We Talked to the Woman Behind the Encyclopedia for POC in Comic Books
We had a convo with Eisner Award winner Sheena Howard about the industry from the POV of a POC.
Sheena Howard | Photo by Shibu Daniel
Somewhere toward the end of the eight or so decades of comic stories and strips, Marvel "just" found its first black female writer, in 2017.
"That is really, really crazy," Sheena Howard tells me during our chat. We're both surprised by this; but likely me way more than her. It's sort of her job to know this. She's an American Academic in the comic world and earned the first Eisner Award as a black woman for her book, Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation.
I came into our conversation knowing very little about black involvement within the space of comic books, which shames me because I've always been a fan of the pages that came out of X-Men, Superman, and Batman, but also, I'm a proud student of black history.
With New York Comic Con just passing, and the new Black Panther movie dropping in 2018, I thought I should speak to someone that might know a thing or two about blackness in comics; more specifically as it related to women of color. Sheena, having recently written a whole damn Encyclopedia on the matter, definitely helped.
VICE: You're very decorated just from an educational standpoint, but when you tell people that you won an award for studying comic books, what sort of reactions do you typically get?
Sheena Howard: Like 'waaah,' like 'huh?!' For the kids that I work with, it's pretty inspiring because I studied this for my dissertation. I think young people don't realize that you can write a whole dissertation on something that's fun and interesting like comic books. So in that way, it's inspiring to them. When I was going through the process of writing about this academically, I think back then, in 2007, a lot of my professors were asking me why any of it was relevant. But, being a comic scholar has evolved in many ways, I see some new journals out around graphic novels and the industry. So, over the last decade, since I've begun writing about comics academically, it's become more stable of an academia.
With a lot of those previous thoughts, it comes down to that association with comic books being a children's thing.
Yeah, you're right about that. That was one of the things that I honestly struggled with when I first started studying comics. But I realized that there's a whole world of political and socially conscious comic books which speak to where I'm coming from. A lot of people get mad at me because I don't know the latest new superhero, so I try to explain to people, I'm more into the history; how did it start? How were comics a part of the civil rights movement and part of this transition from print media to the internet? So I'm more interested in those indie reads, and those socially conscious and historical works.
I read your new book Encyclopedia of Black Comics, and there's a ton of dense, but useful information. You obviously did a lot of research. Just as a sheer fan of comics, and a black women, what sort of things most surprised you since finishing the project?
I don't know why this surprised me, but just the kind of activist work that people within the comic book industry have had to do in order to get some level of recognition for their work. But it also surprised me how many people were writing about comics from a social justice standpoint in the 50s and 60s. I came across names like Wilbert Holloway and Brumsic Brandon, Jr., all these people that we don't hear about when we talk about comics, but were actually writing things that challenge the status quo in print media.
The fandom also surprised me. I didn't know much about that world, so people really get pissed off at me if I don't know Page ten of some random superhero comic book. And I'm like, wow, these people take this stuff really seriously. It's honestly intimidating, and helps me to understand why people who want to get into comics are scared to go into comic stores because of those dynamics. It's why I feel that my story is important too, because I want to people to be inspired. I might not be the typical comic book reader, but I continually explore this vast world of comic books that may be more relevant to their experiences.
So in a radio interview, you said The Boondocks isn't a good show in comparison to the comic books. I know that the strip was the reason why you began your dissertation in the first place. I'm a huge fan of both, so you've got to explain this one to me.
Most definitely. The comic was political, and a version came out every week that talked about things that were happening in the government. They had comics about anthrax, and strips about the school system, and George Bush. Reading The Boondocks actually made me do research on black history because you can't understand a lot of the jokes in the comic strip if you don't know your history. If you don't know who Edgar Hoover is, you don't know why the Boondocks strip features the school called Edgar Hoover Elementary; you wouldn't know why that's funny. The main character's name alone—Huey Freeman—if you don't know the backstory of Huey P. Newton, you don't understand why that's important. That's why I still to this day look for the strips that are witty like that and connect black history in politics. You didn't get much of that in the show, and it seemed mostly sexist and homophobic in some of its messages.
Going back to blackness in comics. One of the things that surprised me was how much shit I just don't know, and how few resources there are out there in educating me.
A lot of those things surprised me too. I mean, I knew that there were black women in the comic industry that weren't getting any chances to write monthly comic book strips with publishers, and you can tell in my Encyclopedia that I made a concerted effort to include women, even if they just self published things, and that was important to me. Some people were even mad about that because for every spot that's taken up in the book, that's one spot where people didn't get into this first volume. You'll hear people say, "oh there aren't many black women writers that can write monthly series for publishers." What I'm trying to say is that simply isn't true, and here there they are. A lot of them have their own social media followings, and have self published comic book content and are doing really well but just need a chance to get into a more consistent monthly series with a publisher.
