A professor at Rider University in New Jersey is the first African-American woman to win the highest honor in the world of comic books — the Eisner Award — for an academic study of black comics.
Sheena Howard came to comics late in life. She was in her 20s and a student at Howard University when she started reading “The Boondocks,” a newspaper comic strip about two African-American boys who cannot assimilate into a mostly-white suburb.
“Two different people could be reading these comic strips — one white and one black — and we will both be laughing. And we might be laughing at something different,” said Howard, now an assistant professor of communication. “That is how that comic strip became so popular — as well as being so controversial.”
After it ended its newspaper run in 2006, the comic strip created by Aaron McGruder continued as an animated television series. It’s fourth and final season ended in June.
The complex identity politics of “The Boondocks” was so rich that Howard based her doctoral dissertation on it.
“But in trying to write that literature review for my dissertation, I couldn’t find one book that gave me the history of the contributions of black comic strip artists,” said Howard. “A lot of books that talked about the history of American comics didn’t even mention black artists.”
That dissertation became the basis of “Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation,” a collection of academic essays edited by Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II. It includes analyses of cartoonists Jackie Ormes (“Torchy Brown”) and Ollie Harrington (“Dark Laughter”), of sexualized superheroines, and of political messaging in graphic design.
To Howard’s surpise, those academic efforts won her an Eisner Award, regarded as the Oscars of comic books, announced in July at the San Diego Comic Con.
“I think if I wrote this book a year before, or a year after, it would not even have been nominated for an Eisner,” said Howard. “Right now, as you can see particularly in Marvel comics, you can see a concerted effort for diversity. Not necessarily inclusion, but at least diversity.”
Marvel Comics recently announced that Thor — the hammer-wielding hero based on the Norse god — will be portrayed as female, while the World War II ace Captain America will retire from avenging duty and be replaced by the African American hero The Falcon.