Every year, hundreds of comic cons take place across the country. Many of these cons attempt to have panels focused on diversity but the bulk of the talent (despite being very good) has been geared toward what’s popular in the mainstream. This means you get a lot of superheroes but not a lot of the hidden gems that comic books have to offer. It also means you get the same kind of audience that, while well meaning, doesn’t truly cater to everyone. This past weekend, I attended Flame Con 2016 in Brooklyn, “a two-day comics, arts, and entertainment expo showcasing creators and celebrities from all corners of LGBTQ geek fandom”. Last year, I did not attend the first edition but because of the buzz, I had to be at this year’s event. Flame Con 2 was without a doubt the most welcoming, progressive, and informative comic book convention I’ve ever attended.
I went to Flame Con 2 as a member of the press so when I walked in, I was directed to the third floor for press check in. Typically, the only con I attend every year is New York Comic Con where I walk in, flash my badge, and carry on. At Flame Con, I had to check in more formally. The staff was very welcoming. I was shown the press room, how to get to the showroom floor, encouraged to attend panels, and was even gently reminded to respect the preferred pronouns of the con-goers that (if you wanted) would be displayed by a free sticker given out by the con. And there were plenty to go around including the gender neutral “they”. Flame Con is a con that prides itself on representing the LGBTQ community and part of this is respect of identity. Along with these stickers, there were gender neutral restrooms and programming that captured the issues facing the LGBTQ community in comic books.
Over the two days, I went to 3 panels in total. The first was on Saturday and the topic was Writing For Diversity In Comics. Moderated by Heather Hogan, the panel included Steve Orlando (“Midnighter”), Greg Pak (“Totally Awesome Hulk”), Amy Reeder (“Rocket Girl”), Terry Blas (“Mama Tits Saves The World”) and Sophie Campbell (“Jem and the Holograms”). This panel discussed representation in comic books and how these creators approached it. One of the biggest takeaways was that this representation doesn’t have a quota. It is more about creating a story that allows people to see themselves in the characters, which isn’t something that exists so much in a very white and hetero comic book world, especially within the “Big Two”. Each panelists discussed their own work, backgrounds, and what they want to see happen further in comic books. Campbell was one of the most insightful voices and she talked about the backlash she has dealt with on social media thanks to the changes she and writer Kelly Thompson made to “Jem”. It was a necessary part of this discussion because while we want to see more representation, it’s important realize that there are people who are actively fighting against it. As a plus sized woman, I especially appreciated Campbell and Blas talking about positive body representation. A fan also questioned the need for more representation of physically disabled people and Orlando mentioned that in his “Supergirl” series, this will be addressed in a way that doesn’t feel like a “very special episode”.
The second panel I attended was “Help! How Do I Write a Transgender or Non-Binary Character?”. This panel featured a mix of fiction writers, comic book artists and video game creators. On the panel were Naomi Reubin, Lawrence Gullo, Fyodor Pavlov, Morgan Boecher, and Thea Walther. Unlike the other two panels I attended, this was more of a workshop than panel. This began with a discussion of the pitfalls of writing transgender and non-binary characters including the overdone “coming out” story and the trouble with mainstream pop culture always drawing attention to differences, instead of embracing them. One of the most interesting things that came up was when someone talked about their own story they were working on featuring a trans woman in a place of power. This led to a discussion about how trans representation needs to grow. One specific example was instead of writing a police procedural with a trans sex worker being interrogated, write a trans person in the power position. Write them as a the detective and give them the agency you would give a white male heterosexual protagonist. As someone who reviews work and doesn’t write their own, I was surprised by how in depth this ended up being but am super grateful I was there for it. It was a genuine learning experience that I don’t think I would have ever gotten at another con. As a cisgendered woman, I do not fully understand the experience of transgender and non-binary people. This panel didn’t immediately teach me all I ever need to know but I learned a great deal that will help me analyze media with an even more critical eye.Continued below
The third panel I attended was “Geek Activism”. It was hosted by Elana Levin of Graphic Policy and featured J.A. Micheline (Comics Bulletin, Women Write About Comics), Nicole Guitau, and Jackson Bird. This discussion focused entirely on the intersection between social media, criticism, and actual activism. As hashtag campaigns grow and more folks like Micheline bring up valid critique of the industry, what steps can be taken to make change? This was right up my alley and I was really intrigued by the discussion of the role of the critic and when a person actually becomes an activist. I worked with a non-profit social group for years and I’ve attended multiple protests and I really enjoyed the emphasis placed on the active part of activism. Micheline and Levin gave a lot of credit to the critics who start the conversation and opened up discussion to the audience about what happens next. Critics aren’t truly responsible for the activism that comes next. They critique and the analyze. It does not come down to them to also take the action. I was left energized by this and I really want to see more of this kind of thing at comic book conventions.
The panels as a whole all tackled topics like the ones I did attend. Flame Con was not a place where diversity and inclusion was just a hot topic buzzword for creators to earn ally credit. It was a convention where marginalized people were allowed to talk freely about the issues facing them. It was a safe space to talk about these things and it’s a feeling that I don’t know any other comic book convention can actually capture. On top of this, there were some people turned away from panel rooms because rooms got capped. People were here to learn and listen and it was special.
On top of the programming, the exhibition hall was full of excitement and pure energy. Gone were mad dashes to exclusive toys and variant covers. There were “known” names like Kate Leth, Greg Pak and Steve Orlando but the appeal of Flame Con was to get exposed to comic books that you may never have a chance to see in your local comic shop. My biggest regret of the weekend was not saving up more money to spend because I was like a kid in a candy shop. I bought an Aquaman print from Kris Anka but then I spent the rest of my time checking out all of the different comic book and zines that put LGBTQ characters at the forefront and treated them respectfully. There were lots of different genres and lots of different stories being told. Even better? It was packed. The floor was definitely easy to navigate but tables were selling out of items left and right. It is the most visible proof that comic book readers will spend money on comic books that represent them. Flame Con felt like a show that a creator could do well at because they are catering to a fan base that is under served in the mainstream.
I get to read a lot of comics every week but I don’t get the chance to buy the titles from the creators I got to meet this weekend at Flame Con. I came home with a really nice haul including work from Wendy Xu, Emily Willis, Terry Blas, Chad Sell, Northwest Press, Sophie Campbell, Mags Visaggio, and Dale Lazarov. My to read pile is already very big but the books I got at Flame Con jumped to the top of my pile.
Flame Con was the most one of the best weekends I’ve had a comic con. The staff was friendly and everyone was genuinely excited to be there. It’s a con I can’t stop thinking about and I cant’t wait to go again next year.