Johnathan Flowers, Ph.D Candidate, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

Johnathan Flowers on Diversity in Comics and Games

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As I did last year, I had the opportunity to attend a few of the Comics and Popular Arts Conference panels, and I had the opportunity to reconnect with Johnathan Flowers, Ph.D Candidate, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale to talk a little bit about how academia believes current fandom stacks up with respect to representation, diversity, and myth-building.

Check out our video with Dr. Flowers from DragonCon 2016.

GIN: Last year, we introduced CPAC to our readers. What were your thoughts on this year’s conference? Were there any changes that proved positive? Were there things you would do differently?

Johnathan Flowers, Ph.D Candidate, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
Johnathan Flowers, Ph.D Candidate, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

John: This year’s conference went well save for the normal hiccups with any con: we had some presenters drop out of panels, received some panel notifications later than we would like, and we had some A/V issues with some of our panels, but it was nothing that we haven’t handled before. That being said, I think this year’s conference was one of our best: we had one of the widest variety of academics presenting across several different fields and academic levels including several tenured and tenure track professors. This is important because we normally draw from the graduate student pool as most senior scholars tend not to view conferences like CPAC as academically rigorous, despite the level of research that our participants engage in.

Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue Deconnick, both well known comic authors, wowed fans with their insights and autographs.
Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue Deconnick, both well known comic authors, wowed fans with their insights and autographs.

Otherwise, the conference went extremely well: we were very glad to have Kelly-Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction back to join us on our comics track panels, we were also very happy to be back on Trek Track, as they’re one of our newest tracks. Last year, our panel on the Economics of Star Trek was one of our most popular and widely discussed panels, and we had a great time working with Trek Track putting it on. More specifically, Star Trek is often argued as one of the more “intellectual” pieces of popular science fiction, given the variety of themes and issues addressed, so Trek is a natural fit for the kind of work that we do. While the roundtable on representation in trek was only the second time that CPAC was invited to the track, we enjoyed our work with them and look forwards to working with them again in the future.

Guests from the TNG panel take questions.
Guests from the TNG panel take questions.

This year, we made an attempt to get our panels in as early as possible and streamline our submission process. CPAC, like all academic conferences, uses a peer reviewed submission system where we solicit submissions through our call for papers. Once we receive papers by our deadline, our committee reviews them and then sorts them according to track for presentation. We then reach out to the track heads and propose our panels. This time, we sought to streamline the acceptance process so that we could get our panels to the track heads earlier to better ensure that we could offer presentations in a wide variety of tracks. This actually accounted for the diversity of some of our tracks among academics and subject matter.

Next year, we’re going to try to engage with our track heads even earlier and attempt to align our submission process with the time lines of the track heads so that we have our panels organized and ready for submission when the track heads begin their planning process. Additionally, we’re going to make an extended effort to tailor some of our panel submissions to the subject matter requested by the track heads. In this way, we may best be able to provide academic content that aligns with the interests of the fans of the track and with the overall theme of the track. Additionally, we are looking at expanding the tracks that we submit to: there are several areas that many of our panelists’ colleagues are working in that we did not have submissions to, and we would like to change that.

GIN: This year, one of your panels discussed topics of representation and diversity in Star Trek, a franchise ostensibly grounded in equality. How does the franchise stand up? Did the panel discussion bring up issues you had not anticipated?

John: With the last question, one of the questions that I had not anticipated with the issue of fat shaming in Star Trek, which is something that I had not considered. While I did recognize that Star Trek, through the way in which it presents its male and female protagonists, reinforces a specific image of beauty, however, one of the oversights that I made was not making explicit my recognition of the lack of plus-sized or larger people on Star Trek. While some of this can be attributed to casting choices in Hollywood and the degree to which they reflect the societal standards of beauty, I am curious to think about the way in which a supposedly egalitarian society reinforces particular standards of beauty across different species. Put another way, Klingon women, Vulcan Women, and the “alien woman of the week” (problematic), all represent beauty in line with a dominant beauty standard, though within this standard their beauty is often coded racially or in line with other kinds of stereotypes.

This is actually a good transition to how the series stacks up. Put simply: it doesn’t. We see few characters of color, even fewer women, and there were no queer characters whose queerness was an explicit part of their character until Star Trek Beyond and the upcoming Discovery. Some fans will point to Jadzia Dax’s encounter with the lover of one of the Dax symbiont’s previous hosts on DS9 as an implication of the queerness of the character, which is a possible interpretation, but not one that is made clear through the actions of the character save brief mentions that her previous host had “lovers.” Moreover, the episode frames the relationship between Dax and the symbiont’s former lover as taboo and essentially problematizes a same sex relationship in the context of the narrative of the show.

