WonderCon 2015: Diversity, authenticity are in focus

April 08, 2015 | 5:00 a.m.
The screen focuses on Jordan Gavaris during the packed "Orphan Black" panel at WonderCon.

The screen focuses on Jordan Gavaris during the packed “Orphan Black” panel at WonderCon. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Inside a large conference room at the Anaheim Convention Center, the line of fans waiting to question cast members of the BBC America sci-fi series “Orphan Black” at last weekend’s WonderCon was long. Most of the show’s enthusiasts expressed admiration for star Tatiana Maslany, who plays multiple characters on the show (but was missing from the Saturday panel), and asked about plot points and any hints they could share about the show’s upcoming third season.

But when one fan asked actor Jordan Gavaris about his portrayal of Felix, the unapologetically sassy and effeminate gay foster brother of main character Sarah Manning, the conversation turned into a more thoughtful discussion on diversity and authentic representation of queer characters.

Jordan Gavaris plays Felix on "Orphan Black." (BBC America)

Jordan Gavaris plays Felix on “Orphan Black.” (BBC America)

Felix’s uninhibited approach to sexuality sets him apart from more socially acceptable gay characters often seen in mainstream entertainment.

“We get stuck sometimes as a zeitgeist,” said Gavaris, who was raised in Canada. “As purveyors of media, we get stuck representing minorities or representing people one way. Whatever way the zeitgeist has at that time deemed socially acceptable or appropriate.

“I try, every day, whenever I’m approaching [Felix] to remember that he is so much more than his sexuality. That there are components of him that I haven’t explored yet,” Gavaris elaborated. “There are parts to him I don’t know exist. Things that I discover every day when I step on set and allow other people, other characters to reveal … and it’s a wonderful reminder that there’s just a million shades to everybody. If we could remember that sometimes, instead of trying to pigeonhole everyone, I think we’d be a lot happier.”

Authentic representation of minorities, women and LGBTQ characters was a topic repeatedly addressed in panels throughout the three-day pop-culture expo.

This year’s WonderCon featured more than 200 hours of programming, including panel discussions for comic books, movies and TV shows. The convention attracted genre fans from all shades of the spectrum, and among the panels were those explicitly exploring themes of diversity, such as LGBTQ representation in comics and animation, the evolution of the modern superheroine and even the visibility of female supervillains.

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Attendees photograph a cosplayer dressed as Wonder Woman during WonderCon at the Anaheim Convention Center. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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Cosplayers walk through the crowds during WonderCon in Anaheim. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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A cosplayer walks to WonderCon at the Anaheim Convention Center. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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A crowd gathers to photograph cosplayer Wolverine during WonderCon at the Anaheim Convention Center, (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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A cosplayer dressed as Capt. Kirk pushes a baby carriage through the crowd during WonderCon at the Anaheim Convention Center. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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A cosplayer dressed as the Hulk walks through the crowd during WonderCon at the Anaheim Convention center. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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Chloe Miller of Valencia waits in line at WonderCon 2015 in Anaheim. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Cosplayers gather their registration materials while entering the Anaheim Convention Center on the first day of WonderCon 2015. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Carter Stednitz, 8, as Star-Lord from "Guardians of the Galaxy" at WonderCon Anaheim 2015. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Elizabeth Pinchevsky as Raven from the comic book and TV series "Teen Titans" at WonderCon Anaheim 2015. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

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Larry Munoz as Dark Link in the action game "The Legend of Zelda." (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Harley Wettemann as the Joker at WonderCon Anaheim 2015. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

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Paul Forest, a.k.a. Spock Vegas, at WonderCon Anaheim 2015. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

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Chelsea Caracoza as Seras Victoria in the manga and anime series "Hellsing." (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Jeremy Fisher as "Ren & Stimpy's" Powdered Toast Man at WonderCon Anaheim 2015. ( Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Azul Weldon as Briska from the web comic "Homestuck" at WonderCon Anaheim 2015. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Valentin Figueroa as comic book character Ghost Rider at WonderCon Anaheim 2015. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

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Katt McLaren as Majin Vegeta from "Dragon Ball Z" at WonderCon Anaheim 2015. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Jeff Sutter in steampunk wear at WonderCon Anaheim 2015. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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A life-size replica of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man is held aloft by Huston Huddleston of the Hollywood Sci-Fi Museum at WonderCon Anaheim 2015. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“We produce the type of conventions that we want to attend ourselves, and I think if you look at the guest lists for both WonderCon and Comic-Con, you’ll see that has always included a diverse spectrum of not only guests, but exhibitors,” said David Glanzer, the director of marketing and public relations for Comic-Con International, which programs the two conventions.

