After going virtual for two years, WonderCon returned to Anaheim, Calif., with a somewhat smaller, but no less fun, convention. There were panels on new film, TV, comic book and graphic novel releases, along with an exhibit floor full of artists, small press and vendors. With strict COVID protocols in place, there was an overwhelming enthusiasm throughout the convention, as attendees were just so happy to be reunited with their friends and fan groups. I’m not going to claim that a con that takes place in Orange County, Calif., is overflowing with Black representation, but there were several amazing Black writers, artists and creators showcasing their projects, so let’s discuss a few of the most interesting.
Perhaps my favorite booth of the weekend was Stranger Comics. Featuring work from Sebastian A. Jones and Prentice Penny (Insecure), the company celebrates stories with Black characters and cultures. Stranger Comics offers everything from comics to graphic novels to children’s books, and features a wide-ranging universe revolving around its lead heroine, Niobe.
“What I think is really great is typically, there’s ways in which the world wants our culture to be perceived and it’s through means that are accessible for them, so it might be through hip-hop or it might be through sports or things that feel organic to them, as opposed to letting us decide what feels organic to us to protect our culture,” Penny told The Root during an interview at the Stranger Comics booth. “I think what is so great about what Seb [Jones] has done in the comic space and what we’re trying to do is we get to redefine how we’re going to be introduced.”
Jones discussed what inspired him to create this huge fascinating world, and how it gave him a place to feel comfortable and be himself.
“Originally, I was a mixed kid growing up in a very small white environment in England. I got into Lord of the Rings, fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons, that sort of thing,” Jones told The Root. “I was looking for a refuge, to place myself in a world that would reflect not only me in a cultural way, but my inhibitions, and also my wrath and my anger. From that age I started to build out the world more and more and as I grew the world grew with me, as did the lead character, Niobe.”
As essential as Black fans are to supporting sci-fi/fantasy stories, it’s a world that doesn’t always welcome us with open arms. So finding a company that is creating these stories specifically with us in mind was a cool experience.
With the convention across the street from Disneyland, there was plenty of Disney-themed merch to be found. There were also interesting, princess-inspired stories on display from author Dalila Caryn. The Forgotten Sister is a Sleeping Beauty story that follows her sister fighting to break the curse. The Battle for the Sky is a new take on Cinderella, while Dust House and the West Wind features a young witch trying to save her home. What’s different about all these heroines is that they’re Black—something it took Disney decades to do.
“When I first started writing, I intentionally didn’t describe how the characters looked. Because I was so used to reading books and getting into a character, then I would hear a character described and I would say, ‘Wow that’s nothing like me.’ So I intentionally didn’t describe the characters,” Caryn told The Root. “But I found that a lot of readers of all races were still associating my characters as white, so I intentionally started describing characters the way I imagined them and if that doesn’t work for some people that’s fine. It’s for the people like me who didn’t get to see themselves in books as children. I think when you see yourself in a book it empowers you. It makes you realize you can be the princess, you can be the fairy godmother, you can be anything you want to be, because you’re acknowledged and you’re seen, and that’s really important.”
Even with all the amazing creativity and representation on display at WonderCon, the most important book I heard about was Marc Bernardin’s Adora and the Distance. Prolific TV writer Bernardin (Star Trek: Picard, Castle Rock) was inspired to tell this story by his autistic daughter. He wanted to imagine the epic fantasy adventure that plays out in the world behind her eyes. The story features a young Black girl, Adora, and her friends as they try to stop the mysterious “the Distance” and save their world.
During the panel on the Dark Horse graphic novel, Bernardin spoke about the 10-year process of writing the story as he watched his daughter grow up, but remain the same. He also said that he’s received a lot of gratitude and appreciation from people in the neurodivergent community. We talk all the time about how important representation is, but there are still groups waiting for their stories to be told. Adora and the Distance is such a beautiful adventure that will speak to anyone who’s felt different or doesn’t fit in with the expectations of society.
What these artists and all the creators of color I spoke with emphasized is that it’s so important right now to get stories and perspectives from all walks of life, even if those ideas come in the form of made-up fantasy adventures.