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Greensboro Comicon has historical team-up with International Civil Rights Museum

This weekend, North Carolina’s officially-designated “Comic Book City” will see a team-up of heroic proportions. On Sept. 16 and 17, the Elm Street Center will be the site of the first annual Greensboro Comicon. This two-day gathering of fans, industry professionals, vendors and cosplayers represent the newest venture from the promoters responsible for NC Comicon, the twice-yearly Triangle event that has become one of the largest comic book conventions on the East Coast. To do this, they’ve partnered with some local super friends: the Greensboro stores Ssalefish Comics, The Comic Dimension, Geeksboro Coffee & Beverage Company, the Greensboro Public Library and the one that makes this convention stand out from others, the International Civil Rights Museum.

“That was our first stop when we were scouting the area for a venue,” wrote NC Comicon’s Brockton McKinney in an email. “The day we decided on the Elm Street Center, I immediately walked across the street and asked the Civil Rights Museum if they’d like to partner with the show.”

McKinney said that Nakia Hoskins, the museum’s program coordinator, reacted enthusiastically to the idea of a partnership and that the museum was sponsoring a panel entitled “Black Heroes Matter” on Saturday. He said the museum has also co-commissioned a limited edition art print featuring the Greensboro Four, the young black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University who in 1960 initiated the historic Woolworth’s Sit-In that helped end the practice of “Whites Only” lunch counters throughout the South.

“The illustration is being done by Marcus Williams, an amazing creator, and a guest of the show,” McKinney said.

Williams is one of the several prominent black creators featured as guests at Greensboro Comicon. Another is the award-winning artist Afua Richardson, whose credits include interior art for Marvel’s World of Wakanda and Top Cow’s Genius as well as covers for Captain Marvel, Captain America and the Mighty Avengers and All-Star Batman. For National Public Radio, she illustrated Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” She is also a professional musician who has performed with Sheila E and Parliament-Funkadelic, on Soul Train, and at Carnegie Hall.

When I spoke with Richardson, I told her that I was intrigued by her Wikipedia entry, which describes her as coming from a family of scientists. She explained that her father, William Richardson, is a physicist “whose works helped develop String Theory and MRIs.” She also said that he was a great inspiration to her.

Richardson said besides being a scientist and a USS Coast Guard officer, her father taught at West Point and the University of Alabama, and he was an amateur painter.

“He always found time to give me the tools to create and left me to my own devices,” she said. “He taught me the importance of focus and to take pride in the things I make and the importance of perseverance.”

He also taught her some painful US history, describing life in Civil Rights era Alabama and the trials his family went through.

“There were no places for artists like him to thrive, but he still found the strength to be kind and never complained about how hard things were,” she said. “He just made a way for me to learn and to find my own way.”

Richardson said she got into comics at a young age.

“Officially, Bazooka Joe was the first comic strip I can remember reading,” she said. “Maybe because I connected it with getting hopped up on powdery 5 cent gum.”

Things got more serious when she was 8 or 9 and began actually collecting comic books. Marvel’s Excalibur was an early favorite, although she also loved the regular X-Men series it was spun off from.

“Wolverine was my spirit animal after I received a copy of the first issue of his original mini-series, and Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing was comic poetry to me,” she said.

She went on to collect Heavy Metal comics and Japanese manga, citing Blade of the Immortal, the source material for an upcoming live-action film, as a particular favorite.

I asked Richardson about her work on Marvel’s World of Wakanda, a five-issue mini-series set in the same milieu as the company’s acclaimed Black Panther series written by the Pulitzer-winning Ta-Nehisi Coates. World of Wakanda is about two women, Ayo and Aneka, who are lovers and former members of the Dora Milaje, the Black Panther’s all-female security force. It was written by the novelist, essayist and professor Roxane Gay and the poet Yona Harvey, the first two black women to create a series for Marvel.

Richardson said she was originally supposed to just draw one variant cover (variant covers are alternate ones published for the collector’s market). Because she had already been hugely impressed by the team doing the regular Black Panther series (writer Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze) she said, “I wanted to make sure I did everything to make this personal and put a piece of myself into it.”

She used symbols from her ancestry and graphic design elements based on old Afro-Cuban records and kung fu movie posters from the 1970s. Her illustration impressed Coates, whose work on the series has been a major coup for Marvel, as his essays for The Atlantic and his nonfiction book Between the World and Me have earned him the reputation of the most important African-American writer since James Baldwin. “Ta-Nehisi Coates sent me a message [about] how much he liked it,” she said, adding that this accolade convinced the editor and art director to use her design elements for all issues of the mini-series and that she should be the official cover artist.

While there was later some concern in the fan press about World of Wakanda being “canceled,” Richardson said that, as far as she knew, it was always meant to end after five issues.

“People got really upset and I was quite confused,” she said, adding that if fans are willing to support it as an ongoing monthly series, they should make their voices heard. “Marvel is listening!”

