The mainstream comic industry isn’t easy to break into at the best of times, but it’s even more difficult when you’re part of a minority. Last year Women Write About Comics went through a month’s worth of newly released Marvel comic books, and found that of 173 people named as creators, only 19 were women (10.98%), 32 were people of color (18.5%), and five were LGBTQ (2.89%). The shortage of diverse representation in comics books is easy enough to notice; the lack of diversity in the industry’s workforce is less visible, and so that much more insidious.
My favourite part of ELEMENTS: Fire might just be the twin forewords by Taneka Stotts and Shing Yin Khor. The two of them are founders of the extremely indie publishing company Beyond Press, the same folks responsible for the queer sci-fi/fantasy Beyond anthologies. Last year they successfully Kickstarted ELEMENTS, a new speculative fiction anthology that proudly shines the spotlight on the artistry of POC creators.
In her foreword, Shing writes:
“We are tired of striving to be exceptional when that is the bar to merely be seen. We are tired of the scraps being offered to us at the traditional publishing table, when we have already proven—hundreds of thousands of self publishing dollars over—that there is both an audience and a market for our voice and work.”
It’s a fierce sentiment, and a worthy one.
As an anthology, ELEMENTS‘ tales run the gamut from sci-fi to urban fantasy to alien pro wrestling office comedy. The only unifying theme is its loosely interpreted fire motif. (Volcano goddesses, dragons, and jet packs all make an appearance.) The transition between wildly different storylines and art styles is smoothed over by using the same colour palette for every comic: black, white and grey with a pale red spot colour. It’s a stylish aesthetic choice that gives the anthology a cohesive identity; ELEMENTS is undoubtedly a beautiful book.
The sheer quantity of comics makes it impossible to cover them all, but a standout favourite of mine was Preta, a story that exemplifies both what I loved most about ELEMENTS and what I found the most frustating.
Preta’s protagonist, Ah-Ning, works at a cybernetics factory which produces technological enhancements for the human body. Unlike her colleagues, however, Ah-Ning has never “upgraded” herself; she’s saving up for something special. But it’s difficult for Ah-Ning to keep up with her upgraded colleagues, and she might not have much say in whether her body stays entirely human if she wants to keep her job.
Like all good sci-fi, Preta uses its fantastical technology to pose a conundrum relevant to us today. Those who don’t adapt to modern technologies, even ones that seem strange or invasive to them, are frequently forced to change if they want to keep pace with society. At some point doing things the way they’ve always been done isn’t enough; you either adapt or you’re left behind.
For all its interesting worldbuilding and relevant themes, however, Preta pulls up short by ending before you see Ah-Ning make her final decision. I was only just beginning to understand her motivations when I was whisked away to the next story, still aching for a satisfying conclusion.
Most of the comics in ELEMENTS feel similarly cut short. I would call it rushed, except the anthology is anything but; it’s professional quality and clearly crafted with love. There simply isn’t enough page space for every comic to find its footing. Like Preta, many of the stories feel truncated, preludes to a greater plotline that’s never going to be revealed. Others seem to start too far in the middle of a story, leaving you to guess at the context for what’s happening. A clan leader takes a bride from a people they’ve long held a grudge against…the end. Or the quiet kid in class is revealed to have a mysterious book that makes him especially talented at flying, but what the book is, or why it’s so important to his teachers, is never explained. Not all the stories follow this pattern, but enough did for me to feel frustrated by the end.
As such, ELEMENTS: Fire is best approached as a sampling of what comic creators of colour have to offer the world, rather than a complete experience in itself. It’s an excellent collection of ideas, brought together by a worthy mission and a slick aesthetic. With twenty-three different stories, brought to life by over thirty unique creators, you’re almost certain to discover a storyteller or five you want to see more from. The sheer creativity on display in ELEMENTS is a strong argument for the richness of talent the mainstream comics industry is missing out on.
ELEMENTS: Fire can be purchased at Beyond Press’s website.