Feb 28 2015

“We Charge Genocide” and the case for grassroots organising

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Shaka Lee is a black liberationist passionate about labour, the Midwest, co-ops and music. Shaka currently resides in Chicago, IL, and works as a researcher for a labour union that represents hospitality, airport and food service workers.

A makeshift memorial in Ferguson (Photograph: Jbouie/Flickr)

On 9 August 2014, Michael Brown, 18, was shot by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

On 24 August 2014, Roshad McIntosh, 19, was shot by Chicago Police in Chicago, Illinois.

Every 28 hours, a black person is killed by the police, a security guard or vigilante (see George Zimmerman) in the United States.

Why? Police are more likely to harass, detain and kill black people regardless of what they are doing. The statistics are staggering. Even looking at Ferguson, Missouri, a city where two thirds of the population are black, over 80 per cent of the traffic stops are of black people, and almost 93 per cent of the arrests are of black people (source), the police department is almost entirely white.

But as an organiser, as a person of conscience, and a black queer person, where do I and others turn with this knowledge? The Department of Justice? The United Nations? Those most concerned with the civil rights and human liberties of black people find out that we must continue to turn to ourselves.

In November 2014, Michael Brown’s family, organisers and black and brown youth took a trip to Geneva, Switzerland to testify in front of the UN Committee Against Torture about police brutality and the increasing militarisation of American police forces. Organisations including We Charge Genocide and Millennial Activists United brought testimony, recommendations, reports, and their truths about American policing. Leslie McSpadden, mother of the late Michael Brown, told CNN, “We need the world to know what’s going on in Ferguson and we need justice.” We Charge Genocide sent its Youth Delegation to make sure the UN recognised that the murder of black and brown people by the police was never unique, but a product of systematic American racism.

Almost 64 years ago, another group of black organisers petitioned the United Nations with similar claims against the United States government. In 1951, Paul Robeson and William L. Patterson submitted the petition, “We Charge Genocide” at the United Nations charging the US government with genocide against black people. The lead organisation in this campaign, the Civil Rights Congress, was founded in Detroit, Michigan and was best known for organising the prosecution of the murderers of Emmett Till. The petition documented hundreds of killings of black individuals, patterns of police brutality, and lynching between 1945 and 1951, as well as the economic apartheid occurring in the US. The petition includes the following statement:

It is our hope, and we fervently believe that it was the hope and aspiration of every black American whose voice was silenced forever through premature death at the hands of racist-minded hooligans or Klan terrorists, that the truth recorded here will be made known to the world; that it will speak with a tongue of fire loosing an unquenchable moral crusade, the universal response to which will sound the death knell of all racist theories.

The 1951 petition was controversial and those involved experienced political persecution tied to the Red Scare. However, after the 2014 trip, the United Nations’ panel condemned the US record on police brutality and other related issues including Guantanamo and the detention of child migrants. How will their condemnation weigh in this deeply divided American political climate? And more importantly, how will their words and recommendations prevent the death of more black people (when every 28 hours another black person is killed by the police)? How many trips to Geneva does it take to protect our communities in Chicago, Ferguson, St. Louis, Detroit, New York, Cleveland, Beavercreek, Los Angeles, etc?

I remain unsure. But what I am sure of is that the response after the announcement of the non-indictments of the killer of Michael Brown (and, subsequently, of Eric Garner) shows the inadequacy of the United Nations to provide real protection to Black communities in the US. Although the UN recognises the issue of police brutality, there remains an absence of action as police officers are still not being held accountable for racially motivated brutality. We, as a global community, are continuously reminded from the courtrooms to the streets that we will have to be the protection, love, investment and radical change we deserve in our communities.

As someone who has protested and supported organising in multiple cities, including Ferguson and Detroit, I have seen evidence that we are ready to be what we deserve. Those who have been organising for 60 years and 60 seconds are coming together in recognition that black life is just as sacred. But many are coming to the conclusion that our larger state, federal, and international governing bodies will only follow the change we create, rather than actually creating it. It took decades of protests, organising and action to secure the gains won by the American Civil Rights Movement. But all of those changes were attacked and only maintained by the aggressive presence of people power. When we testify to our larger governing structures, it is more of an opportunity for them to legitimise their relevancy than ours. Because we will stay in this struggle for the long haul no matter who agrees or disagrees with our indignant rage.

The US government may not listen to the UN but will have to listen to all those out in the streets. The US government may not listen to the UN but it will have to listen if both domestic and international communities continue to draw closer and challenge America’s militaristic conquest on the vulnerable worldwide. So not only do we charge genocide, we will continue to charge, closer together, inside the halls of the UN, into police lines, on the picket line, in our classrooms, and on our street corners. As a worldwide community of conscience continues to arise from the West Bank to the West Side of Chicago, we will win. As organisations continue to build capacity for the movement that must occur – those for or against us will continue to show their true colours and commitment to the human family.

Posted by: Posted on by Andrew Small Tagged with: , , , , ,

Feb 19 2015

An Unlikely Bestseller Sheds Some Light on Guantanamo

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Hilary Stauffer is a Visiting Fellow at LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights. She is an international lawyer with extensive experience working on projects in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Asia. Her specialties include International Law, Rule of Law, Human Rights, Humanitarian Affairs and Diplomacy.

Guantanamo Diary - Cover

Whatever the architects of the United States’ post-9/11 counterterrorism policy were thinking when they decided to open a ‘secret’ prison camp on a remote military base off the tip of Cuba, we can state with confidence they did not imagine it would become an artists’ colony for bestselling writers.  Unbelievably, though, that is exactly what has happened, at least for one detainee in particular, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who has been in Guantanamo Bay for 13 years.

It’s very difficult to get people to care about Guantanamo, and I speak from experience. Previously, I served as the Deputy Director of the London-based legal charity Reprieve, which works on behalf of those who have been unjustly ensnared in the counterterrorism dragnet that the US and its allies deployed in the years following the September 11th attacks.  I was part of the legal team which represented more than a dozen men who are imprisoned at Guantanamo, and in this role, I encountered two distinct groups of people: those who are unaware that Guantanamo is still open, and those are willing to casually dismiss its inmates as ‘bad guys’ who ‘deserve’ to be there.  Mr. Slahi’s book, Guantanamo Diary (an unlikely bestseller in both the Amazon.com and New York Times rankings), may finally help dispel these misconceptions.

I did not work on Mr. Slahi’s case, although his story is representative of so many Guantanamo detainees.  He appears to be neither the victim of some grand conspiracy to subjugate the Muslim world and steal its oil, nor the perpetrator of terrible attacks against Western targets. Rather, he is someone with just ‘the worst luck’ – a pithy characterization made by Cliff Sloan, the Obama White House’s recently-departed Guantanamo guru, who has returned to private law practice after lasting a respectable 18 months in a thankless job.

Mr. Slahi is still detained at Guantanamo; his 400-page book is pieced together from diaries written while incarcerated, which were later passed to his attorneys, via military censors. The claims within are nothing new: descriptions of brutality, torture, and interrogations from intelligence officials who had the apparently mistaken impression that he was an active member of Al-Qaeda and involved in several plots against the United States. More than 20 years ago, Mr. Slahi did engage in some youthful misadventures in the wilds of Afghanistan—but then again, so did the U.S. and its erstwhile friends. In any case, in 2010, a federal judge reviewed and dismissed the government’s evidence against him.  So many of the detainees who remain in Guantanamo find themselves in equally Kafkaesque circumstances: ‘cleared’ of any prosecutable offense, but having nowhere to go.

