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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Sign, Sign, Everywhere A Sign…

Last weekend was my farewell to the Connecticut Renaissance Faire for the season.

King Henry VIII treats the peasants to a dramatic reading.
King Henry VIII (Christian Galpin) treats the peasants to a dramatic reading of Action Figures at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire. Yes, it was as weird as it sounds.

My wife’s assistant Kate is back for the final weekend (after taking a few days away to go to New York, get engaged, and meet Captain Marvel writer Kelly Sue DeConnick while dressed as Captain Marvel…and yes, you read all that correctly), which means I get to stay home and work on draft one of book two of Action Figures.

That’s right, I am already working on the sequel, and I have been getting the “Write faster!” treatment from people who have already blown through book one, and want to be on the test-reader list for book two. Flattering, that.

As flattering as all the requests I received over the weekend to sign copies of my book. I think I signed eight copies, and one thing I learned: it’s tough coming up with unique and witty inscriptions. But it’s a good problem to have.

I also received a few inquiries about the e-book version, and so far things are on-track there. I’m expecting the Kindle version to be ready to go next week, and sorry, Nook owners, it’ll be a lot longer before you see a version. I’m taking advantage of the Kindle Direct Publishing perks, which means I’m locked into a Kindle-exclusive deal for 90 days from the e-book’s release, so non-Kindle owners will have to wait a few months more (or download one of the many free Kindle aps for your computer, tablet, or phone).

Progress(ish)!

This was the week I’d hoped to announce the e-book edition of Action Figures, but unforeseen circumstances have held that release up…and by “unforeseen circumstances,” I mean “a conversion process that isn’t terribly user-friendly.”

When creating the hard copy novel, CreateSpace was mostly clear and straightforward. There was a lot of futzing of the manuscript on my part to get the page-by-page layout right, but the instructions were not vague, confusing, and contradictory — unlike the instructions for converting my novel to a Kindle-compatible file.

I’ll skip over the gory details and simply say: Amazon, there is a LOT of room for improvement here, starting with the fact your customer support should be integrated, so customers don’t contact CreateSpace for help, only to have them sent over to the separately run Kindle division, which then sends customers back to CreateSpace. What are you, the federal government?

Anyway, I finally got the mess ironed out yesterday, so in two weeks, I should (should) have a proper e-book for the Kindle.

In the meantime, the paper push continues: promotional mailers have been sent to about 15 indie bookstores (and this is only the first wave), reviews have started to pop up on the book’s Amazon page, and I’m already being pressured by early readers to get a sequel out.

Well, work on that last one is underway, though I won’t be touching it this weekend, since I will be at (cheap plug) the Connecticut Renaissance Faire working at the Storied Threads tent for Time Travelers Weekend. I’m there because Kate, Veronica’s assistant, is enjoying a weekend getaway to New York ComicCon with her boyfriend, fellow writer J.M Aucion (of Jake Hawking fame).

Did I say boyfriend? I meant fiance. Congratulations, guys!

An Aside…

Work proceeds on getting Action Figures prepped for self-publication. The manuscript has been formatted properly, my sister-in-law (an editor by trade) is kindly giving the manuscript a once-over to hunt out any typos, and this weekend I hope to do a final once-over myself.

But that’s not why I’m posting today. No, I’m drawing a little attention to a freelance job I did some time ago for the Krebashia Kingdom renaissance faire, which went up this past weekend. I’ve been waiting for the show to come and go before I added a script segment to my writing samples, and now that it’s wrapped, the script bit is up here. I’m happy with the way it came out, and a little sad the job came with turning over the rights because I’d like to actually see this show performed elsewhere, like where I can actually see it, but oh well.

Possessive Form

I admit it: I am a snob when it comes to writing.

I’m usually good about keeping my snobbery in check, because it really is an unflattering trait; I hate arrogance in anyone, but especially in myself, but it pops up from time to time. The catalyst is almost always an example of someone who (in my snobbish, arrogant opinion) has no business calling themselves a writer.

Today’s impetus for these distasteful feelings of self-importance: a story that appeared in the Newtown, Virginia Patch website about the upcoming Village Renaissance Faire. I am not linking to that story because it’s not my intent to embarrass the writer, who described a particular performer as a “fictional writer and substitute teacher” in real life.

A fictional writer. Not a fiction writer.

