As I walked into the intimate 11th Annual Black Comic Book Festival on April 14, I wondered if this would be the day when I would fall in love with graphic novels, or at least have the urge to buy one for the first time. Exhibitors were spread out across two floors of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, offering a first-hand glimpse into their work. With little to no knowledge of comic books, I was suddenly immersed in a festival that over 7,000 people had registered to attend, surrounded by illustrators, animators, writers, cosplayers, independent publishers, and fans.
I encountered Joel Christian Gill, a professor at Boston University, founder of Strange Fruit Comics, and writer of Eisner Awards-nominated memoir Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence (2020), whose words stuck with me throughout my visit. “You don’t have to be Black,” he said. He was reminding me that at this festival I wasn’t the only Black girl in the room; I didn’t have to go searching for books made by and for me, because they were all around me. The experience of being a Black woman represented in every book in my vicinity is a rare one, as Black men and women are vastly underrepresented in the comic book industry.
I roamed the halls of the festival, walking downstairs past a collector’s table full of vintage comics novels to find Edmund Paul, founder of Northern Wind Comics, and three of his eight children. Paul taught me that making graphic novels doesn’t always have to be an isolated activity. His children develop their own characters for the books, and he and his wife write the plot.
“[My children] inspire me, then I make it happen. But without them, there would be no books. I don’t care about money,” Paul said. I was surprised to hear this, as I thought many people tend to exhibit their books at these kinds of festivals to sell their work, but I learned that many of the artists in attendance were there not just to showcase their art but to be in community with one another.
Harlem brothers Joshua, 18, and River Garrison, 16, have been coming to the festival with their dad for the last six years. They say the event provides them a seat at the table and a sense of joy in who they are.
“I think the festival definitely helps to uplift you and to make you feel proud of your heritage and where you came from,” Joshua said. “It makes you feel like you deserve to be seen … because when you’re not in the media it feels like you’re being erased, like your existence is invalid. But seeing yourself in the comics, you feel a sense of pride to be who you are, and it’s really powerful.”
He also sees graphic novels as a unique way of learning about Black history. Comic books are a way for Black people to teach ourselves about our past and present without being in a school or under the direct guidance of someone else, offering us a sense of freedom that society tries to strip away from us. Being at the festival was a way to gain that freedom back.
In fact, graphic novels are so powerful in their ability to make Black people feel seen that many of them are being placed on banned book lists, as I learned at a panel discussion titled “Banned Books and Diversity in Comics.” Author Monique Couvson, whose book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (2018) was placed on a ban list in Texas, called it “a badge of honor.”
“I think the books that get banned are those that are pushing us and those that are challenging us to think outside of what is normalized to harm us,” Couvson said. “It means I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”
To my surprise, I found that the Black Book Comic Festival was more than just a place to shop for new books. It is a community of disruptors upholding the principle of what makes books great — telling stories that help to create a more equitable society.
I left with two unexpected treasures: my first comic book, Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer (2017), written by David Crownson and illustrated by Courtland Ellis; and a lesson in being my own hero.