Google the words “Move, or you will be moved,” and it will yield multiple results. It is proof of the impact black women and other women of color can have if allowed the opportunity. Afro-German actress Florence Kasumba uttered the line during her brief appearance in Captain America: Civil War as the character Ayo. Kasumba was also a showstopper as Senator Acantha in 2017’s Wonder Woman. The statuesque beauty’s impactful performance goes a long way toward proving the notion that, as actress Viola Davis said, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
In 2012, when San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) hosted its first Women of Color in Comics panel, there was no Ayo on the big screen. There was no Vixen, Thunder, Lightning, Michonne or Misty Knight on TV screens at regular intervals. People could still only envision Valkyrie as a white woman. Besides Storm, the few female comic book characters of color around were kept stubbornly in the pages of books. If any appeared on screen, their roles were one-dimensional, if not tokenized.
In 2012, a group of black female comic book lovers led by Regine L. Sawyer started the Women in Comics Collective. In addition to all their other work, they began being a presence at various conventions. The Women in Comics Collective International is an organization that focuses on highlighting the merit and value of women working in the comic book industry. They sought to increase the presence and visibility of WOC comic book characters in the comics themselves, in television and on film. Their goals included having black actresses and other actresses of color, as well as creators of color, no longer be denied the opportunity to bring layered, interesting, intriguing female characters of color to life on the big and small screens. The public is finally starting to see the fruits of their work.
San Diego Comic-Con, which kicked off this year on Thursday, July 18, has grown exponentially. The Women of Color in Comics panel will focus on representation in the professional aspect of the industry and fandom. They’ll also discuss where the industry seems to be going and how it can stay on track regarding inclusion and diversity. Regine L. Sawyer will moderate the panel with panelists Vita Ayala (writer, Black Mask Studios, DC Comics, Valiant), Marqueeda LaStar (tech journalist, The National Association of Black Journalists), Alice Meichi Li (illustrator, Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics), Jay Justice (cosplayer/activist), Shann Dornhecker (CEO, ComicMix), and Che Grayson (writer, Image Comics, Bitch Planet anthology).
Che Grayson, also a filmmaker, says she has seen a much more significant presence of creators of color at the conventions lately. “In terms of the people who have been consuming content, there has always been a ton of us,” she says. “There has always been great turnout. The fight is for who gets to create the content. That speaks to binary folks of color, nonbinary folks of color creating the content. But black women have always shown up as fans.”
If there is one disturbing, recurring theme of the era of inclusion and diversity in comics and their onscreen adaptations, it is the often racist, vitriolic pushback from fans about casting that veers away from tradition. Asian-American actress Kelly Marie Tran deleted her Instagram account after incurring much of this hate. Candice Patton and Ashleigh Murray have spoken about having to field racist messages from trolls on their social media accounts in addition to dealing with their actual job of acting. As someone on the front lines of the issue, Grayson says people realize it isn’t the responsibility of the actors or their fans to explain or validate casting. She puts it bluntly: “The idea is that someone has a problem with an adaptation of a character just really highlights their honest, straight-up prejudice. If you can’t imagine Hermione black, for example, or a character going from a man to a woman, that has everything to do with you and nothing to do with the creator or other fans. The haters don’t deserve our labor, our time or energy.”
Grayson is pleased about the visible changes in the industry but cautions against being overly optimistic. She comments, “Things are changing, but for the people who are creating the work and getting the paychecks, that isn’t changing so much. We particularly notice that even when a black woman does get that position to create the characters and helm the characters, they choose ONE woman.” Indeed, Ava DuVernay seems to be the only black woman filmmaker to have broken through to the mainstream. As great as her work has been and as much as she is an advocate, there need to be more voices speaking to the desires and experiences of black women and other women of color. “It’s worrying,” Grayson continues, “because on one hand you can have Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, etc., and they can all exist in the same space without competition, without a need to be compared. Me and other black women, femme, and nonbinary folks have lots of ideas; we just need the platforms to bring it to audiences.”
This begs the question of what is left to be done to expand the space for black women and other women of color. What is the responsibility of fans? Of the creators themselves? “I think audiences and fans already do a really good job of supporting what we do. One thing that we can do is just consolidate the information in such a way that when someone says, ‘There are no black women writers, for instance, we have a list of those resources at the ready,” Grayson says.
A great example of this mentioned by Grayson is #VisibleWomen, which started a few years ago to highlight women working in comics and illustration. She also wanted to emphasize something else. “I want to remind the audience that you have all the power.” Grayson points to the example of Issa Rae, who started out with a small web series Awkward Black Girl on YouTube. “There is a reason,” Grayson says, “that she was even getting meetings at places like ABC which led her eventually to HBO. If we are vigilant about showing our interest, we can make a lot happen because our money speaks.”
Issa Rae’s example points to another important principle. If you are a creator, it’s essential to first invest in yourself. Grayson says, “I kind of have to do the work, and then let people support it after. I have to take a risk on myself before I ask audiences to invest in me.” Grayson walks her talk. She recently returned from a shoot in Tokyo, Japan, where she completed the first installment of an anthology series, Magic Hour, starring Pose’s Indya Moore. She will be submitting it to Sundance with an eye on getting distribution by a network or digital streaming entity.
Inspired by her favorite TV series, Twilight Zone, and the stories of Haruki Murakami, one of her favorite authors, the first episode in the Magic Hour series is a gender-bent reimagining of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. Titled “Soul Searching in Tokyo,” it centers around an unusual young being, Bella, who wakes up in a hotel in Tokyo with no sense of self. Bella then begins a journey of self-discovery, roaming the streets of Tokyo for human connection and acceptance while battling the duality of good and evil within her. With “Soul Searching in Tokyo,” Grayson wanted to turn the classic scientist-creates-monster story on its head. “These types of stories always interrogate the humanity of the monster. It’s always about questioning what was created. I wanted my character, Bella, to not be questioned. It is the quote-unquote monster’s redemption story. Bella gets to decide for herself who she is.”
Grayson knew almost instantly Moore was the person she wanted for the lead in her film. “I saw her picture, and I was like, ‘Wow, she is so beautiful,’ and then I saw her IMDb and was like, ‘Whoa, she’s in Pose!’ She was actually my dream cast; I never thought I would actually get her as Bella.” In an interesting bit of trivia, the main character in “Soul Searching in Tokyo” was initially named Angel. Moore’s character’s name in Pose is Angel. Grayson decided to change it to Bella for that reason.
Grayson got the chance to see Indya Moore for the role because when she released the casting notice, she specified she was seeking “a female-identifying actress.” This opened up the field for both cis and trans women to audition for the role. “I knew if I didn’t say ‘female identifying’ they would only send me cis actors.”
Hopefully, the industry notices Grayson’s example and by the voices of the rest of the women who will be appearing on the Women of Color in Comics panel at San Diego Comic-Con. This is a time to celebrate all the achievements and progress made, but also focus on the work left and get it done.