Queer Visibility: Joey Stern Talks State of Industry and FLAME CON

Joey Stern knows a thing or two about queer visibility in comics.

As chief spokesperson for Geeks OUT, an LGBT-focused organization focused on highlighting queer visibility both in comics and in fandom, Joey works with other volunteers to rally, empower, and promote the queer geek community. And one of the biggest ways they do that is Flame Con, an LGBT-focused comic book convention in Brooklyn, New York, August 20-21, 2016.

CbW0rvSW8AEfV_nEntering its second year (and expanded to Sunday, a day that features free admittance to anyone under 20, as well as all the other fantastic programming that Saturday has), Flame Con is THE place to be for queer fans, creators, and everyone else who loves them. Joey tells us a bit about how the con came to be, what the experience was like last year, and what fans can expect next month (Tickets are STILL available!).

Matt Santori: Going into the second year of Flame Con, tell me a little about how the convention came to be.

Joey Stern: Sure! Geeks OUT has existed for about six years now as an organization and we’re always looking for ways to enhance the experience of the queer community in comics. There exists already a large fandom — and a large continuum of people who like this stuff. We’ve been reaching out to fans at other shows, like New York Comic Con, C2E2, Awesome Con in DC.

There, we came up with the idea of gathering everyone in our own space. Creating something that’s inclusive, and really focuses on the stuff that our community’s fans are most excited about.

That was really the original concept of Flame Con: a convention that was really for us and would take into account a lot of diverse and specific requests of the queer community. And to have a real focus on comics!

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MSG: Having gone through a full year with the con, what surprises you most or were your best takeaways?

JS: It’s silly to say this was surprising, but it felt that way at the time: People were SO HAPPY. You spend a long time planning, and with 10-12 people in a room, you’re a little bit cut off from the actual decisions you’re making — how they’re going to impact people in the real world.

The day of, we were fairly confident we’d made all the right choices. We were really excited and knew how many people had bought tickets. But the joy that people had, and the photos that came out, it was amazing.

Cbm-vGkW0AAsUa7And people coming up to us afterward saying:

“You know, I go to a lot of comic cons, and still will, but yours gave me this experience of total elation. No one misgendered me. I didn’t have to worry about finding the right place to pee. I had all this stuff I liked at regular conventions — the cosplay, the name people — without any of the anxiety of having to come out and talk about my sexuality in any way, because I’m already HERE.”

We were hoping for that response, but we didn’t know how impactful it would be for people.

MSG: Having done it once, what are you thinking about doing differently now?

JS: How would you improve upon that, honestly?

We want it to be something that continues to grow in inclusivity, while maintaining its queer focus. Making sure we’re bringing in a variety of people. We’ve gotten confirmation that Chris Claremont (X-Men) will be there for one of the days, signing. We have this opportunity to bring in larger entities from Marvel, DC, and Image and integrate them in with our cool, indie artistry.

MSG: You mention Chris, but overall, you have quite the stellar list of guests this year: Detective Comics‘ James Tynion IV, Superwoman‘s Phil Jimenez, Midnighter‘s Steve Orlando, Totally Awesome Hulk‘s Greg Pak, and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur‘s Amy Reeder. Marguerite Bennett, who writes everything queer. It’s an amazing list of creators.

JS: Yeah! I think part of that is, after last year it became clear that the people who come to Flame Con are excited to spend money. [laughs] We have a 92% return rate on vendors and those who aren’t coming back, the majority have expressed disappointment that they couldn’t.

Most of our vendors have reported that they’ve made money back on the event. We’ve had really positive returns for people who are coming sell stuff or just get word out about their products. Or talk about the comics they make or projects they’re doing. A lot of them found the crowd really engaging and excited to talk.

That’s nice because it’s all adds to making a con feel inclusive.

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MSG: You have creators here for whom this type of progress in comics is so important, as well. We hear it online from creators like Kate Leth (Vampirella) and Sophie Campbell (Jem and the Holograms). So, it seems like such a perfect place for everyone to get together.

JS: It’s been really satisfying to see this grow as much as it has, and also have the experience of people reaching out and excited, even for Flame Con 3. I’m not ready to think about that!

MSG: Do you have panels set or other events?

CcQVqzAXEAACq8aJS: I can’t quite talk about all of it yet. I can tell you that there will be a return of the amazing “Designing the X-Women” panel, including a little bit more characters and creators to redesign some outfits. The band area will have some interesting stuff, including cosplay contests, as well as a game room we’re hoping to deck out with some fun indie games.

MSG: Outside of Flame Con, what’s your big picture perspective on queerness in comics today? Where’s your head at in 2016?

JS: Honestly, it’s sort of hard to say. I think there’s a lot happening right now that’s really exciting to me, and then there’s been some really disappointing set-backs. It’s hard to pull out and decide whether it’s two steps forward and one back or one step forward and two back.

It feels like, at least right now, everyone is ready and interested in characters regardless of their sexuality. The general society we live in is more accepting and that is really great. I’m seeing creators begin to embrace that. We’ve always had creators who are really good about that, like Greg Rucka and Gail Simone.

Now, I think we’re seeing people from the top down say, ok, this can’t just be another book about a white dude. We have to do something else. That’s great!

On the indie side, things like the Lumberjanes and Steven Universe, we’re seeing entertainment not aimed strictly at adults include queer characters. That’s for me the biggest bright spot. When I was a kid, your options were gay stereotypes or straight people. But you never really got a gay character who wasn’t a mish mosh of shout-outs.

Now, you’re also getting younger characters that identify as gay in entertainment aimed at younger age groups. That’s wonderful and really important.

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MSG: That is one of the trends we’ve seen in recent lists of queer-inclusive indie books. We’ve also seen more inclusion of asexual and trans characters. Are you seeing that too?

JS: Yeah! I think we’re seeing a lot more inclusivity across the board in indie titles, and I’m hoping we’ll start to see that trickle up. I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed to see Batgirl’s roommate Alysia didn’t have a larger role, even though at one time there was talk of making her a super-hero. But then Gail’s time on the book ended. It’s a little bit of that two-steps forward, one step back thing again.

Let me say it this way: I’m very excited, but that enthusiasm is tempered with a real world acknowledgment that until I see the stuff on the page, and the story is complete, there’s a lot of opportunity for missteps along the way.

It’s exciting to see the introduction of characters people can relate to, but it’s nerve-wracking when they’re still active to always be thinking, “Please don’t fuck this up.” [laughs]

Attendee tickets are still available for Flame Con 2. Do not miss this opportunity to hobnob with amazing creators putting out some of the best queer content in comics, and meet all the fans who love it as much as you do!

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