This past Saturday, The Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture, located in Harlem, New York, hosted their first-ever Black Comic Book Festival. The event – organized by Deirdre L. Hollman, Director of the Schomburg’s Junior Scholars Program and Atlanta-based filmmaker and educator Jonathan Gayles, PhD – celebrated a rich tradition of artists, writers & their superheroes of color, and introduced the world of independently produced literature to young and old. I couldn’t help but get caught up in the spirit of inspiration that swept the Langston Hughes Building, as small press owners, lecturers, filmmakers and families browsed selections of comic books, figures, prints and digital animation.
The Festival featured a lineup of comic art-related activities, including a screening of Dr. Gayles’s documentary film White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books. After the screening I attended, Dr. Gayles hosted a Q&A with the audience, fielding questions on the comics industry’s past, present and, most importantly, its future. The inaugural event also played host to a pop-up art exhibition called Black Kirby, a visual homage to legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby by artist John Jennings – an Associate Professor of Visual Studies SUNY Buffalo, along with Stacey Robinson – who early in life was inspired by artists as diverse as Michelangelo, Ernie Barnes, Charles Bibbs and Robert Rauschenberg. Throughout the day there were also a series of panel discussions, workshops and comic book premieres from artists across the country. The panels discussed the history of the comics industry and its portrayal of African Americans, along with resources for those seeking entry into a field that is seeing its fair amount of change, as reflected in the entire publishing industry.
I was thoroughly impressed with the level of quality and professionalism on display in the main exhibit hall. One artist’s work, that of Alitha E. Martinez (creator of Yume and Ever), reminded me of another of my favorite comic artists – Ken Lashley. But her creations weren’t the only ones to impress the packed house of fans and fellow artists. Other featured exhibitors included: Akinseye Brown of Sokoya Comics; Jerry Craft, creator of Mama’s Boyz; Chuck Collins & Keith Miller’s Tri-Boro Tales; Jennifer Crute and her aptly named Jennifer’s Journal; Brandon Easton and Shadowlaw; Ray Felix, who promoted his own Comic-Con event called Bronx Heroes; Tim Fielder, Matty’s Rocket; Robert Garrett & N. Steven Harris, Ajala: A Series of Adventures; M’Shindo Kuumba; Yumy Odom, the founder of the Philadelphia-based East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention (ECBACC); Regine Sawyer, The Rippers; Alex Simmons, Blackjack; Jewels Smith, (H)afrocentric; Onli Studios; Rob Taylor, Night Jak; Titus Thomas; Lance Tooks (Narcissa), who was cool enough to give me a free sketch; Trevor Von Eden, who was also in attendance courtesy of Bronx Heroes; Jerome Walford, Nowhere Man; Jaycen Wise, and his amazing work on Indigo; and many other super-talented artists & writers. Each had their own style and method of telling stories, all of which deserve a thriving audience.
I also had the opportunity to speak with a number of very interesting guests in attendance, such as Barbara E. Johnson, an artist that proves its never too late in life to be inspired by art. She enthusiastically showed me a portfolio of her creations on her iPhone, while evading any questions I had about her materials (which made me even more curious). I was also able to get the perspective of fans as well, including A. Boh Ruffin, who attended the event with his wife Millicent and their children Asad, Gyasi and Zuri. The parents were eager to expose their kids to this dynamic form of storytelling. For me, it was just exciting to see young people around books.
I also chatted with Kendu, the owner of Konscious Comix, who made clear with his hoodie his love of all things Black Panther. After mentioning my photo essay Blvd. Warriors to Kendu, he introduced me to Gene Adams, who helps prove my theory on how related different art forms can be. What intrigued me was that Adams is a 5th degree Black Belt from The Harlem Goju Association, having trained under Grand Masters Samuel McGee and Jeffrey Noble. So of course I asked to take a few photos of him to add to my photo essay, which is centered on people of color in martial arts. Adams, along with Archie Comics writer Alex Simmons, is also the co-creator of The BCC Kid’s Comic-Con, an event that, according to Adams, is the first of its kind in the Bronx, and focuses on educating talented youth on how they can actually make a living in the comics field.
By the end of the day, with my camera battery low and my money spent, I caught the train back downtown. But in the back of my head I knew, that the lure of comic pages, ink and spandex, would bring me back for the next edition.