This weekend, New York City saw the launch of Flame Con 2016, a convention that focuses on a convergence of LGBT and comics.
That was about as strict as the guidelines got, with fans ranging from mainstream comic nerds to underground activists all packed tightly within the Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge from August 20 to 21.
Also known as Flame Con 2, this convention is the successful runner-up to last year’s convention which saw over 2000 guests. The first Flame Con was unveiled last year by the NYC organization Geeks OUT after a highly successful Kickstarter, and it became an instant hit with LGBT comic fans all over New England.
This year upheld the reputation, with an array of workshops, contests, and even a speed dating event.
“For me personally growing up, my LGBT side and my geek side have belonged to different worlds,” said Mo, a member of NYC Gaymers who helped run a secluded gaming area for fans at the con to test their wits with board games and consoles.
Other guests at the convention reflected a similar opinion.
“Over the years there’s definitely been a convergence of a very large queer presence in fandom,” said Emily Mitchell, one of the guests to the convention. “You are starting to see that in regular comic cons, but this is definitely the first time I’ve seen something devoted solely to that, and it was just such an amazing thing to see.”
There was no shortage of guests either. The convention opened with an act by Cecil Baldwin, narrator of the fictional podcast “Welcome To Night Vale.” Also present was Daniel Ketchum, an editor of the X-Men comics, and best selling author David Levithan, who joined many others in leading panels that delved into the ins – but mostly the outs – of LGBT fandom.
Underground Comic Artists
One of the most unique traits of Flame Con in comparison to more wide-scale comic conventions was its heavy inclusion of LGBT activists. A large number of panelists included artists who have existed long before Flame Con would have been conceivable, giving them a chance to share their journeys with an audience who might not have otherwise found them.
Steve MacIsaac, well known for his work on the gay graphic novel, “Sticky,” was one of over 150 artists exhibiting his work in the convention. He recalled how society once viewed his work much differently.
“I’ve been doing gay comics for about fifteen years,” MacIsaac mused. “When I first started doing it, people had more of a flinch, people would see the work and have a noticeable reaction… some people would react with ‘oh cool,’ but then some people would laugh with nervous laughter. Over the years, the nervous laughter and the flinch has reduced, and the ‘oh cool’ has come out more.”
Although many guests who wandered into the convention were initially drawn in by their love of LGBT fan artwork pertaining to their favorite movies, comics, and television shows, many soon found themselves fascinated by graphic novels and artwork that depicted queer lives as unique as their own.
In some sense, Flame Con was melded into a powerful gateway from mainstream comic fandom into the underground LGBT activist community.
“We couldn’t have filled this space with queer comics when I started,” MacIsaac said, motioning at the vast but crowded exhibition space. “One of the reasons I started doing this is because it really wasn’t out there.”
Every Color Of The Rainbow
While Flame Con has found unquestionable success, it’s still a young convention, meaning it’s still a long way from being as tightly-controlled as your modern mainstream pride fest.
The difference was evident in both the guests and selection of artists and panels. A staggering number of guests identified as something far less represented than the gay and lesbian communities. Bisexual and asexual flags were a common sight on vendor stands, and non-binary genders were not an altogether uncommon theme among some exhibitors’ works.
The convention’s inclusiveness was largely thanks to the organization of Geeks OUT, who worked hard to build a safe and welcoming environment for everyone, including those who were disabled or needed accommodation.
At the back of the exhibition hall was a quiet room to allow anxious guests to ease their minds, while at the entrance of the exhibition area, free stickers were provided to allow other guests to easily see their preferred pronouns – a practice that encourages a more welcoming environment for those who don’t fall into typical ideals of male or female.
“The fact that the registration booth had the gender pronoun stickers, the fact that the hotel made all the bathrooms gender neutral…” Mitchell recounted, as someone with many gender nonconforming friends, “I had never seen it to that extent at any con before.”
Even the panels were carefully balanced to represent the most marginalized parts of the community, including many guests who were transgender as well as people of color.
As the convention continues to grow, there’s a chance that larger sponsors will step in and push for a more sterile image of the LGBT community, but anyone who remembers the joy of the earlier Flame Con’s freedom of expression and diverse crowd will hopefully be there to fight that change.
Is It Worth The Jump?
While many people in Florida have roots up North, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy to make the long journey when the next Flame Con inevitably rolls around.
However, for those who remember the early days of the loud and proud underground, this is your chance to see what the next generation has made of it while still quenching your comic convention thirst. For a convention only on its second year, Flame Con has already begun to gain a strong reputation that could potentially light the way for similar events elsewhere in the United States.
And when it’s all said and done, you’re bound to leave with the perfect new gay comic print to hang above your fireplace.