Superpowered Public Diplomacy

Updating the PD toolbox with popular arts.


At the 2018 State Department panel at San Diego Comic-Con International (from left to right), Book of Life director Jorge Gutierrez, American Film Showcase director Rachel Gandin Mark, Public Affairs Officer Preeti Shah, teacher and program implementer Alexandra Wesser, and State Department Arts Envoy alumnus and visual effects producer David Andrade discussed popular arts as a medium to engage young audiences around the world.
Jose M. Noriega / U.S. Consulate General Tijuana

”I wonder if sparkly sneakers are too out there?” I thought to myself as I prepared to moderate the second annual State Department– sponsored panel on popular arts diplomacy at the 2018 San Diego Comic Convention. SDCC is the premier comic book and popular arts convention in the world, and the biggest revenue-generating annual event in San Diego, California.

My proximity to San Diego while I was the public affairs officer in Tijuana gave me the opportunity to establish inroads for Consulate General Tijuana and State with SDCC. It was a way to add to our public diplomacy (PD) toolbox for audience engagement.

As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry about my footwear. Unless dressed like Wonder Woman or Daenerys Targaryen, one faded into the hundreds of thousands of people who were flocking to this event. My sparkly sneakers were positively humdrum. My message, however, wasn’t.

Old Script, New Actors

In PD lore, we learn how the U.S. Information Agency’s cultural envoys helped spark a desire for free expression within those behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. We learn how painters, musicians and performance artists brought in new audiences to witness firsthand the boundless spirit of creativity of America’s most talented artists.

And we learn how our own ongoing reckoning with true diversity and inclusion, as told through jazz and other mediums, gave our PD forebears entrée into segments of society previously deemed inaccessible.

In pursuit of the same goals, comics and popular arts are a much-needed update. While the playbook remains basically the same, we just need new players to connect with our screen-driven, digital media–consuming, distraction-filled world.

America’s film industry needs no promotion in the traditional “commercial officer” sense. That said, acknowledging our most popular exports as vehicles to broadly reflect U.S. values and society modernizes our PD toolbox. And yet, some of these tools have been available for decades.

Take, for example, the American Film Showcase, a juggernaut funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that has had a long partnership with the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. AFS brings American theatrical releases and the people behind them (directors, producers, etc.) to overseas audiences via embassy programming.

AFS has promoted science cooperation and STEM careers for girls via more than 120 free screenings of the blockbuster film “Hidden Figures” at U.S. posts overseas and helps filmmakers, writers and producers “create more nuanced entertainment, the kinds of content that can spark public debate around important social issues,” according to Rachel Gandin Mark, AFS program director.

Gandin Mark also confirms that AFS is only growing in popularity, with many posts requesting to screen box-office hits in tandem with related programs on space exploration, diversity and inclusivity and other hot-button topics.

Along similar lines, PD shops know what gets people in the door. In places like Georgia, Paraguay and Mexico, comics and popular arts programs have helped post meet policy goals around human trafficking, workforce development, STEM education, English learning, public health and more. They’ve accomplished this task through the multimodal, engaging and, dare I say, fun mediums of comics, superhero culture and film.

Diversity and Representation—Reflections of America

In terms of true inclusion and diversity, change is afoot, and the world has taken notice. Once again, popular arts can tell inspirational stories about gender, race, sexual orientation and other inequalities with authentic voices.

For instance, the groundbreaking graphic novel trilogy, March, by Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) gives civil society and political leaders an opening to learn about civil rights and transformational leadership in their own countries through embassy-led book clubs, speaker engagements or simply additions to the inventories of American Spaces facilities that provide opportunities for dialogue and hands-on activities overseas.

The comic arts industry, which is grappling with its own lack of diversity, has begun to make the changes needed with undeniable success. To understand the raw power of seeing ourselves in massive entertainment productions, take, for instance, the runaway popularity of the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, a Pakistani American teenager from New Jersey, and the new Spider- Man, Miles Morales, who’s half black and half Latino.

But what does that diversification of messengers mean for public diplomacy? It means new faces, new conversations, and a new lens through which we view ourselves and through which others view us—as people and as a country.

Standing Out

Superheroes battling human trafficking, created as part of a contest to engage young Mexicans on the topic, shared the spotlight at the State Department’s first-ever panel at SDCC in 2017.
Jose M. Noriega / U.S. Consulate General Tijuana

So there I was at Comic-Con International in 2018, flanked by producers, animators, visual effects specialists and artists. SDCC, and its superhero culture, crosses borders and draws throngs of attendees and local media from Baja California.

That year, it also presented a unique opportunity to leverage State’s power to benefit Mission Mexico’s goals, as well as inform attendees about how the department brings together their favorite popular arts with cultural diplomacy.

With this in mind, we snagged a coveted panel discussion slot to present Consulate General Tijuana’s comics-related programs and to highlight U.S. “citizen cultural envoys” who bring various aspects of popular arts to our audiences around the world in a coordinated effort between Consulate General Tijuana and ECA’s Collaboratory.

These envoys have taught animation to art students in Iraq while designing visual effects for Emmy-nominated programs as their “day job,” and they have shared career advice with film students in Baja California while producing a mini-series for Netflix.

When we presented in 2017, at SDCC’s first annual State Department–sponsored panel, someone in the audience asked me whether the panel description in the program was correct: Was I “seriously from the State Department”? Oh yes, and we’re just getting started.

Consulate General Tijuana, in collaboration with ECA’s Collaboratory, hosted a State Department panel at SDCC for the third year in a row in 2019, and is looking to expand cooperation with SDCC to engage more audiences globally. Representatives from ECA and the Bureau of Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs have followed up on State’s panels at SDCC by conducting the first-ever department panel at AwesomeCon, D.C.’s annual comic book convention in April last year.

Our panel about international space cooperation, youth engagement, fusion technology as a parable for multilateral diplomacy and more drew an audience of more than 100 people. We made our case for State’s use of comic book culture and popular arts as a public diplomacy tool.

Despite the doubt and disbelief, we have staked our claim as modern diplomats using modern tools to meet modern demands. And we have invited the fans, the creators, the skeptics and the taxpayers to join us.

Preeti Shah joined the Foreign Service in 2004 and has served in Mexico, Afghanistan, Turkey and Nicaragua, in addition to several tours in Washington, D.C. She is a public diplomacy–coned officer currently in Jakarta. She fell in love with comics as a child, discovering Indian mythology as portrayed through superheroes, secret powers, good guys and bad guys.