Star Trek also has a poor record of queer coding its villains, Shinzon in Star Trek Nemesis and Lon Suder in Voyager are particularly good examples. Queer coding is where a character, usually a villain, is given traits typically associated with queer people, but the character is not outright stated to be queer. This is important to note as there is nothing wrong with queer villains, provided that they are not only characterized as villains within the narrative, but queer coding cements the connection between queerness and evil, thereby maintaining the an argument that queerness is itself unacceptable. Where Lon Suder and Shinzon is concerned, the latter, while suffering from a mental illness, was treated as inherently violent; and Shinzon was treated as both morally deviant and an “inferior” version of Jean-Luc Picard.

Suder is actually a very good example of both Trek’s poor treatment of mental illness and of sexuality: Suder, like Reginald Barclay, is one of the rare instances that a character engages in long term therapy. Unlike Barclay, Suder’s violence (and his mental illness) is exploited by The Doctor to save the ship when it is taken by the Kazon Ogla in the third season premier. That is, the Doctor encourages Suder to use his violent tendencies to free the ship from the Kazon, ultimately forcing Suder to retraumatize himself for the good of the ship. This, combined with his queercoding present one of Trek’s more problematic views.

Where Shinzon is concerned, his queercoding (bisexuality to be specific) is coupled with a willingness to engage in sexual assault, which simultaneously reinforces the use of rape and sexual assault as a demonstration of the evil of the character, as well as once more using Deanna Troi’s loss of bodily autonomy as a plot device. Put simply, we’re not really sure that Shinzon is “evil” in a way that cannot be redeemed until he engages in his psychic assault on Troi. Up to this point, Shinzon was simply amoral and had the possibility of growing into Jean-Luc Picard under the right mentorship, however, this action pushes him into the “pure evil” category.

Overall, I think Trek tries to present an egalitarian society, but it falls prey to many of the issues that are present in our own world, specifically in so far as it builds in many of the problems of our own culture into its narrative. Let me rephrase that, Star Trek’s attempts at an egalitarian society tend to present women and people of color in positions of authority, but they do not allow them to exercise that authority in line with the representations of straight white men. As an example, while both B’Elanna Torres and Geordi LaForge are engineers of color on starships, B’Elanna’s biracial identity is shown as a constant source of tension, one which she tries numerous times to eliminate.

Specifically, B’Elanna, in her attempt to spare her child her own suffering, sought to eliminate the “Klingon,” whose traits associated with aggression and anger are often taken to be essential parts of people of color, from the child ultimately placing its life at risk. B’Elanna went so far as to reprogram the doctor to accomplish this goal, violating her ethics and the doctor’s autonomy to do so. It was only the timely intervention of Captain Janeway (a white woman) and her husband that talked B’Elanna down so to speak. This, in many respects, reinforces the primacy of whiteness in the experiences of women of color.

A better example of Trek’s problems with representing its egalitarian society is the society itself: the Federation itself demands assimilation to its social and cultural standards, a point which Quark and Garak allude to in their conversation over root beer. Essentially, while the federation might be a paradise, it is only paradise if you align your cultural distinctiveness with the demands of the federation’s. Specifically, this is one of the grounds of the tension between the Klingon Empire and the Federation in Star Trek VI, articulated ironically by Admiral Cartwright, a Black man, who expresses a fear that the incorporation of the Klingon empire into the Federation would destabilize the federation socially and politically. As the Klingon empire is often coded as a metonym for people of color, this is pretty problematic.

GIN: Having looked at Star Trek retrospectively, let’s talk a bit about Discovery. What’s your wishlist for the series? What are your concerns?

John: For Discovery? It is my hope that Michelle Yeoh’s character does not die in the first episode, that the new queer character is not treated as a token character whose queerness has no effect on the way that they move through the world, and that Sonequa Martin-Green’s character is allowed to exercise the full range of her authority as the first officer of the Discovery. One of my concerns is that the show will reinforce her characters subordinate role to Jason Isaac’s captain, which would be a further reinforcing of the subservience of women of color.

It is my hope that with all the representation planned for Discovery, that Discovery will use that representation to demonstrate that marginalized groups are capable of excelling in positions of authority and power. It is also my hope that Discovery will do more than paint the Klingons (again, metonyms for characters of color) as more than the “noble savage” that they’ve been depicted as in previous series. Doing so in the context of Discovery, whose main character is a woman of color adopted by a “logical” race, would be to set up a dichotomy between appropriate and inappropriate ways of being for people of color, specifically women of color, in so far as the success of Martin-Green’s character will be used as a contrast to the savagery of the Klingons.

