Michael Cavna: The director of the recent “Rise of the Guardians” [Peter Ramsey] told me he was called “the Obama of animation” because he was the first black director of an animated studio feature film, and he was very aware of how he might he viewed, and judged, as a “first” pioneer. Did you find that any past black pioneers in related realms of art — like perhaps Ollie Harrington and Jackie Ormes — felt such larger burdens beyond themselves as “symbols” of potential professional change? Or at the time, did they avoid being symbols for something larger?
Sheena C. Howard: I had the opportunity to speak with Barbara Brandon-Croft, the cartoonist who wrote the strip “Where I’m Coming From” and the only black female comic strip artist to ever reach national syndication (Jackie Ormes was restricted to black newspapers during her time, though she was syndicated). “Where I’m Coming From” was a strip that depicted black females, and the artist made it a point to draw just the faces of the characters, because she did not want readers to focus on their bodies. Brandon told me in a phone interview, when I was gathering information for the book, that she knew as long as she was writing her strip, another black female writing black female characters would not be afforded a spot as a syndicated cartoonist on the funny pages in newspapers.
To my knowledge, there has not been another black female cartoonist or female of color that has been nationally syndicated.
Michael Cavna: Do you think the openness of the Internet, and the ability to try to build your own audience without a gatekeeper, has been a boon to diversity in high-quality comics?
Sheena C. Howard: I think the Internet has allowed an alternative mechanism for a variety of artists to get there work out to the public. However, publishing a webcomic will not afford an artist the same level of distribution and impact as publishing with a major publisher such as DC or Marvel. With that, with the Internet, you have high-quality and low-quality comics being published. With things like Amazon’s CreateSpace, essentially anyone with the ability to use Adobe suite can write, draw and publish a comic book. This is great — it gives consumers more options — but that does not replace the fact that major publishing houses have the resources and ability to promote, market and distribute comics on a much more robust level than the artist that has to rely on using the resources such as the Internet.
The Internet did provide black artists with a mechanism for collective agency in challenging and showing the world that there is a need and audience for diverse characters, and as a result diverse artists and writers.