For over twenty years, Deirdre Hollman has espoused the study of black history, art, and culture to students and teachers, alike. In her fifteen years as Director of Education and Exhibitions at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Hollman programmed public lecture series for adults and exhibitions of the Schomburg’s collections for youth and teens through learning partnerships with schools and community organizations. In this capacity - with comics scholars John Jennings and Jonathan Gayles and cartoonist Jerry Craft - she co-founded the Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg Center in 2013. In 2017, following her time at the Schomburg Center, Hollman launched The Black Comics Collective. The Black Comics Collective “celebrates cultural diversity in comics and seeks to amplify awareness of creators, writers, illustrators, and publishers who are producing independent comics that depict a dynamic range of global black experiences, aesthetics, and social issues in both earthly and other-worldly realms.” In practice, this celebration takes many, many forms: meet-ups, talks with creators, conventions, book-festivals, film screenings, and exhibitions.
Hollman’s methodology is rooted in afrofuturism, a cultural aesthetic that situates itself at the intersection of African diaspora culture and technology. She is effusive in her praise of work that meets this criteria. Because she speaks so eloquently on the value inherent to these works, and their creators, her enthusiasm is infectious. Hollman has a seemingly boundless optimism for the potential of Black Comics Collective to bring black comics and culture to new audiences and empower the people creating work, at any level, in this vein. Hollman is currently pursuing an advanced master's and doctoral degree in education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She recently moderated a panel, Back to School with Black Comics and Graphic Novels, for the Schomburg Center Literary Festival, conducted virtually this year. Ian Thomas spoke with her in late September of 2020.
Ian Thomas: Can you talk about when you got into comics and give your first impressions of your entry into that world?
Deirdre Hollman: Sure. I always talk about how I was a comics reader of the Sunday funnies way back in childhood, but relative to the current moment, my kind of re-immersion into comics came when I had my son and he was a young boy and I was very much interested in providing him with, you know, diverse children's books and reading materials and as he started to get into comics, I was you know, always looking beyond what was available at our bookstores, knowing that there were comic creators of color who were also creating alongside what was popular for the young kids, which was the Marvel and the DC Comics. And so there was a vendor here in Harlem, a street vendor, who sold black comics and we would frequently go in search of him, so that I can provide that diversity for my own son. But then we skip to my work as an educator, and I was the Director of a Black Studies program for teens for 15 years and my students were very into Manga and Anime and a lot of Cartoon Network cartoons and things.
Can you give me a time-frame? What years are we discussing here?
Sure, when my son was reading, that was around 2007 to 2009. So 2012 was when my students were showing me a really strong interest, or I was noticing their interest in Manga, right? I wanted them, too, just like for my own son, to see the diversity in comics, as well. So, I met Jerry Craft, who at the time was a well-known syndicated comic strip creator of Mama’s Boyz and he used to have a Black comics day at a local bookstore that had recently closed and I met two other gentlemen - John Jennings, who is a comics scholar and an illustrator in his own right and Jonathan Gayles, who is also a comic scholar and a professor - who all wanted to do some programming. This is while I'm at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in Harlem.
So at the time I was noticing my kids needs, I was kind of fielding these concerns and questions around ‘How can we do a program that would really speak to this community?’ And so we teamed up to produce the first Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg Center and the idea was to have the comic creators come in and have the opportunity to vend that they would have had at Jerry's Black Comics event, to put scholars in conversation, which is what John Jennings and Jonathan Gayles really wanted, to have drawing workshops and career workshops, which is something that I was interested in extending that to my students, as well as for them to see the representation of the creators. All of this, of course, at a library where, you know, literacy and representation is at the core of what we do. And so that very first Festival really immersed me into the world because I was able to meet independent creators, who just expanded the genre not only for my kids, but for me and for the community at large. I mean that for the Harlem community, for the New York City community, there was this incredible ripple effect. Like, we were going to be happy if 500 people came and a few thousand people came that first year and it grew ever since then. The typical January event sees anywhere from seven to ten thousand people come through over the course of a weekend. So we just had the 8th Annual Black Comic Book Festival and that's kind of the Genesis story.
So did the Black Comics Collective come out of that Festival?
