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At Florida SuperCon, Diversity Not Just In Characters

Peter Parker, Spider-Man’s longtime alter ego, is sharing the limelight with two other web-slingers: Spider-Gwen, a female character set in Spider-Man’s universe, and Miles Morales, a biracial teenager who will be the official Spider-Man in the new comic series this fall.

This diversity the “Spider-Man” comics are experiencing has become common throughout the industry.

The once-niche world of comic books dominated mostly by men has evolved into a staple of popular culture. Comics now boast more female and minority superheroes, as well as stories outside of the Marvel and DC comics giants without any superheroes at all.

This is evident in the thousands of cosplayers who attended this weekend’s Florida SuperCon, the state’s largest convention devoted to all things nerdy, including comic books and anime.

“The biggest trend is Gwen Stacy [of Marvel Comics],” says Nick Lupo, a vendor at the convention.

Lupo runs a comic book store in Fort Lauderdale and says the wider appeal of superheroes and comic books has helped generate a more expansive selection of comic book stories.

“They’ve become more mainstream because people are identifying with [superheroes] more,” he says.

Lupo says he has always enjoyed reading and collecting comics. He got the idea to start Browse House Comics and Games when he and his best friend spent their free time trading comics and visiting swap meets, where they would sell any extras they had.

Browse House specializes in rare finds and collectibles from all over the comic universe.

Credit Alexander Gonzalez / WLRN
Robbi Rodriguez is the illustrator for the "Spider-Gwen" comic book series. He and co-creator Jason Letour created the character Stacy Gwen, who is one of Peter Parker's ex-girlfriends that becomes a superhero with powers similar to Spider-Man.

Just a few booths away, Robbi Rodriguez, one of the creators of the “Spider-Gwen” series, was signing autographs along with colorist Rico Renzi.

“Spider-Gwen” tells the superhero story of Gwen Stacy, one of Peter Parker’s ex-girlfriends. The series also features another significant female character named Black Cat. She’s a pop star who is of French, African and Middle Eastern descent.

In the past few years, Marvel Comics has increased the number of stories with female superheroes. In late 2014, the superhero in the “Thor” comic book series was revamped with a woman in the titular role.

Lupo says more diversity in the comic book world increases the comic book’s audience’s reach.

“It’s empowering girls to read comic books more,” Lupo says. “How many decades has it been dominated by males?”

And last week the news broke that Spider-Man's alter ego will be half-Latino, half-African American Miles Morales. He existed in an alternate universe as part of Marvel’s “Ultimate” comic book but is now being brought in as the official superhero.

“It’s great that they pulled the trigger on that finally,” Rodriguez says. “At Marvel, they were kind of wishy-washy for a bit. They wanted to keep the status quo, keeping Peter Parker as Spider-Man.”

The Oregon-based illustrator adds that the shift to Miles Morales will have an impact on future generations of comic books lovers, especially children.

“There’s a ton of kids who like Spider-Man, but they still can’t see themselves as Spider-Man because he’s a white male,” he says. “When they see someone of color, that means something to them.”

Lupo says, however, Marvel’s decision to re-launch Spider-Man with a new alter-ego may cause a rift with “old-school die-hards.”

One of these die-hards is Clayton Somers, also from Fort Lauderdale.

“It’s a betrayal,” he says. “Peter Parker has been Spider-Man since the beginning. And to replace him for political something, I don’t know why they would want to do that.”

But Rodriguez says he would like the trend to go further.

“There should be an Arabic Batman down the line,” he says.

Some artists at SuperCon say characters are not the only diversifying force in comics.

Vanesa Del Rey from North Miami Beach is working on the DC Comics title “Constantine: Hell Blazer.” She has been a comic book artist for more than a year and says comics have become too “incestuous.”

“It all looks the same,” she says. “The thing with most artists in comics is that they read comics, they make comics, and for so many years, that’s what they’re used to seeing.”

Credit Alexander Gonzalez / WLRN
Vanesa Del Rey is an artist working on the DC Comics title "Constantine: Hell Blazer." She says she hopes to see more comics vary their artistic style.

Del Rey wants to see more comic book artists coming from different creative backgrounds. She trained in the fine arts and has always had a brush in her hand.

Del Rey first learned to paint from her grandmother and then had painting teachers since she was 12 years old. She graduated from the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota and then went to work at an animation studio for a while.

She did not enjoy working at an animation studio, so she switched over to comics.

“I learned I could work in comics and make money doing them,” Del Rey says.

She believes the look of comics should be more “loose” and “fluid.” She says much of it appears stiff and bland.

Other writers and artists are attempting to reinvent the genre as a whole.

Kevin Sharpley is using comics as one of the media for his original story “The Beach Chronicles.” It takes place in South Beach and is told through film, audio and now print.

The story incorporates scenery from Miami, like Wynwood Walls, but Sharpley says the city "is serving as a character. ... It's not a backdrop."

Credit Alexander Gonzalez / WLRN
Kevin Sharpley is the creator of "The Beach Chronicles," a story told on multiple platforms, including film, radio and print. He attended Florida SuperCon to promote the comic book version of his detective story that takes place in South Beach.

The Nerd Nation publishing company from West Palm Beach attended SuperCon to promote its two original comics. One of them only includes first-time artists.

The publishing house’s goal is to get independent comic book authors on the map.

“How will Marvel or DC ever know who you are unless someone helps you get your name out?” asks Susana Neary, a Nerd Nation writer. “Our job is to get the name out for independent people.”

Neary and illustrator Aaron Pierce created the Nerd Nation original “Gateway Runners.” SuperCon was one of the comic’s first publicity events.

Nerd Nation began as a podcast reporting on nerd culture, especially independent comic book artists. The show soon transitioned to making comic books about a year ago.

Amid all this convergence, even Somers, the die-hard fan who will miss Peter Parker, agrees change is inevitable. He says comics "have to, or they die."

Alexander Gonzalez produces the afternoon newscasts airing during All Things Considered. He enjoys helping tell the South Florida story through audio and digital platforms. Alex is interested in a little of everything from business to culture to politics.
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