New Readers and Representation
LGBTQ representation, reaching new readers, and the greatness of Supergirl(s).
I met Saranga during one of those awkwardly sprawling Twitter conversations that inevitably gift you with new people to follow and be followed by. Then I found out she ran a site dedicated to helping people new to comics figure it all out, and thought, hey, this girl is pretty cool. That impression was confirmed, when I saw her in the trenches of online activism (and not just issues relating to comics). And of course, her early support of Women Write About Comics…
Saranga blogs at PAI, and can also be found on Twitter. She’s the founding editor of New Readers… Start Here!. The blog aims to help new readers navigate comics reading, through extensive glossaries, links, and store and comics recommendations.
We talk representation, marketing, and what the Big Two are doing right, and doing wrong. And Supergirl, because she’s a fan.
In addition to being a comics blogger, you’re an activist. You’ve been vocal about racism, sexism and ableism in comics and the comics industry. Do you view your comics blogging as activist work? How does your activism influence your comics blogging?
First of all, I’m flattered that you’d call me an activist! I look around at people in the real world, and other folks on Twitter, and I think that they do far more than me. I consider myself an armchair activist more than anything. But if you regard an activist as being someone who speaks out against social inequality, then yes, I guess I am one. I think my comics blogging sometimes crosses over into activist work.
There are a number of things which turn me off comics. It might be that the art (pencils, colours, inking or lettering) isn’t to my taste, the plot might be weak, the writing or characterization may be poor, or, it may be that I find a depiction of a character or setting problematic. If it’s the latter, then I tend to complain about it online. I have this need to get my thoughts out of my head, which is where activist commentary might come in. I don’t go about intending to provide social commentary on the comics I read. It’s just that if I find something sexist, racist, out of character, or badly drawn, it pulls me out of the story and decreases my enjoyment of it.
You run New readers… start here, a portal (including reviews, glossaries and links) for people new to comics. It’s a truism that comics are a bit of a closed society, and that it’s difficult to even find the door. Did you struggle with this when you first started reading comics? Where does your enthusiasm for the project come from?
To the first question, yes and no.
My first comic was the 1980s Thundercats series, which I read every week from issue #1 to #120 odd. That was easy to find (and a closed universe), because I was 6 and my parents put it on standing order for me at the local newsagent. When I was a teenager, I used to buy the odd Spider-man comic, reprinted as Marvel Collector’s Editions for for the UK market. These were sold in newsagents, and only a few were available at any one time. So, easy to choose from. Then at University I had a friend with a huge comic collection, and he kept feeding me DC stuff he thought I’d like. Then I discovered the right questions to ask on the internet, found the Women in Refrigerators blog and that was my gateway into all sorts of new DC titles. So, comics weren’t really closed to me, not with Women in Refrigerators and a helpful friend. Without them, I might have had trouble.
To the latter question – I decided to start the blog because after a bit of internet research, I could find no obvious resource for the reader new to comics. When I walk into a comic store, even as a long time fan, I am baffled by what is out there. How on earth would a new reader pick up something good? How would new readers know the difference between a trade, and a floppy, and a graphic novel? How would they know about all the different writers and artists out there?
By chatting to friends, particularly new ones just discovering that I read comics, it was apparent they had no idea about the range of titles, genres or stories in comics. Many think comics are still being written as they were in the Silver Age, with 90s style outrageously sexist art. This made me sad, and got me thinking that there should be a resource to showcase the massive range of comics out there.
So, I started New readers…start here! to address these issues. Since starting it–and I admit I am not online as much anymore–I have only found one other blog that does something similar, and it focused on comics for women, about women.
The American comics industry is struggling to reach out to new readers, and has had some high profile successes and failures in this regard, in the last few years. What, in your opinion, are some of the immediate barriers to entry for new readers that the industry needs to address?
They don’t advertise enough. They especially don’t advertise outside of comics fans. In the UK, many people don’t even realise you can buy regular monthly Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, X-Men comics. It’s not advertised. With all the recent superhero films DC and Marvel should be advertising their websites as part of the pre-movie trailers. They should be giving sample comics away at the screenings. They shouldn’t rely on Free Comic Book Day, because the only folks that go to that, are already reading comics.
The comics industry should advertise themselves in magazines, on TV, on national or local news sites. Not on internet comic forums, or in their own books, or on the Big Bang Theory. They should advertise in arenas where people who have never heard of DC and Marvel will see the adverts. They should send samples to school and public libraries.
