When many people think about diplomacy, they envision diplomats at a negotiating table, or State Department exchange program participants engaging with communities around the world. But did you know that American public diplomacy also has a place at the world’s premiere event for comics, movies, and science fiction? This event is commonly known as and is held annually in San Diego, California.
From humble beginnings in the 1970s, this groundbreaking event has evolved into a focal point in the world of popular arts, attracting hundreds of thousands of people every year. Simultaneously, American diplomats have increasingly showcased diverse artists, novelists, educators, and technologists as a way to highlight American culture and values around the world. U.S. diplomatic missions manage programs across continents on topics from using comics to create positive narratives of indigenous communities in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to using animation to engage refugees in Tbilisi, Georgia. This unlikely marriage between diplomacy and popular arts opens doors to new and younger audiences and stimulates conversations unlike those using more traditional diplomatic tools.
American Diplomacy at Comic Con
The first year the State Department had a presence at Comic Con was in 2017, when the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ (ECA) Collaboratory put together a diplomatic panel featuring anecdotes from comic book artists and writers, cartoon illustrators, and graphic novelists. Along with Preeti Shah and her team at the Consulate General in Tijuana, the Collaboratory also facilitated a series of workshops to raise awareness of human trafficking in the border region, culminating with a superhero design contest for young Mexican comic artists.
As Comic Con 2018 came around, the State Department showcased another year of using popular art in diplomacy programs. In a session titled “Meet the Newest Cultural Ambassadors: Comic Books, Graphic Novels, and Animation,” Preeti and organizers discussed their recent film-based anti-bullying campaign, sharing best practices on a pilot program that virtually connected young filmmakers in Chula Vista, California with their fellow creatives across the border in Tijuana. Panelists at this year’s Comic Con included State Department Arts Envoy alumni David Andrade, a filmmaker and graphic artist; Alex (Alexandra) Wesser, teacher and program implementer from the Media Arts Center in San Diego; Rachel Gandin Mark from the Department’s American Film Showcase program; and director and writer Jorge Gutierrez (Book of Life, El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, Son of Jaguar).
We’re really excited about a range of new popular arts and public diplomacy partnerships that have been established, and are helping advance global good, as a result of our engagement in this sphere. The U.S Embassy in Paraguay will run a competition to pair artists and illustrators with local community organizations to promote women’s empowerment, LGBTI rights, and anti-corruption and transparency within Paraguayan communities.
U.S. Embassy colleagues in Kazakhstan are bringing 100 young women and girls together to write, design, and publish original comic books as a pathway to empowerment, creativity, and social change. And in Botswana our colleagues are partnering with the library association in the Kanye district to develop a “Creative Camp” that uses multimedia and traditional comics to address critical challenges such as gender-based violence, HIV, and corruption.
This new frontier of public diplomacy brings together cultural ambassadors that not only include diplomats, but also comic artists, animators, and filmmakers. We invite you to watch this space for next year’s ECA Comic Con event!
About the Authors: Manuel Pereira Colocci serves in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Collaboratory Office and Preeti Shah serves as a Public Affairs Officer a t the U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana, Mexico.