Changing the face of diversity in Canadian comics and sci-fi

These artists are on a quest to bring greater representation to the pages — and, someday, the big screens.

These artists are on a quest to bring greater representation to the pages — and, someday, the big screens

An image from Weshoyot Alvitre's "Supaman," included in "MOONSHOT: The Indigenous Comics Collection Volume 2." (AH! Comics)

When Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time — an anthology of Indigenous, LGBTQ science fiction — hits the shelves on September 15, it'll mark the latest step in Hope Nicholson's quest to diversify Canada's comics and sci-fi scene.

In 2014, the Winnipeg-based comics researcher and founder of Bedside Press ran a successful Kickstarter campaign with partner Rachel Richey to revive Nelvana of the Northern Lights, a 1940s comic created by Adrian Dingle featuring an Inuk superheroine.

A year later, she published Secret Loves of Geek Girls, a comics and prose anthology by women writers, and collaborated with Andy Stanleigh of Toronto-based AH! Comics on Moonshot, a collection of comics by Indigenous writers (a second volume of which is currently being crowdfunded by AH! — photos can be found throughout this article).

Noticing that few of the stories in Moonshot featured LGBTQ characters, now Nicholson is taking it a step further with Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time. Nicholson's choice of genre is deliberate: too often, she says, Indigenous characters and communities are portrayed as historical figures, irrelevant in the modern world. Science fiction can shatter that view. "Native people don't exist just in one time period," she says. "They never have."

If this year's sci-fi, fantasy and comics awards are any indication, Nicholson is not alone in trying to bring a wider range of voices to the predominantly western, male genres.

At Comic-Con International in San Diego in July, women — including Canadians Kate Beaton and Jillian Tamaki — were nominated in nearly every category in the Eisner Awards, which recognize works in comics and graphic novels distributed in the U.S.

The cover art for Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time. (Hope Nicholson)

Similarly, the Nebula Awards for science fiction made headlines this past spring after nearly every winner, from best short story to best novel, was female. To Sarah Pinsker, winner of best novelette for Our Lady of the Open Road, that was only part of the picture.

"There was diversity on a number of levels," says Pinsker, a Baltimore-based writer and musician with ties to Toronto. The winners, she points out, included queer women, women of colour and a wide range of ages.

It is a good time to be someone who has something to say about a group or a personal experience that hasn't been touched on before.- Sarah Pinsker

The stories are getting recognized for more than their inclusivity. The Nebulas, which are coordinated by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, are judged and reviewed by professional writers. "You can talk about diversity," says Pinsker, "but if the quality doesn't stand up, it doesn't matter."

This year's Nebula nominees included Kelly Robson, a Toronto-based writer, and Amal El Mohtar, a writer and sci-fi reviewer in Ottawa.

"One of the great things sci-fi can do is get you out of our comfort zone," says El Mohtar. Having spent a few childhood years in Lebanon, El Mohtar can still recall how comforting it felt to read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game as a teen and see Arab characters portrayed in a positive light. It's encouraged her to do the same: in her Nebula-nominated novella Madeleine, the female protagonist falls in love with a woman named Zeinab. "It's challenging to a western gaze," she says.

"It is a good time to be someone who has something to say about a group or a personal experience that hasn't been touched on before," says Pinsker. "Science fiction looks at the world through a slightly different lens, so it's fun to put that lens onto new experiences."

An image from Haiwei Hou's "Water Spirit," included in "MOONSHOT: The Indigenous Comics Collection Volume 2." (AH! Comics)

Mixed reactions

The shift hasn't been welcomed everywhere. In the past two years, two separate right-wing groups known as Rabid Puppies and Sad Puppies have hijacked the Hugo Awards for science fiction and fantasy, where — unlike the Nebulas — winners are decided by a fan vote. Both groups have railed against the rise of diverse authors, whose work they claim is compromised by political messaging and a focus on social justice.

To ensure their preferred authors win Hugos, the Puppies have issued lists of their picks in advance of the vote over the past few years. But at the most recent Hugo Awards this past August, fans struck back, voting against Puppies picks. The winners for best novel and best novella, N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor, are both women of colour.

For some critics, the increased diversity in the sci-fi and comics genres is only slightly encouraging. James Leask, an Edmonton-based pop culture and comics critic, says few publishers bother with Indigenous characters. When they do, says Leask — who is Métis — the characters are rarely created by Indigenous writers or artists.

He points to the latest Red Wolf installment, released by Marvel Comics last December, as an example. The Native American protagonist, he says, was created by a non-Indigenous team. That could explain the stereotypical, romanticized Old West setting and the multiple racial slurs peppered throughout the comic.

An image from Alexandria Neonakis' "Iluq," included in "MOONSHOT: The Indigenous Comics Collection Volume 2." (AH! Comics)

When Indigenous creators aren't involved, says Leask, "You end up with things that might read pretty neutrally for someone not from that group — but when I read Red Wolf, I don't feel welcomed to that conversation."

Despite her efforts at broadening the voices in Canada's comics and science fiction, Nicholson has received her share of criticism.

"I have had complaints that there was not enough racial diversity in Secret Loves of Geek Girls," she says, adding that nearly half of the creators behind the anthology were women of colour. "In Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time, there was a very spirited argument that I should not allow straight people to tell LGBTQ stories."

Though she concedes that not all of the writers in her latest anthology identify as LGBTQ, Nicholson says the authors have attempted to address LGBTQ issues with sensitivity. But she is also aware that as a publisher, and being non-Indigenous, she's often far removed from the negative reactions that writers from marginalized groups face.

"[Positive] Goodreads reviews are lovely," she says, "but that doesn't mean there aren't people sending [direct messages on Twitter] or muttering remarks under their breath to my writers."

An image from mention3's "Wendigo," included in "MOONSHOT: The Indigenous Comics Collection Volume 2." (AH! Comics)

A changing of the guard

Despite the efforts of independent publishers, creators and critics, Leask says it will take generations before the increased diversity becomes mainstream.

"Because the comics industry works on pre-orders, shops tend to be very conservative in what they order," says Leask. "So for no ill reasons, they will favour the stuff they know they can sell, not usually black or Indigenous or queer characters."

The movie industry is similarly risk-averse. Marvel won't release its first woman-led film, Captain Marvel, until 2018. And even as film studios attempt to introduce greater diversity — think Ghostbusters and Mad Max: Fury Road — the online trolls emerge again and again.

"For a long time we've been told that certain stories have more value, and certain experiences will carry movies — will bring profits — and others won't," says Sarah Pinsker, the Nebula winner. "It takes a while for people who have the money to trust that they can tell their stories and still make their money. I think it'll take a changing of the guard."

Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time, by Hope Nicholson. Bedside Press, 112 pages, $10.