Arguing for the validity of comics is already an uphill climb for artists, publishers, and fans who care about the medium. But arguing for the validity of black comics—comics featuring black characters, black creators, or black politics—is a much more nuanced discussion, with far fewer people in positions of power able to start a dialogue.
Luckily, Harlem-based educator and community activist Deirdre Hollman has formalized her effort to expose more young people to the work of black artists and storytellers. “I really wanted to pursue the racial literacy, historical literacy, and cultural dialogues that are coming out of comics—the stuff that gets me excited about comics—so I created the Black Comics Collective,” Hollman said. “The idea was really to become a mediator among the creators and the community.”
On February 11, Hollman teamed up with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to put on the first BAM Black Comix Expo. The fair came at a perfect time, lining up with the release of Marvel’s Black Panther and opening up the conversation about black comics beyond how they fit within blockbuster superhero films.
The Black Comix Expo isn’t the first large-scale black comic convention. In January, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—an institution Hollman used to work with—hosted their sixth annual Black Comic Book Festival in New York City. On the West coast, the San Francisco Public Library hosted the Black Comix Arts Festival (BCAF) in January as well.
What set the BAM Black Comix Expo apart is the institution's long history of celebrating black cultural achievements. BAM approached Hollman about organizing an event to coincide with their Fight the Power: Black Superheroes on Film series. "It’s a means of showing everyone—young and old—that there are positive images out there and that you can dream, and dream big. You can be a writer, an illustrator, a publisher, or a leader of a great nation. That’s what this exploration of science and fun is all about," said Schawannah Wright, BAM’s Director of Community Programs.
Being a black creator in the comics community myself, I was curious to see how the expo differed from other comic fairs I’ve attended. The BAM Black Comix Expo had a strong bent towards superhero narratives but was successful in showcasing a wide range of exhibitors who came to comics for many different reasons. I felt a mix of delight and shame not knowing a bulk of the artists featured at the expo, but ultimately I left the fair with a greater appreciation for a movement that’s been going on for as long as comics have been made. While at the expo I strolled between the aisles talking to exhibitors, asking them about their thoughts on the release of Black Panther, what it’s like tabling at an all-black comic convention, and why they chose to tell stories through comics.
Regine L. Sawyer, creator of The Ripper, Ice Witch, and Eating Vampires and founder of the Women in Comics Collective NYC
VICE: When did you initially get into comics, and which series left a big impression on you?
Sawyer: I’ve been reading comics since I was about five years old, from the Sunday funnies to Archie to X-Men. But X-Men really kicked it off for me in terms of superhero comics, and it made me want to create my own.
Yeah, X-Men in particular is a series that seems to have resonated with a lot of people from marginalized communities. It’s so much about the experience of being othered in society.
It was! It’s a series that had so many women—and particularly women of color—with characters like Storm or Psylocke or Jubilee. Storm just jumped out to me because she was so regal and strong and beautiful. She will forever be my favorite character because of those aspects of how she carried herself. I knew, This is for me. I have to create comics.
I created my first series, The Rippers, when I was about 17 years old. I created it because there were books that I was seeing where I really didn’t like how women were portrayed. So I created a character named Rhiannon O’Cair who’s an intergalactic bounty hunter that’s accused of a crime she doesn’t remember committing.
Do you feel like your identity, gender, or ethnicity made it difficult to break into the comics community?
As a woman of color, starting out I wasn’t really considering who I was in that sense. I just felt that I was a writer—I had written comics and prose my whole life—and I just felt like I had something to give. So when I came into the community, and it became a "thing” that I was a woman and that I was black—it’s not that I wasn’t prepared for it, but I just felt like, "Oh man, are you serious?" I just really wanted people to read my books and not worry about what I looked like. When I realized that that was an issue a few years later, that’s when I founded Women in Comics and said, “OK, well if you’re going to look at me, you’re going to listen to me, too.” I had a lot to say about who I am and what is important to me. It’s so important that us as women of color have a say about how we’re portrayed in the media. So, now you can’t shut me up.
Do you feel excited about being in a fair that’s celebrating black creators?
I feel very fortunate to be a part of this movement. I’ve been going to shows and doing this for about 12 years, so I’m just very happy to see so many people that are here at this particular show who are out supporting not only us, but getting excited for Black Panther. To see this turn out is really really amazing, and again, I’m so happy to be a part of the movement.