To be completely fair, this could be one of those stupid brain farts every reporter has, that somehow slipped by the copy editors. It happens. It happens to me, and it’s always something really dumb like that, something I know better than to do — using “affect” instead of “effect” or typing the wrong form of “there,” etc. But in a moment of haste (or under-caffeination) a simple mistake is made.

I usually catch it, but sometimes I don’t, and sometimes the copy editors don’t either, and next thing I know my very bone-headed mistake is in print and I look like a moron.

So, the occasional gaffe like the above example might set me off, but when I calm my white ass down, I realize it is probably the same kind of goof I have made countless times and will make countless times more.

I’m not so forgiving when I see something so riddled with stupid mistakes that it cannot possibly be excused away as “just one of those things” — misspellings, rampant punctuation misuse, wrong forms of a particular word, terrible sentence structure, and the ever-popular Totally Unnecessary And Inappropriate Capitalization Of Improper Nouns — and the person responsible refers to him- or herself as a “professional writer.”

That phenomenon has become more prevalent in the electronic age, particularly as the e-publishing and vanity press industries have grown. People who can barely string a coherent sentence together, much less understand deeper complexities as thematic content and pacing, are producing crap and, by the mere fact other people are seeing it (and sometimes paying for the privilege), bestowing upon themselves the title of professional writer.

As the saying goes (and I may be mangling this quote): the great thing about the Internet is that it gives everyone a forum; the bad thing about the Internet is it gives everyone a forum. It’s also giving people delusions of adequacy.

Now, an important question to ask is: what actually qualifies someone to call themselves a professional in this day and age? Time was, the criteria were simple: if you got paid and your work was published by a reputable producer, be it a hometown newspaper or national publisher, you were a pro.

I think the advent of blogging has changed that definition. There are a lot of people who write for free, just so their work can be seen, and sometimes through a respected outlet (although if you read about the lawsuits that have been filed against it, you might argue that The Huffington Post, which uses a lot of unpaid bloggers, is not respected. I make no judgment one way or the other, I merely present it as an example).

Perhaps nowadays a better measure of whether someone is professional is whether a writer is serious about the craft, by which I mean: is the writer is dedicated to learning and knowing the basic mechanics of writing (i.e., having a firm grasp of the English language); is the writer dedicated to learning and knowing the many elements of storytelling (plot, dialog, theme, characterization, etc.); and is the writer open to receiving and responding positively to criticism about his work?

I have encountered a lot of people who refer to themselves as writers, even though they completely lack any grasp of what makes a good story, and in some cases they have managed to wring a few bucks from their efforts; and I’ve met people who have not made a single dime off their writing, but thoroughly understand the craft. I would be far more inclined to call the latter a real writer than the former.

My version of practicing what I preach is when it comes to my hobbies. I’ve performed in renaissance faires for (sweet Jesus) 16 years now, and I might refer to myself as an actor, because by many standards I meet the criteria, and I could even refer to myself as a professional actor because I’ve been paid to perform.

But honestly? I feel like a huge fraud applying the term “actor” to myself when I look at some of my friends, who have been acting steadily for years, went to school to study their art and hone their skills, who bust ass to make acting their career. These are real actors. They know and love the craft. Me? I’m a guy who acts sometimes.

Them: Actors. Me: actor, with an asterisk. I don’t deserve to be called a real actor.

And some people don’t deserve to be called real writers.

Lest you think me something of a dick for being possessive of my profession, be aware that it’s a normal reaction among creative types. If you don’t think so, ask an aspiring author how he feels when some brainless reality star twit gets a lucrative publishing deal to churn out a piece of pop-culture junk food through a ghost writer, or ask a struggling actor how he feels when the Flavor of the Month Pop Star gets her own TV series or gets tragically miscast in a lead movie role.

It pisses us off. It pisses us off when the system rewards mediocrity because we feel all our hard work has been a waste of time, our dedication to our art meaningless. No matter who you are, failure despite your efforts stings worse when someone else succeeds despite their lack of effort (and in some cases, passion).

I will continue to try to keep my snobbery restrained but, fair warning, it’s still going to be there. I think I’ve earned that much.

(EDIT: As readers will note from the comment below, I misspelled “gaffe” in the original version of this post. That error has since been fixed. Not that it was an accident, you understand. I totally meant to do that, to drive home my point. Yep. Totally intentional.)