Yes, so the Black Comics Collective came for me when I was leaving the Schomburg in 2017. I was leaving there to pursue my doctorate at Teacher’s College Columbia University and I had such a such strong relationships with the comics community at that point that I wanted to be sure that the community and the creators stayed connected and I was committed to finding new avenues for events and programming to happen in different spaces, as well, outside of the Schomburg. And so I formed the Black Comics Collective to be that nexus.
It sounds like you viewed the formation of the Black Comics Collective as a necessity, which is sort of what I suspected, but would you say it was more an outgrowth of your affinities or an extension of your your scholarly work or what you view as your scholarly mission or maybe some combination of both?
It’s combination of both, actually. So my affinities as a Cultural Producer for my 15 years working at the Schomburg, I created three youth programs and every year I created a calendar of public programs for young people, for teachers, and for the general public and so I was very much in my position as a Cultural Producer, thinking about what was possible for this community, like the conversations that could be had and the interaction that the platform could create. That was like my Cultural Producer head and my scholarly work has everything to do with the work that I practiced as an educator working at an archive for Black History and Culture and that has to do with how we teach about the Black experience, whether it's looking historically at the Black experience in America and across the globe or if it's looking at our contemporary climate, the current events, and what's going on now in society, and it's also asking questions about how we look forward because I find that there are afrofuturists in the past that we study constantly and it has to do with how they envisioned what was possible for Black people that drove the work that they did and their time period . And so it's that afrofuturist vision that always got me really excited about teaching the past, and so I wanted to be sure that my students could activate that afrofuturist vision for themselves - the idea that, as Alisha B. Wormsley said, “There Are Black People In The Future” and the world that we intend to create begins today and also recognizing that, you know, there are people all over the globe envisioning our future that may not be one that we want to occupy, so we need to be sure that young people are thinking like designers and engineers in terms of building and joining in coalition with those who are building the future that they do want. So, that's my scholarly work and some of those issues and questions would find their ways into the panel discussions at these events. It certainly found its way into a multimedia exhibition that we created at the Schomburg the year before I left and that exhibition was called Unveiling Visions: The Alchemy of the Black Imagination and those questions continue to drive the work that I'm doing now in my doctoral work.
If I could circle back briefly, it sounds to me like you built a culture from the ground up with your work at the Schomburg and your work in Black Comics Collective. In terms of your initial encounters with the wider world of mainstream fandom. Did you have initial experiences of it? I'm talking about, I guess, for lack of a better term, the Entertainment Industrial Complex of mainstream fandom. In the context of your work and your identity, did you feel welcomed and represented in those spaces?
It’s a great question, Ian. Especially being in New York City, we’re going back to my position as parent, taking own son to New York Comic Con, right? And this is pre-Black Panther. Black Panther changed the whole game as you know.
I have several questions on that coming up, yes.
So this is before Black Panther when, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe captured a new generation. So, my son was very much the target of that new storytelling and so, taking him to New York Comic-Con and being a part of kind of that mega, as you said, Entertainment Industrial Complex and, you know, feeling then, even, the very marginal representation of Black creators and Black products and properties. I mean, I was very aware of that and it wasn't until you got down to the nitty-gritty, like you would have to go up and down every aisle of Artist’s Alley to find a couple of brothers and sisters of color who had work there and then talking with them, you know, I began to really learn how it was really difficult to even be there and even being there didn’t guarantee that they would be seen because just the the competition, the overwhelm, the the kind of density of those events doesn't mean that all of those people walk by their table, you know? Everybody is kind of star gazing or chasing their faves,right? Well, there's a whole other thing happening at those mega-cons and having that experience helped me to say “Yes, yes, yes!” to hosting a festival at the Schomburg because I knew that we could create a platform thatwas the opposite, where, you know, the Black talent was the center of the attraction. And I learned in doing that, that the the communities around comics were thrilled beyond measure. We've always had somewhere between 35 and 50 artists a day at this event at Schomburg. For the community to have that type of talent assembled in one place was, as they said, miraculous and something to celebrate. It was like Jubilee and not just to have the vending but to have the programming attached, soo you got to actually talk to folks and get signatures for books that they've collected their whole lives. They had the chance to meet artists from across the country who came to New York for this event. And so it really was - and I still think is - the biggest independent Black comic convention out there. And so the community really said we want this, please, thank you, more, do it again. And that was the fuel to produce it annually.
