"There’s a ton of stuff you could be doing right now, but you’re here, so thank you."
Panel host Carl Varnado’s words are true: There are countless things to look at, listen to, watch and experience at New York Comic Con. But in today’s divisive political climate, perhaps few were more important than "Black Heroes Matter," a panel consisting of host Carl Varnado and five members:
- Uraeus: Creator of Black Heroes Matter, a movement that describes itself as "an SOS call to creators of color."
- Faith Cheltenham: Activist and Vice President of BiNet USA, the world’s largest bisexual advocacy group.
- Blerdgirl: Blogger, founder of theblerdgurl.com and freelance video editor, who announced at the panel she’ll be producing a comic news show on Syfy Wire.
- Ryan Benjamin: Artist on Batman Beyond, Suicide Squad, and several other titles.
- David F. Walker: Writer of Marvel’s Luke Cage and several other titles.
Why is something like Black Heroes Matter even necessary? Every member of the panel said it’s about representation. David F. Walker said he was 10 years old watching the Superman movie, and the only black character in the movie was a pimp with two lines. "Metropolis only has one black citizen and he’s a pimp?!" This prompted a pre-pubescent Walker to think "When I grow up I’m going to make sure we change this." Has adult David been successful? "Not much has changed, but I’m still swimming upstream to make sure it happens."
Uraeus was equally concerned about representation, but rather than revisiting his own childhood experiences, he remarked that it’s about making a better future for his children. As he was building a collection of books, movies, and other pop culture for his kids, he noticed how little black people are positively represented.
"We desperately need our young people to believe they can take on any problem that confronts them," he said, because "things that are happening now are unprecedented." The impetus is on our to empower our youth to create a better tomorrow. "The hero is not in a comic book. The hero is you."
As mainstream comics and other mediums start to publish more works featuring black leads, many of them are revisiting the offensive blaxploitation properties of the past. David F. Walker noted that he thought Luke Cage was the "coolest thing ever" when he was a kid, but he and his friends would laugh about the dialogue. "Do you know anybody who talks like this? I don’t know people like this at all." Unfortunately, most of those properties were created by white people who didn’t actually know many black people on an intimate level, resulting in an inability to infuse authentic humanity into their black characters. "That was the first thing they took from us, even before our freedom — our humanity."
Why have black pop culture icons been historically so ridiculously portrayed? Walker explored pop culture’s role in keeping citizens "fat and happy," so to speak. "All entertainment is meant to pacify, but that’s especially true for black people. They make stupid movies for white people, too — [but] they’ve never made Soul Plane for white people," he joked. Blerdgurl chimed in, saying that these characters that are taken out of the vault have to be revamped and shown in a new light. Putting it simply: "If you do it wrong, you’ll get dragged on Twitter!"
It’s not only important to shift the perception of these characters for the readers — it’s important for the publisher, too. Says Faith Cheltenham, "Movies that avoid racial conversations are not doing well." Walker agreed, relating it to the comic book industry, which he says will die if they don’t start catering to the younger, historically more tolerant, generation. The reason sales are lagging is the comic industry is too busy catering to people "about to qualify for AARP." It’s also an issue that comic books are hard to find outside of comic shops these days, he said. "You can walk into a Walmart and buy underwear, tampons, milk and guns, but no comic books."
One way to get the big publishers to notice the shift is supporting independent comics. It’s important to suport the big stuff like Black Panther, but equally important to give money to independent writers and publishers. Panel host Carl Varnado noted it’s much easier to reach a wider audience these days, which things like Kickstarter et al. "If you support a comic book, it can spin off into video games," and other markets. It truly is the era of DIY entertainment.
Of course, this issue is far bigger than comic books. "Black Heroes Matter" is obviously a riff on the wider Black Lives Matter movement, which is unfairly demonized in certain press circles. Ryan Benjamin confessed he’s been asked if he was a terrorist just for wearing his Black Heroes Matter shirt. When he explained the point of the movement, the person responded, appallingly, with "As long as you do the Martin Luther King thing and not the Malcom X thing."
It seems Black Lives Matter, and even its comic-centric Black Heroes Matter cousin, are horribly misunderstood by the public at large as a hate group. "The last thing I did with Black Lives Matter was pull weeds in an area and make it into a garden for children," Faith recounted. "We made barbecue and handed out food to homeless people."
That certainly doesn’t sound like a terrorist group, but too often people get the wrong idea either through ignorance or wilfull misrepresentation. "Whenever someone says ‘this thing matter’ it’s taken as ‘nothing else does,’" Blerdgurl said. "Of course they do. That’s not the point. It’s like saying ‘I like orange notebooks,’ and they respond with ‘Well why don’t you like blue?’"
"Privilege allows you to be blind," Varnado put it succinctly. "Black Heroes Matter makes you have to think about it."