Afua Richardson has not one but two secret identities, Docta Foo and Lakota Sioux. This is apt, as she's one of the comic book creators who will set up tables at the Durham Convention Center for NC Comicon this weekend. She also has a superhumanly varied creative background.
The 34-year-old, who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, grew up studying music in New York. She started on classical flute at age 9, and by 11, she had performed at Carnegie Hall. She branched out into pop and soul as she got older, sharing stages with the likes of Parliament Funkadelic, Alicia Keys and Sheila E. She has been a backup singer and a voice actor, a beatboxer in an all-female hip-hop crew and a background dancer on MTV Jams. She appeared on Soul Train. She did an off-Broadway show with Melvin Van Peebles. One could go on.
While continuing to make music, Richardson broke into comics as a self-trained illustrator circa 2007. Now, she's one of very few African-American (and Native American) female illustrators working for all of the biggest publishers. She's best known for drawing and coloring the award-winning miniseries Genius, where a militarized police force turns on American citizens. One of the winners of Top Cow Productions' 2008 "Pilot Season" contest, in which readers vote to make their favorite one-issue "pilot" into a series, it was published by Image last August, with chilling timing, in the midst of the Ferguson anti-police demonstrations.
After finishing a cover for Marvel and a new Dark Horse project with writer Alex de Campi, called Lady Danger: International Agent of BOOTI, Richardson is set to draw Wonder Woman, an iconic character with a rich feminist history, for DC's Sensation Comics next year. As she prepares for her most visible big-league showing yet, the INDY spoke with her about the changing face of comics, the resonance of Genius with current events, and why her Wonder Woman might be conspicuously influenced by the female stars of mixed martial arts.
INDY: How did you go from being a musician to a comics artist?
AFUA RICHARDSON: Graphic design and illustration was something I felt like I had always done. A lot of times, I was the only illustrator around other musicians, and they'd ask me to do album covers. I taught myself Photoshop. It was very practical that I could make my own flyers. I was always drawing as a child. My dad would give me art supplies and I was really enamored with colors. I would hold onto my box of Crayola crayons like the holy grail. But I didn't really start taking it seriously until high school, when I kind of faded away from comics and got into anime. I thought, "Oh wow, comics can have other subjects, they can be really entertaining even in black and white." I think the combination of manga and Heavy Metal changed my idea of what comics could be.
I had loved comics for a really long time. I was talking to one of my oldest friends a few months ago, recalling our first days in kindergarten. He said "Hi, my name is John," and I replied, "Hi, I can shoot my nails out. Chink!" [Laughs] I started collecting when I was 9, Swamp Thing, lots of X-Men, I was a really big Wolverine fan—obviously!
You've worked under three different names, what distinguishes each of those?
Afua is my given name, and Docta Foo is a nickname that Brandon Graham, the comic artist who helped me get into comics, gave me, probably because I'm always trying to find natural remedies for things. [Laughs] That and I think we had a long run of Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman.
Lakota Sioux is an alias that I used when I first started getting into comics, because I was working on erotica. Not that I was ashamed to work on erotica, but I was a touring musician and singer and songwriter, and I was planning on pursuing a career in music. I thought art would be one of these hobbies I do on the side, and I thought, "Having a pen name and a secret identity would be fun."
- Lady Danger art by Richardson
How much comics work had you done before Genius?
I'd done some work on the 24seven anthology under Image Comics, covers here and there. Genius was my first full-length comic. I'm happy it's coming out now. It provides a platform for people to talk about things that are easy to ignore if they're not happening to them—the reality of the police state that's slowly creeping up in America.
Of course, in every profession there are really great folks and really crooked folks. But what seems to be becoming regular practice is ignoring people's rights, seeing people who are self-reliant as enemies of the state, and taking more military-like actions on civilians, as if the American people are the enemy. Some of the things being done, like the selling of military-grade weapons to local police enforcement, leaves too much room for that kind of power to be abused. What's happening in Ferguson, that's not an isolated incident.
There are some really great cops out there, some that have saved my life, so this is not an "I hate police" statement. They're getting their orders from somewhere. This is something that's over their heads. Bringing attention to that in a comic book, where people can accept the reality of fiction for the time being—that provides a really great space to say "Hey, maybe we shouldn't wait until it happens to us. Maybe we should talk about what we can do to remedy it now." The police should be our friends, and they should be accountable.
Your Comicon bio mentions that you won a Nina Simone Award.
It focuses on arts and activism, and I had the honor of receiving one, since there aren't a lot of women of color working for Marvel and Image and DC.
Do you see that changing in comics, with more women and people of color?
Definitely. There seems to have been a really big demand for different kinds of stories, different cultures being represented beyond stereotypical portrayals. I'll just say it plainly—it's not white people misrepresenting black people or whatever. There has just been a very general approach to culture in a lot of comics, maybe because people weren't doing their homework.
Even among black creators, I notice they'll tend to make a lot of stories about the 'hood and Egypt and hip-hop and slavery. There's more to black people than that. We don't see any Southeast Asians of color. I don't think it's necessarily anyone's fault that these characters don't exist, beyond the misconception that a story with a female or person of color only appeals to that particular demographic. Now that that change is happening, I hope people go out and support it, because this is what they asked for!
- A Richardson creation for an upcoming project
Is it harder for diverse voices to express themselves in the mainstream superhero world than the indie world?
I don't think so. I think what people might be expecting is for characters who've been around for 50 years to suddenly be different. And a lot of them are—there's Thor, who's now a woman, and Sam Wilson, the Falcon, taking over as Captain America. [The companies are] trying. Of course people are going to complain, "Oh, they're trying to throw us a bone." Companies like that don't throw people bones. They want to make good stories that people will invest in. If people are demanding something different, they're going to make something different.
What's really great about all these changes is that it's going to call on indie creators to step their game up. It's easier now to get a comic out, to go through Image and create a creator-owned property. Formerly you had to go through the old guard, but since Joe Quesada came in at Marvel and sold the rights to make all these films, I think people are taking comics more seriously, and that's good for everybody.
Do you go to a lot of conventions? Do you like them?
I do like them, I actually have a lot of fun. I draw a lot, maybe 12 hours a day, and I kind of forget that I'm an artist. I know that sounds a little strange. I'm in my lady-cave, trapped in my books. Getting to meet people and make connections that you can't make online because sarcasm and intention get lost—that's important to me. Sure, I sell comics and make money, that's great, but I could do that from home.
I really like connecting with other lovers of comics because comics kind of sculpted my dreams. I know that sounds a little hokey. We sort of live vicariously through story, which helps us visualize outcomes for our lives through a character we identify with. So the more characters you create that resemble real life, even in a fantastic setting, people connect to them. At conventions, with people who like the characters I like, it's like having a mutual friend. Talking about characters in Saga or X-Men as if we know them, it's as if we know each other through this character.
Is there anyone you're especially excited to meet at NC Comicon?
You're going to be doing some work on Wonder Woman for DC. What does the character mean to you?
Yes, I'm super-stoked. She's kind of the epitome of "strong woman." Many other characters have a secret identity; they have to hide who they are. Wonder Woman has been around for a long time, and the archetype of the beautiful, strong woman is not often portrayed. It's usually one or the other—they're either pretty or they're strong.
I'm a really big MMA fan, so people like Gina Carano or Ronda Rousey becoming popular is great for me. I was always a tomboy and I felt like I wasn't feminine because I liked throwing the football and doing push-ups. For me to draw Wonder Woman, it sort of validates who I am through my work.
- Illustration by Afua Richardson
This article appeared in print with the headline "Real live Wonder Woman"