November 24, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

2017 Flame Con Celebrates Queer Heroes and Representation in YA Lit

Year three of the increasingly popular Flame Con, known colloquially as “queer Comic Con,” offered an excellent array of programming at the bustling New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge. The convention, which took place from August 19–20, continued its tradition of serving as an active space of inclusion: this included a strict no-weapons policy, pronoun stickers, gender neutral bathrooms, a detailed zero-tolerance harassment policy, and a “Quiet Space” in the exhibitor space for attendees to drink water and recharge. The event also continued its Sunday “Youth Day,” with a number of panels featuring creators of youth media and free admission to attendees 21 and under.

From left: James Tynion IV, Dan Parent, Vita Ayala, Rian Sygh, Katy Farina, Nicky Soh.

Saturday afternoon saw the Queer Heroes in YA and All-Ages Comics panel packed to the brim. Moderated by comic book writer James Tynion IV (Batman), panelists Vita Ayala (DC Comics, Black Mask Studios), Katy Farina (“Steven Universe”), Dan Parent (“Archie”), Rian Sygh (“The Backstagers”), and Nicky Soh (“Adventure Time”) discussed queer representation in media, subverting expectations, and the nuanced importance of queer subtext.

Of the wide range of talent and experience in the room, a common thread emerged regarding the creators’ origins and impetus behind their work—crafting the stories they needed for themselves at a young age. Ayala mentioned desperately searching for black and brown faces in a sea of white characters as a child, while Tynion recalled finding homophobic content in media comforting once upon a time, because it was at least an acknowledgment of queerness: “They may not like us, but we’re in there!” Farina said she never thought a program like Steven Universe would exist on television, let alone that she would work on such a progressive endeavor: “I didn’t know who I was until I was 25…[shows like Steven Universe] have a big impact on how kids treat other people.” Ayala agreed, expressing distinct optimism over media’s changing landscape: “This feels more complete, this feels real. Oh my god, we’ve been missing this all along!” they said.

Singaporean artist Soh remarked that queerness is a fairly taboo topic in Asia, in his experience. One of the driving forces behind his comic RockMaryRock was to broaden representation by showcasing queerness in music. The question of authenticity in LGBTQ portrayals arose; Parent, the creator of the “Archie” series’ Kevin Keller, explained a conscious effort to expand beyond tokenism when writing the first openly gay character in the Archie universe. As a result, the character resonated so well with readers that he rose to become a central figure in print and is featured on the television series adaptation Riverdale. Sygh provided insightful commentary on his vision for “The Backstagers,” cocreated with Tynion. What began as a “diverse” book became a very specific narrative on masculinity; as a trans person, Sygh sought to portray masculinity in a way that subverts normative ideals, including masculine characters owning their feelings and forging strong emotional bonds.

From left: Daniel Stalter, Magdalene Visaggio, Laurent Linn, Alexa Cassaro.

Later that day, Daniel Salter (writer and cofounder of Stealing Fire Comics) moderated the Nostalgia for an Invisible Youth panel, featuring artist Alexa Cassaro, YA author Laurent Linn (Draw the Line), and comics writer Magdalene Visaggio (Black Mask Studios). Again, the pervasive theme of honoring one’s inner child emerged, begging the question “How might my childhood have been different if I had seen more of myself in these stories?”

As for the media that helped them come to terms with their queerness, both Visaggio and Cassaro cited the television series Sailor Moon as major inspiration. Growing up trans, Visaggio related to conventionally feminine characters like Sailor Moon but felt compelled to watch in private, while Cassaro was blown away by the fluidity of gender identity in the anime series. Such representation was formative for Cassaro as a child; she cites her young niece as inspiration to continue creating her own gender-diverse, youth-oriented art. Other panelists discussed their tendency to subconsciously code relatable characters as queer when they were children. “We’re going to find those things that communicate with that part of us,” Stalter stated; he recounted a realization that his young attachment to Star Wars villains sprouted from a perception of himself as a villain within his Catholic family.

Now that mainstream fantasy franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek are actively including queer personages, the challenge of “at what price?” rose in the conversation. Are LGBTQ creators buying mainstream visibility at the expense of nuance and authenticity? The speakers endeavored to give the query its due. Linn advocated for #ownvoices, specifically for queer creators being given resources to helm their own narrative: “It’s not someone taking someone else’s story and making it their own, it’s the authentic voices.” Steven Universe was cited as an example; the show succeeds largely due to its queer creative team and respect for its audience. So said Visaggio, “That’s how we’re going to have authentic portrayal and authentic representation going forward.”