Guantanamo’s problem has always been that it inspires extreme views in people—not extremist views, mind you, but extreme views.   From its supporters, it inspires extreme, sweeping generalisations of the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ variety, whereby everyone who is in Guantanamo is, ipso facto, a terrorist. After all, this is a prison for the ‘worst of the worst’, as President George W. Bush used to remind everybody. How curious, then, that approximately 660 of its 780 inmates — nearly 85 per cent — have been quietly released without charge, either returned to their own country or repatriated abroad.

From its detractors, Guantanamo inspires extreme sweeping generalisations of a different kind. According to this camp, practically ‘none’ of the detainees have ever been charged with any crime, and everyone inside is a blameless victim of the counterterrorism-industrial complex. Legally speaking, the fact that a majority of detainees have been ‘cleared for transfer’ doesn’t mean that they never committed any wrongdoing, but rather that the U.S. government doesn’t have enough evidence to charge them, or that any evidence they do have was illegally obtained through torture.  The practical outcome may be the same, but the underlying values are not.  I personally believe that many of the detainees currently in Guantanamo are guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time (sold for bounty by poor, desperate people in a faraway land). However, insisting that they are all ‘innocent’ is distinctly unhelpful, as there are at least a few prominent examples of actual terrorists who have ended up in Guantanamo, and provide fodder for those who want to keep the prison open indefinitely.

From everybody else, Guantanamo inspires extreme apathy, and this is the most dangerous emotion of all. Because whether you believe that Mr. Slahi and his co-detainees are guilty, innocent, or just unlucky, the fact remains that we just don’t know because they were snatched up under the most unlawful of circumstances, tortured, beaten and finally dumped in a forgotten corner of the world for the past 13 years.  Very few have undergone any kind of legitimate judicial hearing which carefully examines the charges against them; some have died within their cells under suspect circumstances; most have just sunk into a deep depression as protracted diplomatic discussions grind on in Washington DC and foreign capitals.

During this period they have missed births, deaths, graduations, weddings, anniversaries and hundreds of other quotidian occurrences which make up a human life.  Some have suffered greatly as they watched the Middle East go up in flames and wondered what happened to their families in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia or Yemen, unable to assist their loved ones in any way.  Some have been ‘lucky’ enough to be released to a third country where they don’t speak the language or have the right to work, and are under constant supervision by the intelligence services. Is this better than being in Guantanamo? Sure; but how depressing that we must accept that as a measure for comparison.

It is anyone’s guess whether Mr. Slahi’s newfound celebrity will positively impact his case; his lawyers certainly hope that it does. But even if it has no practical effect, the success of Guantanamo Diary makes it that much harder for the rest of us to forget that this black hole exists a mere 90 miles off the coast of the continental United States.  That can only be a good thing.

Posted by: Posted on by Maria Werdine Tagged with: , , ,

Feb 16 2015

Important new guidelines on the right to birth registration and a nationality in Africa launched in Côte d’Ivoire

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Bronwen Manby is an independent consultant and Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights.

On 10 February 2015 a ground-breaking but not-much-heralded document on human rights in Africa was launched in Côte d’Ivoire by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

In the wake of UNHCR’s major new #ibelong campaign to end statelessness within ten years, the Committee, the official body responsible for monitoring the implementation of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, has produced one of the strongest statements yet in international law on the right to a nationality for all children.

The Committee used the Third Conference of African Ministers Responsible for Civil Registration for the official launch of its second General Comment, adopted last year, interpreting Article 6 of the Charter on the right to a name, to birth registration and to a nationality.

The General Comment provides guidance on the obligations of African states in relation to a question that many have struggled to deal with since independence, and builds on developments in the European, Inter-American and UN systems. While an important document in relation to birth registration, for a continent where around half of all children are not registered at birth, it is in its interpretation of the right to a nationality that the General Comment is perhaps most significant and innovative.

Article 6 of the African Children’s Charter provides that:

1. Every child shall have the right from his birth to a name.

2. Every child shall be registered immediately after birth.

3. Every child has the right to acquire a nationality.

4. States Parties to the present Charter shall undertake to ensure that their Constitutional legislation recognize the principles according to which a child shall acquire the nationality of the State in the territory of which he has been born if, at the time of the child’s birth, he is not granted nationality by any other State in accordance with its laws.

Like the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the African Children’s Charter recognises the links between birth registration and the right to a nationality, since it is through a birth certificate that the facts indicating the child’s parentage and location of birth, on which nationality is based, can most easily be established. It repeats the CRC’s statement that every child has the right to acquire a nationality, but goes beyond the CRC by including in Article 6(4) an adaptation of the specific requirement in Article 1 of the UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness that a child who cannot acquire the nationality of his or her parents shall acquire the nationality of the country where he or she is born.

Only a few African countries have incorporated these provisions into their national constitutions and laws: as outlined in a recent study on the right to nationality prepared by the Committee of Experts’ sister body, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, only the constitutions of Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea Bissau, Malawi, Rwanda and South Africa expressly provide for the right to a nationality either for “everyone” or for all children. While some other states provide for the right to a nationality in dedicated children’s laws, many of the same countries do not ensure through the provisions of their nationality code that all children do in fact have the right to a nationality.

The General Comment takes up this question, drawing on the Committee of Experts’ decision in the Kenyan Nubian Children’s Case, and recognising that “Even if the vast majority of human rights are not formally restricted on the basis of nationality, the lack of a recognised nationality in practice has a profoundly negative impact on respect for and fulfilment of other human rights”. Thus, the General Comment states that “While the right to a nationality becomes of greater significance as a person approaches and reaches adulthood, it is critical for the right to a nationality to be recognised for children.” Moreover, “the lack of recognition as a full participant in the political and social life of the country where a person has been born and lived all his or her life, has been at the heart of many of Africa’s most intractable political crises and civil conflicts.”

The General Comment “reminds African States that States do not enjoy unfettered discretion in establishing rules for the conferral of their nationality, but must do so in a manner consistent with their international legal obligations.” The Committee therefore condemns discrimination in rules relating to nationality, both the still-too-common discrimination on the basis of sex, but also discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnic group, which still exists in the laws of several African countries.

The Committee of Experts draws on guidance from UNHCR to comment that “it can be difficult to prove the risk of statelessness: that is, that a person does not have, or is not going to acquire, another nationality. In addition, it may be unreasonable to expect a child who may have a theoretical right to another nationality to take the steps needed to acquire that nationality.” Therefore, “States must accept that a child is not a national of another State if the authorities of that State indicate that he or she is not a national. A State can refuse to recognize a person as a national either by explicitly stating that he or she is not a national or by failing to respond to inquiries to confirm the child is a national.”

The Committee makes various recommendations in line with these findings, including that States Parties should adopt legal provisions that provide nationality to children born on their territory not only where the child is otherwise stateless, but also in other cases where the child has the strongest connection to that state. The Committee endorses the rule of double jus soli where a child is automatically attributed nationality if one parent (either mother or father) was also born in the State, and urges that children born in the territory of a State of foreign parents should have the right to acquire nationality of that State, and that this should be “after a period of residence that does not require the child to wait until majority before nationality can be confirmed.”

Nationality and belonging have created major challenges for Africa’s arbitrarily demarcated states since they obtained independence. The members of the African Committee of Experts have made a major contribution to the efforts to resolve these problems through their guidance on the rules that should be applied to avoid statelessness and also enable children to acquire the nationality of the country where they have the strongest connections.

