Colored Pencils: Finding Diversity and Representation in Comics

[Updated on March 15th, 2018]

“But I can see you- Your brown skin shinin’ in the sun. You got your hair combed back and your sunglasses on, baby. And I can tell you my love for you will still be strong, after the boys of summer have gone. ”

-Don Henley, Boys of the Summer

alana from saga sitting reading
Alana from Saga, created by Brian K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples

Flashback: circa Summer 2004 — the beginning of a life-long music addiction, an introduction to rock-n-roll, emerging from AM1310 to Live 105, Radio Disney to The Roots. I’m driving to school, listening to The Ataris sing about their lost-love, this brown-skinned summer beauty, and feeling like that could be me, for the first time in my life. 5’1” with brown eyes, smile like the sunrise, thunder thighs and nearsightedness too– it all came part and parcel, but no matter. A boy was singing about someone, and that someone looked like me.

Cue fireworks.

Being Seen

Years later, this moment is still vivid as the first time I felt myself depicted in Western pop culture. True, I didn’t have much access to movies and television being the daughter of an immigrant doctor and an immigrant PhD. student. My parents were powerful professionals, struggling to raise a family of four under student stipends, and cable was an unessential luxury. But I saw enough of the secret, elusive “girl-world” through sleepovers and Teen Vogue subscriptions, late night nail-painting, and gossip sessions. I’ll let you guess how often a short Indian girl with an affinity for sweets showed up in any form on “girl-world,” in powerful or desirable roles.

I look back now and I see the problems with this moment, how the lack of representation in my childhood affected the way I created my identity — the sparse wasteland of reference from which I cobbled together my self-worth and value. My heart aches for little Pearl, stumbling blindly from being generally ignored to sexually objectified, not knowing which part of that spectrum actually served my own self.

dee from rat queens standing with crossed arms
Dee from Rat Queens, created by Kurtis J. Wiebe

Heroes Rising

But there’s something spectacular happening right now, and I wish I could have shared this with my younger self. Through conversations with friends who are deeply connected to the comic book community, I was introduced to a whole new world. A place where this empty stage of representation was being filled by comic book characters. Enter Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel, a young female Muslim superhero; Alana in Saga, a trained warrior experiencing motherhood for the first time while on the run from two armies, her forbidden lover as her new husband. Dee and her girl gang, forming the formidable squad of battle maidens known as The Rat Queens.

These women and their brown skin shining in the glow: of super powers, sci-fi blasters and general badassery. Kamala challenges the value of looking cool in her new superhero suit, while being comfortable enough to fight crime. Alana can nurse her child on one breast and point a gun at you with the spare limb. Dee and her squad can deliver some serious damage to conquer any dungeon in their way.

kamala khan in ms marvel with fist held up
Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel by Adrian Alphona

These are the figures I needed to see, escapism and fantasy revolving around the brown girl being powerful and desirable, my thirsty heart girl-crushing on these brightly colored panels. How can a colored geek girl learn to dream big if she doesn’t see herself on paper or on screen, kicking ass and taking names? But these women did that for me, and are doing that for countless others. And so, in a community which is still flawed, which still struggles with exclusivity and prejudice — I found my window in.

Originally published on Medium – May 2015

Pearl Penumaka
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Post Author: Pearl Penumaka

A dancer and a singer, a fighter and a soul sister, a scholar and a lady, all a whole bunch of things that don't keep her from catching the latest good reads.

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