The Action Figures Diversity Report 2015

Last year, I took a look at the cast of my books to see how well I was doing in representing women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. I did this because I’d been reading a lot of articles and essays about how the entertainment media, in particular TV and movies, have been falling down on the job in giving audiences something other than stories featuring straight white male protagonists. If you Google “representation in media” or “diversity in media” you’ll find a treasure trove of data confirming that visual entertainment needs to seriously step up its game when it comes to giving audiences diverse characters.

The issue has been on my mind again recently, but for a different and even more distasteful reason: reactions from what I’ll call “audiences of privilege” to efforts by some media companies to increase diversity. Specifically, some of the reactions to recent pushes by DC and Marvel to attract what can be rightfully called “non-traditional readers” — meaning women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

This should be cause for celebration. Attracting new readers, people who might not have shown much interest before in comics because they found none of the current titles appealing, strengthens the industry with an infusion of new blood (and, not at all coincidentally, cash).

Yet there’s been no small amount of push-back from the old boy community. They’re accused DC and Marvel of “pandering” to diverse audiences…because when you give, say, women more female characters and update their costumes to be less sexualized, that’s pandering to women, but keeping her in the same skintight leotard is, somehow, not pandering to men.

Top: not pandering to men. Bottom: pandering to women. Art by Kris Anka and Frank Cho, respectively, images courtesy Marvel Comics.
Top: not pandering to men. Bottom: pandering to women. Art by Kris Anka and Frank Cho, respectively, images courtesy Marvel Comics.

(FYI, “pandering” means “to do or provide what someone wants or demands even though it is not proper, good, or reasonable.” If someone wants to step up and explain to me why it’s unreasonable to give non-straight white male readers characters they can identify with, go right ahead. I’ll enjoy watching you dig your own grave with great amusement.)

I received a little bit of push-back myself on Action Figures – Issue Four: Cruel Summer, which explicitly establishes certain characters as openly homo- or bisexual. A reviewer on Amazon said I was getting “too politically correct.” Hardly a scathing rebuke, but what does it say about any reader when adding diverse characters is succumbing to political correctness rather than endeavoring not to be mindful of the fact not everyone in the world is straight, white, and/or male?

I admit, it took me a while to adjust my own thinking on this issue. I began the series open to creating diverse characters, but did so with the attitude that their diversity had to mean something. It had to matter to the character and the story. I didn’t want to simply throw in a bunch of diverse characters for the sake of it.

Then I read a few things on Tumblr (which, for once, provided me with civil, sane discussion points rather than a profanity-laden, anger-driven rant) that opened my eyes. I can’t find the original post to quote it verbatim, but the argument was, essentially: why do diverse characters have to have a deeper reason to exist? Real people are different for no reason other than that’s how they are. Do you walk up to an African-American and demand they explain why they’re African-American, and challenge their right to exist if they can’t provide a satisfactory argument?

The other post that made me rethink the way I approach storytelling stated that sometimes, simply seeing a diverse character in a story is enough. Giving the character depth and meaning is great, making their diversity meaningful is a lofty goal, but for some audience members, it is very gratifying and encouraging to see a character who is fleshed out, fully realized, isn’t a lazy stereotype, and matters to the story, and just happens to be someone of color, or just happens to be gay.

I understand some of you might be rolling your eyes at all this because it none of this matters to you. Well, guess what? As William Shatner said, you’re not the only one living on this planet. It might not matter to you, but to someone else, it matters a lot, and frankly, I’d rather piss off someone who complains about diversity than someone who complains about the lack of it — because those in that latter category are right.

I’d like to think I took some positive steps toward a more diverse cast with book four, and I’ll give you a head’s up now that the following updated cast list contains a few SPOILERS (capitalized to grab your attention!), so if you haven’t read book four yet, you might want to stop reading now.

  • Carrie Hauser/Lightstorm: straight white female
  • Matt Steiger/Captain Trenchcoat: straight white male
  • Sara Danvers/Psyche: lesbian white female
  • Stuart Lumley: male, one-quarter African-American
  • Missy Hamill/Kunoichi: half-Japanese female
  • Edison Bose/Concorde: straight male
  • Bart Connors/Mindforce: gay white male
  • Natalie Guerrero/Nina Nitro: straight Hispanic female
  • Astrid Enigma/Dr. Enigma: bisexual white female
  • Dr. Gwendolyn Quentin/Doc Quantum: straight white female
  • Joe Quentin/Rockjaw Quantum: straight white male
  • Megan Quentin/Megawatt Quantum: lesbian white female
  • Kilroy Quentin/Kilowatt Quantum: straight white male
  • Farley Quentin/Final Boss: white male (sexuality TBD because he’s only six. Give him time)
  • Tisha Greene/TranzSister: African-American transgender female (heterosexual by virtue of her current gender)

I dare say I have the LGBTQ spectrum well covered, and I readily admit I am more comfortable presenting these kinds of characters because it’s what I’m familiar with. I know a lot of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, at least one asexual individual, and one transgender person (that I am aware of, at least) through the renaissance faire community, and I encounter these people frequently at the pop culture conventions I work with my wife.

