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Edward Ficklin

Power in numbers: musings on Flame Con

publishedabout 1 month ago
5 min read

Darling, how’s your summer been? I'm happy to say mine has been lovely due to being more active, social, and more relaxed than the last couple of years. This includes the return of Flame Con! An annual fandom gathering for queer folk of the geeky persuasion. It was vibrant, energetic, joyful, and every bit as fun as previous years. Hat tip to Geeks Out (the organizers) for keeping the flame though the dark times!

Imagine if you will, a big gay ballroom—a hotel ballroom, stuck in the 70’s, repurposed into a massive marketplace with over 200 vendors selling art, comix, crafts, books, and more. Upon entering this year, I first noticed the more spacious setup. Niiiiice! In 2019 I had to leave after an hour as it was just so claustrophobic. Hopefully, this is the new normal. As for the wares on display, like previous years, comics and zines were only a small part and I already owned or backed a significant portion. The art in general was not my cup of tea. Most of the artists seem driven by fandom where I crave novelty; it’s executed digitally and reproduced in high volume where I crave slow, unique, and the visible touch of the hands that made it.

God, darling, I sometimes feel like such a lumbering dinosaur wandering those aisles of youthful exuberance. With that out of the way, I want to draw your attention to four panels I attended throughout the weekend. To me, the heart of such gatherings.

Celebrating Howard Cruse
Panelists
: Justin Hall (moderator), Jennifer Camper, Carlo Quispe, Denis Kitchen, Karen Green
Program description: Howard Cruse (1944–2019), cartoonist, activist, and mentor, is known as the "Godfather of Queer Comics." Howard created the ground-breaking comics Barfootz, Wendel, and Stuck Rubber Baby, and was the founding editor of the seminal underground anthology Gay Comix. Besides being one of the greatest cartoonists of his generation, he encouraged other artists through teaching and mentoring, and his impact continues to reverberate through the queer comics world and beyond. This discussion will examine Howard's comics and his legacy, and share memories of Howard from those who knew him and worked with him.

My take: I knew the name, had vague ideas of him being a pioneer in the queer comix space, in carving out that space within the larger world of underground comix; but not much else. Glad I went, because I got to learn about a true queer elder and master craftsperson in the art of visual storytelling. I’m waiting on a copy of his graphic memoir Stuck Rubber Baby (thanks, NYPL!) and will be attempting to storm the bureaucratic barricades of Columbia University to peek at the recently acquired archives. Alas, there was a very small turnout (about 10 people) which made me sad.

Femme Bots and Gigolo Jones: Robot Gender Performance
Panelists:
Tina Horn, Jeremy Holt, G Romero-Johnson
Program description: Humanoid creatures created by humans are an enduring subject of mythological fascination, where they emerge from the Frankenstein and Pygmalion traditions into sci-fi icons as varied as Terminator and Westworld. In the real world, there is an urgency and moral panic about the role of robots as caregivers, war machines, sex objects (literally). In this panel, we'll explore what femme/masc/androgynous constructions in synthetic characters can tell us about gender projection and performance. We'll explore robot sexual ethics and wonder what role androids, cyborgs, and synthezoids could play in queer utopias and dystopias. Join Tina Horn and G Romero-Johnson of SfSx, Jeremy Holt of Made in Korea, and more as we dive into the uncanny valley!

My take: Glad to know I am not alone in my fascination about the erotic aspects of robotics, artificial life, and artificial intelligence. The free-wheeling discussion covered a variety of depictions across lots of media. When you start with a purposely erotic depiction (say a sexbot), it’s amazing how quickly you find yourself peering into the overlapping territories of free will, personhood, consent, and labor. Whether it’s Voltron, WestWorld, Austin Powers, or the Stepford Wives, the stories are as much about ourselves as they are our creations.

Queering Speculative: LGBTQ+ and Other Diverse Identities in Science Fiction and Fantasy
Panelists
: Michele Kirichanskaya, Shelley Romero, Ethan Aldridge, Alechia Dow
Program description: A panel on LGBTQ+ representation in fantasy/science fiction that discusses diverse representation in the field of speculative fiction.

My take: representation is important—and complicated! We simultaneously crave the super specific details of our own lives reflected back at us but also want super broad, universal, everyperson kinds of stories. A skillful craftsperson, of course, uses the specific to reach the universal. But, before we get that far, we have to look at the systemic issues galore getting in the way. My big takeaway is that we the creators have to kick things off. We must make the work that represents us—no matter what. We can’t really wait for the system to change, as the system can only change in response to something that’s real and visible and undeniable.

Telling decision makers and gatekeepers to change their ways is all well and good, but what happens when you get someone who listens? They say, “great, show me what you got!” and boy you better have something to show them! It’s cruel, and a horrible catch-22. I create for love first, I create because I can’t imagine not doing so, and I have to accept that I create without any guarantees.

Smut in the Age of Censorship
Panelists
: Tina Horn, A Grand Mark
Program description: SESTA/FOSTA struck major blows against sex workers, erotic artists, porn comic creators and even LGBTQ+ creatives whose work had nothing to do with the sex industry. Since then, payment processors, social media websites, and third party hosts continue shadow ban, block, or forcibly remove erotic creatives work, threatening our livelihoods and financial freedom. With the Earn It act in Congress and a surge in book bans across the country, this wave of conservatism is not going away anytime soon and will continue reaching beyond the realm of adult content. Join this collaborative workshop to learn more about the current landscape of censorship and brainstorm ways to thrive as erotic content creators.

My take: The room was packed! Lots of people care and are looking to take action, which is nice. The ambitions of the moderator, however, far outstripped the available time. They opened with a scattered recounting of the Comstock Act and Mann Act, seriously racist Christo-fascists legislation from the 20th century, and their modern repercussions and replacements. There was a clear line drawn between those and more the recent SESTA/FOSTA and just about all social media TOS’s.

All important information, but skipping the history and diving directly in to coalition building and organizing might have been a better use of the limited platform. A single hour at the end of a weekend fandom gathering is tough. Despite my quibbles, I’m so glad it happened. Who knows what seeds were planted. If nothing else, we got a great reminder of the importance of solidarity when it comes to freedom of expression—hell, freedom period. The legendary Angela Davis was quoted, and I quote her again for you, darling, as she said it best: “If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you in the night.”

I hope you found my lengthy ruminations interesting, darling. Not many fandom gatherings have the capacity to submerge you in such heady and radical thinking. That the gathering is by and for queer folk makes it so powerful. That’s why I want to share my experiences with you to encourage you to seek out, experience, even create, similar queer gatherings yourself. We truly have power in numbers.

Until next time, flame on! 🔥


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