‘You Can’t Be What You Can’t See’

Local organization seeks to empower young artists and readers with Black Comix Day

click to enlarge Napoleon Maddox and Aiesha Little of the Midwest Black Speculative Fiction Alliance
Napoleon Maddox and Aiesha Little of the Midwest Black Speculative Fiction Alliance

C

omic book fans are a colorful lot, quite like the books themselves.

This Saturday, the St. Bernard branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County is honoring a historically underrepresented group in comic book culture: black writers, illustrators and readers. It’s part of an event called Queen City Black Comix Day, which was organized by Aiesha Little of the Midwest Black Speculative Fiction Alliance (MBSFA).

“We’re focusing on indie creators and illustrators because there’s a vibrant world outside of ‘the Big Two’ of DC and Marvel,” Little says. “Indie comics offer a larger variety of narratives, genres and viewpoints, and I think kids and adults alike need to see that.”

While the MBSFA is relatively new, having held its first event in January of this year, the group has successfully orchestrated several nerdy and empowering programs, including “Black to the Future: Afrofuturistic Music,” which explored the cultural relevance of Afrofuturism, an umbrella term that envelopes music, literature, art and politics. After that, Little celebrated her birthday with an MBSFA steampunk-themed party, with some of the proceeds being donated to an organization that benefits young girls.

“It should be noted that our face-to-face programming and online discussions are primarily geared toward adults,” Little says. “But with Queen City Black Comix Day, we can bridge the gap, so to speak. Using the event as an opportunity to reach out to kids and teens who are interested in comics, we’re choosing to showcase talented indie creators who are African-American and from the same place where they grew up.”

Joseph Pledger, one of the featured guests at the event, is the author of Ultimate Voyages through Language and History, a comic book that serves as a prequel to an online text adventure currently being made into a video game called World of Ultimatums, depicting the struggle between the Black Queen and her nemesis, the Black Buffoon, who are creating a new Pan-African society.

“I wanted to connect people of African descent to their heritage,” Pledger says. “There was no cartoon series, no comic books and especially no video games that really deal with that. They usually are hard-pressed to create any type of black character and, when they do, it’s usually a stereotype of an athlete or a gangster.”

“That’s not really connecting me to my culture, helping me explore my culture or appreciate my heritage,” he continues. “That’s why I created it. I’m inspired by black history, inspired by the lack of inclusion it has in comic books and video games when there’s so much to it, so many amazing facts to that history. There’s a fantasy about it, because blacks are always striving toward a better life that always seems to elude us.”

This feeling of exclusion from the mainstream comics industry is felt by many black artists and readers — including Andre Batts, who’s made a name for himself as a successful indie comic book creator with Dreadlocks, his most popular superhero character.

“Dreadlocks is a response to mainstream comics. That’s why he’s had such a positive reception,” Batts says.

“If Marvel and DC wanted to sell an appreciation for characters of color, then they’d create a lot of them from the beginning, you know, with an origin story,” he continues “Even some white indies don’t have respect for them because of that same issue. There’s not enough black superheroes. They’re trying to catch up with the times by turning some of their characters black.”

While Marvel and DC have created a plethora of black comic book heroes, they are usually either retrofits of previously white characters or beings from one of the endless multiverses, such as Green Lantern John Stewart, Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man, among others. Many fans agree the scales lean too heavily in favor of white male characters.

“They haven’t tried in years,” Batts says of the mainstream’s efforts to produce relatable black superheroes. “Remember that big fuss that was made about Idris Elba as James Bond? All of that is sad to me.”

Queen City Black Comix Day is meant to focus on the positive contributions made by black creators and the community that’s risen as a result of their work. This includes featuring burgeoning artists, many of them local, right alongside longtime creators with international readership.

“I have some white readers, but not as much as everybody else,” Batts says. “I’ve got a lot of Hispanic readers and a lot of blacks, obviously, but not as many white and Japanese readers yet. What I want is to get kids interested in reading; that’s number one.”

Youth education is a consistently agreed-upon priority among those involved with Queen City Black Comix Day, especially encouraging the new generation to start creating their own works of art along with supporting already-established publications.

“A favorite saying of mine is, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ This applies especially to children,” Little says, in regard to her motivation for organizing an event that features black creators.

“There are children out there who might want to create comics or illustrations, but have never seen anyone who looks like them doing that, so they think it’s impossible,” Little continues. “It’s possible! Events like this go a long way in showing them that it’s possible. I don’t see the races of the creators participating in this event as distractions. If anything, I think it further ‘normalizes’ the idea that African-Americans and other people of color enjoy comic books, too, and that they can be inspired to create them.”


BLACK COMIX DAY takes place Saturday at the St. Bernard branch of the public library. More info: midwestbsfa.wordpress.com.


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