Special Edition: NYC Spotlights Feminist and Trans Issues in Comics
Though the event was considerably smaller than NYCC (which has topped 100,000 attendees in recent years), the weekend was nothing less than an epic adventure. In fact, many people from both ends—the exhibitors and the fans—agreed that Special Edition was more enjoyable than the larger convention. It had a slower, more manageable pace, and it never felt overpopulated with other, non-comics forms of entertainment, which have joined the NYCC roster over the years.
“I much prefer this over NYCC,” Joseph Jose said as he purchased a print from an exhibitor. “You get to see the artists without being distracted by the new video game coming out or the new big-budget film on-screen.”
Kurt Busiek, a comics legend who has worked extensively with both Marvel and DC characters, shared Jose’s thoughts. “I’m having a good time,” he said. “There’s a lot of people here who are interested in comics. And it’s not so huge that it’s overwhelming, but it’s busy enough that I can always be talking to someone or signing books.” Other artists seemed to be in a similar situation, where they could take commissions, sell prints, and talk with publishers without having to compete with electronic giants like Sony or Nintendo.
But as much as Special Edition harkened back to the roots of comics, it also illustrated how the genre is evolving, gaining new voices, reaching new audiences, and using new platforms. Without other distractions, those innovations could really shine.
Case in point: Josh O’Neill from Locust Moon Comics attended Special Edition to promote Little Nemo, an anthology project which pays tribute to Winsor McCay and his legendary newspaper strip of the same name. O’Neill considers McCay to be one of the best illustrators of all time: “His strips are still studied and worshipped by illustrators and cartoonists, but they’re not something as well-known among the general public,” he says. “So, we wanted to create this book to shine a light back on this somewhat forgotten genius.”
O’Neill has already gathered a team with dozens of today’s best illustrators, and together they hope to print the book at 16 x 21 inches. He says that’s “as big as a book can realistically be,” but he wants to imitate the same dimensions McCay used in his time: “It’s going to be a giant prestige hardcover, a very expensive book to print—something a traditional publisher wouldn’t consider.”
Fortunately, like so many other artists at Special Edition, O’Neill has options that didn’t exist a decade ago. He launched the Little Nemo Kickstarter just a few days ago and has already exceeded the $50,000 goal.
Similarly utilizing webcomics and blogs, many other creators at Special Edition have leapt into unexplored areas in the comics universe. And since their content is fresh, they have likewise attracted new audiences. For example, in a panel called “Secret Identities: Transgender Themes in Comics,” Morgan Boecher shared his webcomic that provides “a glimpse of what a trans person experiences, and what it feels like to be pegged as different and not normal.” Though Boecher’s comic, What’s Normal Anyway?, couldn’t compete at a powerhouse like Marvel, it earned enough of a following that Morgan could raise the money to self-publish.
“There’s a renaissance happening right now in comic culture and a lot of it is grassroots, Internet-based, and webcomic-based,” Boecher said. “People can just grab pen and paper and scan stuff in and put it online and start building an audience. There’s a lot of activity happening, and it’s very exciting to see a lot of talent and authors of emerging.”
On the same panel, Joe Kelly, a seasoned writer who shaped I Kill Giants and Deadpool, stated that the democratization of comics-making has not gone unnoticed by big publishers. Though writers like Morgan may have difficulty getting big attention now, editors have realized the potential of new audiences, and have begun to cater to them. “I think in the mainstream books, there’s a very gradual shift towards more voices,” Kelly said. He also pointed to indie publishers like Image Comics, where innovative characters, themes, and ideas thrive.
Kelly’s thoughts were later confirmed by creators like Gail Simone (Batgirl) and Amy Reeder (Batwoman) during a panel called “Re-Imagining the Female Hero.” Both Simone and Reeder discussed how traditionally, representations of women in comics were limited to wives, sidekicks, or victims. But now, as the industry includes more voices, women are taking new parts. They’re giving punches and taking them, and they’re reclaiming sexual freedom instead of being reduced to lifeless objects. It’s nowhere near perfect, but there’s a momentum building. (See Simone’s recent inspiring Tumblr post in which she encouraged aspiring female comics creators to not apologize for being female.)
“Really what I care about is whether a female character has personhood,” said Reeder, who has also illustrated Rocket Girl for Image. “That's what matters to me.” She added that it’s easy to spot a shallow female character, who acts only as eye candy for male readers.
At the same time, Reeder and the rest of the all-female panel agreed the sexy warrior has a place. So long as the characters were smart and powerful—not just sexy—they could enjoy drawing them. In fact, Jenny Frison, another member of the panel, explained how she loves illustrating Red Sonja, who wears a chain-mail bikini and brandishes a sword. Like Reeder, Frison’s reasoning lies with the character’s inherent personhood: “[Red Sonja]’s so strong—she's mad, and sad, and vulnerable sometimes—but always strong!”
The “Re-Imagined” female hero and the new transgender-themed comics represent only a part of the explosion of new voices in comics. But unlike other conventions, Special Edition shone a spotlight on this diversity rather than stifling it with other loosely-related media or consumer merchandise. We’re joining both exhibitors and fans in hoping that Special Edition: NYC returns again next year!
Photos: Special Editition NYC