Diversity in Isle of Elsi

Fri 2/27/2015

I've been drawing comics now for about fifteen years. In that time, the comics community has become a lot more diverse, thanks mostly, I would say, to webcomics. These days pretty much anyone can draw a comic and put it online. If it's good, it has the possibility of finding a gigantic, worldwide audience. It's no longer up to gatekeepers like editors and publishers to decide what gets read by the public. This is a good thing.

Even just in the last seven years of teaching at The Center for Cartoon Studies, I have seen the ratio of students shift from a male to a female majority. And through teaching at CCS and CCA I have seen students create work about their experiences with LGBT and gender issues, disability, sexism, racism, and wide variety of other diverse topics.

Lately, articles such as Unpacking White Privilege and How to Write Women of Colour and Men of Colour If You Are White have been making the rounds within the comics community. Reading these articles and others like them really got me thinking about diversity (or the lack thereof!) in my own comics.

When I think about the 1,500 pages of comics that I have drawn thus far, the lack of diversity is pretty depressing; no main characters are people of color. Also, I haven't actually gone back and checked, but I'm pretty sure there is not a single issue of Phase 7 that passes the Bechdel Test. That really bums me out. You could argue that the vast majority of my work is autobiographical, and thus you'd be hard-pressed to find a single panel of Phase 7 that I am not in, and since I'm a straight, cisgender, white guy, that could skew the results. But even to me, that sounds like a lame excuse...

I can't do much about the past, but I can learn from my mistakes and make improvements moving forward!

Next year, I will be launching my second comics project, a fantasy webcomic for kids (aka "All Ages") called Isle of Elsi, which I am very excited about. I have been working on it in relative secrecy for years, though I let my students at CCS read an early draft of it a few years back, to give me some feedback. This only seemed fair, as it was my job to constantly critique their work.

I received feedback from one of my students, Donna Almendrala, that I could make the village in the story much more diverse. At first, I was reluctant to this idea, not because I was against diversity, but because I wanted diversity to be introduced gradually as the story developed.

The main character of the story is a stand-in for me, and I wanted his life experiences to mirror my own. I grew up in an extremely homogeneous, mostly white, environment in the suburbs of Seattle. I left home at eighteen to attend Oberlin College, which has a student body that is roughly 35% LGBT - I had never met an openly gay person in my life at that point. Within two years of leaving Oberlin I moved to Los Angeles, then Sydney, Austalia and eventually to New York City. With each new city I was exposed to a more and more diverse range of people, from a wide variety of different socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. It really opened my eyes to the wonderful diversity that exists in the world, and I thought it would be cool for my main character, and thus the reader, to have this same experience.

Over time however, as the size of the project came into focus (I hope to be working on Isle of Elsi for many, many years) this seemed like a really bad idea. The first Isle of Elsi story is about 100 pages and if I post one or two pages a week, it could take a year or two for readers to get through it. That feels like way too much time for my readers to spend in a homogenous environment. As time passed and I thought about this more, I hated the thought that kids from different backgrounds would have a harder time associating with the characters, or might get turned off from the project as a whole.

So, I decided to do a 180 and take Donna's excellent advice. I recently began coloring the first batch of IOE pages and I've been trying to figure out the color palette that I am going to use. I wanted to create a custom palette for this project so that it would look different from my other work, and so that it feels bright and colorful for my intended audience.

I did some searching online for a good Photoshop palette that had a wide variety of skin tones, but I was not really satisfied with anything I found, so I decided to build my own. During my research, I came across the amazing Humanae Tumblr. For this Tumblr, the Brazillian photographer Angélica Dass takes a portrait of someone and then tries to determine the exact Pantone color of their skin tone. She then sets that as a background to the portrait. There are thousands of them on her website, and the cumulative effect is pretty incredible! Here is a small sampling:

The only downside is that, as a cartoonist, I have only used Pantone colors once or twice in the last fifteen years, on the occasional rare project that involves a spot color (usually on T-Shirts, screenprints or posters). The other 99.99% of my color work is done using CMYK process colors. So using the Humanae Tumblr as my source material, I imported about 250 skin tones and manually converted them to CMYK (with no values in the K channel), and then quickly arranged them so I could identify and delete duplicates. I ended up with 68 skin tones over a very wide range. It looks approximately like the .jpg posted below (which is in the RGB color space - do not use it to import these hues!)

You can download this palette for free. That link takes you to a Dropbox page where you can grab a .zip file which expands into two files: 1) a Photoshop .aco file which you can add to your swatches and 2) a flattened CMYK .tif file with all the hues, so that you can grab them with your color picker. I hope this helps other cartoonists to diversify their comics as well!

Using these skin tones on the wide range of characters in Isle of Elsi has already improved the comic immensely, and I think I will still be able to have my character experience a greater sense of diversity in other ways as he begins to explore more of the world around him, so it's win-win.

The other big improvement came when I was writing the second long Isle of Elsi story. I was having a hard time getting the plot to settle in, until I realized that a little girl who I previously thought of as a side-character was actually the main character of this story. Once I made that decision everything fell into place. That story passes the Bechdel Test on page one! Having two main characters for the series - a boy and a girl - will hopefully make the comic more enjoyable for all of my potential readers.

It still might take a while to get Isle of Elsi where I really want it to be in terms of diversity, but at least I feel like I’m now pointed in the right direction.

3 comments on this entry

This is yeoman's work Alec, and I'm really glad you're taking these steps. Since my own work is nonfiction I end up drawing people of color a lot more than I would normally if I was subconsciously creating characters. For me a big challenge is facial features—trying to do justice to the actual physical attributes of my sources without being accidentally offensive. Just as almost all of us are guilty of implicit bias, we all also struggle with drawing outside of our own race.

Wow, Alec. I am so moved by this! It honestly wasn't until a few years ago that I realized how (not) seeing my "identity" mirrored in the media I consumed deeply affects me. I think that a lot of my comics don't pass the Bechdel test. I need to consciously add female characters as well. You are making great headway here! Thanks for remembering this interaction (more than I did), it means a lot. I can't wait to read this and share it.

Donna Mar07

Thanks for the kind words, Josh! You make a good point about cartooning and trying to accurately depict physical attributes without being offensive.

Donna! I'm so glad you saw this post. Thank you so much for your invaluable feedback when I was starting this project. It will be stronger because of it.

Also, I forgot to include a link to another great article on diversity in comics: Writing People of Color (if you happen to be a person of another color) by MariNaomi.

And today I saw another great comic on this topic: Lighten Up by Ronald Wimberly. I figured I'd keep a list of other good articles on this topic here in the comments so that readers have them all in one place.

Alec Mar19

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