I asked Richardson if she has a dream project and she said that she’s developing one titled Aquarius: the Book of Mer that will combine her art and music, something she’s wanted to do for a long time.

“I’ll probably put that out before anything else,” she said, suggesting it would be self-published. But she also expressed a desire to work with such writers as Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman at some point in the future. She also admitted to another dream project, which would involve “taking all the blue characters in the Marvel Universe and putting them into a single book.”

Along with talking to Richardson, I exchanged emails with the Atlanta-based Marcus Williams, the aforementioned creator of the exclusive art print depicting the Greensboro Four that is available free to purchasers of VIP tickets to the convention. “The organizers of the event reached out and asked if I could craft together an image that would show the Four in such light,” he wrote, adding that it “feels great being apart of any event that recognizes the struggles and triumphs of African Americans in this country.”

I told Williams that, because I’m an old school geek, the first African-American comic book artist whose name and drawing style I can remember recognizing was the late Billy Graham. Not, of course, the televangelist, but the artist of the same name who worked on the first 16 issues of Marvel’s Luke Cage: Hero For Hire from 1972 to 1974, starting with the inks and later penciling and co-plotting.

For Williams, it was M. D. Bright, who drew Icon for Milestone Media, a coalition of African-American writers and artists whose imprint was published and distributed by, but was editorially independent of, DC Comics from 1993 until 1997. But the first artist whose style and name he first recognized was the Korean-American Jim Lee, whose X-Men #1 created a sensation when it was published as a spin-off from the long-running Uncanny X-Men in 1991 and immediately became the best-selling comic book of all time.

“It was amazing art for me at the time, and still is,” he wrote.

Along with Lee, he said his influences include Greg Capullo, Joe Madureira, Japanese comics and anime, Disney Cartoons, Pixar and video games.

Williams has also created two independent comics financed via Kickstarter. The first, Super Natural, he described as “an allegorical apologue that follows a shipwrecked alien’s struggle to build a life in a large urban city here on earth all while striving to understand the strange ways of the humans that reside in it,” adding that “she quickly finds out the hard way that having power on this planet is both a blessing and a curse socially when she unintentionally kidnaps a young girl during a flying tour of the city and is confronted by local law enforcement.”

The second is Tuskegee Heirs: Flames of Destiny, a science fiction action-adventure comic book series written by Greg Burnham and set 80 years into the future. According to Williams’ email, it “follows a squadron of young, gifted aviators, who are forced to become Earth’s last line of defense against a menacing race of artificially intelligent villains bent on destroying civilization.”

In 2016 and 2017, the Kickstarter for Super Natural met its $10,000 goal, and the one for Tuskegee Heirs raised seven times that amount. Marcus Williams also has a Patreon page at www.patreon.com/Marcusthevisual.

Other guests of Greensboro Comicon include respected and successful veterans of the industry. One such is Richard Case, whose art for the acclaimed writer Grant Morrison’s bizarre and imaginative Doom Patrol helped launch DC Comics’ mature and ambitious Vertigo imprint in the early 1990s. Another is Tommy Lee Edwards, who besides being the senior director and co-owner of NC Comicon, has worked on such titles as Superman: American Alien and Turf, and who is currently illustrating Mother Panic for DC’s Young Animal line and writing and directing an animated T.V. pilot for Fox. Newer to the industry is the Charlotte-based artist and writer Bridgit Conell, whose Brother Nash has been announced as forthcoming from Titan Comics. Another Charlotte resident and Greensboro Comicon guest talent is Rico Renzi, one of the most sought-after colorists in contemporary comics, whose distinctive hues and tints can be seen in Marvel’s Spider-Gwen and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

Another Charlotte-based talent is a freelance illustrator and colorist Rian Singh, who draws Backstagers for Boom! Studios, a critically-praised comic that will delight any theater kid who spent more time working backstage than performing. Yet another is Katy Farina, currently the main series artist on the Steven Universe comic well as the main colorist of the Rick & Morty comic series as well as its spin-off mini-series Rick & Morty: Pocket Like You Stole It! One wonders just how many of them will carpool together from Charlotte. Other industry professionals appearing at the convention include Corey Kalman, Chris Sims, Sam Ellis, Chris Giarrusso, Brian “Smitty” Smith, John “Waki” Wycough, John Hairston Jr. and Andrew Herman.

The first annual Greensboro Comicon will be held Saturday, Sept. 16, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 17, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Elm Street Center at 203 S. Elm St. Attractions of the convention include panels, a cosplay contest, the Artists Alley where professional creators will meet their public, sign their work and do sketches, and a variety of vendors. A weekend pass is $15. Saturday-only and Sunday-only day passes are $10 each, and VIP weekend passes are available for $25. The latter comes with a “Swag Bag” that includes a choice of either Marcus Williams’ exclusive art print of the Greensboro Four or Chris Giarrusso print of the Mini-Lantern Corps. Tickets, guest credits, and more info can be found online at greensborocomicon.com.

Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.

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