If one surfed the Internet for comic book illustrator and polymath Afua Richardson, various websites address the Renaissance woman’s schismatic and outré hajj from burlesque queen and erotica cartoonist to singer-songwriter and mainstream graphic novelist as akin to watching a film where every glittered scene was shot as if behind rose-colored glasses. One would think that Richardson’s career trajectory, at least on paper, would give Academy Award winner Diablo Cody a run for her money. However, such was not the case. Long before getting tapped to illustrate for the major three comic book publishing houses—DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics and Marvel Comics—the NYC-bred storyteller told sagas of indigo children in dystopian urban jungles; faded roses blooming from concrete and chrome. She emerged with a few indie comics and started shaking things up with her hi-res digital illustrations of people of color living in veracities that weren’t stranger than fiction but were rather, a product of real life. A cultural ambassador of the world and one of the few black female artists making strides in the world of comics, she has become a rising talent. But as she’ll tell you, her success was not overnight.
“Erotica was rather cathartic for me. Unfortunately, like many women, I was the victim of sexual assault.”
Over e-mail correspondence, writer Marcus Scott sat down with Richardson to discuss being a woman and person of color in the world of comic books (both indie and mainstream), the unrest in Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, igniting social change via art as well as how she became the rising juggernaut that is taking over the comic book world one page at a time.
You gained a lot of traction after your riveting “Women In Marvel” panel, how did that materialize?
I was a part of the “Women of Marvel” celebration earlier this year with my variant cover of Captain Marvel # 013. At that time, I was a guest on the “Women of Marvel” Panel where we chatted and I spilled all the tea about my philosophy, journey and my reasons for creating.
You’ve had a colorful past singing in ragtime bands, dancing burlesque shows, and acting as an extra in films, but you have said all of that was possible because you were forced to couch surf from place to place when you were 16 or 17 and needed to become innovative. What was it about this time that inspired you to learn digital programs? You’re largely self-taught, yes? That’s remarkable!
Well, when your ability to do something well makes the difference between whether or not you eat that week; it will motivate you to be better faster. I wanted so badly to be good at something. I’d make it a priority to practice to the point of obsession.
You’ve worked under three different names. One being Lakota Sioux, an alias that you used when you were working on erotica—where you got your start—writing and illustrating a quarterly comic for “Sizzle.” Has your time with that publication influenced your work any?
Erotica was rather cathartic for me. fUnfortunately, like many women, I was the victim of sexual assault. Reading and eventually creating stories anonymously enabled me to draw a scenario that ended the way I wanted it to. I made sex funny, quirky and more importantly consensual. Many of those works were not published and they were not meant to be. Working with NBM was wonderful. They publish many French and European comics whose color pallets and layouts are so different from their American counterparts. They read like cinema and have rich and blended tones. Erotica has to hit a different beat. It was instructional bringing action quickly into a page. Er…no pun intended.
Did you attend any classes or workshops? Do you recommend any institutions?
I’d not attended any classes other than ASIFA’s sponsored live drawing sessions. ASIFA is the International Animated Film Society dedicated to the Art of Animation and they sponsor affordable live drawing sessions with models that come in weekly to a local art university or trade school for artists to draw and improve on their anatomy. I [still] go there to this day. These days, you can learn whatever you want to online. Tutorials were few and far between and were like bonus stages in a video game. I hear mixed things about art school, but I’m coming from an outsider perspective. I’m not a big fan of debt, so I may not be a good person to ask. It’s all really depending on the individual teacher’s ability to bring out the innate skill of an artist without imposing their ideals on their vision.
What do you think is so pivotal about this moment for women in comics?
I think what’s being understood is the expansiveness of the market. The audience is willing to support the things they are demanding and they are being quite open and vocal about it. Also, it seems that social media, has a lot more weight than previously conceived. I am a person of action more than words, so I try not to complain about something unless I’m actively trying to think of a solution. I don’t expect anyone else to fix it for me. So its nice to see those who see a deficit in a particular kind of fiction or character representation and are willing to hone their craft to make it.
In an industry dominated largely by white men, super girls are typically drawn as pin-up manic pixie dream girl types. Is there power with women drawing super girls?
I think the industry was dominated by the main consumer of the product: Adolescent teenage Caucasian boys. Those boys eventually grew up and so did the boobs! Comics were created for the fans who bought them. I can’t really fault them for that. But as times changed and artists started occupying the executive positions of these companies, a different perspective was also brought to the way the characters were made and represented. In regards to female characters, women draw women different than men do. There is a softness to them that is inexplicable. I dress myself (the days I feel like not looking like a bum) so I’m sure I can dress a fictional gal to be super-sexy and still be sensible. Sensible doesn’t have to mean covered up. I just don’t think I’d bring a bikini to a gunfight. There is a place for each kind of character. I think the mistake is placing a character in a wardrobe that doesn’t fit their personality. If there is a protagonist that is vivacious and lascivious, then something scantily clad is befitting. But putting a shy girl in a teeny mini-skirt or plunging neckline is not really good storytelling. You have to imagine the actual personality of the woman being created. Perhaps that is easier for a woman to visualize rather than a guy to fantasize. But that’s a broad generalization.
Since there aren’t a lot of diverse voices in comics, do you feel it’s more difficult for distinct voices to express themselves in the mainstream superhero world vs. the indie world?
