From 'Black Panther' fanfare to inclusive fan convention, Baltimore celebrates superhero diversity

Even in the superhero universe, representation matters — especially to Baltimore.

The city and surrounding areas have geared up for the premiere of Marvel’s “Black Panther” this week in a major way, with organizations renting out theaters and hosting sold-out private screenings to celebrate the superhero flick that includes a predominantly black cast. And diversity and fandom will be at the forefront again in April, when Universal FanCon — billed as the first 24-hour fan convention devoted to inclusion and diversity — makes its debut in Baltimore.


“I think it’s a trend. … Advocates such as myself have been arguing [diversity] for years,” said Robert Butler, co-founder of Universal FanCon. “It’s not necessarily that we need more diversity and inclusion. We need the normalization of it.”

Butler and co-founder Jamie Broadnax, also the editor-in-chief of BlackGirlsNerds.com, are attempting to speed up the process with the convention, which will feature accessible stages and platforms with ramps, ASL interpreters, wide aisles, quiet rooms for those who might be overstimulated by the bustle of the convention, gender-neutral bathrooms, and a diverse celebrity lineup. The focus is on making people of all races, genders, sexual orientation and abilities feel comfortable.


“This is the first con of its kind that's celebrating diversity in a very large-scale kind of way. We’re purposely making sure everybody feels like everybody has a space at this convention,” said Broadnax, who along with Butler shared experiences of feeling “othered” or ostracized at other conventions around the country.

Brittany Harris, fundraising committee director of the Greater Baltimore Leadership Association, said “Black Panther” — and the fanfare around it — represents a similar watershed moment.

“There hasn't been a lot of models or superheroes that look like many of the children, adults even, in our community,” Harris said.

The powerful level of interest shows that a film like “Black Panther” can “affirm a sense of a community, and also affirm that representation matters,” she said. “So, when opportunities like this present itself, it’s important to bask in it.”

And that’s exactly what’s happening across the country, where early ticket sales for “Black Panther” have outpaced all other superhero movies on the online ticketing site Fandango. The Friday night screening organized by Harris’ organization, the young professional arm of the nonprofit Greater Baltimore Urban League, sold out in three days. The association had to upgrade from a 70-seat theater at AMC Security Square 8 in Woodlawn to one with 120 seats, she said.

Celebrations have gone beyond organized screenings. The Los Angeles purple carpet premiere, in which “Black Panther” actors like Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan and Angela Bassett, dressed up in African-inspired garb, inspired hashtags on social media like #BlackPantherOutfit as a way for fans to display the outfits they’ll be wearing to local showings.

Zakiya Shivers, owner of consignment shop Tightfisted Fashion, collaborated with Akos Regal, the designer of Regal Clothes, to host a “Black Panther” pop-up, offering up different Afro-futuristic styles for movie-goers.

“It was just a really fun way to celebrate the premiere of this movie and also kind of give people a really nice, stunning way to dress up in an adult way that’s not cheesy,” said Shivers, calling it an Afro-futuristic “cosplay for adults” that combines African prints with leather and a variety of textures, beads or jewels.

“The major thing is the cast is predominately black in a major motion picture. Typically, we get slave films. We get stories of black oppression,” Shivers said, but in “Black Panther,” “It’s optimistic. We’re winning. We’re thriving. We’re surviving. We have this thriving society, even if it's in the Marvel Universe.”

The most powerful of the Marvel superhero movies has come to save the day.

Black Panther — also known as T’Challa, a royal warrior who dons all black as his alter ego — was ushered in by Marvel as the first major black superhero in a comic series in 1966. Since then, Marvel has introduced more diverse characters, including Miles Morales, a black and Latino Spider-Man; America Chavez, the first Latina lesbian superhero; Kamala Khan, a Muslim Ms. Marvel; and Moon Girl, also known as Lunella Lafayette, a black preteen who has been pegged as the smartest person in the Marvel Universe.

But the superhero universe wasn’t always diverse in film or comics, according to Benn Ray, co-owner of Hampden’s Atomic Books.

“Because superhero comics kind of blew up and got large in the pre-civil rights era of the 1940s and 1950s, those comic book characters tended to reflect the culture of that time, which unfortunately, tended to be racist [and] segregationist,” he said.


But as culture diversified, so did the comic book world, encompassing characters of varying backgrounds.

“I can’t see comics successfully going back to an all-white heterosexual, Judeo-Christian male Universe, and still being relevant, successful or popular. It doesn't make any sense at all,” said Ray, who emphasized that diverse titles sell best at his shop.

Just as African-American moviegoers and comic-book lovers were tired of the lack of representation in the superhero world, Butler and Broadnax, the Universal FanCon founders, were tired of attending the standard diversity panels at conventions without actually seeing that diversity reflected at the event. So, they reasoned: What if they started a convention that focused on diversity, inclusion and fandom from the ground up?

"Black Panther" writer-director Ryan Coogler uses a blockbuster platform to explore the question: "What does it mean to be African?"

In December 2016, they launched a Kickstarter, raising a little over $56,000 with more than 1,000 backers in order to build a team and assist with operating expenses.

Butler, of Upper Marlboro, and Broadnax, of Virginia Beach, Va., decided on Baltimore, home to several fan conventions, including BaltiCon, Baltimore Comic-Con, the Regeneration Who “Doctor Who” convention, and Otakon (before its move to Washington).

“We wanted to bring something really positive. The city of Baltimore is more than what you see on the news. It’s more than just the Orioles and Ravens,” said Butler.


The convention will feature guests such as Kristian Nairn a.k.a Hodor of “Game of Thrones”; actor Mehcad Brooks of “Supergirl”; actor and comedian Orlando Jones of “American Gods”; “Star Wars” actor Billy Dee Williams; Grammy-winning artist Big Daddy Kane; and Kim Chi, a former contestant of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The event will also feature a 24-hour arcade and gaming marathons, late night anime and movie screenings, panels, concerts, #GeekFit exercise sessions in the morning, and a dance party.

The inaugural Universal FanCon, the first large-scale, 24-hour event that celebrates pop culture and the diversity of fans, will come to Baltimore in April, touting guests like Kristian Nairn, a.k.a. Hodor from “Game of Thrones."

“It's time that folks feel very comfortable in their fandom, and not have to worry about these ... barriers where folks feel ridiculous about race, gender or their sexuality. All their fandoms can be celebrated at the same time,” said Broadnax, who along with Butler and Ray hopes diversity in fandom and the superhero universe is here to stay.

Harris said with the fanfare and anticipation of films like “Black Panther,” it’ll be awhile before people let it die down.

“When the movie is over, it doesn’t end,” she said, emphasizing that there will be more discussions about empowerment and race post “Black Panther’s” premiere. “I really feel like our community is going to be talking about this for some time.”

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