The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem is hosting the 10th annual Black Comic Book Festival this weekend. But aside from an exhibition on display at the library celebrating the milestone, all events are virtual for the second year in a row, thanks to surging cases of COVID-19.
But while it may not have quite the same sprawling reach as larger conventions like New York City Comic Con or Anime NYC, “SchomCon” has fostered a growing community of Black comic book creators and fans who have come together to celebrate the medium and talk about their place in the comics world. And thanks in part to the decision to stream panel discussions online, the Black Comic Book Festival has spent the last two years stretching beyond the hallways of the library building to draw guests and audience members from around the world.
Kadiatou Tubman is the manager of education programs and outreach at the Schomburg Center, and has organized the Black Comic Book Festival since 2017. She joined Gothamist/WNYC to talk about celebrating the festival’s anniversary amid a second year of hosting virtual events. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Hear WNYC host Sean Carlson interview Kadiatou Tubman:
First, congratulations on the 10th anniversary of the festival. This is also the second year in a row that it's had to be held virtually because of the pandemic. How has that affected the festival and your expectations for it?
Well, I'll say last year, it really took us for a shock that we wouldn't be able to do it in person because the way the festival works. It's really a communal kind of event. You come into the Schomburg Center and there are balloons and streamers, there's music playing. You have exhibitors lined up on tables throughout the building. And it's just a buzz in the space where people can just talk to each other and meet with each other and make connections.
But I knew it was necessary that we kept the event going, because there were so many people who needed this event. And so, in transitioning into virtual, I'm not going to say it was easy. It was actually deeply challenging. I had to learn how to build a website. I am a Wix expert at this point, I can add that to my resume. We have to really consider ASL translation and captioning, so we can continue to make this event even more accessible to the folks who tune in.
I don't know if "silver lining" is the right word, but is there an argument to be made that this really does increase the accessibility of this event and other events?
I think there is a good argument and it should be made, absolutely. I think moving forward, we actually have been talking about that this event has to have both in-person and virtual.
So this year, for example, we have a panel called “Black In Anime,” and that panel took so much work to do it virtually, I could not imagine how we would have done it if it was in person. We had Arthell Isom tuning in from Japan, like a day behind us; we had folks from California. We had an artist from Nigeria who was on a single panel, who were just coming in to talk about their work, and I don't know if we could have had that access to those folks if we were in-person. So I think that's just one example of showing not only are we able to expand what kinds of artists and works, what kind of Black comics we can bring to the audience, but who we can be in conversation with.
How has the conversation about Black representation in comics changed? Are people still focusing on the major superhero characters like Black Panther and Miles Morales from Spider-Man? Comics go way beyond superheroes, what about other genres?
I've been with the festival for five years and I've been able to witness how much of an impact comics has made in popular culture, but also the conversations happening within our community. As an educator and someone who works on the ground with young people and teachers, I'm constantly looking for stories that are not always so super. I want my students to see themselves reflected, but not always have the expectation that they have to be extraordinary, that they have to be super, that they have to be exceptional. Because honestly that's not even how we created this event.
It started as just ordinary people organizing, coming together, and saying there's a need and a want for representation that expands what we think Black people should be represented as. And so you see a lot more stories about mental health, you see a lot more stories about queer characters, gender-nonconforming characters. You see stories about disabled characters, disabled Black people. So we're expanding what representation in comics looks like within our community and not just in the mainstream. It's beyond just drawing and writing stories; it's more like how do we get these stories into the hands of young people so that when they grow up, they're inspired to recognize what's happening around them and change the world that they're living in.
Now that the festival has been running for 10 years, where do you want to see it go in the next 10?
My dream is for every state, because to be quite honest there's so many other incredible conventions like ours, but my dream is for us to make these connections and continue to collaborate so that young people across the country can have it in their communities, in their neighborhoods, at their libraries.
Editor's Note: You can stream panels live at the Black Comic Book Festival website, and they will all be archived and accessible at any time through the Schomburg Center’s YouTube channel.