The atrium of the Queens Library Schomberg Center on the corner of 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard was bursting with creativity! Illustrations, designs, writers and artists occupied tables that filled the entryways. It was the 3rd Annual Black Comic Book Festival. An event where comic book creators, their writers and various artists gathered together to showcase their wide range of products. What resonated most during the daylong event was its parallel to the rich history of Black Americans as innovators, thinkers, producers, self-motivators and entrepreneurs.
The festival had a lot to offer. There were panel discussions on publishing, image control and the future of comics. There were film screenings and workshops, but by and large what most came out for were the comics and the chance to talk with its creators. Those conversations revealed how individuals are trying to meet and overcome the challenges of lack of opportunities.
Black comic book illustrators and creators are clearly a talented bunch. Many may not realize that some of these Black artists are the ink behind the world’s most iconic comic book heroes. Heroes like Ironman which had been produced by Alitha Martinez. Alitha was recruited by Marvel comics. An internship turned into a full time position to draw in their stable of comics. She was at the festival, because she didn’t want to end her career “telling other people’s story,” she said. It was a feeling that was shared by other festival artists, some who also worked with Marvel. And boy did they have stories worth telling.
Their comic books and illustrations contained, futuristic heroes, action packed scenes, detailed costumes, serene scenes of fantasy, Black and Brown faces and replications of blood, sweat and tears that are eerily realistic. Their intricate drawings detailed the fine lines of the human form down to the strands of a cornrow braids. A common theme among the books and illustrations was their strong characters. Brown and Black skinned characters that were champions, conquerors, adventurers and defenders. They were agile, intelligent and, mainly, saviors. The stories which tied the drawings together focused on triumph. Some titles at the festival included P.B. Soldier, award winning Watson and Holmes series, the Bronx heroes and the Sistergirl series. What an amazing wealth of positive and empowering messages! Sadly, most people, especially those in communities of color, don’t know these books exists.
“The challenge is exposure and distribution,” said Nasid Gifted creator of PB Soldier.
“Most of the challenges that we have as a black small publisher…there is basically just one main distributor…they have a lasting agreement with Marvel and DC with a lion share of distribution. 80% of the distribution goes to Marvel,” said Jerome Walford author and illustrator of the award winning Nowhere Man Series.
Their low profile of these comics’ existence is not because the market is small or that demand is slight, it is primarily because of the dominance of Marvel Comics. Marvel Comics was founded over 70 years ago and today is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company. It is self-defined as “the world’s most prominent character-based entertainment company…with a library of over 8,000 characters”. Marvel Comics has a stranglehold on the distribution of comic books to its outlets that diminishes the opportunities to bring these other comics to market. The chances of having have Marvel pick up several of the titles represented at the fair, is slim to none. This is either because of a limited belief that major sales would result from these characters of color or an unwillingness by the artists to make their characters of color more mainstream.
“[People] don’t see the black artist, and when you do see the black artists at the larger places, they are not drawing stuff that reflects us,” said Mark Flowers a regular fair attendee, who brought his daughter, an aspiring artist.
This roadblock has thrust comic creators into the roles of marketers and entrepreneurs. This begs the question, in America, the land of opportunity, what do you do when there is no opportunity? This comic predicament reinforces how far from behind communities of color have to come to get their ideas to market. They face corporations formed long ago who have already made their mark, dominated the landscape and have embedded themselves into the mindset and governance of the populace. It becomes a Catch-22.
How are individuals, especially children, supposed to happen upon these works and be inspired by them and become consumers if they are not readily available? As great as they may be, comic book festivals tend to only bring out those already versed in comics, current fans or wanna be fans. How do you cultivate and grow a new set of followers if a product isn’t exposed to larger audiences. Sadly, it is not an unfamiliar conundrum.
“What we need is for more African Americans to embrace African Americans small publishers because by and large the community doesn’t embrace small publishers…I don’t know why that is. There is a locked in devotion that by and large the African American community has for Marvel and DC, that there is no basis,” said Jerome Walford.
“If we do shop it to more established publishers, it’s like they are afraid to do it, it won’t be supported, [or] bought. If it is picked up, it has to be toned down,” said N. Steven Harris co-author of the Ajala series and the award winning Watson and Holmes comic book series.
What is new, is how the internet has become a game changer in this landscape. It has opened up options for these entrepreneurs to sell their wares and cultivate an audience. Most of the comic book creators sell their books exclusively online or at shows.
“You have to be enterprising,” said Jamar Nicholas of marketing ones work. He was one of the more noted comics in attendance having authored a novel depicting Harlem Children Zone’s creator, Geoffrey Canada’s life into a graphic novel.
But, for now, the internet option is still in its infancy and is just a start.
But on this day, individuals were following their dreams and attempting to carve out a future despite the challenges.
“I do it because I love doing stories that reflect our story our narrative…If it’s going to be authentic, it has to come from within the community,” said Jerome Walford
As Black History month is celebrated throughout the month of February, what a great reminder of the ingenuity which helped African Americans gain footing into already established professions and industries to become doctors, lawyers, media owners and even the President of the United States. §
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Originally published in February 2015 Issue