The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 236 | On Afua Richardson and the return of Genius

Leaving Proof 236 | On Afua Richardson and the return of Genius
Published on Wednesday, August 20, 2014 by
In this week’s Leaving Proof: We discuss Afua Richardson’s development as an artist. ALSO: We muse ever-so-briefly on the socio-politics of Genius, visit Iceland with Lonnie Mann, and wonder where the police heroes are in Filipino komiks.

One of my favorite things to witness as a long-time comics fan is the development of artists over the course of their public careers. We don’t get to see this with every comics artist, of course. For every artist who goes on to have a multi-year career marked by regular improvements and stylistic shifts, there are just as many artists who move on from comics and switch to other industries before they peak—a notable example would be Aron Wiesenfeld, the former Wildstorm Studios illustrator who reinvented himself as a fine arts painter just as he was hitting his stride as a comics artist (to date, Wiesenfeld has had six solo gallery shows, with a seventh scheduled next month at New York’s Arcadia Contemporary).

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Wiesenfeld was nominated for an Eisner in 1997 for his work on the Image Comics/Marvel crossover Deathblow and Wolverine but he transitioned to a full-time career in the fine arts not long after. Pictured: Deathblow and Wolverine #2 and Wiesenfeld’s 2012 painting The Tree (oil on canvas).

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Sample Phil Noto interior art from Marvel’s Black Widow #1

Conversely, there are also those older artists—veteran professionals in visual arts-related fields like animation, graphic design, architecture, game design, and fine art—who are established in their methods and abilities by the time they try their hand at comics and appear to readers, seemingly from out of nowhere, as already fully-formed. That they are already mature doesn’t preclude them from improving their comics craft, of course, but with these artists, we’re more likely to see tweaks in the margins as they adapt their sense of aesthetics to the comics medium, and not the kind of radical internal growth we occasionally see with younger, “native” comics artists. Examples of this breed of comics artist are numerous, with current Black Widow artist Phil Noto (who had a decade-long stint at what was then called Disney Feature Animation before switching to working in comics full-time in 2001) being the first name to come to mind.

And then there are those artists who—because they’ve hit a sort of aesthetic ceiling early in their careers for one reason or another—just don’t show any appreciable improvement in their work even with years or decades to hone their craft. I’m sure everyone reading this can think of at least a couple of names that fit this description.

Afua Richardson in 2011

Afua Richardson in 2011

Within the context of a comics artist’s development, artist Afua Richardson’s career arc thus far is quite the novel and interesting case that defies easy comparison and categorization. A professional musician and singer-songwriter long before training her creative focus on comics, the 34 year-old, New York-based Richardson is a largely self-taught comics illustrator who counts French comics artist Claire Wendling (Les Lumières de l’Amalou), mangaka Hiroaki Samura (Blade of the Immortal), Chris Bachalo (Death, Generation X, Uncanny X-Men), and anime character designer and animator Shigeto Koyama (Eureka Seven, Kill la Kill, Gurren Lagann) among her biggest influences.

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Pilot Season: Genius #1 (June 2008)

Richardson’s earliest published comics work was a short story (“Campus Meats”) for the January 2005 issue of the erotic comics anthology magazine Sizzle, written and illustrated under the pen name Lakota Sioux (a reference to Richardson’s partial Native American ancestry). From that unconventional beginning, Richardson would go on to provide a couple of covers for the Half Dead serial graphic novel (a product of the short-lived Marvel Comics/Dabel Bros. partnership). However, it would be in her next comics gig, illustrating the Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman-penned modern noir comic Pilot Season: Genius for Top Cow Entertainment’s Pilot Season competition, that Richardson’s abilities as a comics artist would receive wider mainstream exposure and acclaim.

Pilot Season: Genius would go on to win the 2008 edition of Pilot Season alongside co-winner Pilot Season: Twilight Guardian (by Troy Hickman and Reza)—think of Pilot Season as a sort of on-the-job series pitch contest with winners determined by fan voting—beating out four other Pilot Season entrants that included Pilot Season: The Core by Jonathan Hickman and Kenneth Rocafort and Pilot Season: Alibi by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Jeremy Haun, and earning the shot to become a full miniseries or ongoing series to be published by Top Cow Entertainment in association with Image Comics. For her work on Pilot Season: Genius, Richardson was nominated for Best Artist and Best Cover for the 2009 Glyph Comics Awards.

But while Twilight Guardian eventually debuted as a four-issue miniseries in 2011 (with Sid Kotian replacing Reza on illustrator duties), it wouldn’t be until this year that Genius finally delivered on its Pilot Season promise with its summer launch as a weekly five-issue miniseries.

