bounced questions back and forth, and were entirely Cool. I couldn’t have been happier with the way it turned out. The response, so far, has been overwhelmingly positive.
Would I do it again? Honestly, I don’t know. As I told Paul when we discussed it later, the idea might not even have occurred to me if I’d been appearing at the show under different circumstances, with a more clearly-defined agenda or more to lose. I’m basically a coward, and it’s easy to make a stand when there’s nothing at stake. What I will say is this: I made an instinctive little calculation that – to me, at that time, under those conditions – it was more valuable to surrender the seat than to occupy it. And given the cascade of support, and more importantly the slew of interest and exposure Tammy’s received, I’m not ashamed to admit I’m feeling pretty bloody great about the whole thing.
I would gently encourage other male comics professionals to give it a little thought before next stepping onto stage. Do you really need to be up there?
Go check out Tammy's WEBSITE, and find her on DEVIANTART.