I would have to disagree. I think there are many diverse voices in comics. Its weather or not the public will look for them, but more importantly, will they support them. We scour the same two companies looking for an ancient character to change. Millions of people want to draw Spider-Man, how many people do you think actually get to do so? If a minority is present in an already niche industry (that has become mainstream in the last 10 years), how much smaller would that percentage be? Would it be reflective of the 13.9% of blacks or 17% of Latinos that exist in society? Perhaps. I’ve not done the numbers. Many artists are not writers and are very content just drawing their favorite childhood hero for the company of their dreams. Others do venture on to create independent properties, but don’t get the support to sustain themselves from the public who so separately cry out for diversity. We’re seeing a change because people are putting their money where their mouth is. You pay for that book to be made; you’ll see it made.
“I am a person of action more than words, so I try not to complain about something unless I’m actively trying to think of a solution.”
Of course there are people doing it already like Sophie Campbell, the transgender illustrator of Jem and the Holograms and creator of the series Wet Moon. There is Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander (Maxine Shaw from “Living Single”) who are the husband-and-wife creative team behind the Dark Horse’s series, Concrete Park. There’s Jeremy Whitley, creator of the POC hero of the Action Comics all-ages series, Princeless. Joyce Chen and Amanda Conner; phenomenal illustrators who have been frontrunners in comics for almost two decades. Animator and illustrator Chuck Collins, the creator of the web comic “Bounce.” They are there. We just don’t look for them.
People are looking for Marvel and DC to be their creative parents and validate their existence by making a story or character that tells their story, painting their face as the new Superman. I don’t want to be the next anything. I want to be the first. There are many changes happening at these companies that I’m proud to be a part of. It doesn’t mean they are perfect, but the transition of the industry is like the turning of the Titanic. Fighting the tide is difficult. You can’t just fire a bunch of people because they’re not the right color people want. Many people don’t even know the faces of the creators already in the industry because their names don’t sound ethnic enough. These companies have had the same characters around since WW2. We can’t expect someone else to tell our story and get it correctly. We think we can do better? Then let’s do better.
Genius was your first full-length comic. What got you talking about Ferguson and the reality of the police state that’s dominated America?
The timing was eerily close with the release of Genius‘s 1st issue releasing just three days before the horrible events that transpired in Ferguson, Missouri. I was saddened to hear questions like “Did you take photos from the newspaper and trace them for the comic?” The atrocities of war came home and it was painfully clear to anyone in America that it had been going on for a while and it was no longer polite to ignore it anymore. As the great Dr. King would say, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
After starting work on Genius several years ago, I started doing some research of my own, looking into the endless accounts of police brutality that went unanswered. I’d not envy an officer either. They have to see the worst of humanity and run in the direction of danger while everyone else runs away. But sadly, if the law is broken by one of these men and women in a state costume, it seems they are immune to the laws they are sworn to uphold. Prior to the media showing tanks on U.S. soil (as if unarmed citizens were military combatants), I think it was something so far away, so unreal, it was deemed fictional in the cloud of survival everyone is walking through in their day-to-day. The cloud was lifted that day. I was both proud and brokenhearted to be a part of fiction that spoke to events of the times. Not just a distraction from it.
“I think the industry was dominated by the main consumer of the product: Adolescent teenage Caucasian boys. Those boys eventually grew up and so did the boobs!”
Do you think comics have the power to really discuss social justice reform?
The thing I notice about fiction is that it gives a place for people to accept the reality of the place you bring them to. A “truth” can be painted in such a way that will not be shrouded by opinion and social stigma. One can accept the scenario placed in front of them without rejecting the idea. Fiction gives psychological permission to think about things we get reprimanded for even considering. I think a lot can be accomplished in that space.
Any advice to young artists of color looking to break into the world of comics?
It’s difficult, young creator, to stay inspired. You’ll look at your favorite artist and see such an ocean-sized difference between you and the vision in your mind and the techniques you see being utilized. Whatever your aspiring genre is, study the fundamentals: Anatomy, perspective, shadow and light. Avoid only drawing single figures, as your characters will have to exist in a room at some point. Draw every single day of your life. Bring a book with you everywhere. Have a book for each sized bag you have. No excuses. If this is what you want to do as a career, then it will require studying not only the craft but also the business of the craft. If you know how you build a house then you are a construction worker, but if you can build the house and manage the contracts, then you can be a business owner. Invest in your business. Art is a left and right-brained activity. Don’t believe people when they say you’ll just be a starving artist. Every book, product and site you visit had a paid artist behind the graphic design. Art enables people to make purchasing decisions based on the aesthetic of the package. Every TV show, every box of cereal has been touched by an artist. If you want to get hired to make a certain kind of art. Then draw the heck out of it. Find out how your art will be of service. If something is missing from the world of art then you are filling that need by creating it. You feel there are not enough samurai dinosaur fairies? Get on it! You’re problem, solving. You’re attempting to take what is in your mind and provide the fastest, most-efficient route to your medium of choice. That takes repetition and anything you want to learn is basically online. So start searching!
Speak to creators in the field that you want to be in. Not only the visual creatives but the executives, editors and writers, because they will be the ones who hire you. Make a website and post your progress and then find a community of artists to create with. Be willing to hear critique and try not to get too discouraged. We all crawl before we walk, walk before we run and run before we fly. You’ll be soaring the skies in due time! And those who are not so young and wanting to get into art: It’s not a race my dear. It’s never too late to start creating. I look forward to the future stories you’ll give life to. We need them.