Can you speak to the emotional reaction of your initial experience at the New York Comicon, when you saw that lack of representation? Was it a frustration that you felt? Was it a sadness? I don't know if that's an insensitive or intrusive question, but I want to get at how it affects a person who is trying to be in these spaces as they see or don’t see representation.
So interesting, you know, I would have to say I didn’t experience it as a sadness because what New York Comic Con is very successful at doing is creating a community around geekdom that every geek is happy that they're together with, you know, thousands of other geeks, who geek out about the same things that they do. I don’t say that lightly. I really mean it and I mean it in a way that it is a space where you can be strange and weird and quirky and have, you know, odd preferences for crazy comics or animation or science fiction. So it brings, people from the fringes together and that is a celebratory feeling and so, as a person in that space, I could feel that sense of celebration. The missing layer sometimes would be the representation of Black people, people of color, but there is still enough diversity that I wouldn't feel cheated at that event. I wouldn't walk away sad.
There’s so much more. It’s another story, but I began to work with ReedPop on a few tangential NYCC events to bring that diversity into their spaces. So, that's another conversation. My experience was, again, as a producer, knowing that this is this is a fun space. It's a space that celebrates geek culture. So, no, I didn't feel sad, but I definitely knew there were more people beyond what was represented in that space.
Okay, thank you very much.
You’re welcome. And I will say that I have more of a fear of the commercialization of the kind of megawatt brands over the artisan. There’s a difference between the main floor and Artist’s Alley.
It seems to me that Black Comics Collective, based on what I've seen of the programming, has dual missions: An inward-facing mission to celebrate what people in Black Comics fandom and creators are excited about and an outward-facing mission, which is to highlight exemplary works and creators for the wider world, such as those selected for your recent panel appearance at this at the Schomburg Center Literary Festival, which took place on September 21-26, just a few days ago. Does this seem like an accurate assessment?
Yes, because to me it's the work of amplifying the voices of these creators. So, it's celebrating it within the community, but broadcasting it to the world, so yes.
So, in that regard, and I think you've definitely touched on this, but I would like to maybe have a chance to underscore it, can you talk about what qualities in a work are valuable when looking through the lens of Black Comics Collective’s missions and can you say a little about the titles that you discussed at the recent event, touching upon why they were highlighted?
There are so many ways to do it. Every time I create a panel, I'm looking for different qualities because I'm looking to curate a conversation that unites different works around similar ideas and so for the Back to School with Black Comics and Graphic Novels panel at the Schomburg Literary Festival this past week, I was really interested in looking at works that celebrated young adult characters, that centered those characters, that gave life to alternative ways of being for those young people featured in those books, that broke stereotypes for the kinds of representation of the Black experience.
I'm a big fan of Kwame Alexander and other writers, but there's also a popular fiction narrative of, you know, the Black boy basketball player and the hard knock life that he lives, right? So, when I was thinking about the young adult stories that I wanted to highlight, I was looking for alternatives to that. Not that that is not a valid story. And so I was looking at Jerry Craft’s New Kid and his new book that's coming out next month, Class Act, as a graphic novel about a black boy who goes to a private school and is the new kid and has to navigate race and discrimination and representation, along with the typical things that middle-schoolers experience as new kids and as adolescents coming of age. His book is critically-acclaimed on all levels. He’s won the highest book prize, the Newbery award for the graphic novel, the Coretta Scott King award and so, so many others. What’s awesome about that is that that conversation about a little boy navigating middle school is being discussed across the country and, assumingly, beyond these United States, by kids. The sense is that, by ripple effect, you know, this is going to impact change and people's points of view, people's understanding of a young boy’s experience. And so I wanted to definitely bring Jerry into that conversation about young adulthood.
