I had a chance encounter with Afua Richardson—the pansophic earth mama and rising comic book prima donna that was all the rage at the 2015 New York Comic-Con in October, and what was mere beauty parlor chitchat and pleasantries turned into a half-hour colloquy about multiculturalism, modern-day comic book and geek culture, women in refrigerators, the macroclimate of the political zeitgeist, the Bechdel test and representation.
After syncing up and various e-mails back and fourth, we had a lengthier tête-à-tête about Ms. Richardson’s hajj from singer-songwriter to comic book illustrator, the evolution of hip-hop in comics, the male gaze in comics, diversity in the world of superheroes, and social justice.
What was it that initially drew you to the world of superheroes in tights?
In kindergarten, I greeted my 1st classmate with “I can shoot my nails out! SNIKT!” so it’s safe to say, comics have been apart of my life for a very long time. By age 9, I was a hopeless tomboy with more comics than clothing in my closet. I was a fan of the Avengers, Excalibur, Allan Moore’s Swamp Thing (though I understood nothing of what was going on). I was also a fan of Spider-Man, Heavy Metal comics and anything to do with Wolverine (obviously) and later Batman. His bruiting, mysterious and dark personality intrigued me. It was not a typical happy-go-lucky protagonist. He was fueled by something different. Something familiar, and like many of the characters I read, I empathized with their feelings of exclusion. After my mother threw out my entire prized collection of comics, my heartache made me stay away until I was in high school. Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal and Top Cow’s Fathom re-sparked that geeky flame. I was often in horrible situations as a child. Some I wish I could forget. But I loathed bullies because of it. I was a pretty tall kid so I’d stop kids from picking on others, chase down kids who stole from my friends and defend those who couldn’t, even if it meant I’d get a punch to the gut and lose a tooth. From the schoolyard to the graveyard, I’d defend my friends like the heroes from the pages of my favorite books. Making stories of my own seemed like the next logical step.
You are a self-taught artist. How did you get started?
In my early 20’s, I took on some secretarial work. Many offices had computers with Adobe Photoshop installed on them. I’d take my lunch breaks to apply my previous watercolor hobby to digital techniques some time in 2001. I had friends who advised and encouraged me like Chuck Collins, Brandon Graham and Caesar Antomattei who gave hand-me-down computers, recommendations and a shoulder to cry on when I couldn’t figure life out. Friends like Mike Turney would bring me to comic conventions and showed my work to the likes of Neal Adams, Brandon Eastman of Heavy Metal and others like Ivan Brandon and Andy MacDonald, where I got my early anthology and pin-up work from. After working in a jingle house doing commercial voiceovers (and cleaning the toilets…), I decided to take my first vacation ever to San Diego Comic-Con where I met the phenomenal Marc Silvestri. Six months later, I get a call to do my first full-length comic book where I designed the characters and did the pencils, inks and colors myself for Top Cow. The rest was history.
You once said that your father, a physicist and oil painter, dropped “45s and paintbrushes on your lap and helped foster your obsession with the arts. What was your childhood like? Was it a creative and intellectual household?
Sadly, my home was anything but peaceful. Not to disparage my family, but dealing with a family member with mental illness really distorts your sense of self. My dad, older sister Nataki and my friends were my lifeline. They did the best they could to give me the support they could while keeping themselves afloat in chaos. I was appreciative of my father and [our] silent communication. Classical and Jazz music while we read books. Small platitudes and sayings. I often spent a lot of time around the city of New York alone, finding little places to draw or play my flute. My home life is something I don’t often speak about. I’d spent years trying to heal from the wounds of the past. But you know, I can put it in my work. I can speak to others who are going through the same thing and let them know that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you don’t have, you can make your reality if you’re objective is to truly help people. Things kind of have a way of reciprocating that action.
You are a comic book illustrator who does pencils, digital inks and colors, with medium of choice being primarily digital/vector illustrations. Is this how most contemporary artists create their work and do you think that with the advent of digital comics that digital art is the future of comics?
Digital work became a matter of practicality. Moving around a lot meant not always having a desk to work on. The only constant thing in my life was a job with a computer. I learned to work in different places on the same file. Plus, only having digital corrections was a lot less costly an activity. Now that things are a lot more peaceful and stable in my life, I can venture back into incorporating my painting and live media in my new works.
Tell us, how did you begin your journey from regular illustrator to one of the hottest comic book artists in the game?
Goodness! How kind! I feel lukewarm at best! My grandfather, Edward Jenkins is a photographer and builder in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He told me that if I wanted to be accepted as half as okay I’d have to be three times as good. So currently, I’m halfway to where I want to be in my mind. Chasing the carrot keeps me sharp. I have so much to learn, but to be honest; if it were not for the support of my art community—which I’d built online over the past 10 years—I’d be a feather in the sea of iniquity. It is to them that I owe my platform. I stand on the shoulders of their support and I try to share as much as I can with them as they do with me!
Best work to date?
Ooooh… So hard to choose. I see flaws with all my work. But my Koi maids from a future personal book called the Book of Mer might be my favorite work of mine if I had to choose. I labored over them. Spending weeks on each detail. Often, work is not afforded that kind of lengthy gestation. So I hope to speed up to be able to put more care in each piece in less time. Maybe the Langton Hughes comic rendition of the “Negro Speaks of Rivers” as a close second? But I’m not a fan of my own work yet. Yet.
Any characters you’d love to test your skills on?
To be honest, I think I’m most excited to write a few of my own when I’ve afforded myself the time. But a secret wish project would be to make a series of the blue-skinned X-Men: Mystique, Beast and Nightcrawler, and maybe make someone new! I know, its weird. But blue folks have to stick together. [She laughs without a flicker of rue.] Maybe even a go at John Constantine. I’ve got a love of sci-fi and the esoteric. So those would cover all my geeky bases.
During our first meeting at Comic-Con, you gave me such great spoilers about what some of your upcoming projects with Marvel are! What can you spill the tea on to the public at this time? What current projects are you working on?
Ooh… secrets, secrets. A gal has to have some. I will say leather is involved! Oh and sunglasses. Definitel,y sunglasses. But I can talk about the Attack on Titan Anthology I’ll be apart of at Random House! But I’ll hold my tongue until I have goodies to share! I have an art book out called the ART OF AFUA RICHARDSON available online now. It will be in select stores soon!