Greg Anderson-Elysee, author of Is’nana the Were-Spider
VICE: Can you tell me a little bit about the book you’re selling at the expo today?
Anderson-Elysee: It’s based off of the stories of Anansi the Spider from West-African and Caribbean folk tales. My character is his son, so it’s a father and son story of them working together to stop these creatures of horror from different universes from causing chaos in the world while trying not to drive each other crazy at the same time. I’m using this as a way to introduce more black mythological gods and deities. In school we’re only required to learn about the Greek gods or the Norse gods—we’re not required to learn any of the black gods.
Do you feel like there’s any sort of significance around the release of the Black Panther film?
I’m a huge Black Panther fan. I’ve been a fan since Christopher Priest was writing it. Seeing Black Panther coming out now is so awesome—especially because I feel like now, more black people are trying to feel connected to their roots. Whether it’s finding different stories, or finding what country they came from in Africa, more and more people are starting to “get woke.”
I feel like Black Panther coming out now is perfect. There are some people who are upset about the popularity of this Black Panther movie, talking about, “Oh it’s not the first black superhero. Why is everyone stressing about it?” In mainstream comics, he is the first black superhero, but he’s not the first to get his own movie. But this is the first black film of this scale. For it you have a black director, black designers behind the scenes, and it’s a 90 to 95 percent black cast. There hasn’t been a superhero film of this scale whatsoever. Right now, the celebration is a big thing, and I just hope that more people start looking for more black characters outside of the norm, just to showcase that there are a lot of black creators who have been doing this for a long time. We need as much support as there are people who are excited for Black Panther.
Ronald Wimberly, cartoonist and author of Prince of Cats and Black History in Its Own Words
VICE: When did you first get into making comics?
Wimberly: When I started out I went to school for advertising. But then I realized that it was evil, so I decided I needed some other way to make money. I liked to tell stories, so I got into comics around 1999 or 2000. I think I was maybe published for the first time in 2002 or 2003.
What has your experience been like working in the mainstream comics world? Have you seen a change in the reception towards black comics?
I think in many ways I’ve had an exceptional career and I’m very lucky. Part of it is because of talent, but a lot of it is just because of luck. There should be more space for creators out there. One of the things that’s great about comics is that you don’t have to really wait for anyone to give you a platform. You can Xerox your comics, you can put them on Instagram or Tumblr—monetizing it is something else, but there are a lot of professional cartoonists who haven’t monetized their work yet.
As far as black comics—I don’t know what a black comic is. I’m questioning, “Is it a comic that sort of leverages the spectacle of black identity? Or is it a comic made by politically black creators, regardless of who they are?” I don’t know, man.
As an artist coming from a niche or marginalized group, it’s sort of difficult to determine which opportunities come because of a sincere love of your work and which are because of what you represent.
Yeah! You become a commodity. That’s how a lot of this stuff works, right? Sometimes I feel like my identity has more of an exchange-value than a use-value. You know what I mean? It can be hard to capitalize on it myself. I think when it gets to that point, you have the identity of blackness traded beyond the actual benefit of people who are maybe radicalized as black, right? It’s a real thing, and sometimes it feels like chopping off a piece of yourself.
With all of that in mind, do you feel like there’s value in being included in an expo specifically for black creators?
I was telling a homie earlier today, I said to her, “You know what, maybe the aspect of community here is more important than even the work.” If the books and bringing this stuff together leads to this sort of interaction with other people, then that’s what is most important. That’s my take on it. I like to make the comics, but I don’t care enough about selling comics to come out here. You can just put them in a bookstore for that. It’s more about having this dialogue and hanging out with people.
Hank Kwon, owner of Bulletproof Comics in Brooklyn, and Chiaka Naze
VICE: How did you get into comics and when did you open up the store?
Kwon: We opened up the store in 1992, but I was a big collector for about 20 years before that. I was an avid collector, and my collection got so big that I had to open up a store.
How have you seen the community and neighborhood around your store change while it’s been open? Do you feel like a lot of what you stock in the store is reflective of the community where you are?
