More Colorful Universes: Outsider Geeks Aren’t Waiting Around for Representation

Latino Comicx Expo
Latino Comicx Expo

In many aspects of geek culture, including comics, sci-fi, and video games, there’s plenty to say about the lack of or poor representation of outsiders – ethnic, religious, gender, sexual…  Change is needed and that’s why conferences and conventions like Different Games , GaymerX, Latino Comics Expo, and East Coast Black Age of Comics exist,  why documentaries like My Other Me and Afro-Punk  put the spotlight on the fringes , and why sites like  Black Girl Nerds and The Mary Sue write about these issues- to call attention to the issues and provide spaces where outsiders can find shared experience, discuss the issues, or just geek out without harassment or funny looks.

GaymerX Convention
GaymerX Convention

Lacking and mis-representation in much of geek culture is a big problem, especially in the major mainstream publishers and studios,  and outsider communities aren’t just shaking their fingers when the big guys mess up and waiting around for them to get a clue. Individuals and groups of like-minded geeks are creating their own representation… through Kickstarter projects, self-publishing, webcomics… Some are even creating whole new universes, universes that are more colorful, more inclusive, (and often mo’ betta if you ask me), and, frankly, different.

The problem. They don’t always get the kind of publicity that would help them attract audiences that would seriously appreciate. So here’s our attempt to contribute to the cause. Check-out these incredible projects that you’re totally gonna love:

The Secret Identities Universe 

To combat the side character roles and stereotypes that plague Asian American characters in comics, a super team of Asian American creators and comics lovers came together to create a whole universe full of Asian American superheroes from all over the world. Jeff Yang, Parry Shen, Keith Chow, Jerry Ma, and Jef Castro edited the Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology in 2009 and, just last November, Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology.Together these books feature art and stories from over 60 comics creators, and introduced dynamic Asian and Asian American superheroes in a whole new universe known as the Secret Identities universe.

The stories are as unique as the heroes who populate them:

 “Metahumans” like Tokyo Rose (created by Daniel Jai Lee and Dafu Yu), who served in WWII using her ability to shapeshift into one desires most to see, in this case the “Asian Dream Girl” fantasy, in order to acquire intelligence from the Nazis.

Hero from Daniel Jai Lee's story "Tokyo Rose" in the "Shattered" anthology
Hero from Daniel Jai Lee’s story “Tokyo Rose” in the “Shattered” anthology

Whole groups of “mutants” like The Hibakusha or Atomic Progeny (created by Parry Shen), whose parents or grandparents wree affected by the atomic bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and who now exhibit superhuman abilities.

Heroes of Parry Shen's story "The Hibakusha"
Heroes of Parry Shen’s story “The Hibakusha” in the “Secret Identities” anthology

And there are villains too… Shattered explores the darker side of the Secret Identities universe.

The 99 

the-99

Seeing a lack of heroes and often criminalization of characters of Middle Eastern and Islamic heritage in comics, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa created The 99, a legion of 99 superheroes who acquired superhuman abilities born of their own natural talents by finding magical gems that were scattered across the globe after tragedy hit ancient Baghdad. But I won’t spoil the whole origin story, because you can read it for free here

The 99 is one of the most diverse and most global teams in comics with heroes from Sudan, India, the U.S., the U.A.E., Switzerland and many many more, each with their own rich personal stories and unique powers.  The team has appeared in crossover stories with the Justice League of America, was made into an animated series, and a documentary called Wham! Bam! Islam! tells the story of Dr. Al-Mutawa’s inspiration for the series and the troubles in getting these heroes to American audiences.

Black Comix 

Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art, and Culture (2010)


Edited by Damian Duffy and John Jennings, Black Comix collects the art of over 50 Black comics artists creating independent comics featuring Black heroes and culture. The anthology covers the vast array of comics genres showing off the talents of Black creators in the field. The anthology came out in 2010 and features some seriously stunning art, some of which is from independent comics these creatures have put out in the world others are artwork you’ll want to beg the artists to turn into full-fledged stories.

