Comic books are often portrayed as the fantasy world of aging white men. And while the industry has made some efforts to diversify their content, their creators have stayed pretty much white and male. Afua Richardson is neither, but has probably worked on your favorite books and you had no idea. Marvel’s Hip-Hop Variant cover of X-Men 92 – that’s hers; Captain America & the Mighty Avengers, yep; Captain Marvel, check; DC Holiday issue; yep, one of those too. She’s been tapped by big boys DC Comics and Marvel. She’s also worked on groundbreaking titles during the rise of Image Comics like Black Magick and the critically acclaimed Genius under the Top Cow/Image label. Her work has garnered such attention that she has been tapped to work on the new Blade series and some other notable projects.
As part of our continuing series of people painting outside of the lines in what is considered Geek, we had a chance to speak to her about her past and what picture she is drawing for her future.
How did you get started in comics? Were they always a passion or was it like, “Hey, I can draw, what can I do with this talent to live?”
My initiation into creating comics and my love of comics started at different times. I was a tomboy. I played sports and read comics and defended my friends against bullies when I could. I hated to see people get ganged up on, so it made sense that I gravitated toward stories of awkward heroes – Excalibur, The Avengers, and Alan Moore‘s Swamp Thing. My appreciation ranged from sci-fi classics like Alfred Bester‘s The Stars My Destination to Hiroaki Samura‘s Blade of the Immortal. Anime and manga took over my mind until I fell in love with comics again.
In 2004 a good friend of mine, comic creator Brandon Graham, walked me into his editor’s office at NBM publishing and I got my first shot drawing a quarterly comic under an alias. I’d been a musician up until then, touring as a background singer and session vocalist and eventually getting into acting and voice acting. If I could utilize my creative skills, I’d give it a shot. Any desk job I had I did to my fullest, but always with the ambition of doing more. Lunch breaks were spent learning Photoshop. Days off were spent learning anatomy and perspective. I didn’t know where there was a place for me in the world, but art and music were the way I dealt with life. If I could get paid doing that then I’d be happier than [if I was] wasting my life doing things I hate just to eat. Our lives are so fleeting. Why be afraid to try? I have my doubts from time to time, but I keep moving forward. Comics and fiction really nourished me in a way life didn’t. I just want to be a better artist to give that to someone else.
How did you start working at Marvel?
In 2005 or so, I was commissioned to do a cover for a book called Half Dead. It was later picked up by Marvel, so inadvertently I got my start then. But that cover was seen by a lot of people and really helped me move forward rather quickly. When I took my very first vacation in 2007 to San Diego Comic Con, that same Marvel cover for Half Dead was recognized by Image / Top Cow founder Marc Sylvestri. A year later I was asked to work on Genius, which was released some time ago.
Do you identify as a geek or just someone who likes comics?
Some people are totally invested in the lives of fictional characters. I have no problem with that or whatever they want to call themselves. I like what I like. I’m not sure it is up to me whether or not I’m geeky. But then again, who would it be up to?
Are you into anything else “geeky”?
I really enjoy playing RPG’s and fighting games, I have tons of collectible figures, I try to do whatever cosplay I can afford to make, and enjoy unhealthy amounts of anime. I collect rocks and I grow vegetables in my garden and really enjoy cooking and dancing and hiking (easy) mountains. I also play the flute and beatbox and play a little bass (terribly)—but I don’t let myself not enjoy the things I want to because of some perceived stigma.
What is your favorite character to work on? Favorite book?
I love Saga. It’s the book I wish I wrote. I don’t know if I have a favorite character. I’m not sure there is any fictional character I totally identify with in comics. Not for a lack there of, but I think I need to create one of my own soon.
I read previously your dream project was drawing the X-Men and you did the hip-hop variant cover of the X-Men 92. How did that come about?
I was already approached by Marvel last year to work on some variant covers and that one was an honor to work on. My favorite characters, a monumental hip-hop album and being able to bridge the generation gap between the X-Men I grew up with and the music I grew up with and now is something I can’t put into words. Sanford Green, who is a long-time friend and associate, recommended me as well.
Now you are doing the new Blade the Hunter series. How did that come about?
The writer, Tim Seeley, mentioned it to me some time ago, but I wasn’t available to work on it then. The stars aligned and rearranged themselves and I got a call from the editor-in-chief and we spoke about how important this was to revive. This was a story important to not only myself, but comic-turned-movie properties in general. This story changed the game at a time when the transition of media was moving from theatre dominance to DVD ownership as the technology became available. But besides that, he was friggen cool! Eric Brooks was who he was. He wasn’t given the typical black guy facade. He was an individual who kicked ass and had a code who wore black and ushered in a generation of duster-wearing punks who got the psychological permission to be who they wanted to be.
And there are some other projects. All Star Batman, right?
