Harlem's Black Comic Book Festival Spotlights Diversity

By Jeff Mays on January 16, 2014 1:25pm 

 "Legend of Golden Claw" is a piece by graphic and visual artist Mshindo I. Kuumba who will make an appearance at the Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
"Legend of Golden Claw" is a piece by graphic and visual artist Mshindo I. Kuumba who will make an appearance at the Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
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Mshindo I. Kuumba

HARLEM — Marvel Comics introduced a half black, half Latino Spider-Man named Miles Morales a couple of years ago, and this February will mark the debut of Kamala Khan, a Pakistani Muslim girl from Jersey City, as the new Ms. Marvel.

But even with the introduction of these characters and a handful of others, some comic book fans feel the superhero universe remains largely homogenous.

"I call it a hand-me-down hero," said artist and professor John Jennings, one of the co-founders and organizers of the Black Comic Book Festival. "They are cool characters, but still based on that white man template," he added, pointing out that the new, diverse heroes are just rebranded white characters.

The organizers of the festival, which is returning to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for the second year in a row starting Friday, hope to continue their mission of celebrating diverse black characters in comic books and educating the public about the importance of diversity — even in the mystical realm.

"What happens when you see other people as heroes and protagonists is that it broadens your thought process and breaks down stereotypes," Jennings said.

Some credit depictions of an African-American president in the television and movies with making it easier for President Barack Obama to win elections.

"Those depictions let the public imagine themselves following a leader like that. Sometimes academics don't think about how much popular culture leads the popular imagination," Jennings said.

In addition to showcasing black artists and writers, the festival's organizers hope to inspire more black people to pursue a career in comics. A more diverse pool of people creating the art will naturally lead to a wider breadth of characters and scenarios beyond the superhero, Jennings said.

Schomburg Director Khalil Gibran Muhammad called the festival the center's "own Comic Con," an annual convention dedicated to  comics and graphic arts.

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 The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is hosting its Second Annual Black Comic Book Festival. The festival hopes to continue its mission of celebrating diverse black characters in comic books and educating the public about the importance of diversity—even in the mystical realm.
Black Comic Book Festival
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"It is the largest gathering of black comic book fans in the country," said Muhammad. "There is something for everyone from the aspirational 9-year-old illustrator, to the costumed superheroes, to the lifelong collectors."

Despite the scarcity of diversity in mainstream comics, there are dozens of black artists and writers creating comic books.

Jennifer Cruté is an artist who created "Jennifer's Journals," autobiographical stories of what it was like to grow up in the suburbs of New Jersey.

"Watson and Holmes" takes the classic Sherlock Holmes story and spins it on its head by having the pair as African-Americans living and solving crimes in modern-day Harlem.

Jennings describes "The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury" as a "black, female Buck Rogers."

"(H)afrocentric" tracks the lives of a racially diverse group of friends at the fictional Ronald Regan University. In addition to biracial siblings, the main characters include a Mexican American and a half-black, half Indonesian woman who is also gay.

"Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline," created by Dawud Anyabwile and Guy A. Sims, is an independent publication that sold more than 700,000 copies without a distribution deal by visiting black arts festivals.

Graphic artist Jerry Craft, one of the co-founders of the festival along with Jennings and fellow artist Jonathan Gayles, is now moving into illustrated prose.

"Mainstream comics are set around a particular audience. A lot of time the characters don't ring true to the black experience. It's not an authentic representation because we need to see ourselves as subject and not objectified," Jennings said.

Some of those artists will be present as the festival kicks off Friday night with a discussion on the "Brotherman" comic series hosted by Gayles. The event continues on Saturday with discussions on self-publishing and black women in comics, where Cruté will be one of the speakers.

A youth workshop on creating comic books, along with a session on comic book collecting, will also be on tap, along with a selection of short films and cartoons.

Even though technology allows artists without distribution deals to show their work more widely, events like the Black Comic Book Festival are still crucial, Jennings said.

"People are hungry for this and they need to know where to find it," said Jennings. "So we have to look at special spaces like the Schomburg to promote the books and the products that we have."

The Black Comic Book Festival takes place at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Lenox Ave. at 135th Street, on Friday and Saturday. The festival is free, but registration is required. Visit the Schomburg for more information.

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