Womanthology

Starting as a Kickstarter project, Womanthology has been an on-going massive and impressive effort to bring female artists and comics creators from all levels and genres of the field to create several books, including a hardcover anthology Womanthology: Heroic, a sketchbook, and an on-going monthly anthology of short graphic stories. The latest Womanthology project is Womanthology: Space, out this June in hardcover.

That fans are rallying around projects like these is not only a hopeful sign, but also a sign of the absolute need and demand for stories that tell the lived and imaginable experiences of the incredibly diverse geek community.  A glance at any one of the projects listed here  are evidence enough that such stories will only enrich the mediums in which they’re told.

know there are many many more great projects out there, so please share your favorites in the comments! Let us know about ’em! And keep an eye on Geek Outsider, ’cause we loooove to talk about these great new finds!

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TOP 5 Asian American Comic Book Heroes In The Mainstream

May and the official Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month are coming to a close, but we can continue celebrating Asian American culture year-round and we can do it all geeky like with some on-going comics featuring Asian American & Pacific Islander heroes!

Non-stereotyped or side-kick-ed Asian/ Asian American heroes are a rare thing in comics history and present, but right now there are two major ongoing series with leading AA heroes – the slicing and dicing Japanese transplant Katana in her own self-titled series Katana (DC Comics) by Ann Nocenti and Alex Sanchez and the crime-fighting cibopath Tony Chu in Chew (Image) by John Layman and Rob Guillory. 

Tony Chu – Chew

Tony Chu in Chew

If you’re not already reading Chew, go pick up volume 1 now. It’s amazing. The storytelling, the art, Tony Chu… Often disgusting, usually hilarious, always incredibly imaginative, Chew is one of my favorite comics four years running. John Laymanhas created a world where birdflu ran rampant killing millions of Americans and turning the FDA into one of the most powerful agencies in the country. And that’s where Philadelphia police detective Tony Chu’s story starts off. A scrawny sickly looking guy, Tony Chu is a cibopath, meaning he can get psychic visions from anything he eats.  Anything. Yep, just imagine all the potential for gross. But beyond the disgusting, Chu is stone-cold cop with a wacky ability in an absurd world, and he isn’t the only one with “special” talents…

Continue Reading at UnleashTheFanboy.com

“War Baby/Love Child”: Mixed Race Asian Americans, Love, & War

Laura Kina and Wei Ming Dariotis have put together an incredible project War Baby / Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art which examines mixed-race Asian Americans in the U.S. across generations, genders, and experiences.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, so it’s the perfect time to take a moment to engage with the Asian American community if you don’t already. And with Memorial Day upon us, it’s a good time to remember, everyone across generations and oceans, who is affected by war.

Here a more thorough description of the project in their own words:

War Baby / Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art investigates constructions of mixed heritage Asian American identity in the United States. As an increasingly ethnically ambiguous Asian American generation is coming of age, this multi-platform project (book, traveling art exhibition, website and blog) examines how, or even if, mixed heritage Asian Americans address hybrid identities in their artwork, as well as how perspectives from critical mixed race studies illuminate intersections of racialization, war and imperialism, gender and sexuality, and citizenship and nationality.”

Debra Yepa-Pappan, “Live Long and Prosper (Spock was a Half-Breed),” digital print. (via. MixedRaceStudies.org)

Appearing in Chicago at DePaul University Art Museum through June, the exhibit will move on to Seattle, WA until January of next year.

The artwork is also available in book form.

Geeks & Soldiers: Why Memorial Day is Important to Geek Culture

Battlestar Galactica officers

This weekend geeks have double the cause to celebrate! Not only is Geek Pride Day May 25th, but we also have Memorial Day to celebrate this Monday. What does geekery have to do with Memorial Day you ask? Well…

Memorial Day is about honoring the men and women who have risked and sacrificed their lives to defend ours throughout history and today. Whether you’re a comics fan, a gamer, or an avid science fiction geek, you’re familiar with the idea.

