By Kate Kight
Washington D.C. (The Hollywood Times) 1/14/18 – Leaders in Washington D.C. have long been searching for way to end the deep divides that mark our political culture, but have found little success. Common ground is becoming the scorched earth no pundit or politician dares tread on. A day of comic books and superheroes seems a far cry from the solutions we need, but “DC in D.C.” reminded this city that artists and storytellers are far ahead of policymakers. DC Comics does not shy away from using the fantastical world of superheroes to explore current, and currently divisive, events. In doing so, they have found neglected audiences and fandoms clamoring for complex representation of identities, for stories and characters that don’t see straight, white, male heroes as standard.
By bringing the artists and actors who are creating these stories to D.C., attendees saw the potential for these stories to make an impact. More than proving that diverse shows are commercially successful, interrogating the history and creation of superhero stories can help us look beyond our own assumptions, even in Washington.
Candice Patton, who portrays Iris West on “The Flash” acknowledged her extiecemtn to be in the city where “change happens”. Patton’s fans dominated the #DCinDC2018 Twitter hashtag, celebrating not just her portrayal of a fan favorite character but her insightful and powerful comments on breaking barriers as a black woman.
The day began with the “Art of the Matter” panel, a journey through the creation process of DC comics with some of its top artists and actors. The conversation revealed the depth of passion each artist has for their portion of creating a character, how deeply personal and deeply hopeful this work is.
Cress Williams, who plays Black Lightning, DC’s first African American superhero to star in his own television show, said of superhero stories “It’s our modern-day mythology”. More than entertainment, comic books and superhero shows give us a sense of justice that is often lacking from our daily lives. Like ancient mythologies, comic books reflect our reality, engaging in controversial topics with the freedom fantasy allows. Geoff Jones, Chief Creative Officer for DC comics, remarked. “The good [comic books] say something else”.
Salim and Mara Brock Akil, co-creators of Black Lightning, are certainly responsible for some of the good ones. They discussed the their responsibility as artists to engage with the realities of the times, especially as black creators of black characters. Mr. Akil said, “I do feel a responsibility to talk about certain things”.
Black Lightning lives in the fictional city of Metropolis, in Southside. It’s counterpart in reality, Southside Chicago, is a favorite reference of conservative pundits trying to deflect the racism of their constituents by bringing up “black on black” crime. It’s these points of convergence, where superheroes and their storytellers dip into reality to remind us of the villains and injustices in our society, that make comics resonate across so many years and generations. Alice Randall, who is not just a writer for DC Comics, but also professor at Vanderbilt college, said of the panelists on stage, “These actors, writers, and producers are helping create the text to make sure that our reality is better in the future”.
Black Lightning promises to be a show that holds up a mirror to the hypocrisy of those who criticize Chicago’s South Side while turning a blind eye to the kind of injustice Black Lightning would be sure to face in America. Yet, as Sarah Schechter said, “You can’t hang all of your hopes on one person, you can’t hang all of your hopes on one character”. Schechter, executive producer of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, joined both “The Art of the Matter” panel and “Wonder Women” panel, reiterating that representation matters. Representation does not mean ticking the box on “female superhero” and “black superhero” and “queer superhero”, it means recognizing that Gotham, Metropolis, and Central City should be just as full of diverse people as the cities of our reality are. No one character or storyline should bear the burden of speaking for all who share their identity, just as no character’s identity should be the driver of their innate traits. The “Pride of DC” panel reminded us, too often queer identity is seen as a marker of evilness, of wrongness. Relying on the crutch of stereotypes, instead of creating a meaningful backstor, doesn’t just harm communities, it makes for a poor storyline.
Pushing for a more diverse future is not just about ideology, it’s also about who the audience is. Only 26% of comic book characters are women, but women represent over half of comic book readership. For Schechter, and the other panelists of “Wonder Women” this imbalance isn’t because female superheroes don’t sell, as “Wonder Woman” proved beyond a doubt this summer. “It’s the patriarchy. It’s sexism,” Schechter said. An audience member shouted, “It’s racism, too!”.
While “DC in D.C.” talked racism, sexism, and homophobia, the event neglected to acknowledge the intersections of these forces in our society. Iris West does not exist as a black person and woman individually, she is black female character who does not get to separate the distinct burdens that identity places on her. Despite a number of incredible black women who appeared on the “Shades of Heroism” panel, the “Wonder Women” panel was almost entirely white. The “Pride of D.C.” was also composed of a majority of white men. During each panel, the names and Twitter handles of each panelist were projected on the backdrop, but the “Pride of DC” panel alone projected the panelists’ preferred pronouns. By not acknowledging the intersections of our identities, by relegating pronouns to just the Pride panel, and not prioritizing the voices of women of color, “DC in D.C”. reminded us that we still have work to do, Progressive spaces, artistic spaces, are not exempt from the institutional forces of oppression, and even when celebrating progress it is crucial that we demand more and better.
“DC in D.C” was a reminder of the crucial difference between diversity and representation. Diversity assumes that the standard is homogenous, that diversity occurs through differences from cis-het-white maleness. Representation reflects a world in which there is no standard, that the expected gaze is neither white nor male, that the characters who inhabit it are complex individuals, not archetypes or stereotypes. In striving for representation in our art, we strive for art that is not a reflection distorted by the oppressive weight of racism and patriarchy. It is my hope that there will many more “DC in D.C.s” that will embrace the intersection of our identities, advance art that critiques our world and imagines a better one, and pushes us closer to a reality in which freedom and justice can be achieved – without superpowers.
Join all of us tuning into Black Lightning on Tuesday with the hashtag #GetLit!
Black Lightning on Tuesday with the hashtag #GetLit!