The full text of the General Comment is available in English and French at: http://acerwc.org/the-committees-work/general-comments/

Posted by: Posted on by Andrew Small Tagged with: , , ,

Feb 8 2015

Comics and Human Rights: The Forgotten Women of Comics

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Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. With an MLitt in Comic Studies, do not offend her chair leg of truth; it is wise and terrible. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter.

Click here for the introduction to the Comics, Human Rights and Representation Week.

In recent years, “diversity” has become somewhat of a buzzword within the superhero comics industry and fandom, and a point of tension between life-long comic fans with a largely male online presence and newer fans from a range of different backgrounds eager to see themselves represented on the page. In many ways that tension has been eased – Marvel for example have committed to pushing several prominent female characters including the wonderful Kamala Khan as a newer, fresher Ms Marvel, and publishers certainly seem willing to listen to women fans. But after 12 months of constant drama within the comics community, from harassment campaigns to rape threats for female critics, it’s important to keep looking ahead as we acknowledge victories along the road.

When I first began writing about comics back in 2011, the problems with sexism in superhero comics was something that I was determined to address. It soon became clear that this was an incredibly complex issue, and something that was going to get me – and other women – far more attention than I had anticipated. A piece on the seemingly controversial idea to place Wonder Woman in trousers rather than a skirt opened my eyes to a highly reactive segment of the comics community that decried any kind of change, an echo perhaps of the never-aging pantheon of superheroes that are constantly recycled and renewed.

Brenda Starr - Brenda Starr, Reporter by Dale Messick, 1946

Brenda Starr – Brenda Starr, Reporter by Dale Messick, 1946

Digging into the history of Wonder Woman started me on a journey into the forgotten history of women in comics, and the many wonder women that came before Diana, both on and off the page; a forgotten history that very much ties into the tension within comics today. Before the appearance of Diana and her fabulous friend Etta Candy in the early ‘40s, there were a myriad of strong female heroes: the Phantom Lady, Sheena the Queen of the jungle, Torchy Brown, Brenda Starr, the Woman in Red, Fantomah, Miss Fury, and Red Tornado, the first female superhero, who disguised herself by wearing a cooking pot on her head (fashion!).

Ethel - Ethel by Ethel Hays, mid-1920s

Ethel – Ethel by Ethel Hays, mid-1920s

Female characters were abundant in all kinds of different comics, including the action genre that was to morph into the dominant superhero strain. Before and during the rise of the spandex clad heroes, newspaper comic strips were far more popular in the US and also had an abundance of female creators hitting it big: Rose O’Neill, creator of the Kewpies, published her first comic in 1896; Nell Brinkley was a major influence on many comic creators in her four decade reign working for Hearst’s newspaper empire; Kate Carew, investigative journalist, cartoonist and comics creator, debuted her first comic strip in 1902; Ethel Hays celebrated the roaring twenties with Flapper Fanny, later taken over by Gladys Parker; Dale Messick introduced readers to Brenda Starr, a strip that would run for some 71 years; Tarpé Mills created Miss Fury, one of the earliest (and most glamorous) costumed women in comics; and Jackie Ormes, the first African American woman cartoonist found great success with her Torchy Brown strips.

'Give Mother the Vote!', Rose O’Neill, Missouri History Museum, 1915

‘Give Mother the Vote!’, Rose O’Neill, Missouri History Museum, 1915

O’Neill and Brinkley were outspokenly supportive of the suffrage movement, in both their personal and professional lives, and contributed important pro-suffrage propaganda cartoons. Carew was known for her sharp political tongue, concocting a fictitious interview with the leader of an anti-suffrage league to ridicule them. Hays and Parker celebrated bold and independent women via their striking flapper strips. At the intersection of the ‘30s and ‘40s, Messick and Mills demonstrated that women were quite capable of creating action comics with genuine strong female characters. And Ormes infused her strips with racial commentary as well as gender politics, a radical accomplishment given her doubly reduced rights and visibility.

 

Figure 9: 'And Pearl in the Oysters’, Gay and Her Gang by Gladys Parker, 1925

Figure 9: ‘And Pearl in the Oysters’, Gay and Her Gang by Gladys Parker, 1925

 

Mills’ cat, Peri-Purr, was included in her strips as Miss Fury’s cat, and the real life version became an honorary Admiral during the war. Carew cunningly scored a rare interview with the reclusive Mark Twain without his knowledge. Parker, also a Hollywood fashion designer, often portrayed her female characters in trousers, a huge leap forward for the portrayal of women in comics at that time. Ormes was investigated repeatedly by the FBI due to her membership of the NAACP, yet her overtly political comic strips flew under their radar.

These women are utterly fascinating, brilliant, and influential yet the vast majority of comic history books scarcely mention their names. And these are just a few of the many women forgotten from comics history – forgotten that is with the exception of the tremendous research carried out by underground comix legend Trina Robbins in bringing their works back into the light. Otherwise, the history of comics has been largely written by white men, and largely features white men. And this isn’t just the case in America.

Ally Sloper - de Tessier 1874

Ally Sloper - Emilie de Tessier 1874

The first major UK comic franchise predates much of what is regarded as early US comics history: Ally Sloper first appeared in 1867 before switching to his own dedicated comic, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, in 1884. Many history books list the creator as Charles H Ross, and mention his wife as a later artist. In fact Emilie de Tessier, who signed herself as Marie Duval, was a bona fide co-creator of Ally Sloper and one of the earliest known women to work in comics. Duval was one of four female contributors to Ross’ cartoon magazine of the time, which implies that women working in comics and as cartoonists were simply not that rare.

Shamefully de Tessier’s name was removed from reprints of Ally Sloper, her work has been regularly misattributed to her husband, and she was almost completely erased from comics history. (Even today some scholars insist Duval was simply an alias for Ross, despite their son speaking out to the contrary). Why is this so important? Not only are the women themselves forgotten from history, but their influence on their fellow artists – including men – is ignored.

 

Torchy Brown in “Dixie to Harlem” by Jackie Ormes, 1937

Torchy Brown in “Dixie to Harlem” by Jackie Ormes, 1937

 

The French de Tessier introduced stylistic choices never before seen in British comics, drawn from her influences in her native land, and the sheer popularity of Ally Sloper (far greater than any UK comics character today) positioned her as one of the most influential comic artists of her time. That influence, and that of the US women, is erased along with their names from the history books, with credit instead falling at the feet of the men who came after them. And lest we think this is a problem of the past, many of the incredibly ground-breaking storytelling techniques that writer Elaine Lee brought to Starstruck in the early ‘80s has been attributed to the later, male-written Watchmen.

Wee Ada Lovelace - Kate Beaton

Wee Ada Lovelace – Kate Beaton

These women are forgotten not due to lack of success or influence, but only for their gender. Many of these women experienced sexism (and in Ormes case racism too), and their position of the “other” in society makes their work of even greater cultural value. The fact that similarities can be drawn between, say, the work of Carew at the turn of the last century and the work of Kate Beaton today is remarkable given the lack of visible influential thread between them, in great contrast to the historical male creators that many will always point to as inspiration.

Newspaper comic strips, although ancient history to most, were the superhero comics of their day in terms of popularity within pop culture, though the sales were far, far greater. Indeed if we look outside DC and Marvel to the larger comics industry today, from graphic novels to independent comics to webcomics, we can see that women are still just as likely to be working in comics as men are.

