Dr. Sheena Howard: Turning the page for cartoonists of color

Dr. Sheena Howard: Turning the page for cartoonists of color

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Like my favorite fictional hero Xena, Dr. Sheena Howard has many skills: teacher, author, filmmaker, activist, mother, wife and now comic-book creator. Howard was the first black female to win an Eisner, which in the comic world is like an Oscar. She won the award for her groundbreaking book “Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation.” Howard is also the author of “Black Queer Identity Matrix” and “Critical Articulations of Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation.” She has appeared on National Public Radio, The Washington Post, ABC and Philadelphia Weekly, as well as other networks and documentaries as an expert on popular culture, race, politics and sexual-identity negotiation. She also writes for The Huffington Post, which garnered her death threats for one contentious column. In addition, Howard is the producer, director and author of the documentary film “Remixing Colorblind.”

On Sept. 19, she will launch her latest endeavor, “Encyclopedia of Black Comics.” The book features a foreword written by historian, professor and host of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots” Henry Louis (Skip) Gates, and an afterword written by legendary comic writer and singer-songwriter Chris Priest. The book contains more than 100 entries featuring comics from various aspects of the industry and, for you comic aficionados, many of those featured in the book as well as those who contributed to it will be in attendance and available to speak to fans at the launch event, which takes place 6-8 p.m. at Amalgam Comics, 2578 Frankford Ave. (By the way, Amalgam is the first comic-book store in America owned by a black woman!)

We snagged Ms. Howard for a minute between feeding her ever-so-cute newborn son.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.

SH: I am from Southwest Philadelphia, Penrose area. Just one brother but lots of extended family nearby. Both sets of grandparents lived in West Philly, which is how my parents met; they lived right across from each other and grew up together on Sansom Street. My aunt lived on the corner of the same block.

PGN: Who was the main figure in the family?

SH: My dad’s mother. She’s the person I spent the most time with. I have great memories of being at her house. She always had a little play area for us in her kitchen and all of my toys would be there waiting. As a kid, it was nice knowing I had my own little spot at Nana’s place. She always had sweet tea in the refrigerator for me and Häagen-Dazs ice cream for my brother.

PGN: What were you like as a kid?

SH: I was very athletic. My first sport was soccer but once I discovered basketball it was a wrap. There were two parks in the neighborhood and they both had courts, so there was always somewhere for me to go and something to do. I ended up getting a basketball scholarship to West Catholic High School. I also received an academic scholarship and I was able to use both.

PGN: It seems like multi-tasking in different fields has always been part of your life.

SH: [Laughs] Yes! In addition to my academics, I was a five-sport athlete in school: track, cross-country, volleyball, basketball and soccer. I could have gotten my college scholarship for basketball, soccer or cross-country.

PGN: Nice. What was your most spectacular sports moment?

SH: Once I scored 32 points in a basketball game, but of course I was mad that I didn’t score 42. That’s just my personality.

PGN: What was your favorite academic course?

SH: Oh, how can I have just one? I love learning! I liked school [laughs], which I guess is why I stayed there so long.

PGN: What did you study?

SH: In undergrad, I majored in business administration with a concentration in marketing. I got my master’s in graphic design and my Ph.D. is in intercultural rhetorical communication. As you can tell, I enjoy being in school. I like to read too, but I prefer being in a classroom and being able to ask an expert my questions.                                                                           

PGN: What is your main job now?

SH: I’m an associate professor of communications at Rider University.

PGN: What are some of the classes you teach?

SH: I teach social media and social change, interpersonal communication, intercultural communications, pretty much anything that you could add communications to, I can teach.

PGN: You’ve received many awards. What is the one you’re most proud of?

SH: My Ph.D.! The whole process is really tough, especially defending your dissertation. The full title was “The African American Communication Dynamics in Black Comic Strips.” I did a 160-page paper that focused on the cartoon strip “Boondocks” and the cultural elements in the strip and how it crossed over to a more mainstream audience, the aesthetics of the characters and the gender dynamics at play. It was rigorous but in the end, it set me up for a career that I really love.

