Earlier this month at the Schomburg Center’s annual Black Comic Book Festival, dozens of black comic book creators and enthusiasts gathered in Harlem to revel in their shared love of the art form. I showed up just in time to catch “Comics Are Lit,” a discussion about the process of turning powerful stories about black perseverance into fully illustrated graphic novels. The panel featured the creative teams behind March, John Lewis’ comic book trilogy detailing his civil rights activism, and the comic adaptation of Octavia Butler's Kindred.
As the panelists explained the importance of taking stories rooted in pain and turning them into works of visual art, a palpable tension swept over the audience. That tension went unaddressed until the floor was later opened for questions and a young woman asked why no one had thought to include a single woman on the five-person panel.
The audience clapped and snapped in response to the woman's question, as the panelists and moderator exchanged sheepish looks. Finally, the young woman directed another question squarely at John Jennings, a black man who illustrated Kindred, and Damian Duffy, a white man who adapted it: Given the fact that Kindred tells the story of a black woman dealing with the struggles of a racist system enforced by men, had either of them actually consulted a black woman for their project?
"We did have a woman editor," Duffy said, pointing out editor Sheila Keenan in the audience. "I talked to a lot of people who were familiar with [Butler's] work. I was definitely worried [that I would] overstep or focus on the wrong thing or whatever. But, in the end, it's not like it's a book about black history, it's a book about American history."
Jennings chimed in to address the panel’s diversity: "At the end of the day this particular panel was about a particular theme and we just didn't have the connections to reach out to a woman about this particular theme."
Jennings pointed out that an all-women panel was scheduled to take place later on during the festival. He added that people often get caught up in focusing solely on physical products like books in the world of comics while missing the important organizing work that women of color do around comic conventions.
"A lot of times we're focusing so much on the end product that we don't think about the behind the scenes aspect and the organizing," Jennings said, nodding his head toward another woman in the audience. "This festival was co-founded by an amazing woman, Miss Deirdre Hollman."
When I sat down with Hollman, who serves as the Director of Education and Exhibitions for Schomburg Center, she agreed that a lot of the work she and other black women do to make events like the Black Comics Fest possible is regularly overlooked.
From Hollman's perspective, part of the issue is that we're living in what she describes as a "season of firsts": While black women like Roxane Gay, Yona Harvey, (World of Wakanda) and Britney Williams (Patsy Walker aka Hellcat) are working on ongoing series, the projects are relatively new and haven’t yet become a part of the larger comics canon.
Hollman said people in the comics world may know about black women creators’ projects—they just may not have direct lines to those creators in order to invite them to panels. She diplomatically admitted this was a problem that the comics community needs to work on (though she implied it seemed odd that the Black Comics Fest's organizers couldn't manage to solve the issue beforehand.)
I asked Hollman whether something is lost when white writers give voice to black characters like Marvel’s Miles Morales and Riri Williams or DC’s Vixen. Hollman echoed Denzel Washington when asked similar questions about what he, as a black man, brought to the table directing August Wilson's Fences that a non-black director couldn't.
"It's not really about color, it's about culture," Hollman explained. "It's not just writers and illustrators being black, it's that there's a cultural knowledge and experience that allows them to capture a whole world of detail both in writing and visuals that speaks to the authenticity of the characters."
Ultimately, Hollman insisted, the point of the Black Comics Fest isn't just to draw more attention to black and brown creators working to make comics more inclusive, but to give the next generation of young people the chance to interact with artists to see that they, too, can become creators.
"I want my students and my son to not just enjoy a very narrow range of comics, but to really be exposed to a more diverse body of work,” Hollman said. “They have to meet illustrators and meet writers and have conversations about representation that can really help bring the literature to life."