Humans live a story of gravity every time they walk down a flight of stairs, professor of psychology Dr. Scott Jordan says. They just don’t know it until they fall.
Jordan believes life is a story and that each individual is their own main character. A self-proclaimed comics and pop culture “geek,” he sees similarities with real experiences and what is deemed make believe.
“We act as if somehow they’re fiction and that they are somehow different from lived life,” Jordan said. “But the thing is, they’re the medium by which we examine lived life.”
In late 2019, he hatched an idea to blend those two worlds to offer students an alternative way to talk about, study, and reflect on current social issues. Jordan and a small team of like-minded individuals at Illinois State University created a way for students, faculty, and staff to discuss race, gender, and ethnicity in comics, graphic novels, movies, and other media.
ReggieCon, a play off the world-renowned Comic-Con convention, debuted for the first time during the 2020-2021 school year. It included six virtual events where panelists came to discuss pieces of pop culture through a social justice lens. For example, in March, panelists used Wonder Woman to discuss gender equity. In April, they analyzed the diversity in the X-Men series.
While the wheels were in motion prior to March 2020, the six events themselves took place during the height of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, stoking racial tensions across the country.
Dr. Amelia Noël-Elkins, interim assistant vice president for student success, noted how some students weren’t ready to have those types of conversations in formal academic or emotionally and intellectually taxing settings.
ReggieCon offered a different environment for students to process and talk about what was going on in the world around them.
“It allows you to have serious conversations in a format with a vehicle that is accessible and enjoyable,” Noël-Elkins said. “Then they are maybe going to be more willing to have more serious conversations about some of the topics that they were just briefly exposed to in the ReggieCon.”
The number of student participants grew in each of the six sessions.
Trinity Bair, a sophomore Spanish education major with an East Asian studies minor, attended four ReggieCons and was quickly drawn to its easy-going tone and community feel.
During February’s Black Panther discussion, she was fascinated by the panelists discussing Erik Killmonger’s character. Killmonger, the story’s antagonist portrayed by Michael B. Jordan in the 2018 Marvel film, is Wakandan but grew up in the United States.
“There’s that separation of culture there,” said Bair, who identifies as half Latina and half white.
So, during the Q&A, she asked the group how to deal with trials of identity when each group of people faces conforming stereotypes.
One of the panelists that evening, Dr. Vanessa Hintz, is also of mixed race. Hintz encouraged Bair to take her own pace in embracing all of her identities, which resonated so much that Bair could sense herself getting emotional.
“I think it’s just really important to see yourself reflected in media and reflected accurately,” Bair said. “It makes it feel less like it’s us versus them sort of thing and realize that we’re all people and who I am is not just singular to me.”
Comics, Jordan said, have always been about the person or character who doesn’t feel like they truly belong. That’s why he feels so strongly that they can be studied under an equity, diversity, and inclusion light.
It was easy for others to get on board with the idea, as one of the University’s missions is to find ways to provide services to connect with students.
“We’re always trying to find individualized attention, and we pride ourselves in that kind of thing,” said Dr. Jana Albrecht, associate vice president for enrollment management, adding that there have been good examples of ReggieCon providing that for students.
After conceiving a vision for ReggieCon, Jordan connected with Albrecht to get the ball rolling. COVID-19 scrambled the plans last spring, and talks picked back up in the summer, when Noël-Elkins became fully on board.
Once the core group determined it wasn’t feasible to plan for a live event, they forged ahead with the virtual format. Dr. Eric Wesselman, associate professor of psychology, served as a panelist for the series with Jordan. Victor Dandridge, founder of Vantage InHouse Productions, and Dr. Theresa Rojas, professor of English at Modesto Junior College and director of the Latinx Comic Arts Festival, were the other regular ReggieCon panelists.
Having the structure over Zoom turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It allowed students to have confidence and engage at their own pace. Even once the pandemic finally loosens its grip for good, ReggieCon administrators still anticipate having a virtual component. They like how accessible it is for students.
“This becomes a way for people to come together once a month,” Jordan said. “And the hope is if we are able to do something live, it’s a celebration of what we’ve done virtually.”
Plus, the virtual world made a fun moment of surprise possible.
Jordan tapped into his roots in the Comic-Con world in search of guest panelists. Those included authors, prominent psychologists, faculty from other universities, and actors.
The very first ReggieCon in September 2020 recognized Hispanic Heritage Month. The main presentation centered around Daytripper, a graphic novel written by twin brothers Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon showcasing Brazilian language, literature, and culture.
Moon had said he would be unable to come, understandable but disappointing news. Then, midway through the panel, a black Zoom screen bearing Moon’s name appeared.
“We were in the middle of a show, and I thought ‘Who is this guy with Fabio Moon as his name?’” Jordan said.
It turned out Moon, who has almost 60,000 Instagram followers, had time after all, which was a welcome surprise.
“Of course, I’m a fanboy, but it was just the best,” Jordan said.
The visionaries behind ReggieCon hope student numbers continue to grow—though they can’t always guarantee last-minute celebrity appearances. They have started partnerships with different departments and groups across campus. That includes faculty in Family and Consumer Sciences to develop apparel and accessories, the Wonsook Kim School of Art for a design contest, and also the School of Music for a competition.
ReggieCon drew students, such as Bair, from the Honors Program in year one. Those students are leading a charge to spread the word for other students and groups—such as the Black Student Union and ISU Pride—to come to the panels.
“Taking popular pieces of media and talking about them more in depth gives you a stronger connection to the important topics,” Bair said in a sales pitch to fellow students. “It also gives you a sense of community seeing other people asking questions and bringing up different points of view.”
Bair found the discussions and panels to be highly valuable. As ReggieCon grows, she hopes more of her fellow students can find this avenue to explore topics of social justice. That was exactly the vision of ReggieCon in the first place: for students to use what they learned from the panels to go out and be civically engaged citizens.
“What we’re all about at the University is serving students,” Noël-Elkins said. “If we can do something like this and contribute a little tiny bit to the greater good, then that’s what we want to do.”
Life is a story, after all, and the best ones are when the characters all pull together.