Military heroes are everywhere in geek culture. They’re the heroes we play in shooters; they’re the nameless enemies we kill in tabletop battles; they’re who we root for in science fiction shows like Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, and Stargate. Many of our beloved superheroes were non-powered heroic military men and women first – Captain America, Nick Fury, Green Lanterns Hal Jordan and John Stewart, and Ms. Marvel (now Captain Marvel), to  name a few. Others represent military values — honor, duty, service, loyalty, courage, sacrifice.

cover of Captain America Comics #1 – Captain America decking Hitler

The armed forces motif in games, comics and and sci-fi is wide-spread and variously contentious, ignored, and/or celebrated in different geek mediums.  Video games are usually criticized for inculcating violent behaviors in youth, science fiction is alternately praised and damned for its tendency to create either laudatory or critical allegories of our own real wars, and in many popular comics where soldiers become superheroes and superheroes become soldiers we idolize the military hero model.

For example, in The Avengers, war hero Captain America and his crew of super-powered patriots answer the government’s call to defend America from threats alien, mutant, and otherwise. There are, of course, many comics that criticize war and the military, like Alan Moore‘s The Watchmen which takes a critical look at the Vietnam War in particular and calls to attention the relationship between superheroes and war in comic books. Truth: Red, White, and Black by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker looks at another troubling aspect of war, re-examing the story of Captain America‘s origin and through the lens of the real-life medical experimentation on American heroes at Tuskegee.

Isaiah Bradley the hero from “Truth: Red, White & Black” star by Robert Morales & Kyle Baker

There are plenty of comics, games, and sci-fi shows that steer clear of battlefields and infantries, nonetheless it’d be difficult to deny that war and armed forces are pervasive in geek entertainments. War and soldiers have been a part of American comic books since their inception in the early 1930’s. The war effort itself used comic books to boost support and recruitment. So what is that about? What’s the deal with geeks and soldiers? Geekery and war?

Gerard Jones’s in his 2004 book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book offers an interesting answer. Jones takes a look at the inventors of the comic book medium, the majority of whom were young Jewish men, the children of Jewish immigrants, whose adult lives were sandwiched between two major wars.  Two of these young men Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created the ultimate outsider, the alien do-gooder Kal-El, who would go on to become one of America’s most iconic superheroes Superman. Shuster and Siegel and cultural outsiders like them claimed a place for themselves in American culture with ink and paper, creating heroes that would come to be definitively American — an American mythos born out of a need to belong.

Photo by Ulvis Alberts – © 1979 Ulvis Alberts – Image courtesy mptvimages.com

Given comics and comics fans’ dedication to legacy and continuity, it’s no wonder that war and military heroes remain a strong motif in comics and comics-inspired stories in film and tv today.

Both the outsider foundations of superheroes and the context of war and military heroes as icons in geek narratives is something we must keep in mind when we discuss/rage/ponder the lacking or mis- representation of women and minorities geek culture. These contexts show us the power of these mediums to influence inclusiveness and represent the values and people that we consider American, and particularly who we consider heroes. Women, people of color and people of various faiths who have served in our real-world wars have been marginalized and often forgotten by history. And this has been reflected in comics, sci-fi, and games.  With heroes like Wonder Woman and Ms. Marvel, comics in particular reflected the woman heroes who joined the war effort in the 40s and made sweeping social gains, but despite their service in American armed forces throughout history, heroes of color remained and remain largely absent from comics until much later.