Superhero comics are the exception. While superwomen are more prominent than ever on the page, and even get to have a slight variety of body shapes and skin colours, the creator line-up at DC and Marvel – while improving – is still struggling to match the rest of the industry. One reason for this is perhaps restricted access that comics only available in a comic shop maintain – while webcomics can be found by anyone and graphic novels are prominent in book shops, only someone deliberately looking for Super Captain Ballerina #3 is going to find it. Digital distribution has gone someway to challenge that – Ms Marvel’s digital sales in particular are testament to her popularity outside the regular superhero audience – figures are still ludicrously low in comparison to the number that pay to see superheroes beat up bad guys on the cinema screen or to be the Batman themselves in video games such as Arkham Asylum.

Patty-Jo n Ginger by Jackie Ormes, 1951

Patty-Jo n Ginger by Jackie Ormes, 1951

Superhero comics are still very much struggling to break free of their all-white, all-male, all-straight reputation. There may be fewer pendulous breasts on the covers, but they and their fellow direct market cousins have still got a long way to go. Let the past be a warning – we have been here before and things have gone terribly awry, independent female characters replaced with male-gaze fantasies and women creators forgotten. And shouldn’t we have more women of colour working in action comics than we did in the ‘30s?

Celebrate the victories, rejoice in Ms Marvel, celebrate diversity, but never feel embarrassed about asking for more!

Click here to read all of the Comics, Human Rights and Representation articles.

For more information on the early women in comics, pick up Pretty in Ink by Trina Robbins (or any of her earlier books), and Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist by Nancy Goldstein.

Posted by: Posted on by Maria Werdine Tagged with: ,

Feb 8 2015

Comics and Human Rights: An Interview with the Gotham Academy Team.

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Maria Werdine Norris is a final year PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research is on the British Counterterrorism strategy and legislation, with a focus on nationalism, security and human rights. You can find her on Twitter as @MariaWNorris

Click here for the introduction to the Comics, Human Rights and Representation Week.

Karl Kerschl, Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher

Karl Kerschl, Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher Photo Courtesy Robert Tutton, Paste Magazine

Gotham Academy is a comic book set in a prestigious boarding school in the City of Gotham. It features a young cast headed by Olive Silverlock and Mia ‘Maps’ Mizoguchi. Gotham Academy and its diverse cast are beloved by fans and critics alike, showcasing that comic books need not look a certain way. It is published by DC Comics and written by Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher, with art by Karl Kerschl

One of the main reasons I love Gotham Academy is the cast. Not just the beautiful art, but what they look like. When in the process did you start talking about what the characters would look like?

Brenden Fletcher: We are talking about more than what they look like. Right from the beginning, Maps was Japanese-American. Even if she wasn’t going to visually look like that, her family had Japanese ancestry with a last name like Mizoguchi. And Karl took the design from there.

Gotham Academy

Gotham Academy #1

Karl Kerschl: We never discussed it. This is the first time we all worked as a group together. It’s the first time I’ve ever worked with Becky. But Brenden and I have a really intuitive process. He’ll write something and I will get this idea of the character, not just visually, but as a whole person. And Maps just came through so easily, mostly because of her personality. My wife’s mother is from Japan so I’ve been immersed in Japanese culture for so many years, it was so nice to be able to represent a piece of that. Brenden, outside Maps’s name, we never really talked about it, did we?

Brenden: No.  I felt she was an easier visual for you to arrive at in terms of who she was. The first character that you drew was Maps, right?

Karl: Maps and Olive. Maps I had a pretty solid idea of what she was going to look like. Olive went through a lot of back-and-forth trying to arrive at a look for her.

Brenden: Becky and I spoke about it with Karl, outside of the Mizoguchis, the ethnicities of the characters are left a bit more ambiguous. We try to imply this through the visuals.

Most of the characters are indeed ethnically ambiguous. How deliberate was that?

Pomeline Fritch

Pomeline Fritch

Brenden: The three of us always really liked this notion of there not being a simple direct story about any character. We never felt that we needed to follow a formula where ‘oh, you’re name is this, clearly your background is 100% ethnically this, so therefore you will look a specific way’. That’s so cookie-cutter and uninteresting. That’s not what the real world is like. And these characters feel more real and alive, with richer histories, when their surnames don’t match what the popular opinion on the visual should be. Just because Pomeline has a potentially Anglo-Saxon surname does not mean her complexion should be lily-white.

Olive Silverlock

Olive Silverlock

Olive has white hair and red eyes.

Brenden: With Olive in particular, we didn’t want her to be lily-white, and then Karl messed around with the colour pallet and how to best balance it.

Karl: A lot of it is just aesthetic. For many years I have tended to depict characters with slightly darker, or ambiguous skin tones. Something that you can’t quite put your finger on. With Olive, it made sense, partly because of my taste, but also because of the colour of her hair. Just aesthetically, the way it frames her face.

Were you expecting all the affection towards Maps?

Maps Mizoguchi

Maps Mizoguchi

Brenden: We were just focused on building the best book and the best characters we could. When you write a collection of characters, it’s really difficult to pull one out and say ‘that’s the one everyone is going to like’. As writers, you fall in love with all your characters and you see them in an equal footing. But it was clear when the images started showing up that people were gravitating towards Maps. And it’s always so gratifying to see people who say they’re really into Pommeline or those who want more Olive. It’s amazing.

Becky once said that Gotham Academy felt a little subversive. And it feels like it is making a statement about the industry and the type of books that should be out. Is this true?

Becky: Definitely.

Brenden: When given the opportunity to make change we have to do our best. Even if our book doesn’t have a big readership, we need to do what we can to point the way and show how it can be done differently. There’s more than one way to do a DC comic book.

Maps and Kyle Mizoguchi

Maps and Kyle Mizoguchi

Becky: It seems that this is the zeitgeist right now. Everybody is talking about it, not just gender representation but ethnicity and sexuality. Comics is going through some really big changes right now, with the growing readership. It is our job to reflect that. Especially if we are making a comic like Gotham Academy, which is probably going to be some young child’s first comic. I remember my first comic. It’s important. I don’t want to say that it is our duty, but it almost seems like it is.

In an interview about Spider Gwen, Jason Latour said he was very aware of the fact that Spider Gwen is a book about a teenage girl superhero mostly produced by men. Can you comment on the need to have representation both on and behind the pages? Some people would say that guys can only write about guys and girls can only write about girls.

Spider Gwen #1 - Jason Latour, Robbi Rodriguez, Rico Renzi

Spider Gwen #1 – Jason Latour, Robbi Rodriguez, Rico Renzi

Becky: That’s like saying that I think differently when writing a male character than a female character. I don’t think that I do. Brenden writes some of the best women ever, and Karl draws some of the best girls ever, so having them on this book is great. Speaking as a girl, I know I am careful when I am writing both girls and guys. I don’t want to say that Brenden has to think harder when talking about girls. Do you?

Brenden: It’s weird, I default to writing female characters. This is something that Karl and I discovered ages ago. Neither of us gravitated towards male characters. All the books we were buying had testosterone-fuelled male protagonists, and that’s not the type of people we were. So when we wrote books, we identified with the female characters that felt more real.

Karl: It goes back to the books we read. Elfquest had some really strong female characters in it. A lot of Robotech had a lot of ambiguous sexuality. We watched that stuff at a really young age and it was really formative when it comes to not defining anything any one way.