I’m also hoping that Discovery will make an attempt to update Roddenberry’s vision of utopia to one that is not simply the erasure of cultural diversity in the pursuit of utopia. That is, I would like Discovery to demonstrate that paradise does not need to be homogenous to be paradise: it can maintain diversity while promoting harmony, which is something that previous Treks didn’t quite represent correctly, specifically where the Federation’s transcendence of money, spirituality, and cultural difference is concerned. What I would like is a Federation that celebrates cultural diversity without treating it as something that needs to be ejected for the sake of the society.

GIN: Changing directions, the other panel I attended was your comics roundtable with Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction. One of the major topics of discussion was the study of comics as cultural documents. There’s been some suggestion that comics serve as a sort of myth structure for modern society, teaching societal values. The panel touched on this idea a bit, but could you elaborate?

John: That’s an interesting concept. There have been arguments about comics as myth since people have been studying comics. One of the most interesting is Umberto Eco’s 1962 “The Myth of Superman,” wherein he argues that the archetypical comic book hero is the “totality of certain collective aspirations,” which is a complicated way of saying that comic heroes approximate the same purpose in our culture that mythic heroes served in other cultures. Briefly, the mythic hero is treated as a kind of embodiment of the aspirations and ideals of a given culture. Embodied in art, the mythic hero allows for all members of a culture who encounter it to engage with, on an emotional level, the cultural aspirations and ideals that the hero embodies. Neil Gaiman offers similar statements in his article, “Reflections on Myth” in Columbia.

On the other hand, I tend to treat comic book heroes as intensification of certain cultural ideals and values through the aesthetic. This is similar to the work that myths do in literary criticism. My take on comics as myths is more in keeping with the work of John Dewey, and is drawn directly from Dewey, specifically his understanding of the function of art in society. Art, for Dewey, is the intensification of qualitative experience… which is a complicated way of saying that art intensifies what makes “this storm” different from “that storm.” With comics, cultural ideals are the things that are being intensified through the art and the narrative, such that the comic reader can have the experience of the ideals or qualities intensified through their consumption of the comic book.

So, for my money, a comic serves as a kind of myth structure in so far as it communicates the values and ideals of a culture through aesthetics. There are some who might argue with me on that point, usually using the position that “comics are fantasy, or pulp,” which came up in the panel with Kelly-Sue and Matt Fraction, but it is their very disposable nature that allows them to be easy vehicles for the communication of ideals. Also, for Dewey, all fantasy is the result of imagining the actuality of our world in light of its possibilities: basically, we can imagine things only in light of conceiving what is in light of what is possible. On this basis, Captain America is a reflection of the actual values of truth, justice, and the American way, in light of the possibility of their embodiment in someone like Captain America. Comics, therefore, allow us to project idealized (possible) versions of ourselves into the world, and then provide a roadmap for how to become that individual through action. 

GIN: DeConnick mentioned using Bitch Planet as a platform for elevating under-represented voices. For readers looking to find those niches, what are some blogs or podcasts you recommend?

John: Oh man, I have a lot. For starters there’s BlackGirlNerds and Misty Knight’s Uninformed Afro (MKUA) as well as The Fan Bros and Black Nerd Problems, all of which engage comics and comics culture from the perspective of people of color and women of color specifically. I like to highlight BlackGirlNerds and MKUA specifically because their work is not actually that different from what I do. The kind of analysis and research that goes into each episode of MKUA or each BGN article is equal to, if not better than, the work that is done by comics scholars like myself or my fellow panelists. FanBros, which I did not mention on the panel, also engages in similar kinds of work and brings to light issues and comics by creators of color. Women Write About Comics, The Mary Sue, are a couple I frequent, but really, I need to expand my genre.

I want to repeat something that I pointed out on the panel, specifically with regards to BlackGirlNerds and MKUA: those two outlets are doing actual comics scholarship. I know I said this above, but it bears repeating. The kind of research and cultural analysis done by BGN and MKUA is the kind of work that I do in my essays, but emerges from a much different position. MKUA, specifically, does a lot of research into the characters in its analysis as it traces the evolution and changing styles of the character and how they are reflective of stereotypical views of Black women, or how they serve to embody their blackness. It’s high-level, conceptual stuff broken down into a conversation between two brilliant black women that brings extra life to the comics.