Science fiction, however, was telling stories of war long before comic books hit the scene, presenting science based fantasies as early as  the 17th century, and finding it’s real footing in the early 19th century with books like Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein and Edwin Abbot Abbot‘s Flatland. And war settled itself into the genre’s mold in the beginnings as well with the likes of  H.G. Wells‘s War of the Worlds in 1898 depicting, almost prophetically, a new, more ruthless face of war through the story of an alien invasion of Great Britain, the dominate military power of the time.  Many science fiction stories then and today deal with topics like class, space exploration, technology, often, though not always, in the context of war or apocalypse. Though science fiction inspired the creators of comics like Shuster and Siegel, today the two mediums both inform and inspire stories between them and in video games. Science fiction engages in much more analysis and commentary regarding war, but, like the innovators of comics, science fiction’s heroes are often outsiders who find a place for themselves through battle. This outsider turned patriot and hero theme clearly speaks to the geeky outcast ranks. Sci-fi isn’t all about war and military heroes, but there is much to be said about the vast world of sci-fi by much smarter people than me.

Taking much of their inspiration from science fiction and superhero mythologies, from Space Invaders to Mass Effect, video games are the geeky art form most entwined with military themes. Shooters, MMOs, RPGs… So many of the popular games are about being the heroic leader and going out there and bravely killing thousands of the other side’s foot soldiers. And this engrossing medium takes the outsider attraction to such heroism to a whole new level by putting the player in control, thereby deepening the connection of the player to the hero. It’s a world where death is temporary and ammo is endless. Understandably games that offer the action, adventure, heroism, really cool weapons, and clear goal of war, minus the traumatic consequences of real-life war, would be appealing to anyone bored by the social strictures or outcast by social norms and tensions.

Screenshot from Mass Effect 3

Whether criticizing, evaluating, honoring, or romanticizing militarism, geek history is very much entwined with wars (real and imagined), the men and women who fight them, and the youth who grew up in wartime. At a time when we are fighting wars in the Middle East, many Americans are struggling to make ends meet, we’re living in an increasingly diverse country, and fear is rampant, the escapism, fantasy, and heroism offered by geeky art forms has obvious appeal much as it has in the past. The question is what is the role of this legacy in geek culture today?

Combating the Negative Image of Video Games: Video Games, The Movie

Finally a film to counter the unrelenting bad media about video games!

“They’re too violent”

“they’re to blame for today’s violent or lazy youth”

“they suck out your soul and turn you into a drooling zombie (albiet with great thumb reflexes)”

We’re all familiar with the haterade that gets thrown at video games and gamers – from accusations for all the faults of “today’s youth” to social ostracization. Certainly, they’re not all always quality or great ways to spend your time, but then, neither is every novel.

It’s about time we hear a vociferous defense of all the good that this medium has to offer – unimaginable worlds made real, a sense of community, real-time strategy, inspiring careers in software/engineering/the arts…

And here it is!

Filming has already finished for Video Games, The Movie, and now Jeremy Snead, President at Mediajuice Studios, Ltd. has started a Kickstarter  to find funding to finish post-production on this long-overdue defense of video games the gaming community.

Check out the trailer above, see some of the video game heads interviewed in the film below, and  head over and support!

5 Superhero & Sci-Fi Movies That Could Add A Little Color to The Big Screen

These days it seems more and more the case that we are in a Golden age of Geekery. There are comics, cosplay, and gaming cons all over the world and new ones are popping up in unlikely places. And one look at the movie line-up for this year shows just how open are the arms embracing all that nerdery.

Iron Man 3 started the season off with a bang (and quite a few “boom”s). Star Trek: Into Darkness is still packing theaters. Man of Steel is right around the corner, and we’ve got Ender’s Game, World War Z, Thor, and The Wolverine to look forward to this Fall. In fact, at least 25 films with sci-fi or superhero themes are premiering this year.

It is a glorious time to be a geek.  But you’ll notice that the leading lads of all of these films are white guys. That, of course, is nothing new.