Batgirl - Babs Tarr

Batgirl – Babs Tarr

Brenden: I’m very conscious that I am a straight white man writing books about young girls. And certainly, if I were to do this kind of thing again, I would make sure I am doing as much as I can with the privilege I’m being afforded, to bring as much diverse voices as I can to the book. That is part of why we have Babs Tarr on Batgirl. Mostly it is because she is the right visual voice for the book. But she also informs on how she looks at the female characters. And also to some extent, the male characters. It is like we have this extra perspective when we are writing, so it is not the myopic view that Cameron [Stewart - co-author of Batgirl] and I would have if we were working on our own. We are certainly conscious of it.

It’s what Becky was saying: it is misleading to say that only guys can write about guys and that only girls can write about girls.

Becky: People always say write what you know, and that’s true to a certain extent. Jason [Latour] is a great guy and a great writer. To really think hard about what you are writing, that’s what makes you a good writer. It is easy to rest on your laurels and play to tropes and make decisions because they are easy. As a writer, you really need to push yourself to put yourself in your characters’ shoes. So you have me putting myself in Heathcliff’s shoes. Heathcliff had a totally different experience growing up than I did, and you need to think about that even though he is just a minor character. It is all about creating a rich tapestry in your story, especially when it comes to a book like Gotham Academy.

If you had to summarise Gotham Academy’s mission statement, what would it be?

Gotham Academy

Gotham Academy

Brenden: First and foremost we are trying to tell a great story. On top of that, we are using this opportunity we have been given to bring new characters into the DC universe that will allow it to feel more well-rounded.

Becky: When Mark Doyle [Gotham Academy' editor] called me for the first time about Gotham Academy, he wanted something new set in Gotham. Brenden and Karl were in the room and I was like ‘Gotham Academy!’ It fills a big gap. There’s not many all-ages books, or YA books at DC. It was like a power vacuum. And the idea that this could be someone’s first comic or first DC comic is important. If that is a comic that gets them involved into comics, that’s great. I’m very conscious that this could be someone’s first comic book.

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Feb 8 2015

Comics and Human Rights: Oracle and Representations of Disability in Superhero Comics

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Carolyn Cocca is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, Economics, and Law at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. She is the author of Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States (SUNY Press), and most recently, of “The Brokeback Project: A Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis of Portrayals of Women in Mainstream Superhero Comics, 1993-2013”, “Negotiating the Third Wave of Feminism in Wonder Woman” and “Re-booting Barbara Gordon: Batgirl, Oracle, and Feminist Disability Theories” in ImageTexT. She teaches courses on U.S. politics, civil liberties and civil rights law, and the politics of gender and sexuality.

Click here for the introduction to the Comics, Human Rights and Representation Week.

DC Comics

DC Comics

Our use of the word “disabled” tends to have more to do with how someone interacts with their environment, rather than their actual physical impairment. While we do not tend to label someone who uses glasses, or an elevator, or a chainsaw disabled, we do tend to label someone who has access to none of those technologies disabled—because s/he is not perfectly able to see or climb stairs or swing an axe. It is a civil rights issue and a human rights issue to push for inclusion, and to change environments rather than marginalizing those who don’t fit them.

For many people, who perceive disability as more of a descriptor of a body, the words “disabled” and “superhero” may not seem to go together. But there are comics characters who are both. And while their portrayals are complicated, their representations as both disabled and superheroic are critically important, not only for those who would identify as disabled and might identify with such characters, but also for those who would identify as non-disabled and might expand their notions of disability and of heroism because of such characters. This article examines recent representations of disability in comics, both their more progressive as well as their more problematic aspects.

Professor Charles Xavier

Professor Charles Xavier

When I think about disabled superheroes, three who have been in comics as well as on tv and film come to mind: Charles Xavier/Professor X, Matt Murdock/Daredevil, and Barbara Gordon/Oracle. Two others would probably be familiar to many comics readers: Victor Stone/Cyborg and Misty Knight. But even in this small group there are some uncomfortable differences in their portrayals, in terms of race and gender. For instance, white male professor Charles Xavier uses a wheelchair and yet also has telepathic and psionic abilities; white male lawyer Matt Murdock is blind and yet “sees” even more with his radioactively mutated “vision.” Both are privileged men, made more privileged through their mental superpowers. By contrast, Cyborg and Misty Knight are African-American superheroes with sci-fi-prostheses much stronger than their replaced human limbs. Their superpowers are physical, rather than mental; their dark disabled bodies made more fearsome and more “othered” with technology. While it is significant that there are these representations of superheroes with disabilities in and of themselves, the problematic commonality here is that all but one of these five is portrayed as having some extraordinary power that so overcompensates for disability that we almost forget about what we would have labeled a disability in the first place. It is almost as if disabilities are not represented through these four characters.

barbara gordon

Barbara Gordon/ Oracle

The character who does not fit this mold is Barbara Gordon, who has no superpowers. Debuting in 1967 as Batgirl, the character was shot by the Joker in 1988 and her legs were paralyzed. She was relaunched in 1989 by John Ostrander and Kim Yale as “Oracle”: computer expert, information broker, tactical leader of various superhero teams, wheelchair user, and “no less of a “hero” than before. Appearing in several comics titles, she starred in Birds of Prey (1996-2011). Written mostly by either Chuck Dixon or Gail Simone, Barbara was light-skinned, red-haired, tall, strong, pretty, funny, sometimes self-pitying, caring, bright, stubborn, independent, vulnerable, and capable both in and out of the chair.

Simply put, Barbara’s portrayal can push readers to “reimagine disability” as a common human experience and work to be more inclusive of people with disabilities. She is not characterized in ways people with disabilities often have been on television and film: as villainous, suicidal, bitter, self-pitying, lonely, dependent, free from structural discrimination, and unable to accept themselves and their disabilities until caring people around them force them to “move on”. Barbara is not marginalized or defined by her disability by those around her, and because of this she is a full participant in her world.

Oracle. DC Comics

Oracle. DC Comics

But it is a bit more complicated than that, because the ways in which she is economically, racially, and sexually privileged can just as easily lead us to the unrealistic expectations that anyone can “overcome” a disability. Barbara has a Ph.D, a J.D., and an LL.M.; she draws money from villains’ bank accounts; she has a huge apartment with weight machines and a pool, which she uses to maintain her pre-paraplegia super-athleticism and fighting skills. But in the real world, the majority of people with disabilities are more likely to be poor, unemployed, undereducated, and victims of violence. This is of course exacerbated for women, for women of color, and for women in poorer countries. 

Barbara is almost always portrayed as an equal, a leader, or a mentor. She both leads and is relied upon by many superheroes. She is surrounded by supportive friends as well as her father, and she acts as a mentor and sometimes as a guardian to younger heroes. And she is involved (on-and-off) in a romantic and sexual relationship with the Robin to her Batgirl, Dick Grayson. All of this subverts a stereotype of women with disabilities as dependent, isolated, unable to care for young people, and lonely. It does, however, fall into a stereotype of women as intergenerational nurturers, who play less visible supportive roles, and are unduly interested in heterosexual romance. Similarly, she is sometimes drawn in a more sexualized manner, which destabilizes stereotypes of women with disabilities as asexual and unattractive, but perpetuates an unfortunate trend in mainstream superhero comics of the sexual objectification of female but never male characters. In short, we must be cautious about looking solely at representations of disability without also seeing how other identity categories might be impacted by them.

