Part 3/3 covering “Writing Women Friendly Comics” panel at 2015 Gen Con, with moderator Bill Willingham.
I tweeted about my experience the following morning (Friday) and began working on this blog post. I gave a quote to The Mary Sue, but I was not comfortable with writing a report documenting this panel without first speaking to Willingham or The Writer’s Symposium. I saw via a quick internet search that the former has previous documented issues with women and minorities via his comics and public talks. Clearly Willingham’s past issues haven’t affected his popularity. It’s likely that this report won’t do that either. However, if I am going to publicly decry someone on the internet, I like to provide an opportunity for meaningful dialogue first. My ultimate goal is to work towards ending sexism, and I have a better chance of doing that if I dialogue first with the people responsible for creating a sexist environment.
FOLLOW-UP WITH BILL WILLINGHAM
I attended another “Writer’s Symposium” panel on comic writing with Willingham moderating. It was remarkable how much more subdued he was, although he still took up most of the air time. Bill, you just need to stop moderating. You’re not very good at it – you enjoy giving your own opinion too much.
I waited to speak to Willingham after the panel, even giving him directions to the restaurant that Zub was telling him about; they were going to have dinner that night.
I greeted Willingham (I was the last person waiting at that point; his assistant was the only other person there) and asked if he wanted to have a dialogue on what happened at the panel yesterday.
“I think I said all that needs to be said.”
I try to talk to him, because it was a pretty dismissive response that he gave me.
Willingham speaks a bit more about the panel.
“…That thing about me interrupting people was hogwash!”
I allow myself a small smile. The day before I was dressed in regular clothes. Today I was dressed in a cloak and fortune telling outfit. I guess he didn’t recognize me?
“That was me, actually.”
He pauses (surprise!), and then proceeds to say “Do you get how moderating works? You have to interrupt people to make sure they don’t dialogue too long.”
“Yes, but you really weren’t letting people talk.” I decline to ask Willingham if he actually understands how moderating works, because observation shows he clearly doesn’t. I also think about the linguistic research that shows how men perceive women to speak more often than they actually do and how men are prone to interrupt women in order to demonstrate power and status (read up on it: source1, source2, source3…).
Willingham responds by saying he really didn’t interrupt or talk that much.
“I kept track of how much you spoke”; I took careful notes.
This conversation is going nowhere. He doesn’t believe he did anything wrong. Ah, to have the confidence of a mediocre white man
I don’t know how to end this experience. But I hold out hope. “Okay, well I just wanted to offer the chance to talk.”
“I think I said all that needs to be said.”
Yep, you sure did. You sure did.
We parted ways. Hey, at least I tried.
FOLLOW-UP WITH MARC TASSIN, ORGANIZER OF GENCON’S WRITER SYMPOSIUM
The day of the panel (Thursday) I had tweeted to GenCon’s Writer Symposium (WS) with a question on if I could arrange to talk to Bill Willingham. Tassin responded and gave a contact email so I could share my concerns with him. I emailed Friday morning and then Friday afternoon, after I spoke to Willingham, I approached Marc at the WS tables.
He greeted me warmly and invited to me sit with him at the back of the open author’s room to speak privately. I appreciate him doing this – critique is not easy to swallow and as a man, I wonder if he was worried at me being an angry or hysterical woman. Of course, I was apprehensive about meeting him as well – how could I be sure he, as a man who was in charge of putting Willingham on that stage, support my concerns and work to make sure they don’t happen again?
We had a promising forty-five minute talk. Here are some take-aways, separated by subject for the folks who don’t have time to read this incredibly long report and just need to scan:
Who is Marc Tassin? What is the Writer’s Symposium?
Tassin is a one-person show. This was his 4th year organizing GenCon’s The Writer’s Symposum.
Why is GenCon even hosting a comic writing track? That’s for Comic Con!
Tassin is a fan of comics but his realm is fiction writing, as that’s what WS is really geared towards. Somehow he got connected to Bill Willingham, who agreed to be on a WS panel. Willingham was enthused about a comic writing track and agreed to plan it. Tassin took the opportunity of Willingham’s perceived expertise (I say perceived because while he’s a popular comic creator he was not an expert on the panel we are discussing). Essentially, it was delegated to Willingham. However, Tassin said “the buck stops with me” and takes full responsibility as the person in charge for what happened.
Why a “Writing Women Friendly Comics” Panel? And why no women??
If you read the beginning of my account of the panel, you saw that Willingham wanted to do the topic because women in comics was a trending item at the time. Tassin spoke to me about how he envisions the diversity of WS to grow every year so it becomes a richer experience as it provides many different perspectives.