There’s Shauna Grant, who has a series called Princess Love Pon and she's a young Black woman who is a big fan of Japanese anime and shoujo culture and really wanted to create a space for a Black girl to participate in that space and what she found special about it is the idea that, you know, everyone has magical power and rich imagination and can celebrate their own inner beauty, their talent, and their ability to solve problems creatively and so she's bringing that, through her stories, to young adult audiences and I thought that was really special and unique. It doesn't happen all the time. In fact a lot of Black kids, when they are interested in anime and manga, only see that they they should duplicate the kind of drawing style and the story of the Japanese creators. They want to draw Naruto just like they see on the pages. As an educator, I wanted just to encourage them all to create your own character that might reflect some of your experiences but could incorporate this world that you love so much and that's what Shauna does.
Then there’s Greg Anderson Elysée whose series Is’Nana The Were-Spider brings in African mythology to a series of stories about a young boy coming of age who's actually the son of Anansi the Spider, a huge character in African mythology and how he grapples with the the superpowers that he's inherited in a new world than his father and he brings that with what he calls Horror-esque kind of stories, because there is always kind of an element of fantasy in his stories, but he's definitely rooted in the coming-of-age story, again, that is really important to young people. How do you kind of step into your power? How do you not let your ego drive you? How do you balance good and evil? How do you define who you want to be as a character? All of those kinds of questions.
Lastly on that panel was Elizabeth Montague, who I just met, she’s new to me and I met her because she did a Google doodle on Jackie Ormes recently and Jackie Ormes was a pioneering Black female cartoonist and then I learned about Liz’s work. She does single panel comics called Liz at Large and she's the youngest and first Black female cartoonist to be featured as a regular in the New Yorker magazine. So, what was really cool about her Liz at Large was here was someone who was bringing this tremendous amount of social consciousness kind of a Black consciousness to this very sardonic, witty space of the single panel cartoon that reflected on the current state of the world, right? So she was just such a refreshing face, portraying a young woman with a refreshing point of view on the world and that, too, is very valuable because it's unfortunately atypical in terms of how the mainstream represent young Black women. So, yes, I was shaping that panel to kind of enlarge the conversation around Black experiences of Black representation in comics.
It sounds like it was successful by any measure, not just by the measure of expectations for a virtual event. Was that the first virtual event you’ve moderated during the pandemic? As a larger question, can you speak to what kind of challenges COVID-19 has presented to your work and the work of Black Comics Collective?
I put together that panel, but the literary festival as a whole was not produced by me. For the sake of what you’re asking, yes, it was the first virtual event. What I liked about what virtual events offer is that you can connect with people from far away and from different space. Nobody has to travel and travel is such an obstacle for artists and comic creators just financially, logistically, the timing, but even to get Jerry Craft, who's always busy in the last year, who's been, you know, pre-quarantine, who had been on the road constantly, to get him to show up for an event would be really, really difficult. But to get him to show up for two hours in the middle of the day, where he doesn’t have to leave his house was much more possible. It has increased the amount of access we have to creators. That's true, too because, I taught a course in the summer on Black comics and I was able to get a lot of folks to call in and be interviewed by my students and that was amazing because they wouldn't have been able to travel to my school to sit in on the class. It just wouldn't have made sense to a lot of those folks, especially from California, or Portland, and all these other places, right? So that was really awesome.
Can you talk about the criteria for success within the context of your work with Black Comics Collective? I know you’ve had a series of very successful gatherings, for example. In the context of the broader mission of the group, what is a win?
I have a couple of different criterion and I have to say I have to say I have been doing this at the Black Comics Collective for three years, but as part of the Schomburg, counting back to 2011 when we did the first one, it’s been almost ten years now and there are lots of ways to judge the win. Like you said, the win is convening the community and just, on every person's face, from the kids to the parents, we saw a lot of dad and kid combos because the dad is a comics fan and he's out with the kids and I wanted a family connection. So, whenever folks are really excited about meeting the creators and reading new books, that’s definitely a win. When the comics creators are getting exposure that they, deserve and supporting and distributing their work, so, independently, they might sell, you know, 50 books in a month, but when they come to a con they sell 500 books, that's amazing to be in support of small business and artists in that way.