And I also thought it was really crazy that there hasn't been a black female writer for Marvel until 2017. [laughs] That is really, really crazy.
But we know that there's a decided failure in most comic books in their ability to represent complex, powerful black women. The answer may be obvious to some, but why do you think it's such an issue from your vantage point?
I think there are a few things going on. It's hard as hell to break into the industry. Forget race, it's a male-dominated world. When you're in the comic industry as a woman, even when you're doing your own thing, the cultural barriers can be very discouraging if you're a woman of color in the industry because of course, you're going to start publishing on your own, and then you try to build up and make connections. But it's a male-dominated world so there's sexism there and that is very difficult. I think too, you've got to stay consistent over a number of years if you really want to break into the comic book industry and do it full-time. Honestly, as an artist, I don't think people even have the income to even keep pushing over long periods of time to get to a place where they can do this work full-time and actually sustain themselves.
Even the comic strips where black cartoonists started. It began with the newspapers writing scripts here and there. Even when you think about the comic strips with names like Barbara Brandon-Croft and Jackie Ormes; there are only a few people that were awarded. There's only one black female that was nationally syndicated as far as comic strips are concerned, and that's Barbara Brandon-Croft. It's hard to break in, and we honestly need men to pull us up because they're already in those positions that we're trying to get to.
Do you also think there just isn't enough of a level of interest in the issue regarding representation of POC in comic books? There's a sense that there isn't an urgency, we're not exactly getting #comicssomale or white hashtags.
That's true. I think comics are a niche market. The characters are mainstream because of the blockbuster hit movies of course, but as far as the industry, writing comics and comic books in general are still niche. I still think it's a hard market to sustain. You see comic book stores closing all the time. And of course, if it's niche, black women are automatically going to be a smaller segment of the population in doing the work to write comics and draw them and things of that nature. But they do exist, they just need to be given the chance.
But we're here talking to an audience that knew as little about who's doing what right now as myself. So tell me what you're reading or into right now.
Of course, I like Jerry Craft's work with Mama's Boyz and some of the other content that he has. I love John Ira Jennings work, he does graphic novels including a new one out called Kindred. Those are just some of the sorts of things I'm interested in. I also loved (H)afrocentric by Juliana "Jewels" Smith, and many of the older books with Jimmie Robinson, who I'm pretty sure had the first black lesbian character in a comic book; also Cyberzone and Amanda & Gun. I also just bought a book called Genius Cartel, and the only reason why I bought it was that the cover had a black girl with locks. Haven't even read it yet.
I've got to say, comic books used to be that thing kids like me turned to for escape, but also I learned life lessons through them along the way. Now, with the possibility of there being a conversation about diversity, it would be a shame if it remains an avenue for mostly grown men and women. Do you see it as a good or bad thing that they've mostly attracted an older audience?
So two things: You're absolutely right in your observation. And that's why writing Superb is so important because we have two teenagers who are lead characters, but they actually talk like teenagers and act like teenagers. Often, we see these comic books with young characters but they act and talk like adults. It makes no sense. So I'm trying to play my part, and Lion Forge is trying to play its part. If you get the kids when they're younger, then you have life-long comic book fans.
Just as a statement, how much more important is it for alternative forms of representation in comic books given the current climate via Trump and company?
As far as comics and politics and what's happening today, I think that comics have a space and a little bit more freedom and liberty to comment on political issues in a way that television and other print outlets can't do. I think about Alison Bechdel that created these standard tests to see how female diversity in film looks, and that came from Allison's Dykes to Watch Out For. Even the film industry uses that standard and that test. So I think the opportunity is there as long as we continue to push the boundaries and really be fearless in the content that we're creating.
As a solution to a lot of this, there's been a tradition of comic book creators given the leeway to reimagine established characters as POC. Iron man as a black girl, a new Spider Man as Miles Morales, and it's gotten pushback. What do you think about that strategy?
I think my answer is going to be a little more nuanced. I can see why people would be upset about that, but I can also see the need to do that. You need to do that obviously because, historically, comics have been predominantly white male superheroes. They've gotten the mainstream recognition. So you can't change that history. You can't change that legacy. The history is white. So what do you do going forward? Well of course, the easiest way to do that is to make Captain America black, or make a black Spiderman. But on the other side of that, people kind of have a political ownership over these characters. And they get attached to them, even though we both know they're fictional. They can be whatever the hell color an artist wants them to be.
That's why it's so important for us to create new characters that can also be mainstream. So if you're into comics and you want to see that, you gotta go beyond the surface level for that diversity unfortunately, because it absolutely is there.
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