by Dre Grigoropol
The first ever Black Comic Book Festival was held on Saturday January 12, 2013 at The Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture, located in the heart of Harlem in New York City. The festival, which was presented by The Schomburg Junior Scholars and Dr. Jonathan Gayles, celebrates artists, writers, and fictional characters of African descent. Although I have passed by before, this event was my first introduction to the Schomburg Center which is a part of the New York Library. The show was free and open to anyone.Upon entering the building, visitors were greeted by the welcoming staff there, and a pop-up art show was on display in the front of the lobby. Called Black Kirby and it featured iconic illustrations by John Jennings and Stacey Robinson. These illustrations really “popped” and fused tributes to comic book artist Jack Kirby with Afro-futurism. There were about twenty-six comic book artists exhibiting in the next room, including Lance Tooks, Titus Thomas, Alitha E. Martinez, John Jennings, Jennifer Cruté, Jerry Craft, Yumy Odom, and many more. One of the “must have” books that was for sale was Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art and Culture, an educational art book by Damian Duffy and John Jennings that includes fifty contributors: Dawud Anyabwile, Eric Battle, Kenjji Marshall, Afua Richardson, Larry Stroman, Rob Stull, Lance Tooks, Darryl Ayo, and others.
The Langston Hughes Auditorium was also dedicated to the show. This auditorium holds 320 seats, and housed a screening of the documentary White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books by Atlanta-based filmmaker and educator Dr. Jonathan Gayles. There wasn’t a dull moment in the documentary, and watching it was a thorough lesson of the history in comics and its unfortunate stereotypes of black men. Some of the characters of comics mentioned were the The Black Panther, The Falcon, Luke Cage, Black Lighting, and John Stewart as the Green Lantern. The film also included the view points of comic book industry professionals. After the screening, Dr. Gayles answered questions and had a discussion with the audience. The crowd was inquisitive, and thirsty for Dr. Gayles’s perpective. One topic that was brought up a few times was an interest in seeing more projects focusing on women with diverse racial backgrounds. After the discussion Dr. Gayles was greeted by Bill Johnson in cosplay as The Black Panther, the first black superhero of the Marvel Universe.
It was symbolic and inspiring that someone dressed as The Black Panther. At this point, the exhibitor’s room was completely packed, including many young people and their parents. People at this event seemed to be gratefulfor an event like this. The library wasn’t expecting this big of a turn out, but next time will have a better idea on how to prepare for the highly enthusiastic response from visitors and have the exhibitors in a bigger space.
The next scheduled event was a panel of four comics historians presenting their papers: Qiana Joelle Whitted (Comics Come To Harlem: Race and the Lafarge Clinics Case Against Comics), Marcus W. Singer (Secret Identities of Mutant Minorities), Rebecca Ann Wanzo (Representing Black Citizenship, or Why Understanding the History of Black Comics Helps Us Understand “Django Unchained”), Julian C. Chambliss (Pride, Power, and Protest? Marvel Comics and the Black Superhero after 1970). This was followed by a group discussion moderated by Dr. Gayles.
The show wrapped up shortly after 4 pm. When the show had packed up I had a chance to talk about the festival with exhibitors Titus Thomas who writes YA comics, and Lance Tooks. Thomas said “I was quite surprised at the amount of people that attended, even though the information that promoted the event was limited. It seemed that the word about the show got around by mouth more than anything. As an exhibitor at the Black Comic Book Festival, I felt that it was a venue that one’s voice could be heard, unlike large shows, this felt intimate. My work was seen by kids of all different type of backgrounds.”
“It was so great to meet all these people who were already fans of my books,” said Tooks. “I had no idea that there were so many out there. I had a feeling that I was in the right place to communicate with my audience. At a typical comic-con it is so easy to get swallowed up in the masses. This show is great, and I was exposed to different creators I haven’t heard of before. Being a part of a show that focuses on comics and cartoonists of African descent is a rewarding experience, because it brings a subculture to light which has interesting and subtle elements that tend to get lost in the melting pot of a larger event.”
[Dre Grigoropol is an indie comics artist. Her work can be viewed at www.dretime.org. Follow her on Twitter at @dretimecomics.
Photos by Dre Grigoropol]