PGN: [Laughs] Nothing about Robb Armstrong, the black cartoonist from Philly?

SH: I wrote about him in my first book, “Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation”! That book was about the history of black comic strips, especially in the 1950s where they had an impact on the civil-rights movement. He’s also in the encyclopedia I’m launching on the 19th.

PGN: Who’s a favorite comic writer you discovered?

SH: Brumsic Brandon, Jr., was from the ’70s and he wrote a lot about race and politics. He’s cool, he let his daughter help him with his comics in exchange for allowance and she went on to become the first (and only) nationally syndicated black female cartoonist, Barbara Brandon-Croft.

PGN: It seems like comic strips, then and now, are a potent way to get a message across using humor to make the point, much like programs like “The Daily Show.”

SH: I’ve been trying to get on there! And yes, people read newspapers more back then and it was an important voice. Though for African-Americans, they generally could only get printed in local papers that were geared specifically towards a black population. There weren’t many nationally syndicated comics and certainly not in the mainstream publications. There were a lot of cultural gatekeepers and barriers to face for black writers then and now.

PGN: True, though I was thinking more about content than distribution. Someone like Trevor Noah or Samantha Bee can get away with more than a regular journalist. In print, most people respond to a visual comic easier than reading an article on the subject matter.

SH: Right, and despite the messaging, comics are entertainment, and the humor and reality found in them helps us get through the tough times.

PGN: But as for “Boondocks,” unfortunately, as much as I liked the comic strip, I dislike the animated cartoon that was based on it.

SH: I know, me too. The TV show wasn’t as witty or smart; it was very stark and also misogynist and homophobic. I also don’t like the excessive use of the n-word. If it’s well placed or integral to the story, fine. But to toss it around just for shock value or whatever, it’s not the kind of media I want to consume. It’s just not my thing.

PGN: So when did you realize that boys just weren’t your thing either?

SH: [Laughs] That’s funny. Well, at first I thought maybe I just hadn’t met the right guy. I gave it multiple tries and then about the time I was pursuing my master’s I realized it wasn’t for me.

PGN: All those years in sports and you never connected with any lesbians?

SH: Oh, I did. I had a few flings, but I still thought that I was supposed to like men because that’s what society was telling me.

PGN: What was the first gay club you went into?

SH: It had to be in college as an undergrad. There was a whole crew of us who found each other. We’d go to a lesbian club called Heaven and have a ball! There was another one called Lovergirl and on occasion we’d go to Henrietta Hudson’s.

PGN: The first club I went to was in Boston. After getting a lot of attention from guys over the years (probably spurred on by the fact that I wasn’t interested), I glammed up and went to the club thinking …

SH: The girls are going to love me!

PGN: Yup! And people were like, “Why is this straight girl here?” [Laughs] It was not the reception I was hoping for, especially since I liked feminine women. Folks just weren’t having it.

SH: Yeah, that stud/femme dynamic. I wrote about that in my book “Black Queer Identity Matrix.” It’s interesting, when I first started to accept who I was, I was more femme-presenting and I also was attracted to feminine women. But that was taboo, especially in the black community. Stud on stud or femme on femme was not really an option, so I found myself changing my persona to be more masculine. It really takes away your freedom of expression because of that pressure to conform to set rules. Those roles are not as rigid in the white community and I think some of it comes from black women not being as included in the feminist movement as white lesbians. As a result, we didn’t experience that whole freedom of sexuality in the same way and tended to stay within the heteronormative boundaries of male and female/butch and femme relationships. I did a cultural and analytical breakdown of why we present in certain ways and what it means. We think we’re challenging the status quo and the matrix around us when actually we’re quite influenced by it.

PGN: Very true. What was your first job?

