Supervillains steered clear of Union City’s William V. Musto Cultural Center this past weekend. Had they dropped in for some mischief, they would have been in for a rude surprise – The Avengers!
Several members of Marvel’s famed superhero team were on hand for Artists Assemble!, a comic book festival and art show dubbed “a mini Comic-Con.” It was sponsored in part by Mayor Brian Stack and the city’s Board of Commissioners and Midtown Comics, a comic book store in Manhattan.
The festival, which took place Saturday and Sunday of last weekend, was designed to facilitate conversation and debate about comic books as a legitimate art form, something often scoffed at by traditional artists.
“Comics have been a driving force in popular and artistic culture as long as they’ve existed,” said Union City’s poet laureate, Ben “Broken English” Figueroa, who organized the event. “They often don’t get the respect that they deserve and have earned.”
Figueroa, a Union City native and lifelong comic book fan, said he recalled having to travel outside city lines as a teenager to buy comics and engage in other cultural happenings.
“Comics have been a driving force in popular and artistic culture as long as they’ve existed.” – Ben “Broken English” Figueroa
Figueroa said that in addition to holding legitimate conversation and debate about comics, the festival served to spread awareness about the Musto Cultural Center, which houses two museums and two art galleries.
“I don’t think a lot of people are aware of what we have here, and so hopefully the crowds we’ve attracted for Artists Assemble will call attention to that,” he said.
In addition to a permanent art gallery, the center’s rotating gallery was decked out in comic book art by various artists, including longtime Union City resident and comic book enthusiast Luigi Novi.
Besides the chance to snap a photo with your favorite superhero, several panels were included in the program. Comic book artists, writers and fans, including Figueroa and Novi, discussed a range of topics, including comics as a legitimate art form, how to break into the comic book industry, women in comics, and writing and storytelling in comics.
“We really designed it so that we could drive discussion about how comics stand in comparison to other art forms,” said Figueroa. “We wanted to give each area of the comic book industry equal attention.”
Comics as art
A panel focusing on comics as a legitimate art form, which took place Saturday, centered on a discussion of comics books as compared to more traditional types of art, such as painting and sculpture. It was moderated by Novi, and featured John Trigonis and Lauren Clemente, the co-creators of “Siren’s Calling,” Geoff Mosher, the creator of “Mondo Chachi,” and illustrator Steven DeFendini.
The panel discussing women in comics, hosted by Clemente, Erica Schultz, the co-creator of “M3,” writer and publisher Amy Chu, and artist Madelynne Dela Rama, focused equally on both women who work in the industry as well as the portrayal of female characters in comics.
“We talked a lot about whether or not people pay attention to the fact that a certain comic may be written or drawn by a woman,” said Schultz afterwards. “We discussed whether someone is more or less likely to buy a comic if its produced by a woman.”
Schultz said that while she considers herself a realist, she would like to see more women involved in comic book production.
“I know at least one woman who’s a ghost artist for a famous series, and to me that’s a little frustrating,” she said. “I know you’ve got to pay your bills, but it’s like ‘Come on guys!’ There’s definitely real female talent out there.”
Schultz’s comic, “M3,” which she co-created with Vicente Alcázar, features a female character described by Schultz as “the Punisher but prettier.’”
“There’s a trend that female characters in comics are almost always a damsel in distress,” she said. “They’re almost always portrayed as needing to be rescued and they lack intricate character development of involvement in the plotline other than the fact that they’re needy.”
Machiavella, Schultz and Alcázar’s character, stands in stark contrast to that stereotype.
“She is not a damsel,” said Schultz. “She’s very capable and despite her vulnerabilities, she’s a very capable woman and makes sure she survives.”
Advice for aspiring artists and writers
Following Sunday’s discussion of writing and storytelling in comics, which focused on “what gets lost when you’re drawn too much to the pictures,” culminated in a question from an audience member about advice for aspiring artists and writers.
Figueroa, who took part in the panel, discussed the importance of self-criticism.
“You have to learn how to be honest with yourself about your art,” he said. “If you don’t like it, chances are nobody else will.”
Schultz directed her advice to aspiring women.
“Don’t worry about it being boyish,” she said. “If you enjoy comics, then enjoy comics.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org