I think on a larger platform, what I've seen and intently focused on is communicating with the publishing community. We even hosted an event with Penguin Books. We actually as a community of 40 artists went to Penguin to create a showcase of Black illustrators because they had just started their Graphix imprint and there were a couple of editors who wanted to field these knee-jerk comments they were hearing inside the company about “Where are we going to find the artists? We don't know enough Black artists.” So, they reached out to me and we brought 40 artists for showcase. That was an amazing thing! It took me a few days to put together that event. To be a conduit for that kind of networking and connection which has generated work for some of the artists’ presence, that was A-mazing, capital A, for me because in a way I'm not sure what the Black Comics Collective is going to do. It's a creative thing that's ripe for innovation and collaboration. And so that was amazing.
And I think we've seen more folks have the courage to start local comic book days and festivals and collaboration with their local libraries based all over the country and Atlanta and New Jersey, and so just the ripple effect of people wanting to celebrate these creators of these writers has also been a win because we've created a model that people can easily just emulate and that they can come to an event that we’re giving, grow the network, which is a distribution network, which is an entertainment network of these works. And then lastly I would say that something that's really special for me is, having the first con nine years ago, and seeing - there are three folks who fall into this category - seeing a comic creator show up with their very first book hot off the press, right, and then each year seeing them grow their offerings to the second book, the third, the fourth, a new series. So that, by now, they have five or six books that are in print and circulating. To see the folks who have books with really incredible marketable properties the option for film, to see some of these creators go on to create television properties, to see that transmedia action happening in in through these communities is amazing! It’s really amazing.
I learned about the work you are doing with Black Comics Collective by way of the Utopian Horizons podcast. The conversation you had there about Black Panther was very illuminating to me. I would like to know how your work studying Afrofuturism has prepared you for the work you do as a scholar, an educator, and in the Black Comics Collective. In your conversation on Utopian Horizons, you said:
“In popular culture, the aesthetics are the first things that begin to surface and begin to be consumed by a broader public, but I think if you look into philosophy and into science and into architecture and into design and into health, you'll see people who are Afrofuturist thinkers doing work, but not necessarily in the pop culture conversation.”
In your view, how important is it to bring the work of those Afrofuturist thinkers into the broader pop culture conversation and to whom do you think that responsibility falls?
I appreciate you pulling this thread out because this is the work of my scholarship and it’s the work of my pedagogy as a teacher.
I'll take first the piece of whose responsibility it is to bring out those connections. As a teacher, I always feel that it's my responsibility as I'm teaching to be making connections to past, present, and future, but to make sure that there's always rolling conversation of what came before, what’s going on now, and what could be. That is like the center of my practice.
When it comes popular culture, I think the equivalent to that is the creative or the creative director in some spaces. So, the filmmaker, the TV show writer. Like when you think about a show like Lovecraft Country. What they have done is they’ve taken this very rich historical context on the show and they have imbued it with so much actual historical fact that it elevates that conversations that are being had even through the fictional story telling they’re positing. They're doing more than referencing the past. They're really stitching in history in their storytelling. It's the same thing that the Watchmen did when it brought attention to Tulsa, Oklahoma, right? It's like creating these windows or these portals to actual history or to actual issues that have historical context and are important conversations for us to be having in society today. So those creative, those writers, those directors, are doing that work.
You see that in Black Panther, too. Beyond putting the Black Panther story on the screen, the creatives who aesthetically created the world of Wakanda for us, did that work. They put Africa, through an African-American imagination, on the screen for us, but it wasn't purely imaginative. It was historically rooted in actual, material culture. So it’s rich in layers of truth, of heritage, and of culture that's really important to, you know, the fiction that we indulge in in the pop culture space. So, have I answered your question? (laughing)
You have and that brings me right to my next question. I think that it’s safe to say that you view Black Panther as a game changer. Would you call it the new standard for Afrofuturism done well in pop culture? What about the film, in total, makes the film work so well when considering it in this light?
My first impulse is to say that Black Panther is located in the present, so Afrofuturism, to me, is an interesting way to talk about Black Panther because it means that you have to go back in time to make it an Afrofuturist work, right? And that’s the work of the imagination, right? That’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to imagine a past that was uninterrupted by colonialism. And then imagine what could have been, so then we arrive at Wakanda. It’s an awesome exercise that is extremely liberating both for it what it offers in terms of a continuity of African culture and philosophy and language, that we could still be speaking our mother tongue, that we could still be celebrating our ancestral spirits, but also be technologically advanced in terms of what science has been able to do in the last, you know, four hundred years, so that would also be present on the African continent. That’s a Freedom Dream as they call it. That’s a liberatory thing to think about. That’s one of the ways, for sure, that it’s a game changer.