Another comic was cited as a foil to the stellar series: Alters. According to Visaggio, the comic’s trans character is treated as a landscape for trans tragedy and cliché; Saga‘s character Petri is similarly mishandled as a conveyor of heavy-handed messaging, as opposed to an entity unto herself, said Visaggio. For all of these valid criticisms, the presence of trans characters in media still resonates with many regardless. If the goal is to create an ethical, authentic narrative outside of one’s experience, Stalter strongly encouraged consuming media made by people of said experience. Research and workshopping is key, as is the occasionally uncomfortable question, “Should I be the one telling this story?”

From left: Amanda Jacobsen, Adam Silvera, Soman Chainani, Alex London, Mackenzi Lee.

Perhaps the most buoyant of the three sessions was Writing Out Not Down: Speaking Authentically to Teen Audiences, moderated by teen librarian and GeeksOUT member Amanda Jacobsen. The panel featured authors with considerable YA buzz, including Soman Chainani (“The School for Good and Evil”), Mackenzi Lee (A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue), Alex London (Proxy), and Adam Silvera (They Both Die at the End). More literary-focused than the previous sessions, this panel provided a great deal of insight into the writing process of four widely admired YA authors. When asked if their characters were reflections of themselves, London asserted that his characters are different in many ways; though they have emotional resonance, their lived experiences are often a far cry from his own. Lee said the same—the 18th-century setting immediately placed a distance between the author’s experiences and those of her characters. However, doing research on the time period helped her find the emotional resonance London emphasized: “We have different vocabularies and experiences, but we have felt the same over these centuries that separate us.”

Silvera and Chainani seemed to speak more from the “yes” camp; their personal experiences had a direct correlation to the stories they need to tell. A Disney fan throughout his childhood, Chainani didn’t discover the sweet films’ darker origins, the Grimm’s fairy tales, until much later in life. As a result, his books are rooted in “warping” sanitized Disney tales. Silvera, on the other hand, mentioned that writing has helped him process his life as a young, queer Puerto Rican boy growing up in the Bronx, and that writing has always been a therapeutic outlet.

Though Silvera writes from a very personal place and is an #ownvoices advocate, he did not feel that queer stories must only be told by queer authors, declaring, “write whatever the hell you want, just do it right.” Lee cited that her depiction of characters interacting with their identities is not identical to her own; thus, even she does not always feel that she is “writing in her lane” when it comes to queer narratives. Some of the other topics discussed included the responsibility of queer creators to produce queer content as well as the dearth of LGBTQ representation that drove many to write in the first place. London recalled the “Ender” series as instrumental to processing his queer identity, while acknowledging author Orson Scott Card’s renowned homophobia.

But the landscape of queer lit is changing, a fact Jacobsen attested to as a teen librarian who no longer receives pushback for “facing out” titles like David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing. Levithan was mentioned a few times in the session as a source of inspiration and a predecessor for the recent flux of queer YA. While the authors sung their praises, Levithan sat in on the New Teenage Wastelands panel happening next door. All agreed that the industry’s relationship to LGBTQ content was vastly different as little as three years ago: what once had been a negotiation or a risk now serves as a major selling point. Silvera recalled being asked by editors to “choose your battle” for his first novel, More Happy Than Not, in that his protagonist couldn’t possibly be Puerto Rican and gay. A few years ago, Lee was worried that the marketing of her book would obscure the characters’ queer relationships entirely, (a reference to the vague “special bond” jacket copy trend in 2013 and 2014), and Chainani had a list of places that wouldn’t take his book if it contained gay characters.

The panel’s key question was saved for last: How does one write for teen audiences, not down, when they are no longer a teenager themselves? Lee taps into her emotional experiences as a teenager, keenly observing, “I feel like we’re all coming of age all the time.” Though teenage years are considered to be the most tumultuous, the argument can be made that adulthood is merely a longer yet similar cycle of mistakes and lessons. London agreed; his “teenage self” and all the personalities it included are still parts of him that he carries today, and Silvera reiterated that writing out his teen experiences has helped him grow, years later. Every author seemed driven to validate the personhood of teenagers beyond the stereotypes of high hormones and emotions. Indeed, Chainani recalled that intensity with fondness: “Don’t you wish you could be friends with people the way you were as a teenager? I loved things with 110% of my being.”

Lee faced the unique linguistic challenge of writing queerness in the 1700s, a time before sexuality was a widely known concept. Wanting to accurately reflect the time while resonating with contemporary readers, Lee’s rule of thumb became, “People know who they are even if they don’t have a word for it.” Nowadays, young people often do have a word for it, something Silvera marveled over as the session drew to a close. “Teenagers are so much smarter than we are,” he said, citing an increased vocabulary for self-identification and a higher level of respect for one another than he encountered in his childhood. London expanded on this notion with the affinity of “geek spaces” like Flame Con and the sci-fi and fantasy genres overall to “shake loose our world and the way we have to be.”

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