A few weeks ago I attended the NYC Special Edition — the very first of its kind. At first glance, Special Edition seems like an offshoot of the fall Comic Con, but this would be missing the subtle and important point. With “Comic Con” in the title, you’d think the focus would be comic books, and you’d be right, but many people have complained about the growing tide of cosplayers and manic geek consumerism that has come to define the event, at least in part. Those elements were certainly present for Special Edition, but with a refreshing addition: it was a convention for comic book lovers, by comic book lovers. Smaller and more personal, I didn’t find myself bumping elbows with fellow convention goers looking to grab an autograph. I spoke to the artists and writers I wanted to without the fuss of a long line or a tight schedule, and there was plenty of time to pause at artist booths that caught the eye and learn about their projects.

In short, Special Edition was about the love for comic books, and so they took some pains to create an atmosphere where the artists and comic creators — from the mainstream to the indie — some well deserved attention. Comic book stores brought their wares and enthusiasts perused their cardboard boxes with great fervor — Silver Age comics, rare first editions, and even original sketches were showcased. I gathered up a handful of oldies (for my age, anyway) like issues from The Invisibles and Doom Patrol. My brother, who accompanied me and served as photographer for the day, stopped to ask artists about their software of choice for digital art and amassed a large sum of business cards.

Of particular interest to me was hearing about a comic book social network — Simply Comical — intended to improve upon the communities on host sites like Tumblr, in order to provide a better space to collaborate, publish and get discovered. I could keep going about the comic projects and artists I found, like “Azteca,” the Dexter-esque vigilante who sacrifices villains to a bloodthirsty Aztec god. But then I’d lose you before we got to the panels. Oh, the panels. They were something — and a gleaning of things to come, as we’ve all recently heard that Marvel’s new Captain America is African-American, Thor is a woman, and Archie — of all comics! — dies defending his gay friend in a mall shooting. Comics are leaping into daring new social territories. This is heroic in itself, and all I can say is: hats off to Marvel, and the comic world at large, for breaking these social mores and pushing new ethical, more human territories.

I was only able to attend two of the panels. The first was “Secret Identities: Transgender Themes in Comic Book Heroes.”

Transgendered Themes in Comic Book Heroes

  IMG_1381 By far one of the most exciting comic book panels I’ve yet to attend. Far from just looking at transgender themes in modern comics, the panelists took us back through a historical tour. And as it were, the theme goes way back to the pre-code comic days. Man dresses up as old woman. Wonder Woman is Wonder Man in parallel universe. Lord Fanny, (also known as “Hilde” from The Invisibles) banishes demons to the underworld with her mystical-channeling super-powers. The examples go on. Charles Batterby headed up this panel, an actor, writer and theater critic who recently wrote and starred in “The Astonishing Adventures of All American Girl and the Scarlet Skunk,” about a duo superhero team including one crossdressing sidekick. Also on the panel were Joe Kelly, Morgan Boecher, and P. Kristen Enos. Joe Kelly is a well established comic writer and author of titles like Deadpool and Uncanny X-Men. Most recently he’s written a new comic featuring a part mob, part romance story about a hit man who falls for a transgendered woman. He spoke to the significance of writing this character and the nuances of experience, self-reflection, and gender exploration the story explores. Morgan Boecher, who I really appreciated as a spokesperson for the power of the internet to give voice previously rejected or under-represented communities, talked with us about his project “What’s Normal Anyway?” and its crowdfunding success. P. Kristen Enos interested me in her knowledge on gender in manga comics and anime. She is the author of  “Creatures of Grace,” a collection of short fantasy stories with LBGT and feminist themes.

There was much said, and too much to say here, so I’ll wrap up this panel’s report with what seemed to be a mutual conclusion: the comic world is in a new era of decentralized, self-publishing and creative communities that can change what “mainstream” can be, and this gives a lot of hope for more representation of LBGT stories and storytellers. And that’s good, because right now we need more voices stepping up.

Next up was “Reimaginating the Female Hero.”

Re-Imagining the Female Hero

batwoman My brother and I were crammed in the back of the room and an LCD monitor was flashing in images of female superheros in comics. The room was packed. Out stepped a charming gentleman, professor Ben Saunders of the University of Oregon, the host of the panel. He introduced Emanuela Lupaccino, Amy Reeder, Gail Simone, and Marguerite Bennett. From the back of the room, and due to lousy speakers, we couldn’t hear everyone’s introductions. I found most interesting that this talk, compared to the Transgender panel, was the fire and zest on the part of nearly all the presenters. They brought up a great question: if nearly half of comic readers are female, why aren’t they being represented? And why are comics still perceived as a boy’s club? Nonetheless, each of their stories were deeply inspiring. I especially appreciated artist Amy Reeder’s work behind Batwoman, who noted, “there were more female superheros in the 80s than right now, what happened?” And Gail Simone’s writing for Red Sonja portrays a character who is as powerful as she is sexy. Gail and the rest of the panel seemed to answer Amy’s question: the time is now. Bring on the female heroes.

Closing Notes

91KG0GOM3QLI should also make a praising note for Ben Saunders, who as I mentioned earlier, teaches the University of Oregon, and was the first person to develop an undergraduate degree in Comic Book Studies. Going to college was never better (OK, loans aside). Ben and I were able to have a great conversation after the session, where he revealed to me that he appreciated John David Ebert’s writing (recent author of Giant Humans, Tiny Worlds), and Dr. Jeffrey Kripal’s masterful work on comics in his Mutants and Mystics. I told him that his book, Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy and Superheroes was next on my comic studies reading list. [Note to self: have to make right on that promise!] What impressed me most about Ben was his appreciation for comics, and I think this speaks largely for the whole weekend at Special Edition: comics are not just a trending “phenomenon” of pop culture, and comic book conventions are not just for cosplayers and collector binge-buying — they are a cultural celebration. The sheer enjoyment of comic-reading as an art, a storytelling, like a lover of literature enjoys their books. That is what comics are about. We can get lost in their pages and the worlds they open up for us. They push the boundaries of the real, and they also push the definitions of gender, self and society. They’re also being created by new communities of artists and new levels of social awareness coming up to the forefront of culture. Indeed, as John Ebert writes in Giant Humans, Tiny Worlds: “The graphic novel is ever in quest of new imaginary significations… all the old ones have been scrapped.” [2] Further, he suggests they are “a medium for nomads,” a successor to the literary novel in cultural significance.

As Grant Morrison writes, “nothing ends that isn’t something else starting.” Here we are starting.

Here’s hoping that next year’s Special Edition continues this much-appreciated emergence of the comic book’s significance in modern culture. A celebration of the art and ideas, stories and storytellers [3] that go into them. Special Edition: a comic convention for comics. Who would’ve thought?

Annotations:

[1] Ebert, John David. Giant Humans, Tiny Worlds: Adventures in the Universe of Graphic Novels pg. xiii -xviii

[2] See John David Ebert’s essay excerpts from Giant Humans, Tiny Worlds starting with “Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

[3] Speaking of storytellers, Reality Sandwich has its very own comic book enthusiast club. Everyone is welcome of course, but for the time being it largely consists of myself, associate editor Faye Sakellaridis and R.S. author and comic writer Benton Rooks. He wrote an excellent piece a few months back entitled “On the Divine Feminine in Comics and Mythology.”

Visit Special Edition NYC to sign up for updates on next year’s event!