The industry has even been improving somewhat its representation of minorities with controversial casting choices like Viola Davis as Major Anderson in Ender’s Game or Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four movie. John Cho as Sulu and Zoe Saldana as Uhura had major roles in the new Star Trek movie. A few other heroes of color, like War Machine (Don Cheadle) in Iron Man 3, Gail (Rosario Dawson) in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,  and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) in the next Avengers film, are on the roster…

Keep reading  at UnleashTheFanboy.com

Progress Backwards: Star Trek’s Voyage Away From the Leading Edge

by Forrest Sayrs (Guest Contributor)

This week’s Star Trek hype started me thinking.  How does a series that we in the Geek community so singularly associate with progressiveness become what it is today?  It’s shockingly easy to criticize later iterations of Trek for their failure to live up to the original’s legacy of equality.  But maybe we’re coming at this from the wrong direction.  Maybe it isn’t about what Star Trek became.  Maybe the question should be, ‘what was Star Trek in the first place?’  And to answer that, we need a little context.

For starters, what does ‘progressive’ mean anyway?  Is it just being politically liberal?  Does it have to do with technological progress?  Is it about being ‘edgy?’  What made The Original Series (TOS) progressive?  There isn’t a quick and easy answer to any of these questions, but they lie at the core of what TOS was and why it remains iconic today.  These are also questions that have very different responses today than they did in the 1960s.  And that is my argument in a nutshell.

From the episode “Spock’s Brain”

Science fiction is uniquely affected by the times.  Unlike the timeless characters and themes of, for example, Shakespeare, science fiction is reliant upon a set of assumptions about the world. The writer assumes things about the world he experiences every day in order to craft a vision of a potential future.  If those underlying assumptions change, or are just wrong, the message of science fiction loses effectiveness.  A good example is the early fiction of Ken MacLeod and Peter F. Hamilton.  Both of these authors released novels in the mid-90s that used the platform of communism as a vehicle to talk about the political challenges facing the world after the Soviet collapse.  Both novels make compelling arguments for and against communism as a style of government.  But they both feel dated when read today.  While communist and socialist ideals may still exist, we have largely moved beyond irrationally vilifying an economic model.

Similarly, some of Star Trek’s ideological message (and special effects) haven’t aged well.  Just take the classic TOS episode, “Spock’s Brain” in which Spock has his brain removed by a female assailant but is somehow able to survive using a, wait for it, remote control headband.  The premise is so absurd that even at the time it was considered to be one of the worst episodes of the series.  On a more ideological note, the TOS episodeA Private Little War” parodied the U.S. and Soviet involvement in Vietnam and while the episode was a daring commentary at the time, today it feels more like history than a look into the future.  

Now don’t get me wrong.  My argument isn’t that TOS isn’t progressive, just that it was progressive in the context of the 1960s.  It’s not that the ideals of TOS aren’t progressive anymore; it’s that the forefront of being progressive has changed.  So when The Next Generation (TNG) tried to capitalize on the progressive success of TOS by featuring, among others, a blind, black helmsman and a female chief of security, it didn’t manage to resonate the same way that Nichelle NicholsUhura or George Takei’s Sulu did.

TNG’s failure to get back to the forefront of progressivism didn’t make for a bad show.  America at the end of the 80s was in the process of a massive conservative shift that would define the next decade and set up many of the political conflicts we’re living through today.  That TNG was able to hold its ground and make some small gains with stories like Symbiosis and The Measure of a Man is testament to a desire to remain progressive and influential, but the show has few real landmark moments.

