After collaborating on a variety comics-related projects over the last 5 years, John Jennings and Damian Duffy have put together an anthology, Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art, and Culture, that showcases independent African American cartoonists and the subculture of conventions, websites, and awards surrounding them. The book will be published later this month by Mark Batty Publishers.
“It’s a growing comics scene a lot of people don’t know about,” said Duffy. “I think of the book as an entry point into a culture as interesting as any other comics scene.” Duffy and Jennings met at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Jennings is a professor of graphic design and Duffy was a graduate student at the time and is currently a PhD candidate. After discovering a mutual interest in race and identity issues as well as comics, they began working together. Their first project together was The Hole, a self-published sci-fi graphic novel that “deals with issues of identity and consumer culture,” according to Jennings.
In response to the Masters of Cartooning exhibit, held in Los Angeles in 2005, they curated two art exhibitions. The first, “Other Heroes: African American Comics Creators, Characters, and Archetypes” at Jackson State University in Mississippi, which Duffy said “ended being a warm-up for the other show, ‘Out of Sequence’,” but focused on the same topic: underrepresented voices in American comics.” Out of Sequence, which featured a range of minority comics creators, was exhibited at the University of Chicago, as well as The Laboratory of Art and Ideas at Belmar in Belmar, Colorado and at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. “The “Masters of Cartooning” exhibit with no women in it and no one in it of color except George Herriman seemed to be a narrow view of comics,” Duffy explained. However, the “Out of Sequence” exhibition dealt not only with under-representation in terms of the creators and their content and identities, Duffy said, but also “underrepresentation in the way people think of comics in terms of form,” he explained. The show included, said Jennings, “abstract comics, different executions as well as webcomics, gallery comics, and comics on trash cans.”
Drawing from the contacts they made from these two shows, Jennings and Duffy pitched a book featuring these artists and their comics subculture to Mark Batty Publishing. “Most of this stuff is outside the mainstream,” Jennings said, “When we pitched it, we already had a lot of artists’ work and knew [artists] we met at conventions. We’re part of the community as well.” The book “collects 45 independent comics artists of various age ranges and styles,” explained Jennings.
The contributors include Dawud Anyabwile, the creator of Brotherman, which Duffy described as an “inspirational book to those involved in black comics.” An influential self-published indie comics series from the early 1990s, Brotherman is being re-released this July in trade paperback, and Anyabwile is considered a pioneer of black underground comics. Cartoonist Keith Knight, the author of The K Chronicles, is also featured in the book and wrote the introduction. Also included in the book is, Turtel Onli, “The father of the Black Age of Comix,” as Jennings described him. Onli is the creator of NOG: The Protector of the Pyramids, Sustah-Girl: The Queen of the Black Age, and Malcolm-10, and he started the Black Age of Comics Convention in Chicago, which inspired similar conventions in other cities, such as the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention held in Philadelphia. In addition to the pioneers of the Black independent comics culture, the book includes younger artists, such as Ashley A. Woods, who has sold 3,000 copies of her self-published, fantasy comic, Millennia Wars, at conventions. Jennings also mentioned Arie Monroe, who, “works for Marvel and has beautiful anime style work,” and said there are “a handful of black women” represented in the book.
The book not only focuses on the artists and their work but the history and nature of the Black independent comics community. “It’s loosely established,” Jennings said, “it has a history and an online community and awards and conventions and qualifies as a subculture that has been around for a decade.” Most of the work and artists included in the book are from the 1990s right up to the present, explained Jennings. The book has an essay that tells the story of The Museum of Black Superheroes (which can be found at Blacksuperheroes.com), an online site that documents the history of black superheroes with art and essays. Founded by Omar Bilal, the site has become a “gathering place for interaction,” for the subculture, said Jennings.
“There are contextual essays about different conventions and awards,” said Jennings, such as the Glyph Awards given at ECBACC, which honor the best comics made by and about African-Americans. The book spotlights conventions and all the “little pockets spawned from [the Black Age of Comics Convention in Chicago]: Atlanta, Detroit, and Alex Simmons’ Kid Comics Convention in New York City. [Indie black comics] are not an organized movement but they have the potential for that.” Jennings said that “What I really love about [the book], is that the artists [featured] in it didn’t have [black comics] heroes growing up, now kids can see [the work in the book] and be inspired.”
“There aren’t a lot of people who talk about these issues [of race and identity] in comics,” Duffy said, explaining his desire to combine comics with the issues explored in their various projects. “If we show the different things one can do with comics, we’ll break down walls,” Jennings said. Once this book is published, the two collaborators are looking ahead to future projects. They are working on a young adult graphic novel, Agents of S.L.E.E.P., and webcomics on their site, Eye Trauma. Duffy is also working on a graphic novel about his mother, a retired Chicago public school teacher.
But for now, Jennings just wants Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art, and Culture to “introduce the world [of Black comics] to people who don’t realize it’s out there. I think this is the first book of its kind to be more substantial on this subject; it’s historical and exciting.”