On All Star Batman’s My Worst Enemy, there will be a spotlight on Gotham’s Villains revamped through the mind of writer Scott Snyder, whose work I am a huge fan of. He reached out to me some time ago about a Bat story. He wanted to work with me on something I really wanted to work on specifically. He cared enough about what it was I enjoyed to cater it to me personally. I’m not sure you can ask for a more considerate and accommodating collaboration. It increased my respect for him trifold as not only a brilliant writer, but a friend.
And one I am super excited about – this Attack on Titan: Anthology that’s a collection of original stories in the Attack on Titan world but using western creators sounds amazing. Were you a fan of the manga or the anime?
The Attack on Titan: Anthology came on the recommendation of one of the editors who previously worked with me at Marvel. She was kind enough to reach out to me and see if I was interested in the project. She had NO idea how much of a huge fan of the show I was. Now I’m getting into the manga and can’t wait to share what’s in store. When I started taking my illustration a lot more seriously as an aspiring artist in my 20’s, I came from a very heavy manga-influenced style. That changed over time with the demand of comics in the 13 years I’ve been making them, but I think it’s nice to get back to some of the things I may have unknowingly changed. In other words, I get to flex my manga muscles in this – something I know I’ll have a lot of fun with. The line-up for the book is phenomenal: Gail Simone, Tomer Hanuka. The entire Batgirl crew Cameron Stewart, Babs Tarr and Brenden Fletcher and Scott Snyder as well. The book itself is a titan. Only one you actually want to see and won’t eat you for sport.
And then there is Genius, which was just an amazing, groundbreaking series. What was Genius about? How did it feel to be working on a book like that? How did that even get greenlit?
Recently, there has been a lot of attention paid to equal representation in comics in book and behind the pages. What do you think about the influx of characters of color? Do you think they are being portrayed well? What spin would you put on them? Who’s your favorite new or rebooted character?
What I think people may not understand about the evolution of media is that we can’t compare old with the new. They were different times, different opinions different technology even. Many of these characters have been around since World War 2. Think about film at that time or even just 10 years ago. If you watch an episode of the first Doctor Who and then compare it to the last 20 years of the 9th, 10th and 11th Doctors, you’ll see that the stories have expended to a more diverse setting. Diversity is not just planting a black person or a gay person or a woman in a character normally held by caucasian men. It’s getting into the minutia of the human experience. Stories ages ago had common tropes and icons that were not even realistic to what would be considered the “White experience” – one-dimensional, straight-path good guys and unreasonably evil bad guys who explain their plans just for them to be foiled. That’s not reality. Even terms like white and black when describing people almost do a disservice because there is so much baggage with these terms. White = automatically racist, easier life and decedents of slave owners. And that’s just not factually correct in every case. Black in no way defines the cultural variety, philosophy or culture of the individual in question. But comics were a very niche industry that were created by a small group of people who had to answer to an even smaller group of editors and executives who wanted to make sure they spoke to their client base.
Now that that base has expanded, people can speak with their dollars and back the books they want to see made. Falcon as Captain America says to comic readers that an African-American man can hold the mantle of Captain and American. Its not politically correct to show the variables in philosophy illustrated in fiction. It’s realistic.
What did you think about the Hip-Hop Variant project?
I mentioned before my excitement about that particular project, but people had their doubts. I can understand, as with any rouge group, sometimes commercialism can make them feel as if their insider group has been usurped and used for marketing.
But I don’t think this was the case. Initially there [was the] Guardians of the Galaxy Run the Jewels crossover. If one does not know about Killer Mike and El-p then they are deprived of the torch baring champions of modern day hip-hop. Anyway, that project did incredibly well. So it was expanded into the project you see today. It was well received by those who actually make hip-hop. I hate to say it, but some people claim to have ownership of the hip-hop culture not having contributed to it whatsoever. If the only thing required to be an owner of a culture is to listen to its music, then I may be secretly Khmer and I’m unaware of it. I really saw no problem celebrating those albums that actually said something of value. Where were these naysayers when those who claimed to be making hip-hop made a negative mantra that served as a soundtrack of poison to their people? No where. It’s only when someone else honors their champions of music that they have a problem. I’m proud to have been a part of it. It reminded me of beatboxing with KRS-One after an MC battle in New York. It reminded me of taking top rock classes with Crazy Legs at the old tramps in Manhattan. It reminded me that at the epitome of hip-hop’s rise to greatness that people from all walks and all classes and creeds came together and pushed themselves to battle with skills and integrity, not bullets and blood. If that can be reintroduced through some comic book covers, then I’m all for it.
As not only a woman but a woman of color, how does it feel to be in comics? Do you think the industry is making efforts to change the current status quo? What efforts would you make to bring in more women / people of color into the fold?
It feels nice. You should try it out sometime. No one is stopping me from being in comics. I’ve been at it for 13 years. A big part of it was not feeling ready or not thinking I was good enough or had anything of merit to say or draw that anyone cared to look at. Comic companies are making great strides. I’d like to expand on my own one day and make a studio. But one step at a time I guess.
PHOTO CREDIT: Afua Richardson