Once a year, superheroes, bounty hunters, and cartoon characters pose in front of McKeldin Fountain for a reality-bending cosplay family portrait at Baltimore Comic-Con. The fountain's unique (and soon-to-be-demolished, by the way) charm can readily stand in as a backdrop for a desolate urban wasteland or a space colony from the future. Now that the Baltimore Book Festival is making a permanent home downtown, we might find another kind of fanboy gathered near the fountain: the literature nerd.
This year, Comic-Con, held in the Baltimore Convention Center, is happening concurrently with the Baltimore Book Festival, stretched over a series of venues in the Inner Harbor area including a Geppi's Entertainment Museum a pavilion devoted to comics creators and publishers that is part of the book fest. The programming at the pavilion offers an array of voices on contemporary topics in the comics world, encouraging a cross-pollination between the two literary events that may result in book-fest-goers entering some stimulating conversations, perhaps with a foam-shield-wielding Captain America or a Black Widow with a frizzy auburn wig.
This is not another tone-deaf apologia for #notallcomics where I prove the medium's legitimacy by showing how it can do what other more respected art forms do. A comic doesn't have to be like any other medium to be a legitimate vehicle for a narrative—and superheroes are awesome anyway. Comics are great because they're comics, not because they're like other types of expression. But the comics-oriented programming for the Baltimore Book Festival is significant because it not only highlights the marginalized art form but also promotes marginalized voices within it.
"The reason I was drawn to science fiction was because I felt that I could talk a lot about a lot of the issues that mattered to me more freely within science fiction than I could with more 'mundane'—to borrow from Samuel R. Delany—[genres]," Bill Campbell, a comics creator and head of Rosarium Publishing, participating in the Baltimore Book Festival this year, writes via email. His "Afrofuturistic" works engage the fantastical while taking on serious issues. Rosarium Publishing has put out books such as "DayBlack" by Keef Cross, about a former slave turned immortal vampire after being bitten in a cotton field, and "APB: Artists Against Police Brutality," a charity comics anthology addressing the scourge of police brutality on black lives.
This weekend, Campbell is participating in a panel on "Social Issues Through Comics." He sees the image-oriented nature of comics as an especially powerful tool for social change: "I think comics, as a primarily visual medium, can add a new perspective to any given topic," he says. "It's that old cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Sometimes, the image just touches a person more viscerally than words can. People can turn off, shut down, if they're feeling preached to too much. But it's hard to turn off to an image, you know? It can touch you or hit you whether you want it to or not. Why not use that power for good? For social issues that you care about?"
For Jennie Wood, the writer behind "Flutter," a self-published comic about a teenage girl who shape-shifts into a boy to get with the girl of her dreams, the visual dynamic of the medium is used to both engage with and challenge the tropes of the superhero comic. "Flutter" subverts the typical superhero "transformation" shtick from alter ego to superhero and employs it as a vehicle to explore gender, which not only broadens the appeal of the work for both young women and men but opens it up for young trans or genderqueer people who don't fit into the gender binary.
"I think, beyond gender, a lot of people can relate to [transformation]," Wood says over the phone. The chaos and emotional intensity found in "Flutter" is something that touches a lot of young readers who can draw parallels in their own life, even if their own identities are more heteronormative. If young people don't necessarily have the language at hand to address these complex issues of gender identity, Wood's work helps them see these issues on their own terms. "I've had a teenage boy come up to my table at a convention and he asked what 'Flutter' was about and flipped through it and said 'this looks like it actually doesn't suck,'" Wood recalls. "That my favorite reaction I've ever gotten."
The accessibility of comics can help young people approach complex and weighty issues, but it can sometimes shock those who don't expect that sort of content to turn up in comics. "I have gone to smaller conventions throughout the country in more rural areas and they're not completely comfortable yet with some of the ideas [about gender and sexual orientation] told in a way that becomes more accessible to [comics readers]," Wood says. Such attitudes recall the lingering specter of the Comics Code Authority, founded in 1954 to prohibit material in comic books deemed to promote juvenile delinquency, as comics were marketed toward and readily consumed by adolescents across the country.
The stigma against comics and their "devious" effects on those who read them can make people forget that it too is a form of reading not really that much different from diving into a "proper" book. "I also have found at comics conventions that 'A Boy Like Me,' my young adult novel, sells very well," Wood says. "A lot of people at comics conventions are not just about comics, they're just avid readers."
Erica Schultz, another author participating in the festival, comes to comics after almost a decade working in advertising, which offers her a refreshing, blunt perspective. "The way I look at it is like this: It's all telling stories. That's the most basic thing," Schultz says over the phone. "Whether you're telling it as a graphic novel or a novel or if it's historical fiction or straight from history, it's just conveying information in hopefully an entertaining way."
Schultz has experience writing for some of the comics industry's big names such as Marvel and DC, as well as smaller, independent publishers such as Red Stylo Media (founded and run by Enrica Jang, another Baltimore Book Fest panelist who helped bring all these creators together) and titles she's collaborated on and released on her own, including "M3," a suspenseful crime comic with a dynamic female lead.
There are still some people that struggle to see comics as a legitimate medium for telling serious stories. "I joke with people and say 'If you want I can start quoting William Blake but I'd rather be reading 'Superman,'" Schultz says. "I think it'll be interesting to see the crowd at both events because I think the crowds are going to go back and forth. I would love to see Deadpool cosplayers at the Baltimore Book Festival reading Poe and waxing philosophically about the early British Romantic poets."
And maybe a few bookworms will dig into the rows of long white boxes of the Comic-Con suspecting some cheap thrills, busty dames, and macho d-bags, but perhaps they'll walk away with a gender-fucked superhero tale or a gut-wrenching book about police brutality instead.