Cool Jobs: Comic Illustrator Talks Art and Race in the World of Superheroes

Afua Richardson brings her life's experiences to each stroke of the pen

"Bell Washington" by Afua Richardson (Image: Afua Richardson)

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There are some who aren’t in that mold though, no?

Comics have defiantly changed. There is a lot more progressive thinking and comics catered to adults which can give more realistic social and cultural scenarios . We’re watching medium evolve. I think things like Milestone Comics and others are changing that. A lot of stereotypes occur when people have a gap in knowledge. They fill in what they don’t know with a media rendition of it.

Changes are occurring as more people of color are entering these different arenas of media ,but I think it’s really going to take people doing that extra research. To really understanding the integral contributions blacks to humanity beyond what we’re fed during black history month. Also, you’re seeing an uprising of independently funded and created books. While Marvel and DC has been around awhile, they are reinventing many of the same characters they’ve had for decades. They’re retelling Superman or Batman or Spider-Man for a new generation, but you can only expand on those archetypes so many times.

Who would you point to as a black character that has been done right?

I think the one who has been done most consistent is Storm [from Marvel Comics' X-Men franchise]. But unfortunately, and I think Dwayne McDuffie himself pointed this out, Storm doesn’t really have a personality because a lot of black characters have to represent all of black people in themselves. When you think of Wolverine you think of a loner, rough around the edges, will get in a bar fight. You can see him in his head and hear the things he would or wouldn’t say. But Storm, she’s a leader, she’s majestic and regal but she’s a little stoic. You’d never say, “Oh yeah, Storm would say that.” So you can’t really think any distinguishing characteristics about her other than her hair is white and she can throw a hurricane at you.

Which comic or character would you most like to work on?

I’m a big X-men fan. I have been for a long time. I think the Avengers, although they’re a really popular group, are separate characters unto themselves who’ve been thrust together in a scenario.  Whereas the X-men actually need each other, where one lacks, the other picks up. It feels more like a family or a community of people who are dealing with social persecution. They take in people from all over and try to help them understand what they are give them a place to learn about their capabilities. That’s always something that appealed to me, especially when there was a time when I had no place to go, but my friends gave me community and understand my own powers.

What would you tell a young artist looking to follow your footsteps?

First, I would tell any aspiring artist to always carry a sketchbook and draw in it daily. Draw what you see in front of you and draw what you like. Because you’ll get hired to draw what you like; it shows in the work when you truly enjoy it.  You you may attend an art school and learn techniques , and basically get tutorials recited to you. But editors and project managers don’t want to see standard issue work. People who hire artists don’t want to see their own tutorials regurgitated back to them. They want innovation. And to be innovative, you have to go outside of what you’ve been instructed  and incorporate your life’s experiences in your work. Second, I’d learn the business of art, because you have these right-brained people who don’t know anything about business and think it’s not real work because it’s fun. ‘If you enjoy what you’re doing you never work a day in your life.’ That’s not exactly true. If you love what you do, you work every day of your life. Third; learn to present yourself. Create a website, get business cards and flyers with examples of your work to put in people’s hands easily.

There are so many ways to create blogs and websites for free. Its important to constantly create content. The more you create the more experience you have. The more experience you have the easier it is to make tangible your dreams, visions and emotions in a way that other people extract from your work, exactly what you’re trying to communicate. Lastly, take critique but enjoy the process. Know that as much skill that you have, there are always new ways to actualize the intricacies of human thought.

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