Front and Center: Celebrating Black Comics and Their Creators

Posted January 11, 2018 9:46 p.m. EST

Black superheroes are having a moment: “Black Lightning” arrives on the CW on Monday, "Black Panther” is being released in theaters Feb. 16 and the second season of “Luke Cage” will air on Netflix sometime this year. That means there is a lot to celebrate at this year’s Black Comic Book Festival, taking place Friday and Saturday at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.

The festival goes beyond superheroes, though, showing that champions come in every skin tone and don’t necessarily wear capes. That is the premise behind David Heredia’s series of educational videos about underrepresented historical figures, “Heroes of Color,” which will be screened Friday. One of the three-minute episodes spotlights Gaspar Yanga, who led a slave rebellion in the Mexican state of Veracruz. An animation artist based in Santa Clarita, California, Heredia said that he can’t contain his excitement about attending the festival with creators who are also telling stories about often-overlooked subjects.

Although inroads are being made on the representation front, festivals like this one are still needed, the event organizers said. The Black Comic Book Festival is “about being in a place where you aren’t pushed to the boundary,” said Jonathan Gayles, one of the festival’s founders and the director of “White Scripts and Black Supermen,” a documentary about the sometimes stereotypical portrayal of black characters in comics. “When we’ve participated in larger shows, there’s generally a ‘black panel’ or a ‘black corner,’ and that box is checked,” Gayles said. “At the Schomburg, and similar black comic-cons around the country, people attend because they want to feel they are at the center.”

The free festival, now in its sixth year, includes a program for children (with free comics); a screening of “White Scripts and Black Supermen”; and panel discussions about social justice and representation in comics, the influence of “Black Panther” and black geekdom in the age of social media. Writers and artists include Sheena C. Howard, the author of “Encyclopedia of Black Comics,” and Dawud Anyabwile, a creator of the “Brotherman” series. They will join Heredia, whose love for comics led to his career in animation. He recently discussed “Heroes of Color” during a recent phone interview. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: What are you looking forward to at the festival?

A: My main objective is to encourage students to tell their stories. Every single one of them has met someone or has someone in their life right now who can be considered a hero for whatever obstacles they have overcome. The best writing advice is to tell the story you want to hear first. Don’t worry about telling a story you think people want to hear. It won’t come out as powerful.

Q: How did “Heroes of Color” come about?

A: I came up with the idea in 2015. By that time, I had my own small company, Heredia Designs. I was doing animation for Pearson, the educational company. I was creating two-minute shorts, which were covering the Common Core standards of math and English. They had hired me to do 300 short animated videos. I remember the final four characters of the videos were one Asian, one black, one Latino and one white kid. It cemented the importance of representation and planted a seed for what I wanted to see.

Q: What has been the response?

A: I did an episode on the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black military unit that fought in World War I. The episode won six awards at film festivals. I got a lot of positive feedback, but I also got a lot of negative feedback like, “These guys were bums. They were losers. Why are you focusing on them?” I was just trying to highlight and ignite pride in the black community.

Q: Has the video format been successful?

A: I think it’s the perfect format. What are people doing these days? They are holding their cellphones. Getting out the message is my objective. History can be a double-edged sword. It can be boring at times, but I think it depends on who is telling the story and how it is told.

Q: How have your children had an effect on this?

A: When they started going to school, they would talk about Columbus. I would ask, “What else are they telling you about these holidays and these people? Have they taught you about Latinos at all?” My son once asked, “Can you tell me how many black comic books you can get?” I said there’s tons of black heroes! But I looked at the shelf and found only one. I typed “superheroes of color” into Google, and what started to come back was real people from the Harlem Renaissance, Nat Turner, Gaspar Yanga — just courageous people. So my goal was to make a list of all the black, Latino, Asian people, from different nations, from different ethnicities, who had made these vast contributions to our society — yet are not mainstream. I ended up with a list of 150 people that I would like to learn about.