V Books: Prof. Sheena Howard Discusses ‘The Encyclopedia of Black Comics’
Unless you’ve had your soul buried under a rock, you’ve felt the reverberating energy that African American women writers and academicians have been showering the Earth with. Their creativity is enamored with spellbinding and free-flowing wells of motivation, knowledge, and love. In the past two years, many of the best-selling and deeply profound books, as well as research, have been headed by women of color: Jacqueline Woodson, Zadie Smith, Jesmyn Ward, Brit Bennett, Angie Thomas, Roxane Gaye, Prof. Brittany Cooper, and newcomer Prof. Keisha Blain, Ava DuVernay and Issa Rae, among others. This phenomenon of black women telling their/our stories isn’t new, either. It’s just that millennials weren’t fortunate enough to witness the god-like momentum of our foremothers. We’ve had to Google, purchase books, or listen to our elders tell stories of trailblazing black women from way back when.
Adding to this vast body of work by black queens is Howard University alumna, Dr. Sheena Howard, associate professor of communication at Rider University. Prof. Howard, who’s also a filmmaker, is the first black woman to receive the Eisner Award (2014) for her book, Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation. Keeping her forward mobility in motion, Howard recently released her new book, The Encyclopedia of Black Comics (Fulcrum Publishing).
“Ever since writing my dissertation on comics in 2010, I became aware that there aren’t enough resources that document black comics history and culture,” Howard says to VIBE. “The literature that documents the comics industry, often leaves out black people in the industry, particularly black women. This book [The Encyclopedia of Black Comics] was a way for me to continue my quest to learn more about the history of comics and document that history. Also, to me, it is important to uplift people who have made contributions to comics culture but are often left out or unrecognized for their various contributions to the comics industry, American culture and black culture/ history. This book shows you that there are numerous black people in the industry doing great work, creating their own characters and mythology, and debunks any myth to the contrary.”
VIBE spoke with Prof. Howard about her new book, pioneering black comic book writers and challenges women face in the comic book industry.
VIBE: Tell us about your research interests?
Sheena Howard: My research is interdisciplinary connecting history, social justice and visual culture. I’m a comics scholar and race/gender/sexuality scholar doing cultural-critical work. My identities are inextricably linked to my research interests.
What’s the purpose of The Encyclopedia of Black Comics?
The purpose of the book is to create a valuable resource for historians, comics enthusiasts and the comics industry. The book includes over 100 entries about black people in the comics industry, some well known, some lesser known.
Who are some of the pioneering black comic book writers that we should know about?
I consider Wilbert Holloway a black comics pioneer. He wrote editorial cartoons in the 1920s and addressed racial issues with his work in The Pittsburgh Courier.
In the 1990s, Chris Priest was the first African-American editor and writer at DC Comics. Priest made a legendary impact on comics with his writing of Black Panther in 1998.
Orrin Evans was the first black publisher of comic books, with the publication of All-Negro Comics in 1947.
These people, amongst so many others, represent the historical building blocks for black people in comics and key individuals in moving comics forward.
What are some of the ways, if any, that the writing style of black comic books writers have changed since the 1980s?
Black comic writers have technology to aid in their love of comics and their writing. Now black writers have more of an opportunity to publish work, without a publisher or editor. This allows for more comics content and more freedom for comic creators and writers.
How would you describe the space for black women comic book writers? Is it welcoming?
The comics industry, even in black comics culture, can be very challenging for women. Comics have a robust female readership, but when it comes to the creation and publication of comics, many black women understand the need to self-publish because of some of the difficult gender dynamics in the industry. It’s just like many other industries.
For those that don’t know, you released a documentary last year titled Remixing Colorblind. Will you please explain the purpose of this film?
The film explores how higher education shapes our perception of race, looking at the college application process, dynamics of the classroom and social-economic dynamics that influence the educational system. The film features commentary from Dr. James Peterson (MSNBC Correspondent) and Dr. Yaba Blay (CNN Black In America).
What makes Remixing Colorblind standout from other films on race?
It is youth driven, with commentary from young people across high schools and universities on the East Coast. One of the fascinating things about the film is to hear mixed race young people talk about the ways in which college and the process of applying to college shaped their racial identity.
What other areas of race would you like to see explored?
I would like to explore deeper millennials views on affirmative action in college admissions and how the changing justification for affirmative action (i.e. from discrimination/ addressing historical racism to diversity) in college admissions has influenced youth opinions on affirmative action and college.
I would also like to delve more into the role of comics during the 1950s/60s Civil Right Movement.
I would like to see more research and recognition in the area of 1950/60’s Black comics because much of black history acknowledges and explores Black oratory and the church but Black newspaper writers and by extension, Black comic creators, challenged the status quo, shaped public opinion and utilized Black liberation rhetoric in the same way. I would like to see, explore and acknowledge more of this. Someone like Brumsic Brandon comes to mind, who is in the Encyclopedia of Black Comics.