Geek Girl Con 2013 Synthesized Pop Culture, Science, Technology, and Critical Inquiry

As is becoming our tradition, my wife and daughter and I made the trip to Seattle, Washington for Geek Girl Con (GCC) (19 and 20 October). After attending the first event in 2011, I made the case for the major comics publishers to be represented at GGC (see, “Comics Needs Women: Why Marvel and DC Should Have Been at Geek Girl Con“, 18 October 2011). Following the 2012 convention I reconsidered that argument:

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 (see, “The Major Comics Publishers Skipped Geek Girl Again, But Is That Such a Bad Thing?“, 3 September 2012).

Returning from this year’s convention, my thinking on this question continues to shift, which likely has more to do with the polymorphic nature of the event, both in terms of programming and attendees, than it does with anything related to the American comics publishers.

The effectiveness of Marvel’s transmedia strategy and branding of The Avengers was in evidence all over this year’s Geek Girl. I saw multiple Captain Americas, Captain Marvels, Hawkeyes and Black Widows walking the floor. Exhibitor booths also showed a clear preference for Avengers art, clothing and accessories. Kelly Sue DeConnick, currently writing the Captain Marvel and Avengers Assemble, was the featured comics creator for the weekend. Furthermore, the publisher is currently running a female dominated X-Men, written by Brian Wood, and recently announced new ongoing series for Black Widow and Elektra.

At the same time, company film producer Kevin Feige has lately deflected questions about releasing a female-led film (see Erik Davis, “Marvel’s Kevin Feige on ‘Doc Strange,’ a Female-Driven Solo Movie and When They’ll Announce Those 2016 and 2017 Movies“, 21 October 2013). From a variety of angles, this would have been an interesting and productive year for Marvel to have been officially represented at Geek Girl.

On the other hand, as I noted last year, what makes the comics programming at Geek Girl compelling is its focus on issues of gender and diversity that are typically marginalized at other cons. At Geek Girl, academic authors, activists, educators, and individual creators do not have to compete with commercial publishers for space and attention. This year saw the addition of an “Artists Alley”, which, while not entirely populated with comics artists, is still a further widening of the program for individuals in the field.

While Geek Girl Con has its roots in the experiences of mainstream comics conventions (see the organization’s About page), the event is not, specifically, a “comic-con”. The convention’s tagline, “The Celebration of the Female Geek”, points to this broader mission, which is to provide a safe and welcoming space for women and girls to share and express their geeky pursuits, whether in the lab, at the X-Box, or in the pages of a comic.

This year’s comics program pulled many of these threads together through, particularly, a panel on the “Gender through Comic Books” massive open online course, or “SuperMOOC”, taught by Christina Blanch at Ball State University in April and May of this year. Blanch introduced and moderated the panel which included DeConnick, Matt Fraction, Mark Waid and Jen Van Meter, all of whom were interviewed for, or as part of, the online course, which enrolled 7,500 students. This panel, and related presentations, such as “Geeks in Education”, which also featured Blanch, exemplify the synthesis of pop culture, science, technology, and critical inquiry that makes Geek Girl Con unique.

Other comics conventions will feature academic panels, even parallel academic conferences, and there are, of course, actual comics studies meetings, but I can’t think of another gathering of academics, practitioners, and fans that places comics alongside not just other pop media, but also science, math, and technology.

More importantly, unlike other conventions, which are largely promotional in nature, whether from a corporate perspective or that of individual creators, Geek Girl is rooted in the desire for a critical unpacking, interrogation, and re-construction of the category “geek” in a way that is more open and inclusive than is normally possibly in the predominantly male spaces through which fields like comics, computer programming, and video gaming are defined.

From this angle, and given their histories as boys clubs, the absence of Marvel and DC seems appropriate.

And yet I have no doubt that many of the fans and participants at the convention would welcome the opportunity for Geek Girl to be the site of a major publisher panel. I suspect that the crowd at Geek Girl would have been even more enthused by the Black Widow and Elektra announcements than were those in attendance at New York Comic Con, where those books were revealed.

As I’ve noted in the prior years, GGC benefits from being located in the Pacific Northwest, which is home to a number of creators, including Van Meter, DeConnick and Fraction, and also independent publishers. Perhaps more puzzling to me than the non-participation of Marvel and DC is the lack of representation from regional houses like Dark Horse, Oni Press, and Top Shelf, publishers that are not only local, but feature catalogs that are, proportionally if not absolutely, more inclusive than the bigger companies in terms of both writers and artists and also characters and stories. Seattle-based Fantagraphics while represented in 2011 and 2012, was absent this year as well.

Obviously, the only way to actually find out if a major publisher presence would add to or detract from the value of Geek Girl is for publishers to formally propose a panel or send official representatives to exhibit company goods. Based on its current rate of growth and development, Geek Girl Con clearly doesn’t need Marvel or DC or Dark Horse or Image to thrive, even in its comics programming, but publisher participation would be one way for the event to heighten its appeal for comics fans, readers, and scholars.

Ultimately, though, it maybe the publishers who would have the most to gain from coming to Geek Girl, and recognizing that, particularly, girls and women aren’t just trailing daughters, girlfriends, and spouses, but are fans all on their own, with or without male partners.