(H)afrocentric brings socio-political thought to comics. (H)afrocentric tells the story of a number of characters, each character representing a political archetype. Naima Pepper, the main protagonist is an outspoken radical Black feminist. Miles Pepper, her brother, is an apolitical musician, showing hints of apathy and indifference. El Ramirez, Miles’ best friend, is closely aligned with Chicano nationalism and Renee Aanjay Brown has a political pulse around gender and sexuality but lacks much in the way of racial politics. The title follows this posse of disgruntled undergrads of color as they traverse the conservative Ronald Reagan University. Bringing much food for thought to the table is the creative teaming of Juliana Smith (writer), Ronald Robert Nelson (illustrator) and Mike Hampton (cover color and graphic design). Juliana “Jewles” Smith, creator and writer of the series, shared her work at this year’s APE and took some time out to share about her series, thoughts on the industry and why she decided to use comics as a platform to share her ideas. (H)afrocentric is certainly worth a read and can be found at www.hafrocentric.com , on facebook, twitter (@hafrocentric) and can be reached at email@example.com
(MT): Can you give the readers a little bit of where you come from and the influence it had on the title?
(JS): I’m a trained educator and an untrained artist and writer. My other background is that I’m originally from the Bay Area, the product of a Jewish mother and African American father, hence where part of the title of the comic comes from. The title also reflects the comic’s tagline, “Because it’s hard being Afrocentric in Eurocentric world.”
(MT) So, do you consider yourself a comic fan and what got you into them? What about them do you think resonates with people?
(JS): My introduction into comics didn’t happen until later in my adult life. I got into comics through The Boondocks. I began reading it in college. I loved the comic strip when it was nationally syndicated and it completely aligned with what I was thinking about in that moment. I was heavily involved in organizing against the prison industrial complex and anti-war politics. My second galvanizing moment was when I was teaching at Laney College and using the Real Costs of Prison Comix. The comic book is a three part series focused on explaining the prison industrial complex by focusing on the War on Drugs, Prison Construction, and Women in Prison. It really resonated with my students and it made me think about using different mediums to explain really complicated social phenomena. But my “aha!” moment came when students would tell me they had given the comic book to their grandparents and siblings during the semester. I thought to myself, there is something about this medium that I need to understand.
What about comics resonated with people? I believe in part that there is less intimidation when it comes to opening up a comic book. The reader does not have to make a time commitment like they would with say, a novel. And a comic book, unlike a film or book, combines visual and literary elements seamlessly. Comics are contemporary pieces of literature that, in the case of Real Costs, spoke to some part of my student’s experience. Real Costs also made plain the intellectual arguments and counter narratives being offered by folks like Mumia Abu Jamal and Angela Davis. It is heavy theory in a digestible format. That is in part what I think I needed to understand about the comic medium and its potential power.
(MT) That’s great! Would you say there are any influences on you in the comic industry?
(JS) To be honest, I don’t pay too much attention to mainstream comic books. I read Age Scott’s Won and Phil: Hip Hop Heroes series. But for the most part, I just write what I like, like Steve Biko.
(MT): For those not familiar with the series, how would you categorize (H)afrocentric. (is it a satire, comedy, drama, commentary, etc)
(JS): I would categorize (H)afrocentric as part comedy, part satire, and part social commentary. It’s really a way to bring some serious issues like racism, classism, sexism and gentrification to the forefront by making light of them. It attempts to make fun of everyone, on all sides of the political spectrum.
(MT): So you are off to a strong start with (H)afrocentric with two issues in print. Do you have plans for the title to continue beyond this?
(JS): I plan to make (H)afrocentric an ongoing series, funds permitting. So if there are any willing benefactors or supporters, I am looking for support. There is PayPal donation button on the website. I plan to have a campaign to enlist that kind of support soon too.
(MT): So tell us what made you decide to use comics as a venue for addressing social/political issues?
(JS): If Hollywood is any sign of where we take our cues from, then there is something to be said about comics here as well. Thor, The Avengers, and even the upcoming film, Iron Fist, all take their inspiration from comic book characters and stories. Of course, these are all films that have the similar motifs of violence, sex and more often than not, white heroes. I just wanted to flip the script, have a Black woman be a hero for once or at least the center of attention.