SH: My first job was babysitting a kid across the street. Then I was a camp counselor as a teen, but my first commercial job was at Curves Fitness for Women; they loved me.

PGN: What was your worst job?

SH: I worked at an indoor putt-putt golf course. I quit after a week when they asked me to clean the toilets. I said, “Nooo, I can’t do that” and left. It worked out; I got a job with a marketing research firm instead.

PGN: I know the gaming world is notorious for its sexism, with female gamers receiving death threats, etc. Have you encountered much sexism and racism in the comics community? They seem to be worlds that intersect.

SH: Uh-huh. The comic-book world is one that has been predominantly controlled by white men. If you go to a comic shop, it’s not kids in there; it’s grown-ups, usually white, males. Black people have been trying to penetrate the market but the only way they were able to, especially for female writers, is by self-publishing. Even though I have a monthly comic, which is pretty radical, it’s still hard to navigate this male-dominated arena, to be heard and to find my voice in the room. When I wrote the first book, I got turned down by several publishers with some interesting critiques telling me why I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing.

PGN: Where did the death threats come in?

SH: That was from a piece that I did for The Huffington Post. It was about the TV show “Empire” and the fuss that some in the black community, especially pundit Boyce Watkins, was making about the one gay character, saying that the show was pushing a “gay agenda” and other negative things, asserting that the black family was one man, one woman and kids. I called him out on his homophobia. The piece went viral and I got a lot of positive response but I also got a lot of really, really awful backlash from his goons and followers, death threats and all sorts of vile things. It was crazy but it made me stand even taller and refuse to be put in my place.

PGN: In your new comic book, “Superb,” one of the characters has Down Syndrome. Was that challenging to write?

SH: When you’re writing a character that’s underrepresented in the media, there’s a lot of pressure to get it right. I don’t have anyone in the family with Down Syndrome, so I really wanted to make sure I did my research. I’ve worked with kids with disabilities in the past and lived with special-needs kids for a year so I drew on that to create Jonah. And I spoke to friends who had kids with it and asked them for their experiences and what they wanted to see.

PGN: That’s great.

SH: Yes, the motto of the publisher, Lion Forge, is comics for everyone. There are two main characters, Jonah and Kayla. She’s a black female lead with super strength and he has the ability to silence people through a sort of telekinesis. It’s a coming-of-age story about the two of them.

PGN: How do you keep it topical?

SH: There are a lot of subtle references that play off of real-life events, subjects like how the news is used in nefarious ways, and the “fake news” nonsense. We’ll also tap into the power of mega companies taking over schools and communities — things that aren’t blatantly political, because it’s still entertainment, but little nuggets for astute readers.

PGN: Why do you think comics and superheroes are doing so well right now? You can’t turn on the TV without finding a Marvel character.

SH: I think one of the reasons is the diversity we’re seeing on the screen. Women and people of color have fought really hard to show the big comic companies that we are here and that there’s a fan base just waiting for representation. We’re finally seeing characters like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, Supergirl and Black Panther coming out in 2018. New fans are coming in because they are listening. Look at “Wonder Woman” — it’s made over $800 million to date.

PGN: True. What was your favorite cartoon as a kid?

SH: I wasn’t a TV watcher. I was too busy outside playing sports.

PGN: Worst fashion faux pas?

SH: I used to do the mismatched socks, a different color on each foot. Oh, and I used to have finger waves as my hairstyle.

PGN: Best and worst Halloween costume?

SH: Best: firefighter. [Laughs] I looked hot! Worst: As a kid, I went out as a man with a fake little mustache, not my best choice.

PGN: Three people for your book club?

SH: Audrey Lourde, Barack Obama and Viola Davis.

PGN: What’s the best part of being a mommy?

SH: Everything. When I wake up in the morning, he’s always so happy to see me. He smiles and it lights my world.

For more information on Dr. Sheena Howard, visit http://sheenachoward.com.

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