Saturday, April 13, 2019

Monthly Matinee April: Researching Your Comic Characters' Cultures

And Now, A Terrifying Sight!

Courtesy of PHD Comics


Yes dear readers, research. Want to write something in the future? The past? Another culture? That's going to take some research. The more misconceptions there are about a group or a topic, the more research you'll want to put in to get it right.
'But why do we need to do all this extra work?' I hear you grumble. 'I mean, it's just comics.'
Yes, gentle readers, it is comics. And comics are a powerful medium. Stories are all the more salient when told in images.

Sticks And Carrots Of Good Research

Let's start with the obvious: if you don't do your research, you look like an idiot. Witness DC's blunder in all its glory: 
 Superman/Wonderwoman Annual #2
No, DC. No, no, no. They do not speak Pakistinian in Pakistan. And finding that out takes a 10 minute Google search. 10 minutes' work, or 10 years' shame. Your choice.

And then there's the more insidious, sharper stick. Every time you perpetuate a falsehood, you perpetuate the ignorance and disrespect. Not cool.

Now, I may come off as a little self-important when I say these things. But here's the kind of carrot you can get when you do solid cultural research. This email was written to me concerning the steampunk comic I draw for, which revolves around a culture based on the Romani people.

It is worth it to put in the work and get details as right as you can, because when you do, you make sure somebody out there knows they're seen and valued.

But How?

So, how do we do solid research? How do we make sure we write diverse characters well? How do we ensure our history is well done?
Here's some tips.
  • Research, research, research. And I don’t just mean hitting the books! Odds are you have friends or ways to reach folks in the communities you’re writing about. Talk to them one-on-one, if they’re willing to help, and ask questions about how they experience life. What are the small things people wouldn’t expect? For example, I had to look into how anxiety manifests in different people (not just myself) to ensure that my characters with anxiety weren’t all cookie-cutter stereotypes of the disorder.

  • Vet your sources! Give preference to websites with .edu endings, which come from sites that aren't (generally) trying to sell you something. Check for references. If a site doesn't have them, don't use it. Stick to books written after the 70s unless it comes highly recommended: pre-1970s books often have out of date or erroneous information.
  • 1. Infoplease 
    From current events to reference-desk resources to features about history, this site puts a remarkable array of information within reach. Guides to the nations of the world, timelines of political, social, and cultural developments, special quantitative and qualitative features like “The World’s Most Corrupt Nations” and “Color Psychology,” and more cover just about anything you could think of.
  • 2. The Internet Public Library 
    Unlike the other reference centers on this list, the IPL is a portal to other Web sites, brimming with directories of links in topics like Arts & Humanities. (Dictionary of Symbolism? Check. Ask Philosophers? Right. Legendary Lighthouses? We got your legendary lighthouses right here.) If you need background information on either fiction or nonfiction projects, stop by for a visit — I just dare you to leave without a digressive click or ten.
  • 3. The Library of Congress 
    The online presence of the official repository of knowledge and lore of the United States is an indispensable resource not only for nonfiction writers seeking background information for topics but also for fiction authors seeking historical context for an existing project or inspiration for a new one.
  • 4. Merriam-Webster Online 
    The publishing world’s dictionary of record is at your fingertips online as well as in print, with a thesaurus and Spanish-English and medical compendia, to boot. The dictionary also includes refreshing can’t-we-all-just-get-along usage commentary. (That and which, as pronouns that introduce restrictive clauses, are interchangeable.) You’ll also find video tutorials on usage from dictionary staff, a Word of the Day feature, word games, and a variety of language-watch features.
  • 5. Refdesk, like Infoplease, is a clearinghouse for online research, with links to headline news and timeless information alike. You can easily get lost in its Daily Diversions directory, which includes links not only to humor, games, and trivia sites but also to more respectable resources like (whoo!). If you have a question, chances are you can find the answer on this site.
  • 6. Snopes 
    How do you verify that this self-described “definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation” is what it claims to be? Go to the site and find out. The fine folks at will set you straight about any one of hundreds of posts — each with a prominent judgmental icon, and commentary to back it up — about that one thing you think you remember you heard about that one thing. (For example: Posh comes from an acronym for “port out, starboard home” — the ideal respective locations for accommodations on a luxury liner — right? Cue the buzzer. Bogus.) is a similar site.
  • 7. Wikipedia 
    This user-generated online encyclopedia got a lot of flak a few years ago for some inaccurate information posted by someone with a grudge, but that was an isolated incident. Also, many sources warn against using Wikipedia as a primary source for research. That said, don’t hesitate to avail yourself of the wealth of information available on the site — much of which is written by subject-matter experts in the field in question. Then click on one of the online sources linked in the footnotes, or take your search to one of the other sites in this list.
  • When you’re talking to people, first ensure they’re willing to help! Be respectful of their time, their boundaries, and any sensitive subjects. They’re doing you a favor and being a marginalized person is incredibly difficult, especially in our current socio-political climate. So make sure that you are a positive force, not a negative one. You’re doing this to write good representation and to help their community, not to stroke your own ego.
  • Get beta readers and sensitivity readers from the community you’re writing. Again, make sure you get people who have time and desire to help, and that you’re respectful. Sometimes you think you’ll have something down pat, but a sensitivity reader will point out something that didn’t even cross your mind as problematic or misrepresenting a group of people. It can be a shock, but take their comments gracefully and make the changes you need instead of arguing or defending poor writing choices.
  • Make sure your characters are well-rounded and well-written characters. Don’t make them caricatures or build their entire personality around being part of a diverse community. Being part of a marginalized group is not a personality trait. It affects our worldview, some of our habits and actions, and the ways we interact with others, but it isn’t the entirety of who we are.
So hit the books, do the work, and produce something you and those you portray can be proud of. It's worth it.

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