And on another note, I really have to thank my illustrator, Ron Nelson. He has made the comic come to life visually. There is something to be said about drawing Black characters. It can easily fall into an oversimplification of drawing an Afro on any face, but there is a real aesthetic intention that goes into drawing each character of (H)afrocentric. Ron has been able to pull off an incredibly realistic look in this series. Everything from their hair, to their stature, and body dimensions, has all been well thought out.
Comics, like other genres of art, permit fantasizing, dreaming and the desire of people to be free. They allow for things that are not possible in real life. An intelligent, witty, and politically savvy (leftist) Black woman that is powerful, but also vulnerable is something I’ve rarely seen in comics and popular culture. I feel like it is really important for anyone interested in the freedom of oppressed people to be involved in envisioning the way we want to see the world. At times it seems like our only freedom comes in our ability to use our imaginations. It is what Historian Robin Kelley calls Freedom Dreams.
(MT): Coming off of your presence at APE, what is your sense of the Bay Area indie scene?
(JS): I love seeing what folks in the indie scene are up to…However, I must say I am a little disappointed with some of the stories that I see, at least from a distance. They seem to be rehashing old tales of zombies, animal personification, and women characters as after thoughts. I rarely see other Black women, let alone that many other men and women of color creators, so I would like to see more of that.
(MT) Would you care to share with readers what made you decide to run (H)afrocentric as a print comic VS a digital comic? Do you have any thoughts on or preference on delivery for the medium.
(JS): I am from the old school and I like to hold things. There is a selfish part of me that likes to see the tangible product of something I’ve created. I also think there is a sort of expend ability with digital anything, especially books, art, design, etc.
However, with that said, I am not completely opposed to digital work. I plan to eventually make (H)afrocentric downloadable online at some point.
(MT): Where do the characters come from? Are they an amalgamation of people you know or were influenced by (for example I know that Naima is named after the John Coltrane piece and Miles is named after Miles Davis)? How much does music influence your work?
(JS): Yes. Some of the characters are an exaggeration of the politics of people I’ve organized with as well as a mix of people I have met in my life. Miles Pepper and Naima Pepper’s names are amalgamations of a couple of jazz greats; Miles Davis, Art Pepper and my favorite John Coltrane song. I would say music is a large part of the comic insofar as I incorporate it to relate to readers. Everyone listens to music.
In addition, Volume 3 that is set to come out early next year will incorporate a mixtape to go along with the comic book. Vol. 3 follows the crew of (H)afrocentric as they have their very own block party. There will be an actual QR code that goes into the book so folks can scan it and be directed to the mixtape online. We have just set up a different kind of book release party that will literally be a block party happening during Oakland’s First Friday in March of 2013. I’m really excited for this!
(MT): That is incredible, it sounds like you are making use of a variety of available media to reach out to the public and engage them on multiple levels. Where can fans find your work and what’s up next on the horizon for you?
(JS): All of the links to the blog, Facebook, and where to buy the comic are online at hafrocentric.com. Also, I will be having a book signing at Gallery 1307 (1307 Fillmore Street @Eddy) in San Francisco on Thursday, November 29 (6-10pm) during the Fillmore Holiday Market Launch Party.
(MT): Finally, any thoughts or feelings on the state of women and people of color and their depiction in comics and their role in creating and contributing to the comic industry?
(JS): I feel like the play Oliver! “Please sir. I want some more.” If the powers that be would allow for not only a greater representation of folks of color and women to tell stories, we would not be feeling the absence of stories that reflect our lives. That is why I commend and really admire someone like Issa Rae of Awkward Black Girl for telling a funny story without the approval of a big name network. We don’t just need more people of color to tell the same stories either. We need stories that have not been told or are rarely told. This is what Stuart Hall calls the “politics of representation” as opposed to the “relations of representation.” The relations of representation are simply that a Black writer or illustrator is on a project and everyone is just happy that we have representation (*cough* cough* Obama), but the politics of representation is about having different viewpoints and multiple subjectivities. The latter is what I would like to see.
(MT): Thank you so much for sharing your work and thoughts with us Jewels. We wish you much success with (H)afrocentric.