Sometime around 1994, I really wanted to get into comic books. The X-Men, toting female characters on the covers, seemed more accessible to me than Batman or Spiderman. When I asked my neighbor, an avid comics fan, where I should start, he retorted, "You can't read comics--you're a girl."
On the other side of the globe, in Malaysia, Kazimir Lee Iskander was given a stack of X-Men comics by a family friend. He began reading comics and was becoming increasingly enamored with the art form, but--with the scantily clad women on the covers--he worried that his parents wouldn't take it seriously.
Twenty years later, I began teaching comics to children and teens--with just as many girls in my classes as boys. Kazimir is now a cartoonist, animator, and illustrator with a strong interest in activism. We recently talked about his work, representation of diverse stories in comics, how comics have evolved since we were kids, and what we can do to ensure that we continue to make progress.
How did you start incorporating themes of representation in your work?
Only very recently. Until the last year of my undergrad in 2008, pretty much every character I created was straight and white. I think reading creators like Alison Bechdel helped me understand that needn't always be the case. Having people in my life to talk to about not being white, mostly other POCs and immigrants, really helped. But it's a big process for me, and it's still happening.
You produce work ranging from journalistic to horror--what role do you think genre plays in conveying these ideas?
In terms of genre, I'm always attracted to ones that are more 'low' art because I feel like there's a lot of room for evolution and truly subversive ideas. In erotica, horror, and children's fiction, a lot of big concepts can fly under the radar--even today all the queer stuff in Steven Universe is an excellent reminder of how low art genres are quietly changing norms.
Why do you think comic storytelling is a good medium to talk about body politics and activism?
On a purely visual level, comics have been used as propaganda or recruitment tools by everyone from Chinese Communists to Jack Chick, but I also think comics can be a truly exciting mix of cinematic language, illustration, and literature. Disrupting the structure of the media we consume can be really good if you're trying to effect systemic changes.
Raising awareness about these issues and addressing inclusivity is not just a responsibility for people of color or comic creators. What role do you think audiences and publishers have in making sure we continue to make progress in representing diverse stories?
Writing more stories about POCs is important, but a lot of publishers need to understand that their ability to comprehend the experiences of 'the other' is not always perfect. I'd like to see publishers and studios understand when it's necessary to step aside and let POCs tell their own stories, even though that can be a difficult and humbling space to inhabit. Audiences want many different things, and there are demands for as many deeply oppressive messages as there are liberating ones. Media makers need to understand their ability to feed or starve our appetites for certain kinds of narratives.
I wanted to get your thoughts on Hollywood whitewashing, particularly since that has been a big issue for Asian American actors and activists.
In the filmmaking process there doesn't seem to be a lot of 'staying in one's lane.' There is this idea of Hollywood not as a white, capitalist, dude-run institution, but as this purveyor of universal dreams for all of humanity--which is a bizarre and dangerous thought. It's even more disappointing when it comes from an Asian creator. It would be easier if there was an evil corporate businessman behind the scenes holding a gun to the heads of directors, forcing them to write white characters, but I feel like a lot of racism is really internal, and really wrapped up in people's creative impulses.
Your mention of internalized racism also reminded me that, not only are we backed into a corner by the external status quo, but also the one we have inside. What are some strategies for creators of color to take back their work?
Setting up safe spaces where it's okay to criticize white supremacy, colonialism, and homophobia is really important. I'd also say within the community of creators of color, there needs to be less sort of unreal expectations about our humanity. There is sometimes this burgeoning idea that because we're activists or victims of oppression, there can't also be abuse and mental illness, sexism, and oppression of its own sort. I think there needs to be ways to discuss those failings healthily, rather than us absorbing the unhealthy (and externally-imposed) dichotomy that we're all either oppressors or victims.
I think POC creators need to accept that they need to do what they need to do to survive. Even if that involves working with people who might perpetuate oppression, even if that involves acting more 'white' for certain crowds. Ideally, that wouldn't be necessary, but I'd like to imagine that survival, getting enough to pay rent, getting access to healthcare and therapy, should always be a priority next to making art. Give yourself the space to feel the weight of white supremacy, and don't let anyone tell you that you're whining.