Obviously, my failing continues to be in presenting people of color in prominent roles. There are many minor supporting characters of color, but few in any major spotlight role. Let’s see if I can correct that as I move forward with the series.

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A Busy Birthday

Yep, today’s my birthday, but I’m going to give you a little gift.

First, I wanted to let everyone know that my editor has finished her work, and tomorrow I will begin final edits and formatting so Action Figures – Issue Four: Cruel Summer is on-track for release later this month.

And now for the gift: a sneak-peek at the cover-in-progress, courtesy of my ever-reliable cover artist, Tricia Lupien! This is the flat color version, meaning Tricia has yet to go in to do any shading or color effects. That should be wrapped up later this week, then I’ll have a full cover reveal for everyone to view with awe and admiration. Enjoy!

Art by Patricia Lupien.
Art by Patricia Lupien.

Action Figures – Issue Two – An Introduction

Benchmark time! Draft four of Action Figures – Issue Two is done, and now it’s off to my editor-slash-sister-in-law Tori for a final review. That means it’s time to start chatting this thing up.

So, what happened in book one?

Well, you could always buy a copy and read it, but if you’re going to be that way…

In Action Figures – Issue One – Secret Origins, we met the Hero Squad, a group of aspiring super-heroes — Carrie “Lightstorm” Hauser, Matt “Captain Trenchcoat” Steiger, Sara “Psyche” Danvers, Stuart “Superbeast” Lumley, and Missy “Kunoichi” Hamill — as they embarked on their first adventure. The teens ran afoul of Archimedes, a renegade artificial intelligence; the deadly mercenary Manticore; the mysterious mastermind known simply as the Foreman; and local super-hero Concorde, leader of the Protectorate, who tried (and failed) to ground the fledgling super-team.

What’s book two about?

Action Figures – Issue Two: Black Magic Women picks up a few days after the events of issue one. There’s no rest for the weary Squad as they find themselves in the middle of a feud between the necromancer Black Betty and Dr. Enigma, the Protectorate’s expert of all things magical and supernatural. The prize is the Libris Infernalis, a book of powerful dark magic — powerful enough to summon ancient demon-gods capable of laying waste to the planet.

What else happens?

The team learns more about their super-human capabilities thanks to Doc Quantum, leader of the Quantum Quintet and one of the world’s greatest minds; Missy undergoes some frightening changes; the Squad meets the Entity, the Protectorate’s mysterious fifth member; and Nina Nitro shows Carrie what it takes to play in the super-hero big leagues.

There’s also a little bit of romance in store for Carrie, but I would like to assure readers, there are and will continue to be NO LOVE TRIANGLES.

Hey, man, why the hate for love triangles?

One: they’re overdone. Every bloody YA series has a love triangle, it seems. Two: they’re a cheap, lazy way to generate tension in a story. There are better, more interesting ways to explore romance in a story than simply playing the Archie-Betty-Veronica card. Three: they can overwhelm the other, more important things going on in the story. In The Hunger Games series, the idea of a young girl being forced into government-sanctioned gladiatorial games gets overshadowed in media stories by the Katniss-Peeta-Gale triangle. Oh, yes, let’s focus on the cutesy romance instead, downplay the tragic death of hundreds of children over generations in the name of keeping the poor in their place.

But I digress…

Anything else I should know?

Make sure to read the acknowledgements in the back of the book, because I’ll be adding a little Easter egg for readers.

When will book two be available?

My goal is to have it out in March. That will depend in large part on how quickly my editor and my cover artist finish their respective jobs. I don’t like to be pushy or set hard deadlines on people who have other, more important responsibilities, so things will wrap up when they wrap up.

Will the book be available for the Kindle?

It will, although the e-book version will probably come out after the print edition. Formatting the manuscript for Kindle is a whole ‘nother project in itself.

Stay tuned for updates as they become available!