Birds of Prey. DC Comics

Birds of Prey. DC Comics

If we had more numerous and diverse representations of disability, the above would not be so problematic. Barbara/Oracle would just be one example of a disabled superhero, rather than carrying so much representational weight herself. But, in 2011, when DC Comics relaunched or rebooted their superhero titles, Oracle disappeared entirely. A “cured” Barbara was once again Batgirl. The new title was helmed by Gail Simone, who had written Barbara as Oracle for years in Birds of Prey. Simone’s Batgirl has survivor’s guilt over her “cure,” and also has post-traumatic stress disorder due to the home invasion and shooting by the Joker. “Cure” narratives, not infrequent in media representations of disability, are heavily criticized by disability theorists in their focus on changing a disabled person’s body rather than societal structures and cultural attitudes about disability. Reflecting the feelings of many fans of Oracle, one wrote,

“Disabled people are told that their bodies are wrong and that they should seek to be “cured,”… that they are foolish and selfish if they are proud of the way they are.…In Oracle, we had this disabled woman who was one of the most powerful people on the planet. Who flipped ableist and sexist narratives on their heads and said, ‘I am here, and I am not broken….’ In the reboot, we lost all of that”.

Disabilities need to be represented realistically, with great diversity, and with images and text that challenge our perceptions of how we construct the category. Comics have been part of this process and can continue to be, if readers show with their words and with their dollars that such representations are relevant around the world. And of course they are, for in the end, we are all merely temporarily able-bodied.

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Feb 7 2015

Comics and Human Rights: The Erasure of X-Women in Days of Future Past

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Carolyn Cocca is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, Economics, and Law at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. She is the author of Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States (SUNY Press), and most recently, of “The Brokeback Project: A Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis of Portrayals of Women in Mainstream Superhero Comics, 1993-2013”, “Negotiating the Third Wave of Feminism in Wonder Woman” and “Re-booting Barbara Gordon: Batgirl, Oracle, and Feminist Disability Theories” in ImageTexT. She teaches courses on U.S. politics, civil liberties and civil rights law, and the politics of gender and sexuality.

Click here for the introduction to the Comics, Human Rights and Representation Week.

Days of Future Past

Days of Future Past

The fifth instalment of the X-Men films, Days of Future Past, cost about $200 million to make, and has grossed almost $750 million worldwide. Two-thirds of that money was made outside of the U.S., while for the previous films in the series, the proportion was about half. The film began with an established global audience from the previous films, and built upon it. While film adaptations of comics need not be completely bound by their source material, the ways in which changes were made between the Days of Future Past comic story and its film version all point in the same direction—to deleting, sidelining, and stereotyping female characters.

Studies on books, television, and film’s portrayals of females all reach similar conclusions as to the costs of such moves. Underrepresentation and stereotyping convey that girls and women are “not socially valued. The effects of gender schemas can be seen in children’s preferences for male characters [suggesting] that children see girls and women as less important and interesting”. Because the representations tend to be stereotypical as well, “children’s amount of television viewing is positively correlated with their own degree of gender stereotyping”. The same can be said for race and ethnicity. “When marginalized groups in society are absent from the stories a nation tells about itself, or when media images are rooted primarily in stereotype, inequality is normalized and is more likely to be reinforced over time through our prejudices and practices”.

The X-Men comic series has been widely touted for its diversity, for its teams of forged families, and for its “mutant metaphor” that addresses prejudice against mutants as a stand-in for all types of discrimination and alienation. There have been a number of distinct and prominent female characters over the last forty years.

Storm

Storm

Those featured in the Days of Future Past comic story are Ororo Munroe/Storm, weather manipulator, leader of the X-Men at various times, the first woman of color who was a team leader in comics; Kitty Pryde/Sprite, proudly Jewish teen genius adept with computers and with “phasing” through solid objects; Raven Darkholm/Mystique, shapeshifter and leader of various teams of villainous mutants; and Irene Adler/Destiny, Mystique’s precognitive partner in crime and in love. Their powers, motivations, and personalities differed from one another, providing a range of characterizations of women whose centrality and diversity goes against the underrepresentation and stereotyping of female characters and who can provide points of identification for a wide spectrum of readers.

In the comic (1981), the main character who travels back in time and into a younger version of herself, in order to prevent a political assassination by Mystique that caused a dystopian future, is Kitty.

Kitty Pryde.

Kitty Pryde.

She is sent back by Rachel, a young telepath who is ostensibly the daughter of X-Man Jean Grey. Wolverine is summarily killed in “the future.” The climactic battle sequence in “the past” takes place between the X-Men, led by Storm, and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, led by Mystique. Mystique’s female partner, Destiny, fires the key gunshot but it misses its target due to Kitty’s intervention. All of the key roles are played by women. Two of the seven X-Men in “the past” are women; two of the five members of the Brotherhood are women.

But in the film (2014), the main character who travels back in time is Wolverine, sent back into a younger version of himself by Kitty. Storm appears for a few minutes in “the future” (at which point she is killed, along with all of the other mutants of color in the film),” and not at all in “the past.” She does not lead the X-Men in either time period. Destiny does not appear at all. Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lenscherr/Magneto battle for Mystique’s loyalty; the former talking her out of the assassination. There is no Brotherhood, and so Mystique is no leader. All of the key roles are played by men. Zero of the four (or five, if one counts Quicksilver) X-Men in “the past” are women.

Mystique

Mystique

On the covers of the two issues of the comic story, one sees Kitty Pryde and Wolverine on the first, and Wolverine being killed and Storm being hurt on the second. On the movie posters, Wolverine is always the largest presence. In most versions of the poster, Mystique stands behind him, almost as large, with two versions each of Professor X and Magneto the next largest, and then small pictures of a few of the other characters. Some versions had just Wolverine and Mystique. On the dvd cover, Wolverine stands in the foreground, with six white men and a naked Mystique arrayed behind him. Kitty and Storm do not appear at all.

This film continues a formula begun in the first X-Men film: focus on Professor X and Magneto and their differing ideas, and focus on Wolverine. The female characters are plotted out in relation to these three. This unfortunately conforms with the ways in which women are quantitatively underrepresented in the media, particularly as leaders and mentors, and are more often cast as supporting rather than central characters.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique

In short, the female characters central to the comic arc on which the Days of Future Past film was based had their parts greatly minimized. This includes having two nonwhite characters, Storm and Mystique, deprived of their characterizations as team leaders and as queer mother figures in forged families. Indeed, the film positions Mystique as a confused young (white) girl torn between loyalties to the two (white) male main characters. While the Mystique of the comics usually wore a long, white, sleeveless dress, the actress who played Mystique on film was naked but for a few strategically placed scaly prosthetics that could not but position her as an object onscreen. Mystique’s comics partner, Destiny, was completely excluded from the film. And the main character of the comic, Kitty Pryde, was all but entirely excluded.

The characters of Mystique, Storm, and Kitty do have moments of heroism onscreen. Given that most heroic figures of fiction have been written as male, it should not be understated that these female characters certainly subvert the notion that such characteristics are male ones. As Kelly Sue Deconnick stated in her interview, there’s nothing inherently masculine about stories of heroism.

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Feb 7 2015

Comics and Human Rights: Visibility and the Black Nerd Girl

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CG is a twentysomething Blerdette from New Jersey. She found her start in nerd culture when she watched the first episode of Sailor Moon on Toonami, and hasn’t looked back since. When she’s not blogging on her own site (BlackGirlinMedia.Wordpress.com), she can be found reading feminist anthologies, drinking vanilla chai lattes, and making Spotify playlists. She can be found mostly on Twitter @BlkGirlManifest.