From the episode “Measure of Man”

Really, Trek wouldn’t be a progressive leader again until the premier of Deep Space Nine (DS9) in 1993.  With its sharp criticisms of war, terrorism and the military and a recommitment to the ideals of multiculturalism, DS9 moved beyond the legacy of TOS and claimed a new place for itself.  The show’s timely indictments of the Gulf War, unchecked capitalism and the ethics of conflicts were not only important at the time, but oddly prescient of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the progressivism of DS9 is very different from that of TOS.  While both shows depict a world where race is largely no longer a factor, DS9 was much more focused on political issues rather than social ones.  When it did choose to focus on social criticism, DS9 was less successful.  Episodes like Rules of Acquisition, Rejoined,” and Profit and Lace danced around the ideas of gender, but did so in terrible taste.  Even episodes like the much praised two part Past Tense approached the subjects of discrimination and disenfranchisement from a political angle, arguing for the expansion of federal employment programs. There is one notable exception to this rule, Far Beyond the Stars,” and it is singularly spectacular.  Everyone should watch it at least once for its uncompromising depiction of the 1950s and the inspiring final message.

From the episode “Profit and Lace”

The roundabout point I’m trying to make here is that the ‘legacy of progressivism’ isn’t so straightforward.  Being progressive means different things at different times.  We criticize Trek, past and present, for not featuring strong LGBT characters because the LGBT movement is very visible right now and it seems natural to us that Star Trek should be commenting on that.  But that’s on us.  We’ve assigned a pseudo-obligation to be progressive to a franchise that was at its best when it could approach progressivism in its own way.

Is it unfair to expect better of Star Trek?  Probably.  The creative staff of Star Trek have had their hands tied by studios, producers and lawyers at every turn.  Were they capable of doing better?  Of course, but there is a difference between what they were able to do and what they were allowed to do.  TNG was supposed to feature an episode titled Blood and Fire that contained an allegory for the AIDS epidemic as well as a gay couple.  That episode later made its way into the fan-produced Star Trek: Phase II, but was blocked from being produced for TNG’s television run.  An untitled episode of TOS that would have featured Uhura and McCoy getting stranded on a planet where black skinned people were dominant was rejected for being too risky.  So, it’s not that these ideas didn’t exist, just that they never became public knowledge.

At the same time, shows like Farscape were able to portray a diverse and vibrant universe, commenting on the ideas of racial purity, discrimination, sexism and religious persecution, while featuring characters that transcend the concepts of gender and gender identity on such a complete level they don’t even seem human any more.  Doctor Who uses kid gloves when it approaches the ‘big issues’ because it is, in some ways, still a children’s show, but it too has featured an ethnically and sexually diverse cast, though it tends to rely a bit much on the damsel-in-distress for drama.  And my crowning jewel of an example, Caprica, a show steeped in the rhetoric of the religious conflicts of our time, but still willing and brazen in its depiction of homosexuals, group marriages, and racial tension.  How can we even begin to call Star Trek ‘progressive’ in the face of these potent examples of our ability to do better?  Well, the answer to that trick question is that Star Trek wasn’t on cable.

Caprica promotional image

So what’s the alternative?  The television medium and particularly broadcast television is still one of the most effective ways to communicate a message to the masses.  In my discussion with Geek Outsider, I mentioned that TNG effectively passed the torch of an egalitarian future back to science fiction authors.  Writer’s like Iain M. Banks, whose series of Culture novels depicts a version of humanity so advanced that they can change gender through willpower alone and no body-morph is too far outside their ability to engineer.  In such a society, race and gender mean nothing because everything is mutable.  But Banks doesn’t have an award winning TV show to preach his ideas.  Other authors, such as Catherynne M. Valente and China Miéville, have created incredibly compelling stories of progressive characters, but as litte as paperbacks and e-books cost, television is still cheaper and easier to access.

At the end of the day, the conclusion that we are forced to come to is that there is no satisfactory alternative.  Trek may not be perfect, but its ubiquity and steps in the right directions make it the best thing we’ve got in many ways.  Does that mean we should give up on JJ Abrams’ version of Star Trek?  No, but there is something to be said for accepting this vision of Star Trek for what it is.  And, no, I’m not saying what it is or isn’t.  I haven’t seen Into Darkness yet and I haven’t made up my mind about new Trek.  We’re all just going to have to keep watching, and see what moves us to speak up, or maybe even cheer.