Comic book pros teach youth to draw diverse heroes that reflect their communities

To learn about drawing comic book superheroes who looked, sounded and seemed like her, an artistic African American fourth grade girl, Amira Sloan walked over to the Falls of Schuylkill Branch of the Free Library from Thomas Mifflin Elementary, before her mom picked her up from school Wednesday.

“I am into art. I have painted before, flowers and stuff. I’ve drawn super heroes, but just made up a few,” Sloan said before attending the STARS (Storytelling That Advances Reading Skills) comic book art workshop program.

Yumy Odom, founder of the STARS program and the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention, told the East Falls workshop group it is important to “begin to have a conversation about the reality that any of you can become a professional comic book publisher. So you can support yourselves and your family with this. It is possible, doable and very much needed.”

At the workshop, STARS instructor and professional artist Akinseye Brown guided the 13 participants through a history of comics, and talked about how to infuse comics with the personalities, looks and styles of comics creators who are just like neighborhood Philly kids. They provided paper, pencils, rulers and technical tips about making panels and outlining stories.

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“I think it was good information to give a kid who is in the younger grades so that they know what to do when they get older,” Sloan said about the workshop. “It really showed how to draw a person from their profile – how to draw eyes and noses.”

Reflecting the community

After 90 minutes of instruction, participants had learned a lot, but there were no capes, costumes, or laser beams drawn in any artwork. Grant Talley, 16, sketched a superhero who could fly, but nobody could tell just yet, and that was OK. Grant and the others, who ranged in age from three to 51, had crafted the two key ingredients for making superheroes the STARS way.

Those two elements? A skillfully drawn symmetrical face, and the invisible but real sense that somehow, whatever else his character possessed, he would be an amazing extension of Grant himself, or his friend Joseph K. Zeze, who also attended.

“The comic book industry is still a growing industry,” Brown said. “The images, stories and content of comic books have not fully reflected our community as much as it can. We love them, read them, draw them,” he said, but the industry “may not reflect as much of our ideas and thoughts as it could.”

Brown emphasized that super-powers, super costumes, and super equipment were not the only important things to learn to make an Avengers story or break into the comics business. Indeed, thanks to personal computers and drawing software programs today, the idea of breaking in is even outdated.

“I self-publish,” Brown said. “So I want to give you a bit of a sense of what it is like to be a part of that industry. You might want to start your own business, write your own stories. And you can.”

Starting with yourself

Brown added, “I used to watch Saturday morning cartoons religiously. I watched Superfriends. You all watch Justice League? I used to watch Scoobie Doo. I used to get coloring books. Then I said ‘wait a minute, I got my own ideas.’ And my ideas looked like me.”

One of the younger workshop attendees asked directly, “Isn’t that racist?”

Unfazed, having heard the question before, Odom answered, “Well, when you do stuff creatively, you usually start with yourself. Akin’s parents were both artists who made African art (and clothing). Because of your exposure or unexposure,” artists draw things or people based on research into Greek or Norse mythology, or personal experiences.

“Part of this is to make these characters as normal as any other characters,” Odom said.

The next STARS Comic Book workshop will be held at Oak Lane Library (on 12th Street) on Monday, May 21, at 3:30 p.m. At that workshop, youth and teens can see replicas of Action Comics #1 and giant-sized X-Men #1 covers, which introduced the world to Superman and the X-Men team with Storm and Wolverine. Kids will also get hands-on art tips from a STARS professional and get information about the comics industry today, with a special emphasis on the importance for readers to see diverse superheroes. For more information, contact Kate Bowman-Johnston at 215-685-2848.

Odom and Brown’s EBBA Conference, which has been held in Philadelphia the past 11 years, will be at the Enterprise Center Saturday, May 19, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and will include art sales, displays, and workshops similar to the one coordinated with Falls Children’s Librarian Ann Blasberg.

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