Click here for the introduction to the Comics, Human Rights and Representation Week.

Misty Knight.

Misty Knight.

I was five years old the first time I realized I was a fangirl.

I remembered being extra good at school all week, because my father promised to buy me the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world – the newest Sailor Moon DVD. I remember it so clearly – the bright pink packaging, the sparkle of the Silver Crystal, with Sailor Moon and Queen Beryl fighting for the power to wield it. I was ecstatic as we neared the check out line, the cashier smiling down on me as I watched her bag the tape and gave it to me. I clutched it so tightly, all the way home.

This memory is especially important to me, because for most of my life, being a nerd was something of a dirty little secret. Partly because it was uncool, but also because it was so much of a taboo for a girl like me – quirky, feminist, and Black – to even have an interest in it. Time and time again, it was reinforced that this special niche which I felt so passionate about, was not for me. It is only now, after nearly two decades as a nerd, that I feel confident enough to carve out space for myself and others that look like me. Here, I try to explore why.

For a long time, the nerdom has felt like an elitist secret society, where only a specific kind of member was welcome. These members often were the outcasts themselves, boys who collected Magic: The Awakening cards or browsed the bookstore for the latest Dungeons & Dragons strategy guide. They collected in basements and in comic shops, seeking the refuge that I found myself romanticizing about.

When I first began exploring nerd culture publicly, I went on a search to find more people who were like me – passionate, social justice-minded, and of colour. Largely, I found that I could not fit neatly into the “mainstream” nerd culture. I found that my Blackness was met with abrasion and discomfort, to put it mildly, by the white men that dominated the culture. As Will Brooker and Sam LeBad write in their article earlier this week,

“superhero storytelling, then, is founded on ideas which are essentially geared toward perpetuating a sense of male entitlement”

They were the face of the movement, and while they had also known rejection and loneliness for their passions, they were quick to do the same to me. I was frustrated; the place that was supposed to be the haven for me was filled with a toxicity of the same social norms that made me turn to nerd culture to begin with. How could I enjoy something that was filled with the same racism, sexism, and prideful ignorance that much of popular culture was already saturated with? Exploring these questions sparked me to become a nerd culture blogger and critic.

Sam Wilson - Captain America

Sam Wilson – Captain America

What I found was more of a speakeasy inside of the niche.  In other words,  the Blerd – Black nerd -community was like a secret club inside of the circle that made up mainstream nerd culture. I relate it this way because it was was something that I had to search for, and while it was the haven I was looking for, it remains small and separate from nerd culture at large. Blerds are small, supportive, and steadily growing collection of the Blerds – sites such as Black Girl Nerds, Vixen Varsity and Nerds of Colour, to name just a few. This is where I found solace. This is where I found my voice.

What I believe to be true, more so than my secret love for superheroes and anime, is the fact that identity does not exist in a vacuum. We can no more divide ourselves into neat categories than we can divide the essence of who we are. I am equal parts a feminist, a Black woman, and a lover of nerd culture, among other things.  Accepting that fact helped me shape my own identity as a Blerd.  In the words of one popular nerd culture artist, ALB, this is what it means to be a “critical fan”.

I am inspired daily not only by those in the Blerd community that offer me advice, give me encouragement, and offer support when I need it, but by others in the culture as well. Anita Saarkisian, of Feminist Frequency, has crafted her own identity as a critic and fan of video games. Though she has faced more hate and discouragement from the niche as a whole, she remains unwavered in her defense of being a critical fan. Her actions, while met with opposition, have reached others than believed they were immune. It has produced change. That fact alone was enough to lift me up when I doubted the legitimacy of my own goals.

The message is clear – media does not exist in a bubble. It is important that we understand and acknowledge the best and the worst parts of it in order to move forward and evolve. It is a slowly progressing field. Many do not think that the voice of a Black female feminist is enough to shift the pervasive ‘bro’ culture. Partly, this is true. One singular voice is not enough to change a culture, especially one rooted in an ugly foundation of elitism and entitlement. However, it is through my own platforms as well as others’, that the culture is able to move forward and mold to the new face of nerdom. We are not stagnant beings; and neither is the art or media that we consume and produce.

The future is bright for the visibility of the Black girl nerd.

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Feb 6 2015

Comics and Human Rights: An Interview with Kelly Sue Deconnick

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Maria Werdine Norris is a final year PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research is on the British Counterterrorism strategy and legislation, with a focus on nationalism, security and human rights. You can find her on Twitter as @MariaWNorris

Kelly Sue Deconnick is an American writer of comics. She is the author of  Bitch Planet and Pretty Deadly for Image Comics and Captain Marvel for Marvel. She was nominated for a 2014 Eisner Award for Best Writer for her work on Pretty Deadly.

Click here for the introduction to the Comics, Human Rights and Representation Week.

kelly sueThere are many misconceptions about comics. It is easy to dismiss them as being trivial or just for teenage boys. What is your response to that line of thought?

Comics are a medium, not a genre. And when you consider the dominant genre within comics - the superhero story, it can be done well; or it can be done poorly. There are superhero stories that are incredibly well done from a literary perspective. I think if you are going to dismiss them out of hand you’d also have to dismiss opera, and commedia dell’arte. These overblown archetypes are the way our lizard brains get across stories about what makes us human. Can it be done poorly? Absolutely! But so can opera and melodrama. But it can also be done exceptionally well. I think it is unwise to dismiss it all out of hand.

Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel

And it is important to say that there is nothing inherently masculine about telling stories with pictures. It is as human as humans. There is nothing inherently masculine about the pulp aesthetic; there is nothing inherently masculine about science-fiction; about stories of heroism. There is nothing inherently masculine about even power fantasies. I’m a 5 foot tall woman who has always looked like a child. I can teach any man in any room all about power fantasies.  Dismissing all comics as trivial is a small-minded and easy dismissal.

I personally believe there is a comic for everyone who loves stories.

Bitch Planet is a phenomenon. You’ve really a chord with women. 

Yes, almost to the point of where I’m like ‘is someone pranking me?’ It is unbelievable, in every sense of the word.

It is set in a futuristic prison planet and yet, it feels real. It feels relatable.

I think that Valentine [De Landro – Bitch Planet's artist] should get a lot a credit for that. I had envisioned the book looking much more foreign. I wanted to separate it more from us in its aesthetic. But Val was the one who had to make that into a place in which people could imagine themselves being. And he’s made it real. He’s made it relatable.

Bitch Planet #1

Bitch Planet #1

The art is amazing, but you need to take some credit too. The issue of non-compliance is so important. I myself have been told several times that I needed to dress differently and tweet differently, or no one would take me seriously.

I have that thing too. Like I wasn’t supposed to use my middle name, because if I didn’t, people would think I was a man and then they’d take me more seriously. And you know that women are always encouraged to lie about their age right? And that’s b******t because it makes this stupid misconception where all the relevant women in the world are children. But no! Women age! When I tuned 40, well-meaning people kept on telling me ‘oh, you don’t look 40’, but I do! I really do!

Bitch Planet #2

Bitch Planet #2

The power of being non-compliant. Did you think it would strike the chord as much as it has?

I had no idea that it was going to strike such a chord. But I do think it is important to give women permission to risk not being liked. We treat it like it is the worst thing in the world for a woman, that you may hurt somebody’s feelings and they may not like you, despite of what they are doing to harm you.

