Nerd culture is booming, and major publishing companies and Hollywood studios are all too eager to keep the momentum going. From the midst of this geek-fueled fracas rose a call for inclusion on all fronts, and the results have been positive; a diverse body of independent creators have been creating more content, hosting more conferences, and building more platforms to give exposure to groups who have, up until recently, been outliers at events that celebrate nerd culture. But with the growing number of POC-focused expos on the rise, is the push for more inclusion serving to deepen the divide between groups and threatening long-standing traditional conferences?
Spoiler alert: No, it isn't. It is, however, spurring a redefinition of what a "traditional" conference looks like.
From the smaller conferences like the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention (ECBACC) and Onyxcon, to bigger ones like Blerdcon, the atmosphere when you walk through the door is always the same. The air is full of anticipation, and expectation, because patrons of those conferences and expos know that the payoff for the sometimes hefty ticket price is that they're guaranteed to see sci-fi novelists, comic book fans, gamers, and blerd culture enthusiasts like themselves--an unlikely prospect for them at traditional cons as recent as a decade ago.
Earlier this year I spoke with Omar Kennedy, one of the founders of Animekon, a conference celebrating Barbadians' contributions to the world of comic books, speculative fiction, and other aspects of blerd culture, and he considers the onslaught of new conferences that focus on diversity to be a step in the right direction. He touted Animekon as the best way for Bajan creatives' voices to be heard--and get paid. Also, when asked about the drive behind the creation of the conference, and its current status, he offered an answer that mirrors those given by other founders of inclusive expos.
"Oh, it's huge," said Kennedy. "But it's an underground culture. People would watch their animes in their bedrooms and play their video games in their bedrooms. It was something that people hid because it wasn't really perceived as cool, and there were real small factions of people who did it. What AnimeKon did, was it brought everyone together--all the geeks together--and put them in one central location."
He also mentioned that if it keeps growing they might have a shot at getting Rihanna to fall through and represent for the culture. She was in a recent sci-f- flick, after all.
Nerdtino, the first east coast conference spotlighting Latino nerd culture, will take place in Philadelphia this weekend, adding to the already thriving art and subculture scene there. Like blerd conferences, Nerdtino is also an affront to the exclusion--and flat out erasure--of POC narratives from pop culture, and a chance for marginalized groups to collaborate with each other for creative projects.
But these expos not only create a domino effect for more diverse participation, they draw a multitude of vendors who come out to promote their projects in the safe spaces they provide. Hustling art prints and comics at events--coupled with a strong social media presence and crowdfunding efforts--often provide subversive indie creators the extra push they need to get expensive projects off the ground.
Tee Franklin, queer creator of "Bingo Love" (cover artwork by Gisele Lagace pictured below), does her rounds at comic cons big and small. Her commitment to gaining exposure got her a whopping $50k on Kickstarter, despite the fact that she set a humble goal of about $20k.
Collaboration and support between different groups seem to be one of the key factors in helping these events and vendors thrive. On the heels of the popular "Luke Cage" series and the announcement of Marvel's impending "Black Panther" movie, organizers of older, mono-cultural conferences have made that observation too, and have decidedly begun adding more black panelists to their rosters to coax prospective POC attendees through their doors.
Last year, the San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) invited Alex Simmons, educator, and comic book creator, to panel about being a writer for "Archie," an America comic book classic, and the work he does overseas to introduce children in Eastern Europe and West Africa to the world of comics. New York Comic Con (the east coast version of SDCC) held a panel on the importance of black heroes.
Maurice Waters, creator of an online platform and public access t.v. show about black creators of science and speculative fiction, covered Nerdtino even though it wasn't a blerd event. Waters shrugged off the notion that the event's title is an indication that the conference was for nerdtinos alone, though.
"When we did Blerdcon there were all types of people there," said Waters. "I don't think it's that big a deal anyway. No one gets upset at who shows up because the organizers are happy that anyone showed up. Plus, we all come out for the same thing...we just really love this stuff."