Inés Estrada, Alienation, cover, front and back (2019), comic, 6 x 8 inches (courtesy the artist)

Publishers of independent comics and graphic novels still have serious diversity problems. The troubles often lie on the operations side. Consider the fiasco of the messy merger between Oni Press and Lion Forge that led to insider and public outcries like this headline: “Oni Press Promised Inclusive Comics. Then, Amid ‘Chaos,’ It Shut Out Marginalized Employees.” 

There’s the occasional small press as exception, like Avery Hill who in a male-dominated field seeks out creators who are women. Self-described “fledgling” press with “multicultural flair,” Rosarium likewise features an array of creative voices. However, readers and creators need more than a handful of publishers committed to seeking out diverse talent.

Anuj Shrestha, New Fears, cover (2019), comic, 7 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches (courtesy the artist)

What does diversity mean? Who defines it? If most gatekeepers still come from backgrounds of privilege, might that be problematic despite whatever efforts to change editorial biases? Can these same decision-makers reconcile the need for more diverse voices without subjecting creators to performative standards of race, gender, or heritage, thus reifying Otherness? For example, the White editor who asks: Is this Black artist “Black enough?”

These caveats in mind, the following are just a few productive examples, however anecdotal, of work that speaks in implicit as well as literal terms to matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

For instance, artist Anuj Shrestha in New Fears manages this relevant feat, tackling weighty topics in cycles with a mere four panels. While it’s reductionist to view his work through this context of diversity problems in independent comics, when reached for comment Shrestha offered insights that all readers should reckon with:

[R]eal diversity in (indie) comics would firstly include voices of … Black and Brown cartoonists [and] those that identify across the gender spectrum … [I]f much of mainstream genre comics over the years speaks from a neoliberal ideology (which includes pro-military and pro-policing themes) then alternative, anti-capitalist voices must be represented. Ultimately the focus should not be on diversity simply as … in identity politics but a plurality of progressive and radical expressions.

Shrestha’s own work offers innovative takes on these matters. Topics range widely in New Fears. Given the scope, however, the pieces are not unwieldy.

As an example, the historical “Plunder” is one page that presents an expansive timeline in utterly concise storytelling. Focusing on a curious stone sculpture, “Plunder” telescopes hundreds of years into four frames, much like film montage. Panels move from (1) the act of stone chiseling to (2) the personal art object, from (3) a sailing ship as emblematic of colonial conquest to, finally, (4) a commodified museum artifact under a display case.

Anuj Shrestha, New Fears, “Plunder” (2019), comic, 7 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches (courtesy the artist)

Meanwhile, the grimly ironic “Childhood” conveys a relevant, pressing issue: the human rights catastrophe along US Southwest borderlands. Here, Shrestha sheds stark light on immigration detention policies in another four-panel page: Young people huddle, caged behind tall chain link. In this piece, camp loses all euphemistic underpinning in face of reprehensible policy. Wordless as these sequences may be, they are not without urgency.

“Originally serialized in Xeroxed mini-comics,” as reviewed by Patrick Kyle in The Comics Journal, Inés Estrada’s Alienation was published by Fantagraphics in 2019. As the title suggests, isolation permeates despite virtual connectivity, which certainly resonates today. Consider Kyle’s summary of the premise: 

Set in the not-so-distant year of 2054, … climate disasters have pushed humanity to new extremes …. Elizabeth and Carlos [are] a young couple [finding] their footing in a society imprisoned by corporate authoritarianism and wanton weather phenomenon. Their saving grace is … the Internet – [a] physically implanted …  ‘Google-Gland’ – allowing the pair to escape into virtual reality at will to explore a … catalogue of experience and whimsy.

Inés Estrada, Alienation, pages 16-17 (2019), comic, 6 x 8 inches (courtesy the artist)
November Garcia, Malarkey #4, cover (2019), comic, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches (courtesy the artist)

Estrada’s experiments go deeper than occasional gags or corporeal indulgences. Like avant-garde film’s abstract cutting techniques, Estrada plays with graphic narrative’s raw properties and forms. In this regard, Estrada offers one of Alienation’s most inventive moments: During a sex act, panels move from close-up to extreme close-up of Elizabeth’s eyes. Her eyelashes and iris transform — first to butterflies, then kaleidoscopic patterns.

So much happens in Alienation that it could seem a disservice to focus on this moment. Yet it’s as if Estrada throws down a challenge in these explicit scenes: Alienation dares its reader not to find redeeming value. Estrada thus underscores a chief concern dogging comics since inception via this challenge to confront readers with lofty ambitions for what’s otherwise dismissed still as low culture.

Amidst creative and cultural dilemmas, it’s worth noting how artistic identity can take priority. Consider November Garcia’s statement from her site: “November Garcia is a cartoonist from the Philippines who makes humiliatingly funny autobio comics.” Considering vocation, Garcia discloses with irony that “She has only one working eye, so don’t wave at her from her left side.”

This emphasis on art and the personal (the “autobio”) runs through Malarkey. As for cartoon creation, or cartoon procreation, Garcia jokes: “[When] I created you, … [y]ou were mine,” Garcia’s persona speaks of her drawings in the little darlings terms familiar to artists. Yet Garcia surveys the old clichés before the punchline: “Wha … I thought we’d finished blotty training!” she remarks at ink blots staining her drawing wrist while an unfinished page emits an infant’s wail.

Of final note, Malarkey’s characters as illustrated are rarely differentiated based on skin color. Perhaps it’s to do with how quickly feeling of difference turns to fear of being cast out, as in issue two when Garcia’s anti-heroine worries herself to sleep. “Poser!” she frets over an artistic conundrum — how to get one’s work to stand out while yearning to fit in. Then she moves to darker thoughts of visiting an increasingly hostile US: “Three years isolated on this island, good luck making friends, you rube … They’ll probably deport you … Stupid! Stupid!”

November Garcia, Malarkey #1, “The Story of You” (2016), comic, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches (courtesy the artist)

Considering these anxieties (“poser,” “stupid!”), the scene says less about Garcia than it does about the world most such artists find themselves in today.

Artists like these are creating individual economies, however modest — spaces of their own making. This comes in opposition to comics publishing’s gatekeeper culture that still has catching up to do in DEI matters.

M. G. Moscato teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked as a book editor as well as in arts management. Work appears in or is forthcoming from the Academy of American Poets on,...