But I think in terms of the kind of Entertainment Industrial Complex, as you called it, for Marvel to ride the the wave of the cinematic blockbuster with its films and then at the apex of that wave, I think, to put out Black Panther just was like global domination of a set of images and a story that is so important to, I would say, all of us, to world culture. I think it's just important to popular culture to include Black people, African people, people of color in conversation with crises of global dimensions, right? This is what science fiction deals with all the time. So. on that side of the world, here’s what the people of Wakanda are doing and are capable of joining the fight of the Avenger to save the world, that it's not just a Western- dominated thing. So, it's like, finally, other parts of the world are in this conversation that we all love and you know vicariously experience and enjoy but the globalization manifestation there is just tremendous and that’s why I think it's a game changer, but I don't think filmmakers can go backwards from that kind of global multiculturalism. It will look weak if they did.
I’m really struck by the the optimism with which you speak and the optimistic tone of Black Comics Collective. It seems like the primary concern is celebrating the culture and the creators within it. Do you think that there's anything to be gained - and I guess you know as a corollary, would it fall to Black Comics Collective - to examine the comic book culture at large with a more critical eye and and sort of unpack, you know, the negative aspects of it that have sort of been baked into it over the years: the cultural appropriation, the creators telling stories about other cultures without consulting the people within those cultures, and the harmful stereotypes. Would you say that is that within the purview of the mission?
It is, but I would have to say they are small in in number, but there are a number of black scholars who have done that work and are doing that work. There’s a book called Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes that looks at Black superheroes in Marvel and DC Comics by Adilifu Nama. There’s a book called The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art by John Jennings. There's a book called Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation by Sheena Howard. There’s even a new book called The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging by Rebecca Wanzo. There is some really good, in-depth work happening, but, again, on a scholarly level, but its interrogating the comics universe in this way.
How those works translate into popular consumption? They don’t always.
Having worked at an archive and as an educator, I am the person between the scholar and the student. There needs to be people in this middle space that are bringing the conversations to the broad public, let alone the young people. The Black Comics Collective thrives in that space, the public programming space, but to kind of bridge those conversations because, outside of the scholarly world and University conversations, people might not be engaging.
But they are because they're having that conversation in their living rooms, around the movie theater, but they’re not coming together per se. That’s where my work thrives, I think: in the lanes between and across.
Do you think stories have yet been told in the medium of comics that have adequately, or approaching adequately, addressed the issues, the flashpoints, the concerns, or the conflicts of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, either literally or tonally?
Absolutely. This work is happening in independent comics. When we talk about the comics industry, I'm talking about people who are being published by the publishing companies and people who are self publishing also and who may have their own publishing company or small partnerships in publishing companies. And so you have a property like the comic book Black, written by Kwanza Osajyefo and Tim Smith. It’s a series of comic books that deal directly with police brutality and the carceral state and it asks the question “What if only black people had super powers?” The salient aspect of that question is that what if black people’s super power was their ability to survive systemic racism? It’s really that deep.
There's another book called I Am Alfonso Jones. It’s a YA graphic novel written by Tony Medina. It's an intersection of a couple of properties that you might be familiar with, but basically there is a young, bright, wonderful high school kid in Harlem, who gets shot by a police officer, but actually become a ghost because he's trapped in purgatory and is a witness to the way his school community and his family and the larger community, who is protesting these shootings, is dealing with his death.
What do you envision for the future of Black Comics Collective? What kinds of of goals would you like to see the group meet and what kind of growth would like to see for the group and for the community?
I think about this, like, every other day. (laughs) I think inevitably where some of my creativity and my desire is going is beyond creating live spaces for these conversations. I am very interested in getting into publishing so that I can begin to support the kinds of stories that will fill in the kinds of gaps that we talked about, but also in collecting stories that really address topics and themes that are important to me. So there’s a way to do anthologies that will do that work and also be the bridge between the independent world and all the readers, especially young people, who really deserve access to this great creative work. I think growing readership is a big part of the future, as well as nurturing the creative skill-building, and the story telling skills of the next generation. Yeah.