It's common to see Black creators in the comic book industry highlighted and their achievements credited publicly every February. But almost a year after the world was shaken by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of police and the worldwide protests that followed, this Black History Month hits different.
Since then, businesses in all sectors have been hit with the harsh reality that their spaces might not have been as inclusive as they thought. Many companies, including comic book publishers, have made public commitments to make changes — but change is hard. It's even harder when the battle is fighting systemic racism in the middle of a pandemic-induced recession. One comic shop owner, a comics editor, and a journalist were tired of waiting on the industry to catch up. So they created The Access Guide to the Black Comic Book Community 2020-2021 to help retailers, consumers, libraries, and more find and support Black writers, artists, and creators.
Last year was a trying time for everyone, including indie publisher and founder/owner of Anyone Comics Dimitrios Fragiskatos, who constantly wondered if his little Brooklyn, New York, shop would financially survive the year. Fragiskatos' long-time friend Joe Illidge had even more pressing concerns. The former Valiant Comics editor and current editor-in-chief of fantasy comics mag Heavy Metal spent most of the spring and summer battling COVID-19 after he and his wife contracted the virus. Meanwhile, over in Manhattan, culture journalist George Carmona (Comics Beat, Narazu) and his wife made the tough choice to live separately so she could care for her elderly parents and avoid the same fate.
While recovering, Illidge kept an eye on social media as BIPOC creators were suddenly getting attention. After years of working in relative obscurity, Black creatives saw their artwork being viewed, scripts being read, and pitches heard. But many wondered if it was a permanent or fleeting change, including Illidge, who commented publicly that the changes ought to be commitments and not just lip service.
By summer's end, unlike many companies, Anyone Comics had made a profit through a combination of frugal spending and the generosity of a few loyal customers. Fragiskatos decided to put his money where his mouth was and publish a guide for Black-owned and Black-created comics to help creators, publishers, comic shops, and libraries find each other. He presented the idea to Illidge, who loved it, and came on board as editor. The pair then brought Carmona onboard to help with writing and research, and The Access Guide to the Black Comic Book Community was born.
As fans of the HBO show Lovecraft Country, the team compares the guide to the "Safe Negro Travel Guide" featured in the show (based on the real-life Negro Motorist Green Book, a reference guide that helped African Americans travel safely across the country during the Jim Crow era).
The 160-page guide features a foreword written by Arielle Johnson (founder of Amalgam Comics and Coffee) and four chapters covering comic books and creators, publishers, shops, and conventions that are either Black-owned or have published Black creators' work in print in 2020 and the first quarter of 2021. This includes both Marvel and DC as well as smaller indie imprints.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Fragiskatos, Illidge, and Carmona to find out how they chose what to include, how they're going to create a new guide every year, and why they're not making a dime in profits.
How do you think your book will help both Black creators and the industry as a whole?
Joe Illidge: It introduces all these creators and their works to not only customers but businesses and libraries. This is a wide-reaching book from a practical business standpoint. When it comes out if [a publisher] still says "we just can't find any Black creators," then they're complicit.
Dimitrios Fragiskatos: As a shop owner, a guide book for my customers that expands their tastes helps [my bottom line]. If I can introduce them to new creators and characters then I'm not so dependent on the whims of Marvel and DC.
You have compared this guide to the original Green Book, which was written to save African American lives. So what do you feel like you're saving the Black community from with this book?
George Carmona: When you see a creator's name in comics, the default is that there's a white person behind that name. We have to save ourselves from that. We have to re-educate ourselves from that. When you see a name in our book, the person who wrote that comic is Black. We're putting a face to those names and helping to inspire a new generation of creators so that they can see themselves.
Illidge: When I worked at Lion Forge, spearheading the Catalyst Prime imprint, there was an incident at a Diamond Distribution Retailers Summit. These events allow publishers to give presentations to retailers before launch. One of my colleagues was giving out cards at the presentation and a retailer took the card and picked his teeth with it. Right in front of us. That guy's store is not a safe space for Black consumers. It is not a safe space for Black comics. So from my point of view, this book saves people from entering territories that are not welcoming to them.
How do you think the guide helps with the perception of the work highlighted?
Illidge: It's about bridging the gap between readers and creators. Most of the world thinks that Black excellence began with the Black Panther film, but it's more than that. Look at Roye Okupe's YouNeek Studios deal and what he just accomplished with Dark Horse. That guy's been around for years putting out books, doing the work, and how many people really know about Malika: Warrior Queen or E.X.O.: The Legend of Wale Williams?
Fragiskatos: Our book, while having an ethnic focus, is a book that is meant for a wide audience. And that's something that we feel confident will be seen through the educational circuit.
With so much great work out there, how did you decide what made it into the book?
Carmona: So they had to have been a book that was published in 2020. So from January to December and then going into the first quarter of 2021. There are webcomics out there that we wanted to include, but we had a [time constraint] and we were focusing on print comics that went into stores.
Illidge: We were operating with a time limit because it was important for us that the book comes out in the first quarter of this year so that it would have validity for a period of time. Eventually, this issue will expire and we'll be working on the next book. Plus, the three of us did this with some help in our spare time.
Fragiskatos: We did our best to critique and represent as much as we could. But there is no directory for comic book solicits and deliveries except for Diamond. The more indie and obscure stuff is going to be tough. We kind of conceded early on that, at the end of the day, getting the book out was a priority.
If this book is successful, are you using the proceeds for the 2021 book?
Fragiskatos: We aren't making a profit on this book. I want it to be clear that I wasn't trying to commodify the Black comic book community at all. That's why all proceeds are actually going to The Dwayne McDuffie Fund after we pay off the printing and everything. We're working on how we're paying for the next one as we speak. It might be a Kickstarter.
Illidge: What I can say is that we've gotten a lot of interest in this book from various parties. And so we're having conversations now about what the next book is going to look like and how we can expand upon what we did this year.
What are you excited to put into future editions of this guide?
Carmona: This is a living document that will be constantly evolving and changing. There are so many resources. In fact, there's a page in the back of the book that is for people who want to contribute to the next book.
Illidge: We will definitely be expanding into other media. With the future book and in terms of categorizations.
Fragiskatos: We didn't have conventions this year. So we are definitely exploring how people are connecting and finding new outlets to show their work, like maybe podcasts, blogs, etc. We also want to work with and highlight different marginalized communities in the future.
What surprised you the most about this project?
Fragiskatos: Just how many Black-owned comic book shops there are in this country. I was surprised.
George: I had no idea RZA made a comic.
Illidge: I definitely learned about more conventions. There were the handful that I knew about, but there were so many others out there. It was also just pretty heartwarming to read the sentiments from the different retailers, like all these origin stories about how and why people created their comic shops.
The Access Guide to the Black Comic Book Community will be available starting on Feb. 17.