And when they do that, they should widen their target market. Don’t restrict themselves to 18-35 year old males (they are already buying the comics). Don’t create covers of iconic characters that look like Catwoman #0. Concentrate on telling good stories without succumbing to crossover hell. Create comics for young children, older children, teenagers, adults and old adults. And then tell them about the [rest of their] comics.
This is an issue that comics journalists and fans have been struggling with too. What can comics journalism and comics fandom do, to be more welcoming to new readers? What changes (if any) do we need to make to our discourse?
I think what would help is not to assume prior knowledge. If a new reader is reading a blog post and it mentions acronyms, past stories, obscure characters and other creators, without explaining what this all means, it’s gonna be difficult to make head or tail of it. That might not put everyone off, but it will put off some. This is why I have two blogs–Pai is my generic comics ramblings, where I write for myself and other fans who don’t need things explained, and New readers…start here!, where I try to make sure each post is as clear as possible and provides an overview of the pros and cons of the book without spoilers.
If comic websites wanted to appeal to new fans they could do an ‘entry book of the week’, or ‘character introduction of the week’.
There’s always a lot of discussion about how welcoming the comics industry and comic blogosphere is to new female readers, so if your site or community, or commenters are making a new readers feel unwelcome because of sexist bullying, then you should sort it out. But that’s not because they are new readers here to save the dying industry, it’s because it’s the decent human thing to do. Same goes for any situation where someone is being bullied, for whatever reason.
New Readers primarily (but not solely) covers American cape comics. Have you considered branching off into other traditions? Perhaps some New Readers manga, bande dessinée or Brit comics reviews?
I accept that New Readers has featured a lot of American superhero comics, but I think we have already branched out into other traditions. We’ve got 116 posts labelled Genre: Superheroes (most are DC) and 74 labelled Genre: not superheroes, so I don’t think that’s too bad a split. However, I do agree that our labelling system may not be clear enough, and that with the majority of posts being about superheroes, it will look like that is what we focus on. We’ve only got 20 manga reviews and 3 bande dessinee, which isn’t really enough. It’s not intentional though, I promise!
The problem is that the team of reviewers (myself included) are picking books off our shelves to review, which means that the selection of books is biased. Speaking for myself, because of my day job and other commitments I don’t have the time or money to go research, locate and review books I know nothing about. However, I am trying to get through a number of Top Shelf and manga books on my boyfriend’s shelf, and finding the time to write up the ones I like best.
The obvious way to get around this imbalance is to recruit bloggers with a different field of expertise, so if anyone reading this wants to join the reviewing team please get in touch with me! I can offer gratitude and warm fuzzy feelings when someone comments positively on a book you’ve reviewed.
So the answer is really that we’re trying.
In addition to text posts, New Readers has a number of British Sign Language vlogs. This might be my own bias, but it seems like SL vloggers don’t have a lot of visibility in the geekosphere. Why was it important to you to feature BSL vlogs on New Readers?
I haven’t seen any BSL (or other sign language) vlogs about comics. I started putting BSL interpreted versions of the posts on the blogs for a couple of reasons.
One is to make the information more accessible. A lot of UK Deaf have BSL, not English, as their first language, which means that if you want to get your message across you need to do it in BSL.
Secondly, I have been learning BSL for about 8 years and am currently doing my NVQ Certificate Level 3 (this is equivalent to A-Levels, the school exams we do at eighteen in the UK) and these interpretations offer me the chance to practice and improve my BSL skills. My BSL isn’t great. I’m not claiming the posts with vlogs are totally accessible but hopefully they help. I bang on so much about Deaf accessibility in my everyday, real world life, I figured I’d better try and walk the walk (even if looks more like I’m stumbling the walk…!)
Back to your original question, I wonder, that without a written translation of signed vlogs, how non signers would recognise what the vlog was about? Maybe geeky signed vlogs are out there but the language barrier means non signers assume they don’t exist?
You’ve written a number of posts for Prism Comics, profiling LGBT characters, and you’ve talked about the importance of representation and the problem of bisexual erasure. So, I have to ask this one– what do you think of Northstar’s wedding, and Green Lantern Alan Scott coming out as gay? Is this a cynical grab for publicity? An important step forward? Both?
I don’t feel that either Northstar’s wedding or Alan Scott becoming gay are cynical publicity grabs. That’s just not the vibe I’m getting from them. Not to say that either company doesn’t realise the good publicity they’ll get from them, just that I don’t think it’s the only reason. I think both events are important steps forward, of course they are, and we need more of these events so they [aren’t by default] newsworthy.
I didn’t read Northstar’s wedding issue, as I don’t read much Marvel, and I didn’t read Alan Scott’s coming out, because I have a huge fangirl problem with the idea of de-aging the Justice Society. (There’s nothing wrong with older heroes! They were awesome characters before DC’s New 52, and I think it was a mistake to change them).
