Not Just Superheroes, Banned Books Are Allowed: Syracuse Comic-Con Challenges Boundaries For Creators

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C. Spike Trotman knows that not everyone will like the comics his company, Iron Circus Comics, publishes. She’s cool with it.

This probably includes titles like “How do you smoke weed?” a practical guide for novice smokers, “The Harrowing of Hell”, a reimagining of the biblical story of Christ’s descent into hell, or Trotman’s own erotic series, “Smut Peddler”.

“We’re not interested in smoothing everything over and making everything as – forgive me – palatable, bland and universal as possible,” she said.

“We released what we want to see in the world,” she said — comics like “Patience & Esther,” an Edwardian interracial queer romance by SW Searle.

Diversity in the comics industry is more mainstream and sought after than ever, according to publishers. Not just in Trotman’s hometown of Chicago, but in Syracuse, where on Sunday she will speak virtually at Syracuse University’s Geek/Art CONfluence alongside other speakers like Alexander Tefenkgi, author of “The Good Asian and “Outpost Zero,” and Jeff Trexler, acting director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

The event, now in its third year, was organized by SU faculty and staff, including the team that until recently hosted the SU’s “‘Crip’Con,” a comic -con focused on the representation of disability.

These types of “cons” are manifestations of a larger trend in the world of comics, said Frank Cammuso, SU illustration professor, “Fantastic Four” fan and creative director at AHOY Comics, a Syracuse-based comics publishing house founded in 2018. Cammuso is also an award-winning former political cartoonist for The Post-Standard.

“I think things were getting a little stale,” Cammuso said, “so it’s interesting to see different people show up.”

“It’s a big ship. Everyone is welcome.

Geek-centric artwork by Syracuse University students on display in the Biblio Gallery at the Bird Library. From left to right: “CHAZ & BEAL: The Top Notch Voyage (Page 2)” by Brian Hall, “Interstellar Pregnancy: parasitism” by Feimo Zhu, porcelain plate by Markus Denil, “It Takes Two” by Yuanjing Chu, “ Queen Andromeda” by Ahyana Gaskins and “History High” by Siobhan Rogers-Harrington.

At one time, comic book illustrators were overwhelmingly white males, Cammuso said, and many of them flocked to New York to build their careers.

Since the invention of the World Wide Web, the industry has become decentralized. Readers anywhere can access the comics they want, and illustrators anywhere can access publishers.

The type of publisher matters, however. Major houses like DC and Marvel are unlikely to launch a series of positive, consensus-based erotic novels like Trotman’s “Smut Peddler” anytime soon. They’ve also been slow to break their characters out of stereotypical depictions of race and gender, though recent blockbusters like “Black Panther” mark a turning point.

The virtue of independent houses, Trotman said, is “the only hurdle you have to overcome…if you want to be published by us, it’s me.”

Iron Circus Comics

Iron Circus Comics Publications, from left: “Smut Peddler: A Superior Pornucopia for Classy Dames (and the Forward-Thinking Gentleman)” by C. Spike Trotman, “The Girl Who Married a Skull: And Other African Stories and “Banned Book Club” by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada.

‘Crip’Con

As a child, Rachael Zubal-Ruggieri found a treasure trove of comic books hidden away in a closet at some family friends’ house. It was full of comics like “Ant Man”, “Fantastic Four” and “Tomb of Dracula”, and every time she went to visit, she would park in front of the closet and read for hours.

Years later, while working as an information coordinator at SU, she found a kindred spirit in the new Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach, Diane Wiener. They were talking about how much they both loved “Spider Man” as kids, and Zubal-Ruggieri found herself dropping an idea that had been simmering for a while: a disability-focused comic book.

Her new friend’s eyes “got really wide and excited,” said Zubal-Ruggieri, who is now an administrative assistant at SU

So, the origin story of “‘Crippin’ the Comic Con”, aka “‘Crip’Con”, the first school diversity-related comic-con, held almost every year from 2013 to 2019.

Many people love comic books, and what they see between the pages affects how they see the world, Zubal-Ruggieri said.

“Children cannot imagine a diverse world if they are not exposed to representations, whether it is a book, a comic, a TV show or other children in the same class,” she said. “I think it’s as simple as that.”

However, she admits mistakes. There are plenty of poorly designed characters, but even those provide “teachable moments,” she said.

pulled from the shelves

The comic book industry in all its forms, from high art to rags, has been the target of censorship for decades. Famously, the U.S. government created the Juvenile Delinquency Investigation Subcommittee in 1954 to regulate comic books, and today school boards across the country are pulling comic books like Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” and “Maus ” by Art Spiegelman from the shelves of libraries.

Ironically, the “Maus” debate put the book back on the bestseller list, said Wiener, the founding partner of “‘Crip’Con.” People sent unsolicited copies to libraries in McMinn County, Tennessee, where Spiegelman’s book was first banned, and children handed copies to each other in the hallways, according to The New York Times.

Although there were concerns about Spiegelman’s portrayal of people with disabilities in ‘Maus’, Wiener said, ‘what he did in ‘Maus’ was to create something that was in some ways the beginning of ‘a genre that is now much more well-known in all schools,’ she said.

People falsely deny that the Nazi Holocaust happened, Wiener said. The censorship of ‘Maus’ – ‘It has a really big impact on people’s lives.’

Geek/Art Confluence

Portrait of Furiosa from “Mad Max: Fury Road” by Syracuse University student Braeden Raymer, on display in the Biblio Gallery at the Bird Library. .

‘Crip’Con has retired for the foreseeable future, but Zubal-Ruggieri said the principles live on in Geek/Art CONfluence, which is in its third year now, albeit only its second in person.

This year’s contest will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday in the Shaffer Art Building, and is free and open to the public. There will be an in-person and online cosplay contest, a Batman figure drawing session, plenty of panelists, and snacks.

“The main idea is fun,” said Chris Wildrick, studio art instructor at SU and one of the organizers. The scam isn’t just for students, he says. And there will be free pizza around noon.

Geek-related student works will be exhibited in the Biblio Gallery of the Bird Library. Much of the con will be broadcast on Zoom.

Tefenkgi will speak at 10 a.m., Trexler will speak at 3 p.m., followed by Trotman an hour later. Panel events will include AI captioning and some will have ASL interpretation.

For more information and a full schedule of events, visit geekartconfluence.com.

Jules Struck writes about life and culture in and around Syracuse. Contact her anytime at [email protected] or on Instagram at julesstruck.journo.

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