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Beyond ‘Black Panther’: Afrofuturism Is Booming in Comics

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When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, he found author and illustrator John Jennings to be so unprecedented, a rupture in American history, that it was like an event from a distant future.

“Before that, the only time you saw a president who was black was in a science fiction movie,” he said in a phone interview last month. Jennings compared it to the imaginative leaps that can be found in the most forward-looking works that are classified as “Afrofuturist”.

This year, afro-futurism fans will see a plethora of comics and graphic novels, including the first offerings of a new reprint dedicated to black speculative fiction and reprints of afrofuturistic titles from comic houses like DC and Dark Horse.

Afrofuturism, whether in novels, films or music, imagines worlds and futures in which African diaspora and science fiction overlap. The term was coined in 1993 by writer Mark Dery and has since been applied to the novels of Octavia Butler (“Kindred”), the musical styles of jazz composer Sun Ra, and more recently to films like “Get Out” and “Black” Panther, “the one presented great vision of the technologically advanced Vibranium powered nation of Wakanda.

“Afrofuturism is not new,” said Ytasha L. Womack, cultural critic and author of “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Science Fiction and Fantasy Culture,” a foundation and history of movement and aesthetics. “But the plethora of comics and graphic novels that are available is certainly a new experience.”

Graphic novels released in January included “After the Rain,” an adaptation of a short story by Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, and “Infinitum,” a story about African kings and space battles by New York-based artist Tim Fielder.

This month marks the long-awaited return of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ comics, Black Panther, which the National Book Award winning writer began in 2016, as well as the latest installment of Far Sector, a series by NK Jemisin and inspired by the Actress and musician Janelle Monáe on the first black woman to join the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps.

Older works are also given a new look. Black 90s comic book company Milestone superheroes – including Icon, an alien who crashed on Earth in 1839 and takes the form of an African American – are finding new readers on DC Universe Infinite, a subscription service that launched in January. Meanwhile, Oregon-based publisher Dark Horse plans to publish the comics of Nigerian-born writer Roye Okupe, who previously published them, including his Afro-futurist series “EXO,” a superhero story set in Nigeria in 2025.

Comics lend themselves particularly well to Afrofuturism, Womack said. Many Afro-futuristic narratives are non-linear, which comics can convey with their ability to move and stack panels to play with notions of time. Comic artists can also use visual elements, such as pictures from the Black Arts movement or characters from Yoruba and Igbo mythology, in ways that prose writers cannot.

“Afrofuturism is constantly moving into the future and back into the past, even with the visual references they make,” said Womack.

“After the Rain” marks the start of Megascope, a print by Abrams, “which is dedicated to the presentation of speculative works by and about people with color.” The advisory board includes scholar and author Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“Afrofuturism is the catch,” said Jennings, the founder and curator of the imprint. “It really is a speculative black fiction. But that’s kind of a sip. I just don’t want people to think Megascope is just an Afrofuturist. We drop horror books, crime fiction and historical novels. “

Okorafor, the author of the reprint’s leadoff title, “After the Rain,” views her work as “Africanfuturism,” a term she coined to describe a subcategory of science fiction that is similar to Afrofuturism, but deeper More rooted in African culture and history than in the African American experience. “Nnedi is a very hot writer right now,” Jennings said, “so I thought it would be a great start.”

In April, the masthead will publish “Hardears”, a fantasy adventure story on Jouvert Island, a version of Barbados populated by mythical creatures – giant “moongazers” and shape-shifting “soucouyants” – borrowed from Caribbean folklore. Black Star, a cat-and-mouse story of two astronauts stranded on an abandoned planet, is out in May.

As a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California at Riverside, Jennings has devoted much of his career to Afrofuturism, authoring scholarly papers and leading panels on Afro-futuristic comics. He has worked with artist Stacey Robinson as a duo “Black Kirby” to reinterpret the work of Marvel artist Jack Kirby through an African-American lens: for example “The Unkillable Buck”, based on “The Incredible Hulk”. ”

For Jennings, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. an Afrofuturist. “The mountaintop that Dr. King talked about doesn’t exist in this universe,” Jennings said. “It’s an imaginary construct of the future.”

For “Infinitum,” published by HarperCollins imprint Amistad, Fielder created Aja Oba, a powerful African king cursed with eternal life. Oba travels from Africa to the US and beyond, witnessing Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, the rise of American slavery, the civil rights movement and (spoiler alert) the death of our solar system.

Despite the fleet of spaceships on the cover, much of Fielder’s narrative is set in the story. “Afrofuturists don’t have the privilege of rejoicing all the time like general futurists,” said Fielder. “There is so much of our work that has been ignored, discarded, or destroyed that as an Afrofuturist I am forced to work on projects based on the past.”

Fielder’s immortal hero is also a response to the longtime cinematic troop of black men dying before the credits. One of his strongest childhood memories was the untimely end of the black hero in the 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead. “Whites all lose it, and it’s the only brother who keeps his wits about him,” he said. “And then he’s killed. I have never forgotten that. “

“Infinitum” has a decidedly cinematic feel to it – Fielder’s influences include Star Wars artist Ralph McQuarrie – and the common references and influences between comics and films are likely to continue. After Coates has restarted his run on “Black Panther” (and ends after three issues), Marvel Studios is expected to release “Black Panther II” while the producers at Disney are working on “Iwaju” with the comic company Kugali. An animated series in a futuristic Lagos.

Perhaps more than anything, Afro-futurist comics are a means of making racially inclusive claims to a multitude of futures. “And just because it’s about a black issue doesn’t mean it’s only for blacks,” Jennings said. “I love Daredevil, but Marvel would never say, ‘Oh, you know what? This is only for white, poor Irish-American people. ‘These stories are for everyone. “

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Robert Dunfee