This weekend, something incredible happened. DC Comics descended on Washington, D.C., for the inaugural "DC in D.C." pop culture event, which sought to "bring together the worlds of entertainment and public service to illuminate the story of America and current issues through the lens of comic and super heroes."
Creative talent behind DCTV's current and upcoming shows (Arrow, DC's Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Freedom Fighters: The Ray, Black Lightning) joined writers and artists from many of the company's books in a series of panel discussions and screenings focused on the intersection of entertainment and enlightenment—and the confluence of pop culture and human culture.
A slate of panels turned the spotlight onto the growing influence of African-American voices in the DC universe, the role and increasing prevalence of women in DC's stories across media, inclusion for LGBTQ characters, and issues related to trauma and PTSD in the company's storytelling.
This kind of thing doesn't typically happen in Washington, D.C. In fact, this kind of thing in comics doesn't typically happen anywhere. At least not nearly enough.
DC Entertainment literally rolled out the red carpet for the premiere of Black Lightning, but they also took the opportunity to give a platform and megaphone to the many other voices that are all too often relegated to the shadows (at best) or just outright neglected (at worst).
Like I said, it was an incredible event, and on this holiday weekend meant to celebrate and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it felt particularly relevant and vital.
All of the panels provided rich discussion and fascinating insights, but—for me—the highlight of the event came in the middle of the day. "The Many Shades of Heroism: DC Heroes through the African-American Lens" assembled a stunning roster of talent that should make any company jealous.
A mere hour wasn't enough time to fully explore the topics that came up, and with 10 wonderfully talented people seated on stage, it was—as many panels are—tantalizingly brief. It could have easily lasted another hour, and it still wouldn't have been enough time.
The marquee event of the weekend was the premiere of Black Lightning, and Salim Akil, co-executive producer of the show (along with his wife, Mara Brock Akil), recognized the influence language has over the conversation when it comes to representation. Even though discussion about Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning will inevitably lead to the term African-American superhero, it's important to use the term judiciously. Take African out of the equation and what's left is no less true.
Yes, the character is an African-American and yes, the show will portray black culture in the United States, but it also depicts a man who loves his family and children and just wants to do right by the people around him.
Akil confessed, "He's the better part of me. He's who I aspire to be. He's a proud black man who's proud of who he is."
Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), who is about to explore characters from marginalized backgrounds in the literary comics miniseries The Other History of the DC Universe, clearly recalled his 10-year-old self racing home with a small stack of comics and staring in wide-eyed surprise as he pulled a copy of Black Lightning out of the bag. This was a character who looked like him!
Not lost on him, though, was the spectacle of the event that brought us all together in Washington, D.C.'s Newseum. DC Entertainment had chosen to premiere the Black Lightning show with the loudest possible fanfare. Referring to the surprise he felt as a boy, Ridley acknowledged that this experience is not something kids today necessarily face. We still have a long way to go for representation to truly be equal, but it's no longer a monumental surprise when African-American characters headline their own shows, films, and books.
Many of the panelists spoke to the power and importance of that representation. For her part, Candice Patton (The Flash) never imagined her life would lead to this point. She became an actress just to pay the rent; she never dreamed she'd be given the opportunities she's had as Iris West, especially since the character hadn't been historically portrayed as an African-American in the comics.
"Black women need to see themselves as ingénues, beautiful, and desirable. Don't buy what's being sold that the only model of beauty is white, skinny, and blonde. Young girls who look like me see beauty in Iris. And then they see it in themselves."
As a young boy growing up in England, the only black heroes David Harewood (Supergirl) had to look up to were Americans—Martin Luther King and Paul Robeson primary among them. For him, playing J'onn J'onzz has special significance, and it's one that resonates with Dr. King's legacy. Martian Manhunter is a shapeshifter and can literally look like anything he wants. It's therefore a conscious choice for him to be black. He chooses to stand with a historically marginalized community and fight injustice. And that, for Harewood, is the hallmark of his character and the defining aspect he carries with him in every performance.
Denys Cowan, co-founder of Milestone and part of the creative force behind the upcoming Earth M universe for DC, was a bit more measured in his enthusiasm offstage. When asked if we were in a renaissance for African-American characters in light of the excitement surrounding Black Lightning and Marvel's Black Panther, he hedged.
"We're all really excited for Black Lightning. I'm as hyped as anyone could possibly be. It remains to be seen if this will be a renaissance or not. The only renaissance you'll get is if it makes money. If Black Lightning does well, and we hope it does because it's an awesome show, hopefully the demand to see more will happen. People will say, 'What else is out there that we haven't seen yet? Where's Icon? Where's Rocket? Where's Static Shock?' There is no renaissance yet. It's two projects. Meanwhile, how many white superhero shows do we have? But we'll see what happens and if it leads to a renaissance."
Alice Randall, Cowan's partner in bringing the Dakotaverse back in the guise of Earth M, took a glance back in order to look forward. "Comic books are one of the most powerful art forms in the world. One of the reasons comics were so powerful in Detroit in 1959 [when she was born] is because there were a lot of illiterate people working on assembly lines who were really smart. Complicated narratives in comic books were accessible to them as profound literature. It wasn't just for children. Smart adults were reading comic books as primary texts. For me, now, I'm circling back and visiting in this world that other people have mastered. Comic books play an important role right now, and for immigrants and people for whom English is not their first language, comic books provide an accessible, universal language that all kinds of people can share."
Randall went on to acknowledge that people like Cowan and the Akils are working in the tradition of W.E.B. Du Bois. They are helping to create the text that our reality will be better in the future. These are stories that use black characters and real-life issues, such as Black Lives Matter, to relate universal stories—not to be the subject of ridicule or humor.
"People have said that Western white children's literature is about entertainment and education, traditionally. Black children's literature has always been about uplift and overturn. I think we are doing some of both. We educate, we entertain, but we uplift and overturn."
No dream is impossible. That was the message hinted at, discussed, and hammered home multiple times during the panel and throughout the day. And on a weekend dedicated to the enduring legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can't think of a more perfect message.