Entertainment’s ultrasuccessful release of "Black
Panther" and the CW’s recent launch of
"Black Lightning" have put a spotlight on
black superheroes, and their success illustrates how
popular they are and that audiences outside of the
African American community celebrate them.
newfound interest in these characters may spur some to
look into black comics and black creators; luckily, the
"Encyclopedia of Black Comics," came out just
last year. Edited by Sheena Howard, who has a doctorate
in rhetorical and intercultural communication from
Howard University, the book is a collection of essays
written about influential black writers, illustrators,
inkers and creators of black comic books and comic
think that’s a really important distinction because a
lot of fans today are into the superheroes and the comic
book superheroes in the movies, but my interest is in
the history of comics," says Howard.
are numerous entries about the comic book creators who
helped shape the Black Panther, including Reginald
Hudlin and Christopher Priest. Howard, an associate
professor of communications at Rider University, became
the first black woman to win an Eisner Award, the
equivalent of an Oscar or Pulitzer in the comic book
world, with her book "Black Comics: Politics of
Race and Representation."
any encyclopedia, though, one of the first things people
tend to do is point out what’s not in the compilation.
Dwayne McDuffie, probably the most influential African
American figure in comics and cartoons over the past few
decades, was not included in the book. He died in 2011,
but it’s a notable omission, and there are a few
others: William Wilson, the first black independent
publisher to list digital comics on iTunes, Percy Carey,
the rapper MF Grimm, who was the first black Eisner
nominee, and Michael Davis — who could claim a place
in the book.
and oversights from volume 1 mean Howard has begun
taking names for a second volume. As "Black
Panther" mania continues, a more comprehensive look
at black comics and comic strip creators is warranted,
and this encyclopedia is a start. .
was a huge undertaking that resulted in over 100
entries. Howard answered some questions about the
genesis of the book and what she learned in creating it.
How did this all start?
So I really liked "The Boondocks" [comic
strip] and I started reading it in 2007, when I was at
Howard University. I was 23 when I started my PhD and I
finished at 26, so I was still young and didn’t have a
goal in terms of what I wanted to study at Howard. I
thought about "The Boondocks" as something I
could write about and something I enjoyed. I really
thought that it was a cultural icon for some of the
things that it had accomplished. This is the comic
strip, not the television show.
You didn’t particularly care for the television show?
No, I didn’t. I thought it played too much on ‘isms’
and phobias, and it wasn’t as clever or as politically
savvy as the comic strips. It makes sense because Aaron
McGruder had total control over the comic strips as
opposed to the television show, where it was a whole
production team who had their hands in that. I thought
it was pretty sexist and obnoxious some of the time.
So that PhD research led to the idea to look into comic
books in general?
Exactly. I really thought that I was just going to be
able to go to the library and find a book about the
history of black people in comics. I’m looking for
months for this book. I found books like "The
American History of Comics," but they very rarely
mention black people in the industry in any real way.
I differentiate between comic strips and comic books.
What was the tipping point for you in terms of looking
into comic books as well?
That’s a thing that people don’t really ask me cause
they just lump everything into one big basket.
Particularly, I have a wide knowledge base about black
comic strips, and I’m interested in more independent
comics, whether they be books or graphic novels that
implement history into the comics conversation. I’m
not really into the superheroes and the comic books, per
se, especially on the mainstream level. That’s why
when people say that there are no black people in
comics, I say: Yes, there are, but you’re limiting
yourself to DC and Marvel and you’re not interacting
with the vast world of comics.
After submitting your dissertation, what did you know
and find out about black comics and the culture that it
I knew a lot about some of the people who had led black
comic artists and creators to do some of the things that
they’re doing today. "All Negro Comics"
 was the first black comic book, created by Orrin
Cromwell Evans. So I knew those sorts of people. From
there, I started to meet the people today [who] are
creating the works and doing political work in comics
that interest me.
A broad question, but from your research, who would you
consider to be the most influential black comic strip or
comic book figure?
I definitely think that Aaron McGruder has to enter the
conversation of most influential because what he did has
never really been done. There’s only a handful of
syndicated comic strips created by black people.
McGruder created this comic strip that crossed over to a
wide audience — both black and white and everything in
between — and then he made it into a television
series. I don’t think we’ve seen that level of
popularity as far as comics are concerned, from a comic
Describe what you were trying to do with the
"Encyclopedia of Black Comics."
The encyclopedia is over a hundred entries about black
people of African descent who have published significant
works in the United States. It’s about the movers and
shakers in the industry, both old and young, dead or
alive. Almost half the book is black women — most of
whom have never worked for a major publishing company
and are actually self-published. That was really
important to me too because black women still haven’t
broken into the industry.
Who are some of the new contemporaries in comics?
Brumsic Brandon was really important in the
conversation. He’s older and he’s passed away, but
his daughter Barbara Brandon-Croft has broken into the
comic strip industry. The only father-daughter duo in
the industry. Contemporary — I really like a comic
called (H)alfrocentric by Juliana "Jewels"
Smith. I think she’s on the West Coast. It’s a
feminist version of "The Boondocks." It’s
not published by a major media company, but she’s
doing her thing.
Now you’re writing your own comic book for Lion Forge
Comics. Was it all of this research that made you want
to do that?
I have been trying to transition into creative writing
for a while. I’m a professor, so I write from an
academic perspective. But in 2016, I did produce and
direct a documentary called "Remixing
Colorblind." That really was a primer for me—a
nice segue for writing comic books. Lion Forge
approached me because they were familiar with me from
winning the Eisner Award and being on the convention
circuit. They asked me if I’d be interested in
co-writing a new comic book that they had inside of a
new universe they were creating called Catalyst Prime. I
immediately said yes. But honestly, I didn’t realize
that when you’re writing a comic book, you have to
give directions to the artist. You have to tell them
sideview, rearview, aerial shot — you have to tell
them. The same thing you have to do when you’re
[making a] documentary, you have to do when writing a
comic, with camera angles and things like that. The
universe came together to prepare me.
How has the writing experience been now that you’re
inside the industry? Did it reveal anything to you that
you didn’t know?
Up until writing my own comic book, I was critiquing the
industry from a cultural standpoint. Gender issues and
lack of representation, and that was from the outside
in. Now I can talk about it from the inside out, and I
can say that the [lack of opportunities] for women are
definitely a problem and there’s definitely cultural
beekeeping going on as far as women being in the writers’
room and in control of content within publishing
companies. Also, when women get there, I think it’s
important for men to realize that they have to value the
female perspective, especially when you’re writing
female characters. Once you get in, you have to fight
for your credibility and you have to fight for your
voice to be heard. And I think all of those things
sometimes discourage people along the way. Hopefully, I
can be an inspiration and encourage young girls to
follow their writing aspirations and not let the barrier
stop you from riding along.
What would you do to improve the experience of reading
comics for those in the black community?
I would definitely get more diverse people behind the
scenes of these companies. Of course we want diversity
in the characters and content we’re consuming, but I
also want people to get paid. I want people to be the
writers, producer and editors — I want people to be
behind the scenes.