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The Major Comics Publishers Skipped Geek Girl Again, But Is That Such a Bad Thing?

The second annual Geek Girl Con in Seattle, Washington, was held 11-12 August, a couple of months shy of the event’s one-year anniversary. In that short time, the convention has managed significant growth. In anticipation of increased attendance, the event was moved to a larger and more centrally-located venue, the Conference Center, an adjunct to the Washington State Convention Center, from the more intimate and park-like Seattle Center in the Queen Anne neighborhood. The anticipated jump in attendance was also born out, going from over 2,000 per day to 3,000 (see, Dawn Quinn, “Female geekdom celebrated at second annual GeekGirlCon“, komonews.com, 14 August 2012).

I also observed that the larger convention seemed to bring more of a national profile of attendees, presenters and guests. While the event continues to draw on the advantages of its regional location, both Portland and Seattle have well-established ‘geek’ communities, of both fans and as creative professionals in fields like software development and comics. There were also more people drawn from, particularly, other parts of North America.

What did not change this year is the lack of attendance on the part of Marvel and DC.

On the one hand, the two big companies were not alone in not being represented at Geek Girl. Of US-based publishers with broad catalogs and regular publishing schedules, only Seattle-based Fantagraphics was in the exhibitors hall. No comics publisher organized or sponsored a panel. On the other hand, both Marvel and DC, because of their significance within the broader popular culture, and their often strained relations with female fans and readers, perhaps have more to gain from having a presence at Geek Girl than do smaller presses.

When I addressed this question after last year’s convention (see, “Comics Needs Women: Why Marvel and DC Should Have Been at Geek Girl Con“, PopMatters, 19 October 2011), I focused on how comics, while a major topic at Geek Girl, is just a small part of what it meant to be a ‘geek’, and superhero comics, while a dominant genre for the medium, is an even smaller part of that universe. Geek Girl Con is an opportunity for the publishers to show their relevance to, particularly, girls and women, but also men and boys who feel alienated (or bored) by the persistence of sexism in the industry.

If last year I was struck by the range and diversity of geek culture on display at the convention, this year I was struck by how well-represented comics was despite the absence of most publishers, but notably Marvel and DC, who, understandably, tend to draw the widest attention when represented at a con.

In all, I counted eight panels across the two days of Geek Girl dedicated to comics, and most panels, from those on cosplay to ones on writing, relate to comics in some measure. What this demonstrates is that fans and readers, even individual creators, don’t need publishers in order to have productive conversations about comics. More importantly, panel organizers are free to talk about what they want to talk about without being kept at a distance.

Not surprisingly, the comics panels at this convention are mostly rooted in critical examinations of how the superhero genre is done, and how the marginalization of women and girls, both on and off of the page, can be addressed in productive ways by both creators and readers. It is difficult to imagine executives at Marvel and DC signing on for a panel that asks, “Why do Superman and Batman charge into battle fully dressed while Wonder Woman wears a skimpy swimsuit?” (“Super Style: 70 Years of Comic Book Fashion, Saturday, 11 August, 1:30-2:20).

Outside of panels, while established commercial publishers were not well-represented in the exhibitors’ hall, small, speciality and micro-presses were, including Northwest Press, an LGBT publisher, GrayHaven Comics, specializing in titles featuring new writers and artists and creator-owned content, and individual creator-owned and published works such as Cura Te Ipsem by Neal Bailey and Dexter Wee. Ashley Riot’s “Female Character Design in Modern Comics” workshop (Saturday, 11 August, 3:00-3:50) engaged audience members in critiquing and designing female characters.

Self-made media, both comics and otherwise, is a major theme in the 2012 program. The prominence of Kickstarter as a funding platform for comics creators, and geek cultural production generally, can also be noted in the program, from featured projects, such as Jane Espenson’s web series, Husbands, and in a panel on using the service (“How to do your own Kickstarter”, Saturday, 11 August, 11:30-12:20).

Like last year, individual creators, including Gail Simone, Greg Rucka, and Jen Van Meter, were in attendance, holding signings and participating in panels, and taking part in “GeekGirlConnections”, a space devoted to networking with established professionals in the sciences and other creative fields. However, these individuals were at Geek Girl Con representing themselves, not publishers.

In my review of last year’s convention I made the case for Marvel and DC to be in attendance. After this year, I think a case could also be made for the major publishers to stay away, leaving fans and individual creators and small presses the freedom to define the comics agenda at Geek Girl. Maybe the last thing this con needs is for corporate influence to water down the critical vitality of the comics programming. It could be good for the profile of the event to have the major publishers officially represented, but I’m not sure that panels ultimately designed to promote Marvel and DC projects would be better in terms of content than the panels in the 2012 program, or that exhibitors space isn’t better used for a company like Northwest Press than for corporations who already dominate the industry.

That being said, there is value in having both corporate and critical programming, and for those to exist side-by-side and in some kind of dialogue, whether direct or indirect.

Whereas the major corporate players in comics remain absent from Geek Girl, video game companies are not. EA is all over the 2012 program, from co-sponsoring gaming rooms with PopCap, to being listed as a top level sponsor, the company has taken a major interest in the convention. Strikingly, the inside cover of the current program is a single-page ad encouraging attendees to seek employment at EA. The ad does not make a direct appeal to girls and women, but given the context, and the prominence of female characters on the page, the message is clear: we want you to work for us. While not as prominent as either EA or PopCap, both Microsoft and Bioware were represented in some capacity at Geek Girl this year.

In 2011, gaming took place in a single room and was focused on roleplaying, card, and board games. My daughter spent the better part of Saturday afternoon in that room, playing Magic and Dungeons and Dragons. The small scale of this part of the con was inviting and accessible. The 2012 expansion changed that, but it also widen the options and scope of the gaming. This year there was something for every kind of gamer.

If there is a uniting theme for Geek Girl Con, it is to provide a space where girls and women can feel welcome and accepted in pursuing their pop cultural passions and aspirations in math, science, and technology. Given that the convention itself emerged as a DIY response to feeling unwelcome at other events, it isn’t surprising that the comics programming follows that thread, rather than serving the needs of publishers. The lesson that prominent comics publishers, and Marvel and DC in particular, can take from EA is that there is more to be gained from meeting women and girls on their turf than from taking female fans and readers for granted.

How much goodwill would be signaled from a major publisher buying ad space to encourage girls and women to seek employment in the industry, or from Marvel or DC (or Dark Horse, Image, or IDW) becoming a top level sponsor of the convention? In isolation, such things don’t mean much, they won’t end patriarchy or automatically diversity the visual representation of women in superhero comics, but they would be clear signs from powerful agents that comics, in the main, is no longer being run as a boys club. That’s what I see when I look at the jobs ad from EA in this year’s program, and, at it’s best, that’s what being represented at the next Geek Girl Con would mean for major comics publishers.

PopMatters