Storm, Black Panther, Spawn--most folks who are at least vaguely familiar with comics can identify these three Black characters. But how many Black comic writers can you name? How about Jackie Ormes, who is considered to be this country’s first African-American woman cartoonist, or Billy Graham, who is best-known for his work at Marvel Comics. Today, there is a growing number of Black comic writers around the country that are challenging norms and offering their spin on serious topics, such as the country's socio-economic structure, religion and even sex. Recently, the second annual Black Comic Book Festival occurred in Harlem, New York. There, comic book lovers and creators gathered to celebrate their favorite stories and discuss the state of the industry.
Take the series (H)afrocentric, for example, which focuses on brother and sister duo, Naima and Miles Pepper. Naima is a self-described black radical feminist, desperate to follow in the footsteps of Angela Davis and very vocal about issues like gentrification and racism. Her brother, Miles, is an apolitical drummer who often bumps heads with his sisters ideas. Writer Juliana Smith was inspired to create the story after trying to find a way to teach her students in Oakland about the United States’ complex prison industrial complex. Smith was amazed by how receptive her students were to a comic book she gave them at the time, called Real Costs of Prisons Comix and was inspired to create (H)afrocentric as a result.
With the help of the series illustrator, Ron Nelson, Smith began a series that has done so well that its third volume was recently released. Of the characters, Smith said, “Originally, I created the characters as political archetypes. There are remnants of Black Nationalism, radical Black feminism, Chicano Nationalism, all the way to apolitical traits in each character. However, I wanted to do more in terms of developing the characters around politics. I did not want to simply reflect or interpret political/subject matter, but change it. That’s why I allow so much space for each character to dream about their vision of freedom, even if it is both ridiculous and funny.” In the world of (H)afrocentic, a neighborhood that is reminiscent of Ancient Egypt exists with pyramids instead of houses. The southwest United States becomes "Atzlan" and the land is given back to indigenous peoples. Political prisoners like Hugo Pinell and Mumia Abu Jamal are released from prison.
For comic writer Jennifer Cruté, creating worlds that reflect her own experiences is similarly important. After working as a freelance commercial illustrator, Cruté was frustrated by the representation of Black women in the work she was assigned. “Some projects I worked on were not as enlightened as I had hoped. For example, an illustration for a product geared towards Black women where the art director wanted me to make the women look more European. Unfortunately, this was the norm and my self-esteem was taking a beating. I would write about these incidents and my feelings in a journal with little Sergio Aragones-like cartoons scribbled in the margins,” she said. Her friends encouraged her to make a book, but it was a dream that involved Shirley Chisholm that really made her take the leap of faith. “I told Shirley Chisholm that I was too tired to add anymore work to my plate and that it was just a stupid comic anyway. She then grabbed me and shook me while screaming, ‘It’s not just a stupid comic!! You need to work on this when you wake up!’ Who in their right mind would disobey Shirley Chisholm? Especially, when she knows you’re asleep. So, I woke up and got to it.”
Her series, called Jennifer’s Journal: The Life of a SubUrban Girl, explores her own experiences growing up in the suburbs and cities. “Jennifer’s Journal is a compiling of my journal entries. After writing about my career issues I realized why I was frustrated. I’d hadn’t seen or read my particular story. Tons of stereotypes to go around, though! But, nothing reflected who I am. It was my job to write my own story a real story. I felt what happens when you constantly leave it up to someone else,” said Cruté. The series, which comes complete with a 'not suitable for children' warning on the front, is not only a reflection of Cruté’s personality, but her desire to widen her reader’s scope of thinking. “I would say that I am more courageous than unafraid when it comes to investigation of eroticism and institutional religion. I find that it is scary to tackle the ideas around God & sex. My introduction to both has been heavy on the feelings of fear. Knowing, as a woman, I can be faced with danger if I disagree with status quo. This is why I tell the truth in my writing and illustrations. I refuse to be forced to live in fear. I feel the skill of dark humor is something that is innate for most artists that have had to deal with oppression. This skill helps me to draw a funny image with a message that may disturb, but will hopefully educate.”
Drawing on personal experiences is a common theme in many Black comic writers’ stories. In Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline, creators Dawud Anyabwile (formerly known as David Sims) and his brother Guy Sims created the series based on their experiences growing up in the Northeast, primarily Philadelphia, PA. Anyabwile initially began the series with his brother Jason as a way to promote a custom airbrush business they owned. Said Anyabwile, “Brotherman was the metaphorical expression of consciousness vs. apathy in the fictitious all Black universe we call Big City.” The series focuses on universal themes such as loneliness, bullying, seduction, betrayal, vanity, self love and self hate. In one story, character Edison Pratt is teased about his large cranium, so he decides to seek revenge on those who have brought pain to his life over the years. The Brotherman series is widely acknowledged as the catalyst for the Black comic explosion in the 1990s, and continues to have a large fan base.
Anyabwile believes that the climate for Black comic writers is good. “There has been more awareness to this movement over the years with no sign of slowing down. Stories are evolving and styles are becoming more sophisticated. This is a good sign and encourages younger artists and writers to tell their own stories with vigor and confidence,” he said.
For any aspiring comic writers, Smith recommends studying the business of art and storytelling, developing an online presence, going to comic conventions, and never giving up when challenges arise. “These are the moments that help you refine your direction and develop your strength as a creator and business person. Not everyone will support you but you will find your fan base and focus on the positive energy that wants to help you succeed. You have to first believe in yourself and your product to the point where it trumps any fears you have of failing.,” she said.