Action Figures: Covering The Cover

When I made the decision to self-publish Action Figures, it was a foregone conclusion that my buddy Tricia Lupien would be my cover artist.

Aside from being a good friend for (yow, feelin’ old here) 18 years, Tricia is a talented artist, a geek girl before geek girls were cool, and someone who deserves a co-creator credit for this project. The majority of the characters in the story are my creation, but two basic concepts popped out of her head many years ago while we were, for pointless fun, creating goofy superheroes. Out of that session, two names stuck with me: Psyche and, no kidding, Captain Trenchcoat.

(An aside: this same fit of insanity also produced such oddball characters as Disaster-Man and William Wail-Ass, the World’s Mightiest Scotsman — who, FYI, gets a mention in the novel).

I won’t go into the convoluted mental process that led to those early concepts becoming actual characters nearly two decades later, I just wanted to provide a little background. As Bill Cosby once said, I told you that story so I can tell you this one.

The point is, Tricia absolutely deserved the opportunity to create the cover. I’d be King Jackass if I did not ask her. Fortunately for me, she agreed and set to work.

The logo, previously unveiled here, was the first thing to become reality. Seems like a minor thing to get jazzed over, but it was one of those “Holy crap, this is really happening” moments.

The first cover rough showed up a week later. I’d pitched to Tricia the idea of the main character, Carrie, standing in front of her high school locker, in which hanged her superhero outfit. I thought it would hit two of the story’s main elements nicely.

Here is the first rough, based on that concept:

CoverRough1
Action Figures front cover – first draft

Pretty good for a first shot! We chatted a bit about how to punch it up a little, to more clearly illustrate the superhero element, and decided to add a glow effect around Carrie’s hands (hinting at her super-power), adjust the image to expose more of the locker, change how the costume was hanging so it was more visible, and add some newspaper clippings with convenient and obvious headlines — fairly simple changes.

Before those were implemented, Tricia produced a line drawing of Carrie herself, giving me my first look at her as something other than an image in my head:

Carrie, solidified.
Carrie, solidified.

Yes, she is a foosball player in this rendition, but that’s why it’s called a “work in progress.”

The important part is it captured how I wanted Carrie to look: like your basic all-American girl.

The first color draft came next, and wow, amazing what color adds to the overall product!

Action Figures - in color! (A Quinn-Martin Production)
Action Figures – in color! (A Quinn-Martin Production)

You can also see that Carrie has been made more prominent to fill up more of the space, which was an excellent call on Tricia’s part, that the costume is definitely more noticeable, and that a placeholder glow effect has been added to Carrie’s left hand (which, you’ll notice in the first rough, was down). Improvements all around!

The penultimate version added some details to the locker (newspaper clippings), filled in the background color, finished off the super-suit hanging against the door, and punched up the hand glow.

More is more!
More is more!

At this point, there was nothing left to do but some fine-tuning. Tricia punched up the newspaper clippings a bit to make them more visible, added an impressionist version of Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. album cover (Carrie is a big fan of The Boss), and added the last of the text.

And so, without more ado, here it is: the full and finished cover for Action Figures – Issues One: Secret Origins!

The final cover, along with the spine text!
The final cover, along with the spine text!

But wait, there’s more! I also received the back cover, and here is a section featuring Carrie’s friends/teammates. What’s really cool about the character designs is how perfectly Tricia portrayed them based on my rather general descriptions. This is, verbatim, what I sent her for descriptions:

Carrie herself I imagine as an all-American girl, blonde and blue-eyed, pretty but not glam. She’s 15 years old, and I’d like her to look real-world 15 and not Hollywood 15 (meaning early 20s). [The others are] Matt Steiger (Captain Trenchcoat), a boy with messy black hair and a perpetual smirk; Sara Danvers (Psyche), a pale girl with long, unruly dark hair…she doesn’t look goth so much as she looks badly anemic and sorely in need of some conditioner; Stuart Lumley (Superbeast), a throwback metalhead with long brown hair and an “I’m kind of awesome” attitude; and Missy Hamill (Kunoichi), an unstoppably spunky and energetic half-Japanese girl. All of them are 15.

So here’s the whole team:

Artwork from the back cover.
Artwork from the back cover.

The best part of this entire process reaching its conclusion?

The book will be ready for sale next week!

That’s right, all I have to do is upload the PDF of the full, finished cover art once I get it from Tricia, and Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins will be available for sale as a paperback novel and as an e-book from Amazon,com! Believe me, you’ll know when it’s officially on sale.