During WonderCon, fans at panels asked creators if they feel they must sacrifice a certain measure of artistic freedom to present LGBTQ characters in a positive way to influence public perception and understanding of the community.

“I try to write honestly,” said comic book writer Marc Andreyko during the “It’s a Queer, Queer World” panel Friday night. “I never write gay characters or female characters, I write characters who happen to be, because the moment you put that adjective up front it’s reductive. I think we deserve to be as flawed and annoying and great and wonderful and stupid as straight people.”

The panelists, including comic book writers and creators Devin Grayson, P. Kristen Enos, Ed Luce, Sam Saturday and Josh Trujillo, all agreed that it was important that LGBTQ characters, as well as other minority characters, were developed and treated as more than just marketing gimmicks.

Comic books were well represented on the exhibition floor as well as in the programming at this year's WonderCon. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Comic books were well represented on the exhibition floor as well as in the programming at this year’s WonderCon. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Multiple panels addressed the situation that arises when previously established characters are later revealed to be gay, such as when Green Lantern Alan Scott was reimagined in a version of the DC Comics’ universe known as “Earth Two,” or more recently when the animated series “The Legend of Korra” revealed in its final episode that two of the main female characters, Korra and Asami Sato, were romantically linked.

“I think the iconography is exciting,” said Grayson, who has worked on a number of DC Comics titles, when asked if there is a different impact when writing an existing character as gay compared to creating a new gay character. “You want to see a gay character with a bat on their chest. That matters. But I don’t think it matters if they’re an old character or a new one.”

During the “Queer Imagery in Animation” panel on Sunday, artist and production coordinator Emily Quinn of “Adventure Time” specifically referred to the impact of recent examples such as in “The Legend of Korra” and “Steven Universe.”

“You have these characters that people love and care about so much, and then later on, once it’s revealed that there is an LGBT component to their life, it’s kind of like somebody in real life coming out — where you almost have to accept them for who they are because you already love them as a person,” Quinn said. “I feel like it’s such a smart storytelling maneuver.”

Fans were also interested in discussing the authenticity of LGBTQ characters that they see on the page and the screen.

One discussion focused on whether using the coded language that members of the LGBTQ community use and understand would alienate a heterosexual audience. Another contemplated how creators approach characters whose sexual orientation or gender identity does not quite align with their own.

“If I have to include a character that I feel is so outside of my own experience I usually will ask a friend if I can base it on them,” said Luce, the creator behind “Wuvable Oaf,” during the “Queer World” panel.

The approach was reiterated Sunday during the “Building the Modern (Super) Heroine” panel by writer Cecil Castellucci.

“We should just be able to write stories. It shouldn’t matter if you’re the exact thing you’re writing about,” Castellucci said. “That’s the brilliance about fiction. You just have to ask questions.”

Writers were not the only ones who discussed the perceived authenticity of characters.

Babs Tarr is the artist behind the recent redesign of “Batgirl,” who has a transgender close friend, the first such character in a mainstream comic.

“I don’t get to write her, but I do get to choose what kind of faces she is wearing,” said Tarr, who also discussed how even the accessories Batgirl wears reveal character.

“I think all those [visual] elements are super important because they are these messages to us readers,” explained psychologist and fellow panelist Andrea Letamendi during the panel. How Batgirl is drawn shows readers that “she has more ownership. She has more agency. She’s exploring identity, which is what we’re all doing all the time.”

When asked about the lack of representation of certain members of the queer community, such as individuals who identify as asexual or transgender, creators were quick to encourage fans to start writing their own stories.

“If you don’t see yourself represented in stories, just go for it,” Luce said. He added that his own work was the result of him not seeing the stories he was interested in reading.

Andreyko agreed, saying that these underrepresented voices should spearhead their own narratives.

“I feel because there is so little representation of those groups, that people that fit into those groups need to do the stuff first to open the door,” Andreyko said. “For me as the writer, I don’t feel right writing other people’s stories. But once that door is open, it frees people who are not of those groups to touch them. Do your own story.”

The sentiment was echoed in multiple panels.

“There should be enough diversity for all of us to have our needs met,” Letamendi said.

– Tracy Brown | @tracycbrown |@LATHeroComplex

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One Response to WonderCon 2015: Diversity, authenticity are in focus

  1. From the last 5 years of publishing the sci fi series A Deviant Mind, I was able to take a dark horse intersex character and make her a fan favorite. I purposely held back on promoting this series, and now it's such a favorite among readers it's being dragged into the limelight. This is going to be a big year. I can't wait to see what's ahead.

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