Comic-Con 2013: The Women’s Geekiverse

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Photo by Holly Derr

It was something of a pilgrimage. An adventure, if you will.  Okay, it’s not exactly the Shire to the Lonely Mountain, but still, it was epic to venture from L.A. to San Diego for Comic-Con.

I grew up in a time and place where it was all well and good for me to be obsessed with The Chronicles of Narnia, but I was not encouraged to read a comic book. I loved watching Batman (yes, the campy one), Superman (in black and white), The Electric Company (for Spiderman), Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter!) and the animated Justice League on television. And yes, I was one of the five girls for every 15 guys playing Star Wars on the playground, but it never occurred to me that I might also like Dungeons and Dragons or comics. (Hint: I probably would have.)

So for me, Comic-Con was both a crash course on the parts of the geekiverse I had not previously explored and a chance to meet some really amazing people who work both in and outside the box to change things for women in Hollywood and in fandom. These women have never let a little thing like gender norms get in the way of doing what they love.

The comic book Supurbia, its writer Grace Randolph and its publisher, Boom! Studios, made one of the biggest impressions on me. Randolph worked previously for Marvel on Her-oes, a book about the female Avengers as high school students. A woman after my own heart, of that comic she said that, despite the all-female cast,

I don’t want guys to look at this book and go, ‘Ugh .. .a girl!’ This isn’t all hearts and unicorns. There’s going to be action and fighting. I think that’s important.

Supurbia posits a universe in which a community of superheroes (male, female, brown, white, gay, straight, adults and children) live in a suburb together with their families. Though the official description of the comic emphasizes it’s likeness to The Real Housewives—”It’s the egos, the tantrums and the betrayals of the super set!”—Randolph is clearly devoted to making her characters complex. Dafna Pleban, an editor at Boom!, put it this way:

Grace … develops the world in really unexpected ways. One of my favorite characters is Hella Heart, who’s a great subversion of the Harley Quinn/villains’ bad girl consort. Grace goes a long way to humanize an archetype that is traditionally very objectified.

Randolph spoke alongside Pleban on the Gender in Comics panel about her reason for including a gay superhero couple:

I created the two gay men loosely based on Batman and Robin, because every time anyone talks about whether Batman and Robin might be gay it’s in a predatory sense, and that just puts a pall over it. I was really tired of ‘Oh poor Robin, he didn’t know what he was getting into. Her just wanted to fight crime.’ No. He knew what he was getting into. So I aged up the Dick Grayson-ish character and I made it two guys who just fell in love.

I’m hard-pressed to believe that it’s a coincidence that this content is coming out of the studio that employs more women creators than any other major comics publisher. But Jasmine Amiri, who worked the Boom! Studios table on the convention floor, doesn’t think that their women authors affect content as much they do perspective. She has noticed that, rather than the typical cover featuring a woman of extreme boobage, their comics increasingly have hot guys on the front.


Walking the floor, I happened across only one comic about a character of color:  Aluna, which features a Latina superhero. Apparently when actor Paula Garcés (Devious Maids) was at Comic-Con a few years ago to promote the Harold & Kumar franchise, in which she is featured, she had a similar experience:

I went into this convention and there [are] people in costumes and comic books all over the place, and I started to slowly realize that there were no Latino superheroes of any kind. There were so many Latinos at the convention, they were buying stuff and screaming for the superheroes, but not really [anyone] [who] could represent them in a positive, cool way.

Garcés went home, did a little research into the industry and discovered that though Latinos represent a huge segment of the market there are virtually no Latino superheroes. Then she did a lot more research and created Aluna (who looks a lot like Garcés—coincidentally?), the 16th-century child of a Spanish Conquistador and a goddess who, when transported to the New World, discovers she possesses ancient superpowers that she must use to save her people.

For someone who wasn’t a geek until around 2008, Garcés sure knows how to think like one. Aluna is now in Heroes of Newerth, an online multi-player battle game that 70,000 people a day choose to play as her.

One of my favorite panels, The Most Dangerous Women at Comic-Con: Dual Identities, brought together entrepreneurs, performers and cosplayers to talk about the current environment for women in fandom. I was particularly impressed by Ashley Eckstein—and not just because she voices a character in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Eckstein also founded HerUniverse, an online store for women fans with, to date, five “collections:” The Star Wars Collection, The Star Trek Collection, The Walking Dead Collection, The Dr. Who Collection and the Syfy Collection. Eckstein said it initially took some persuading to make people believe that women would buy fan merchandise:

I pitched the idea to George Lucas and came with facts about women fans, and eventually they were very supportive. If they hadn’t gotten on board, the other companies wouldn’t have. But they did say, ‘Well we’ve tried to sell female merchandise in the past and it hasn’t worked. Why would it work now?’ Well, maybe because you designed 18 shirts for guys and one shirt for a girl in pink and it says ‘I Heart Scoundrels.’ I’m going to go directly to the fans to ask them what they want, then we’ll make what they want, and in return the fans will support you. This genre transcends gender.

Chaka Cumberbatch cosplaying as Sailor Venus

Like many geek girls, Eckstein’s fellow panelist Chaka Cumberbatch—who wrote the essay “I’m a Black Female Cosplayer and Some People Hate it” for XOJane—has faced bafflement from people who fail to understand that she cosplays because she loves it:

I get asked, ‘Did you come here titillate all the sexless nerds?’ And I say, yeah, sure, I spent $300 to buy a ticket, took off work and flew out here because I want to make nerds hot.

At one Con, Cumberbatch faced harassment via social media by some guys calling themselves “the grope crew,” and though the Con took care of it when she reported the threats, other attendees accused her of feeding the trolls. Cumberbatch reflected, “What kind of world do we live in where threatening to rape someone is dismissed as trolling? I’m sorry, that’s not trolling, that’s a threat.”

On the same panel, Morgan Romine, former Captain of the all-female professional gaming team Frag Dolls, reported on the state of things for women in the gaming world and addressed the question of whether it’s worth it to call out harassers:

I am definitely seeing a better balance at gaming conventions, but I think that in the past year there’s been some hiccups in that process. And maybe that’s a natural part of the evolution—that there’s going to be some backlash. But if we rally together and speak out about how that kind of thing is not okay, then we end up taking two steps forward.

The list of amazing women at this year’s Comic-Con is a long one. Working both in and outside the system, they are changing fandom and the entertainment industry for women for the better.

I always thought I was a Lucy Pevensie—eager for the adventure and unafraid. But in comparison to these women, I’m more of a hobbit—a reluctant traveler who previously stayed safely inside the (mostly) acceptable. Now that I’ve been to Comic-Con, I’d best be careful that I keep my feet. There’s no knowing where I may be swept off to.


Holly L. Derr is the Head of Graduate Directing at the University of Memphis and a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.