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Representation Means Different Things to Different People

Allen Thomas

Staff Writer

Allen Thomas is a budding professional who loves being a nerd and is moving from clinical to academic work. You can find more of his work over at Comicosity. Follow him on Twitter: @80Grey.

We here at Panels are taking some much needed time off; in the meantime, we’re revisiting some favorite old posts from the last 6 months! We’ll see you back on July 11 with all new posts for your enjoyment.

This post originally ran on May 4, 2016.

I’m a firm believer that anything we love can help us cope. We all recognize the popularity and ubiquity of comic book superheroes, so why not see them as potential tools for healing? Comics reveal a lot about how we cope and see the world around us, and many characters are excellent symbols of ourselves and the problems we face on a day to day basis. Often derided as the child’s medium, comics instead have an amazing capacity to elicit hope and mirror the ability to create our own methods of curing what ails us.

Part of this healing capacity comes from seeing ourselves directly in characters, which is why it’s important for comics to reflect who we are as people in all the ways that we present. Unfortunately, as it stands, many comics, especially in mainstream companies, require us to bond with characters who don’t look like us. While there is value in seeing ourselves in someone regardless of what they look like and how they feel, we should not be so pressed to find emotionally relevant stories in people who don’t share our experiences. Thus, when we are able to see ourselves fully and holistically, there’s an immense potential for us to be able to more readily draw lessons and a cathartic experience from what we read. The flipside to this reality is that sometimes we find worth in narratives even if they are not direct parallels of our own.

The human brain and mind has a miraculous capacity to connect dots we did not know shared a common thread. This reason is why finding ourselves in different narratives has significance. So, while comics need to expand representation, there is also the potential for us to find healing through characters who seem disparate to our own existence.

My own ideals regarding representation and healing in comics do not mean that things need to stay the same. Rather, I believe there need to be significant changes to how comics portray people, especially those within marginalized identities. Yet, I also think that the characters we do have often surprise us in providing an emotional foundation from which to draw lessons about our lives and how to cope with setbacks, changes, and challenges. Sometimes, the meaning in a character’s story is blatant and apparent, leaving no lines to read between. Other times, we must apply a story to our own understanding to fully see what it means for us. One of the most humbling experiences I’ve had in using comics with my job is that the meaning or symbolism I apply is not always what my clients see. In fact, their own interpretation tends to be the most important, as it is what they are able to use to further their own goals in remedying their discontent.

In therapy, I’ve seen this passion and love for characters manifest in a few ways. First, some people find value just in reading about people in comics and escaping from the sometimes disappointing to distressful reality of life. Second, some people derive lessons rather organically, finding some semblance of meaning just by reading a few panels. Third, people may need discourse to find for themselves what comics mean in terms of healing, uncovering the curative aspects of a comic narrative through discussion and fellowship. None of these means is greater than any other, but they reveal a visceral potential for comics to form any number of meanings, that this medium, like any other, is not ground by an absolute understanding of stories and their realistic parallels.

I may be preaching to the choir, but comics have so much more power than I feel people give them credit. We don’t all derive the same value from these stories, and there is glory in the realization that we don’t have to. What makes one story helpful or curative to someone does not have to fit everyone generally. I look forward to understanding how comics can help people overcome their depression and anxiety, and remain curious as to what people see in narratives that I don’t. Never discount the power of panels and words in helping us see beyond the often shitty barriers we see before us. Sometimes, comics provide us the chance to explore worlds outside of ourselves that not only keep us safe, but that help us find a home in a world that sadly may not want to shelter us.