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The Black Comic Book Festival is an act of resistance

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An upstairs view of the 2023 Schomburg Center Annual Black Comics Festival (all photos Briana Ellis-Gibbs/Hyperallergic unless otherwise stated)

As I entered the intimate 11th Annual Black Comics Festival April 14, I wondered if that would be the day I would fall in love with graphic novels, or at least want to buy one for the first time. Exhibitors were spread across two floors of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, offering first-hand insight into their work. With little to no comic book knowledge, I was suddenly immersed in a festival that over 7,000 people had signed up for, surrounded by illustrators, animators, writers, cosplayers, independent and fan editors.

I caught up with Joel Christian Gill, a professor at Boston University, founder of Strange Fruit Comics, and author of Eisner Award-nominated memoirs. Fighting: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence (2020), whose words marked me throughout my visit. “You don’t have to be black,” he said. He reminded me that at this festival I wasn’t the only black girl in the room; I didn’t have to search for books made by and for me, because they were all around me. The experience of being a black woman portrayed in every book in my neighborhood is rare, because black men and women are vastly underrepresented in the comics industry.

Lizty Acosta, 22, from Harlem dressed as La Borinqueña

I wandered through the halls of the festival, descending the stairs past a collection table full of vintage comic book 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 realize it. But without them, there would be no books. I don’t care about the money,” Paul said. I was surprised to hear this, as I thought a lot of people tended to exhibit their books at these kinds of festivals to sell their work, but I learned that many of the artists there weren’t just there to present their art, but to be in the community. with another.

Harlem brothers Joshua, 18, and River Garrison, 16, have been coming to the festival with their father for six years. They say the event offers them a place at the table and a sense of joy in who they are.

“I think the festival really helps you lift yourself up and feel proud of your heritage and where you come from,” Joshua said. “It makes you feel like you deserve to be seen…because when you’re not in the media, you feel like you’re being erased, like your existence isn’t valid. But seeing yourself in the comics, you feel a sense of pride in who you are, and that’s really powerful.

Edmund Paul, the founder of Northern Wind Comics, with three of his eight children

He also sees graphic novels as a unique way to learn about black history. Comics are a way for black people to teach us about our past and present without being in a school or under someone else’s direct guidance, giving us a sense of freedom that society is trying to take away from us. Being at the festival was a way to regain that freedom.

In fact, graphic novels are so powerful in their ability to make black people feel seen that many of them are placed on banned book lists, as I learned during a panel discussion titled “Banned Books and Diversity in Comics”. Author Monique Couvson, whose book Push: 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 are banned are the ones that push us and the ones that challenge us to think outside of what’s normalized to harm us,” Couvson said. “It means I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.”

The killer queen comic book designs (photo by Bob Gore, courtesy Schomburg Center)

To my surprise, I discovered that the Black Book Comic Festival was more than just a place to buy new books. It’s a community of disruptors who uphold the principle of what makes books great – telling stories that help create a more equitable society.

I left with two unexpected treasures: my first comic strip, Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer (2017), written by David Crownson and illustrated by Courtland Ellis; and a lesson in being my own hero.

The annual event features panel discussions, workshops and cosplay showcases, and highlights the work of creators from across the country. (photo by Bob Gore, courtesy Schomburg Center)
Admission to the 11th Annual Black Comics Festival

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