Oh yeah, definitely! When I first opened up, the street I was on was a little bit dangerous and it was a little bit out of the way. But now it’s been gentrified, and now it’s much safer and a different crowd is coming in. It’s definitely reflected in the stuff I carry. We promote mostly black comics in the store. We have a signing every month, and we definitely cater to our customers.
What did you decide to feature and bring out for your table here? Are there any black comics that are particularly popular with your customers?
All black comics are really popular. It doesn’t matter what publisher, if there’s a black character and it’s well done, it’s very popular. People gravitate towards quality, and if it’s a reflection of them they’ll pick it up. Today, we’re featuring our own version of Black Panther #1. This is our store exclusive that was made specifically for us. You can only buy that book from us, and you can’t buy it anywhere else.
AK Lovelace, co-creator of City of Walls
VICE: How did you initially get into comics?
Lovelace: I got into comics when I was very young. My grandmother bought me a Spiderman comic in a train station in Brooklyn, and I read the hell out of that comic book. Then I drew the hell out of that comic book, until the pages fell off, and I don’t know what happened to the comic book. I’ve always loved the medium. It’s the best of literature and illustration in a single medium, so I just love it.
Do you feel any significance around being included in an expo celebrating black creators?
The black aspect of the situation is definitely a thing, because being black is a thing. There are a lot of systemic problems that have not been addressed that we’re trying to deal with, so it’s definitely something that I’m mindful of. All of my creative projects involve main characters of color. There aren’t only main characters of color, but it’s important to me that it be as normal to see a main character that’s black as it is to see a main character that’s white. We have a long way to go, but early on in my career I realized how bizarre it was that I take for granted that the main character is usually white when I read a comic book. All of the main heroes are white, and it didn’t even register to me that I didn’t see characters that look like me. Once I became aware of that, it became really important to me to switch that up. It can’t be that way.
It’s the same thing for women. There’s not enough great female characters out there. One of the main characters in City of Walls is a black girl. I don’t point my finger at it throughout the series, but it’s something that’s there. I think that that’s part of the process of making a more inclusive creative environment.
Are you excited at all about the new Black Panther film coming out? Does it feel like a milestone in culture for you as a black creator?
It’s a process, man. This situation is not going to change over night. It didn’t take a day for it to get this way, and it’s not going to take a day for it to not be this way. I have a lot of respect for what Marvel did with the Black Panther movie. They made a movie where the superhero is black—and not only that, but an overwhelming majority of the cast is black. They’re doing it in a way where they’re trying to market it to a majority white country, and I respect them for having the courage to do that. Hopefully it’s not the last film like it that we have. It’s going to take time and persistent effort. But I go to conventions now and I see little white kids dressed up as black characters, and that is a really eye-opening thing. If we keep it up, we can get there.
Virginia Monger and Prescella Monger, authors of Nia’s Sick Sense
VICE: Could you give me a little bit of backstory for the book you're featuring on your table today?
Virginia Monger: Nia’s Sick Sense is a book about a young girl named Nia who’s starting her first year in high school. She develops the sense of foresight that allows her to sense when a young lady is being abused. The reason why we call it “sick sense” is because she can actually feel like she’s going through it. She eventually begins to fight crime and becomes a modern day shero in her community.
How did you decide you wanted to tell this story?
We developed the idea for it about two or three years ago. We decided that, with the #MeToo movement, it’s definitely important that we educate our young—not only female—preteens and teenagers, and let them know that Nia is someone who can probably relate to what they’re going through. It’s a fun story, and it’s very Afrocentric, being that our father is Liberian. We tried to infuse that culture with urban culture since she’s from Brooklyn. I think the kids will enjoy reading her story, and will realize that we all go through our own struggles. Nia was brave enough to become a pillar in her community because of her gift.
Who were the artists you worked with to turn the story into a comic?
With Nia’s Sick Sense we have three amazing young black female artists. We did that on purpose so that we could shine a light on different women in the business. One is from New Jersey, one is from Atlanta, and the woman who did that main first book is from New York. They’re all college students, so we felt like we were giving back to the community by including them, and they helped us tell a very important story.
Do you feel excited about being in a fair that’s celebrating black creators?
I am so pro-Afrocentricity, it’s ridiculous. It’s definitely humbling to see the excitement behind the Black Panther film and the whole melanin movement. It’s just awesome. I’m so happy and thankful that all of this is happening at this moment and that we’re a part of it.
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