At the second annual KHEM Comic Fest in Newark, discussing the role of diversity in comics

culture cardComics have historically provided an avenue for readers to immerse themselves in a fictional world, but on Saturday, February 21st, fans and friends alike didn’t need to go too far to celebrate and fraternize about their favorite comic characters.

The second annual KHEM Comic Fest, hosted by P.B. S. Media, provided Newark residents comics that went well beyond the cache of mainstream titles, plus screenings, interactive panel discussions and performances from local artists.

The daylong festival, hosted at Newark’s Central High school, included a variety of panel discussions that explored the multifaceted nature of comics in educating youth. Panel discussions included a look at the use of comics to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) as well as its ability to promote literacy in youth.

The discussion also highlighted the responsibility of animators who create comics that reflect the world around them. In two panel discussions — “Full Spectrum: Why Color in Comics Matter” and “A Brief History of Black Creators and Characters in Comics,” Darrell Goza, founder of ScriptGraphics, Kim Gaines of Grub Machine and Naseed Gift and Dilettante Bass of P. B. S. Media (and creators of the P. B. Soldier comic book) debated the importance of diversity and representation in comic books.

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In a question posed during the latter panel, a young audience member urged Goza to reveal what characteristics make the “perfect” black character. In response, Goza noted that “the perfect black characters are flawed, they’re human, and they have the same things going on as we do.”

“If you’re looking for the perfect black character, you might just have to create it,” he told the high school student who had asked the question.

Gaines reflected on the misconceptions of female consumerism in the comic book industry. “I really want to see the value of a female audience get to the same level of a male audience,” she said. “A common misconception is that there isn’t a female comic audience, but we’re were and we exist. We just need to be seen.”

To reinforce Gaines’ point, Goza noted that in a 2014 poll conducted by Facebook, women accounted for  46.67% of the general comic book fan population on the social network.

When asked if there was any particular way to increase the female viewership or galvanize it, Gaines declared that there isn’t. She encouraged animators to rely on the power of good story above all. “I’m a firm believer in the fact that it you have a good story, people will be interested. No matter who,” said Gaines.

In the race realm, the discussion demonstrated that the issue of diversity is also not a singular one. The lack of characters of color and nuanced female characters was immediately diagnosed as an issue that stemmed from a lack of female creators and creators of color. “You have to have women creating women. Until that happens, the way to create a multifaceted female character will not be known,” said Goza.

“I want to see more women characters in film and comics, but I want it to be more thought out. I just don’t want creators to just create women characters for creating sake,” responded Bass.

Independent comic book artists were among the audience member, including one who noted that as a man, he writes women characters that veer from the overtly sexual characters that are common in mainstream publications. “I don’t believe you have to be a female to write a good female character. I also don’t believe that you have to be black to write a good black character,” he said.

Gaines concurred: “Never would I want someone to look at me and say ‘You can’t write that character because you are a black woman.’”

“We are creative thinkers, and we find inspiration all over the place, and what’s unique for us and our kind is that we have the ability to empathize and to see the world from the eyes of others and write from that perspective,” Gaines continued.

Another audience member lamented that the most popular comics already have well-established fan bases and are dominating the market. Since his first appearance in 1939, Batman has been a comic book staple and has captured the attention of fans all over the world. In light of this, what does this mean for the range of emerging comic books, and will they be able to make a dent in the market?

“They’re fan-base driven. With Marvel and DC [Comics], I tried to include one of my characters into the mix and they basically told me if it’s not Batman or Superman, we don’t want it,” the audience member said.

“Clearly for the last 75 years, we’re still hearing about Batman, aren’t we? But for the life of me, I can’t understand how two companies who claim to be leading in the creative industry remain huddled in this box of what a superhero looks like, what they act like, what they wear. And they stay there and won’t move,” said Gaines.

“You’re a creative person, it’s your job to think outside the box,” she continued.

In closing, Gifted noted that the purpose of events like KHEM Comic Fest and companies like P. B. S. Media is to reflect the world in a manner that’s as inclusive as possible.

“We need to create the characters that reflect us and tell stories that reflect our experiences. The whole purpose of all of this is looking for a way to see yourself in the picture. That’s the key to all of this,” said Gifted.


To learn more about KHEM Fest and PBSoldier, visit their Facebook Page. To explore more comic books and comic book creators of color, visit the hashtag #ExploreBlackComics. View pictures and other information from the 2nd annual KHEM Fest by using the hashtag #KHEMFest

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