Not to keep going on a tangent, but that’s one of the things that is super valuable about places like twitter and podcasts focusing on comics: you don’t have to be an academic to do the academic work, and you don’t have to be a scholar to understand the scholarship. BGN and MKUA are doing the heavy lifting for you, engaging in the conceptual analysis and unpacking of themes without folks having to go through a lot of intellectual or academic training. They’re addressing the same issues that I am on my panels, in language that is accessible, and, in some senses, they do it much better than I do. I actually cite them in a couple of my essays.

I did want to get into what Kelly-Sue said about Bitch Planet as a platform for elevating under-represented voices because it is really very true. Kelly-Sue is extremely open about the kinds of conversations and tensions that she has had to resolve when writing a book like Bitch Planet, and how the book has pushed her to grow as a person beyond her boundaries, and that’s one of the most valuable things about the book. On the panel, I talked about how Bitch Planet’s concept of the “non-compliant” individual caused communities to form almost spontaneously around the book through recognition of non-compliance, and that’s one of the powers of a work like Bitch Planet. But what it also does is present the world from the perspective of the recognition of marginalization from someone who ostensibly recognizes her own position in our hierarchy, while simultaneously deferring to the lived experiences of others who she is speaking with.

I think this is pretty clear from the conversation on the panel where she made a point to emphasize that the book was both hers and Valentine De Landro’s, specifically through the way in which many solicits or advertisements for the book will center her as opposed to Valentine, himself a Black man. This is one of the things that struck me on the panel as she made clear the ways that she is trying to center Valentine in some of the marketing and interviews done about the book because it is as much his story as it is her story, which is something that is rare in comics: it is not very often that you see white creators using their privilege to elevate and advance creators of color.

The other thing that I want to point out about Bitch Planet specifically is the backmatter in the single issues. Each issue of Bitch Planet comes with essays on feminism or feminist theory and, like MKUA and BGN, the material is super accessible. Many of my colleagues and fellow comics scholars often assign the back matter or the entire text as a feminist text in their courses because the issues are so relevant to the coursework and the provide access to complex theory without having to dig through textbook full of jargon. There is also the fact that Bitch Planet is taking the same delivery vehicle of Superman or Batman and using it to teach body positivity and feminist ideology.

GIN: Let’s round this out on a prospective note, for next year, what are some new areas you would like to see explored at CPAC? What are some ways that readers could potentially get involved?

John: Honestly? We have a lot of contributors from the humanities: I would really like to see some of the hard sciences, social sciences, political theorists, and folks from other fields submit to us. This year we had an awesome talk on Superhero Registration from the perspective of a lawyer with regards to its constitutionality and the effects it would have on law in general. I’d love to see more panels and presentations like that which address commonly held assumptions about our favorite nerd media from the perspective of an academic.

I’d really like to see someone look at military doctrine in Star Wars or Trek after I read a blog post from angrystaffofficer called “no more task force rogue ones” which took apart the Rebellion’s activities in Rogue One from the perspective of an army staff officer. I’d also like someone to do something on the political structures found in fantasy and science fiction. I’d love to see a panel on the Sokovia accords from an international relations standpoint. One of the things about CPAC is that we’re known for our analysis of the popular culture that we’re engaging with, but so often that analysis tends to slip narrowly into humanities: there’s a lot that can be done from a hard science or social science background that I’d really like to see given a platform.

I’d also love to have more stuff done with other tracks. Right now, we’re fairly confined to anime/manga, trek, comics, tabletop, and occasionally American sci-fi and horror. I’d like to see more CPAC panels in other tracks because there’s a lot of work done in those areas that could be brought to DragonCon should we be given the space. Fantasy, for example, is a close cousin to the work being done in Medieval Literature as it tends to draw upon the same tropes, usually from the west, which codify our image of “fantasy fiction.” I would love to see some medievalists talk shop about Game of Thrones or Tolkein or The Stormlight Archive, just as much as I would like to see CPAC panels in gaming or in the Star Wars track. I, personally, have been dying to talk about the philosophical and cultural implications of the Jedi and Sith within the Star Wars Universe.

If people are interested in working with CPAC or just talking to us, they can visit the CPAC webpage at http://comicspopularartsconference.org/ or they can visit the CPAC Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/dragoncon.academics/ where we will likely be posting our Call For Papers. Most of the CPAC Board has a twitter presence, where we tweet about things that are not specifically comics related, but occasionally are, and can be reached through that. Like any academic conference, we solicit paper abstracts, review them, and then respond with a message letting prospective panelists know if they’ve been accepted, and then we pitch tracks to track heads. Next conference, we’re going to try to accelerate the process to get acceptance notices out faster and to pitch tracks to track heads earlier.

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