Tassin wrote about the process for selection panelists on his website addressing the all-male panel. Essentially, they had about 50/50 invites to male and female creators. The men who received the invitations responded affirmatively but the women did not. I addressed the issue that only four women were invited and one can’t only ask the busiest women in comics. Tassin stated that since the male panelists had Eisner awards, he wanted all the panelists to be at that level in their career, speaking to experience of how difficult it can be to be relatively inexperienced on a panel compared to the other panelists.
In regards to the confusion that Gail Simone expressed on Twitter, Tassin stated that it was a third party who asked her at a convention and she stated that she couldn’t do the panel.
Tassin decided not to cancel the panel when there were no women because he thought the topic was important and hoped if there was audience participation it could work.
From how I see it, Willingham asked people he knew well (thanks to Twitter and in person, I’ve seen him engage with at least 2 of the male panelists in a friendly manner) and that’s probably why those folks said “yes”. I’m going out on a limb and thinking that perhaps Willingham doesn’t know many female creators and if so, it’s not a friendly relationship. If you only extend invitations to your friends, you’re only going to get a group of people you know – and since humans generally interact with people that have similar identities, that’s why there is not a lot of diversity on panels organized like this.
For the record, Tassin stated that he tried to get the word out and ask people for suggestions so he can invite people who he is unfamiliar with, so please send WS many suggestions for the future.
ANALYSIS OF THE PANEL
This panel really didn’t stand a chance. The contributions of the panelists were amazing and beautiful, but Willingham was the wrong person for the job. Although he is praised for writing women, he has a poor history of interacting with them at cons – and frankly, Fables has quite a bit of critique for its portrayals of women as well.
Then there’s the panel itself. It’s described as:
– Short Description: What is a comic for women? Is it a good idea to try to write to a specific readership? Is it even possible? Explore this topic with our distinguished guests.
– Long Description: Writing women friendly comics has gathered a a lot of attention in comics these days, and it’s become a source of much debate and controversy. What is a comic for women? Are you damned no matter what you do? Is it a good idea to try to write to a specific readership? Is it even possible? Note that this isn’t a Women in Comics panel. Dissenting opinions may occur.
Straight off the bat, this description is NOT friendly. It’s written to a male audience – take note at how it speaks of women like they are aliens. Clearly, Willingham’s audience that he had in mind were male aspiring comic creators; hammering down the irony of the description wondering if something should be geared towards a specific audience. Then the “Are you damned no matter what you do?” signifies that the hackles are already raised on the part of the organizer – it indicates frustration and bitterness at the idea that women just can’t accept what they have and move on.
The fuel behind “this isn’t a women in comics” panel is laughable. If you are discussing women friendly comics then you ARE discussing women in comics. Comics that are friendly to women feature well-written women characters and one typically finds that women writers and artists do a great job at capturing female characters. The attempt to separate themselves from the scandal at Denver Comic Con is misguided.
Finally – dissenting opinions may occur? Yup, this panel sounds hella friendly to all the ladiez.
SO WHAT NOW?
GenCon’s Writer’s Symposium
I feel confident after my discussion with Marc Tassin, the organizer behind GenCon’s The Writer’s Symposium, that he took my concerns seriously. We spoke about how to work to improve the process of finding creators and I believe that next year will be better. I recommend that everyone who wants a diverse line-up at future events email Contact@genconwriters.com with suggestions. Tassin is a one-person show and we can never expect one person to find a way to create something that speaks to everyone. GS needs support by having recommendations sent their way. I hope that Tassin works to find an advisory team who can provide solid council and ideas, as ‘many hands make light work’.
Considering that Willingham’s “official response” to all of this was to call it “hysteria” on Twitter and show a picture of twin baby girls giggling and dancing, I don’t think he gives a damn about our opinions.
So, I encourage you to make him give a damn.
- Tweet him using #BillFriendlyComics (since that panel was really just about comics that were friendly to him)
- Email the coordinators for any convention that invites him to speak and request that they not provide Willingham yet another forum to espouse views that discredit women and other minorities.
- And money talks. I don’t want to advocate for a boycott of his products (for complicated reasons that can be read in the FAQs) but I do advise that you recognize your options.
- Tell the folks running conventions to invite folks from diverse backgrounds onto their panels – even if (and especially!) if the panel is not about a specific identity/diversity talk! There are folks who are putting together lists to make your search easier! Check out Comic Book Women, the Cartoonist of Color database, or Prism Comic’s database of LGBTQ+ creators! 🙂
QUESTIONS, COMMENTS, AND CONCERNS
Feel free to leave them in the comments. Don’t be surprised if I take 2 weeks to respond, as my schedule is intense this month. Please be respectful. Any rudeness, threats, or more will result in a screenshot, deletion, and (depending on the severity), reported to the FBI’s local office. Please don’t be a dick, and remember that I am an actual human being. It seems when women talk about sexism on the internet, people think it’s cool to forget what it means to be human and engage in greater savagery than beasts. So be cool, folks.
Also, see FAQs for further wonderings about who I am and why I wrote this.