Northstar and Alan Scott don’t mean much to me personally, but I am pleased to see they exist, as out gay characters. Now can we have some more [gay characters], and can we have some bisexual and trans characters too please?
You did a series on coming out in comics. Unfortunately many of these characters have fallen by the wayside over the years, or written out in the DC reboot. Is this a problem of internal culture at the big comics publishers, or just a fact of superhero comics? What needs to change for LGBT characters to stop appearing/disappearing/reappearing?
Ah, now these characters I have written about. I do have a personal connection to a lot of them, and I am gutted that we have lost so many. I think the lack of LGBT characters in comics, is due to society in general. I’m not American, and I’ve never been there, but I do consume a lot of American cultural products. I know there are a lot of liberal, left wing, progressive Americans, but I am also aware there are a lot of right wingers who don’t like LGBT characters. I don’t think this is confined to superhero comics. I view the superhero comics industry as a microcosm of wider society, so as long as wider society doesn’t accept LGBT characters in popular culture, DC and Marvel won’t make many characters gay, or bi, or trans.
For this to change, I think the Big Two need to either create new characters and use them, or have the courage to have pre-existing characters come out as gay, or bi, or trans. It doesn’t have to be a big thing – my coming out in comics series has loads of examples. Or it could be a big thing – it depends on the character. Just make them gay, or bi, or trans. The more people see diversity in their characters, the less of a thing it will be.
I think that sometimes straight or cis people worry about how to write a gay, bi or trans character. Well really, if you’re gonna write a gay or bi character, write them like you would a straight character, just with same sex romantic partners. Not all gay and bi characters have to have a traumatic life, experience bi/homophobia, see things differently to straight people, or be deeply involved with gay politics (these are things that I assume bother straight writers). And even if they do, that’s not a reason not to write them as people first, sexuality second.
As for trans characters, well if you want your work to reflect real life then the reality is a lot of trans people experience transphobia. But their lives are more more than abuse and discrimination! So do your research. Decide where you want your character to be in their life, decide their life history, determine their friend and familial relationships and work out what sort of person you want them to be. Then write a character that is more than their gender identity. It really shouldn’t be too difficult. Rachel Pollack did a terrific job writing Kate Godwin in Doom Patrol – Godwin is trans, but that fact didn’t dominate her story.
Finally, you’re a huge Supergirl fan. Why did you connect so much with the character? Is there an ‘ur’ Supergirl (for you)?
Oh Kara! I love Supergirl because she shows that girls (and women) can be super too. My first exposure to superheroes was through the Christopher Reeves Superman films, which blew me away. Then I got a bit older and found out there was a Supergirl too. In my twenties, I read her reintroduction to the DC Universe, which, while it had its problems, still left me overjoyed.
Supergirl is just cool. She can fly. She can shoot laser beams from her eyes. She has super strength. She is invulnerable. She can crush coal into diamonds. She can do anything. Superman is normally shown as the most powerful being in the DC universe. Well, Supergirl is right up there next to him. Anything he can do, she can do. And she’s female. Now that, is awesome.
As for my favourite incarnation, I’ve got a few.
I recently read the Pre-Crisis Supergirl comics. And, wow! She is quite a different character to the Post-Crisis and New 52 version. She is heroic, and sweet, and she will never ever let anyone put her down. If anyone had the nerve to say that girls can’t do something because they are girls, she set out to prove them wrong. She’s loyal, she’s bright, she’s independent (at least once she’s been on Earth a little while).
Then we’ve got Sterling Gates’ and Jamal Igle’s version, who became more human. And strong, and loyal, and was a scientist, and who cared about people, and who was her own person. Who, after the mess that earlier writers and artists left, became a shining beacon [of everything good] in the DC Universe. It was one of the best books being put out by DC [before the New 52 reboot]. The Bizzarogirl arc proved this.
Then there’s Linda Danvers, who started off as a really fucked up human, joined with an angel (I’m a sucker for religious mythology), lost the angel part, and became super-powered Linda. She was short tempered, snarky, adult, had an awesome costume and a sense of utter self-assurance. She was courageous enough to take Pre-Crisis Kara’s place, and didn’t melt slowly into the background, but instead brought her own unique take to those innocent Silver Age events. Linda Danvers is more human than Kara Zor-El, but is also a brilliant brilliant character who I will always love.
So, those three are my favourite takes on Supergirl.
I enjoy the New 52 Supergirl, but time will tell if she becomes a favourite or not.
Thanks for interviewing me!
The pleasure was all mine.