 

My assistant, Kit, and I were at a gas station the other day. The attendant’s putting gas in the car and he’s making small-talk and it’s getting progressively more inappropriate. Kit’s got this lace blouse from the dry-cleaners and hanging in plastic wrap in the black seat. And he starts asking her if she wears anything under the blouse. And she’s being polite because that’s the way she’s been taught to protect herself. She’s also been taught that his comfort is more important than hers. I eventually lost my s**t and yelled and the guy. And he immediately went quiet and walked away. He just left the nozzle in the gas tank and skulked off. The manager finished pumping the gas! My hands were shaking when Kit drove away.  And the funny thing is, we both spent a minute worrying about this dude, his feelings and whether or not he got in trouble. And then it was like, no! He’s wasn’t worried about Kit’s feelings! He was being predatory! This isn’t a rare thing that happens!  90% of the time we just smile and nod to get out of the situation. And whatever you need to do to stay safe I get, but let me tell you, there is something wildly empowering about calling this s**t out, because it is NOT ok. And if they don’t like it, f**k them! You don’t like them either

We have been taught to be accommodating.

Yes. We have been taught to put everyone else’s comfort above our own, everyone else’s safety above our own. That is not the life I want for my daughter. And that is not the life I want for me either.

Pretty Deadly #2

Pretty Deadly #2

And that’s where the power of non-compliancy comes from. You are daring to say, with Bitch Planet, that not only is it ok to be non-compliant, but that you need to be non-compliant in order to be yourself.

Yes. If you don’t fit in the little box they want to put you in, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s the box that’s the problem.

I think that’s why, not just Bitch Planet, but Captain Marvel, Pretty Deadly, and your work in general is so popular - and so important. No one, not even Carol [Danvers, Captain Marvel] who is this tall, beautiful blond woman fits into the box.

She’s quick-tempered; and she likes to be the boss. She isn’t always most concerned about everybody else’s feelings. And this is what we try to teach our kids. You don’t have to be nice. You must be kind, but you don’t have to be nice. Very often these are two different things.

What’s your assessment of the health of the industry when it comes to representation?

I think it is not great. I think this is a cultural problem much bigger than comics. I think because we conflate genre and medium we get this idea that comics are this slum where it is much worse than it is anywhere else. I don’t think this is actually the case. I mean, I think we have real problems, look at the major films that were released in the United States last year. Women had 30% of the speaking roles and were 15% of the protagonists. This is down from 16% ten years ago. So this is not a comics problem, this is a cultural problem.

Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel

One of the arguments we’re trying to make is that comics are doing slightly better at representing diversity than films or television. Do you agree?

It’s a very inexpensive threshold to make a comic. You can get a comic out for a very small amount of money compared to what it takes to make a television show or a film. We are in a position to take more risks because we don’t have millions of dollars on the line. So I absolutely buy that. And that is why we can and must be in the vanguard.

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Feb 5 2015

Comics and Human Rights: Bitch Planet: Yes, All Women

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Amy Devine is a geek-of-all trades with an avid love of history, comics and literature. A former radio-journalist, she now spends most of her creative energy on slam poetry and her new column on Talking Comics ‘The New Reader’. Find her on Twitter at @GoodEeveening 

Click here for the introduction to the Comics, Human Rights and Representation Week.

Bitch Planet #1

Bitch Planet #1

When Bitch Planet first appeared, everything from its Exploitation-Film style cover to its prideful ‘Non-Compliant’ catchphrase, highlighted it as a comic on a mission. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s self-proclaimed feminist manifesto quickly garnered attention, drawing compliments from across the community and amongst fellow creators. Fellow comic-writer Gail Simone cheekily tweeted “You guys don’t mind if we quietly take over comics, right?” in reaction to the excitement. Though said partly in jest, this statement encapsulates the ground steadily being gained by female creators in the comic book world. What truly sets Bitch Planet apart, however, is the sheer diverse range of women represented within its pages and the seriousness with which their experience is treated.

Bitch Planet is the story of a female prison planet. In telling the story of the prison – colloquially known as Bitch Planet – the comic lays before its reader the experience of real-world women. As Danielle Henderson states in her article at the back of Issue #1, we already are on Bitch Planet. The women incarcerated for ‘non-compliance’ are suffering for a variety of recognisable sins – being too fat, being too out-spoken, not being sexually attractive or available.

Bitch Planet #1

Bitch Planet #1

On the first two-page spread the reader is confronted with the naked form of several women. Most notable – to any comic reader or consumer of mainstream media – is the form of Penelope ‘Penny’ Rolle. As Penny is introduced to the reader, the narration highlights what brought her to Bitch Planet: her gluttony. Fat shaming and body policing are prevalent in our society. Women who do not fit the ‘acceptable’ size and standards of beauty do not fit the norm; they are non-compliant. Moreover, books overwhelmingly depict beautifully slim women, so by depicting Penny in an unapologetic way – keeping her nude for the majority of the first issue, Bitch Planet strikes a massive point against real-world body policing that is reflected in the comic book industry.

Penny Rolle’s introduction is a symbol of the book’s commitment to representation. As Nino Cipri argues, Bitch Planet

it showcases all kinds of women, of different races and body types and ages. During the intake for a batch of fresh prisoners, we’re shown bodies that have rolls, scars, hair, and wrinkles. They’re starkly contrasted with The Model, who towers over them: pale, wasp-waisted, and grinning cruelly. DeConnick and De Landro demonstrate the actual demographics of women’s prisons, a place where women of color are disproportionately represented among the incarcerated population.

The portrayal of women of colour in mainstream media is often left to background filler or tragic-victim stories. Popular women-in-prison storylines, such as Orange Is The New Black, tend to focus on the experiences of the white inmate. The exclusion of the bodies of women of colour serves to exclude and undermine their stories. It turns them invisible.

But on Bitch Planet, they are visible. And their visibility is deliberate. As Kelly Sue Deconnick explains in an interview with Black Nerd Problems,

I wrote a letter to Valentine [deLandro] and just asked him to make the deal with me that unless a character was specified as white, they would be of color.

Kamau Kogo

Kamau Kogo

This visibility is also subversive. Issue one mainly focuses on the experiences of a white inmate, Marian Collins, thus mirroring typical women-in-prison tropes. Nonetheless a final page twist forces the reader to focus on the real protagonist of the story, Kamau Kogo, a Black woman.

Claiming that a comic book is a feminist manifesto may sound like a bit much, but there is no other way to interpret Bitch Planet. What else can you call a book that ends its second issue with an essay by Black feminist writer Tasha Fierce on the misconceptions of feminism? What do you call a book that makes a commitment to publish such feminist essays in every single issue? This is a book that is serious about making women – all women – visible.

This commitment is symbolised in the book’s most touching moment so far. Kelly Sue’s tongue-in-cheek humour litters the back covers of Bitch Planet with fake adverts making stabs at the patriarchy. The back cover of Issue #2 featured a small, missed-connections style ad in the centre:

Leelah. We didn’t have to know you to love you. Find peace, our sister.

This heart-felt note in honour of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender girl who committed suicide late in 2014, drives home the love at the heart of Bitch Planet’s purpose. It is an important work aiming to tell the story of all women – without apologising. It is a book that tells us that it is ok to be non-compliant; it is ok to be strong, to be big, to be a woman of colour and to take up space. By its stark and intentionally obvious parallels to today’s battles, Bitch Planet insists upon the need to be non-compliant and imprints the message that all women deserve to be seen.

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Posted by: Posted on by Maria Werdine Tagged with: ,