You wouldn’t think it initially, but the Genius miniseries’ significant launch delay has turned out to be to its benefit. Richardson has grown as a comics artist despite the relative paucity of published comics projects in the six years since the debut of Pilot Season: Genius. Not that she wasn’t already a solid illustrator and visual storyteller in 2008, but in comparing the pages from Pilot Season: Genius (available to read for free on comiXology and Newsarama) and Genius #1–3, three things stand out to me:

  • Richardson has developed a more organic-looking and versatile ink line (strictly speaking, Richardson doesn’t “ink” her work since she illustrates digitally, but the same principles of line control still apply). Her linework on Pilot Season: Genius, while competent, occasionally suffered from the kind of limited line widths and monotonous contour lines seen in many digitally illustrated comics that make foreground figures and objects look like cardboard cutouts set against two-dimensional façades. In the latest issues of Genius, Richardson, while still adhering to a digital process, has incorporated more variety in her line, laying it down thicker or tapering it when necessary to better establish distance and spatial orientation.
  • Related to the first observation is Richardson’s improved ability for “spotting blacks” (for an explanation of the fundamental concepts of spotting blacks in comics art, check out this three-page handout created by Shuster-nominated cartoonist Michael Cho for an inking class). Richardson has become so much better at using light and shadow to control the sense of depth, weight, and volume and even impart mood and atmosphere.
  • Richardson’s expanded understanding of contrast and how it can heighten or subdue mood extends to the coloring: In the current Genius comics, she showcases a deeper appreciation of color temperature that wasn’t readily evident in Pilot Season: Genius, which featured coloring that could perhaps be best described as utilitarian more than anything else.

Beyond allowing for the evolution of Richardson’s technique, Genius‘ delay has coincidentally placed it in the thick of current discussions of gender, sexuality, race, and gun violence in comics. Richardson’s cover for Genius #1, which features protagonist Destiny Ajaye toting a handgun and naked save for a conveniently placed strip of barricade tape, was criticized in some circles as being sexist and racist. As Richardson noted in her blog:

Even before the book’s release, the cover was already the subject of many heated conversations. Some feel offended that a black character being celebrated for her tactical Genius is displayed nearly nude on a floor with caution tape loosely bound around her. They think the cover is over-sexualized, and offensive. Some feel its a poor representation of the book and black women as a whole, without ever having read it.

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Richardson’s cover for Genius #1 has stimulated discussion on race, gender, and gun violence in comics.

Richardson’s defense of the cover design on her blog, while somewhat disjoint and rambling, can be boiled down to the following:

Destiny Ajaye is neither bound and hopeless nor in a submissive pose. Far from being a victim, she is actually in a position to inflict lethal force on the viewer and it was Richardson’s goal to subvert the notions of vulnerability associated with images of the naked female. The decision to portray Ajaye without clothes on the first issue’s cover also serves two other purposes: It is intended as a metaphor for the character’s indigent background and lack of material resources as well as a celebration of her physical beauty and strength.

It is the combination of Richardon’s art and Bernardin/Freeman’s fictional story of all-out urban warfare in Los Angeles, with an alliance of black and mixed black/Latino gangs on one side and a mostly white police force on the other, however, that has really generated waves, especially in light of recent events in the city of Ferguson in Missouri. The A.V. Club‘s Oliver Sava has written an especially thoughtful piece discussing Genius‘ treatment of race and the law enforcement response to gangs and how it relates to the Ferguson affair, even as we keep in mind the real victims of the violence and continue to await further evidence of what actually transpired during the police shooting of Michael Brown.

Genius is bold, incendiary, and occasionally uncomfortable reading that does a better job addressing the current conversation about race better than the “diversity marketing”-driven Marvel Comics event that has Sam Wilson to dressing up as Captain America. It’s a work that has captured the zeitgeist by challenging reader expectations and preconceptions, even as it seemingly trades in stereotypes.

Digressions

  • I wouldn’t normally think of a travelogue as prime escapist entertainment, but with new comics like Genius and The Empty Man (first issue reviewed here) coincidentally reflecting current crises in their own way (the Ferguson unrest in the former, the Ebola virus outbreak in the latter), Lonnie Mann’s three-part miniseries Thoughts From Iceland provided unexpected but welcome respite from the bleed-through drama from the real-world. Thoughts From Iceland is a comic book record of Mann’s three-and-a-half day vacation to the Nordic island-nation in 2012. Mann’s almost obsessive documentation of what he ate while on holiday is low-key hilarious, as are his observations of and reactions to Icelandic culture. It’s easy-paced, relaxing reading made all the more accessible by Mann’s expressive art. Sample sequences from the comic can be read on Lonnie Mann’s website, and all three issues are available on comiXology.
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Mann’s Thoughts From Iceland provides a detailed account of the food he sampled in Reykjavik.

  • I mentioned in the main section above that besides being a comics artist, Afua Richardson is also a musician and singer-songwriter. Richardson has actually penned a number of commercial jingles and a quick look through YouTube and Bandcamp has turned up videos and streaming audio of some of her singles, live performances, and demos. I’ve embedded a selection of these below:

  • My reading of Genius had me reflecting on the portrayal of law enforcement in the Filipino komiks of my youth. Funnily enough, I can’t think of any popular police heroes in Filipino komiks (or Filipino television or film, for that matter). In my (admittedly limited) komiks-reading experience, police are either depicted as bumbling comic relief, well-meaning but ineffective interlopers getting in the way of the civilian hero, or out-and-out villains. I suspect the situation is a reflection of how Filipino society continues to perceive the national police force, almost thirty years on after the collapse of the infamous Marcos kleptocracy: A 2013 survey conducted by the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International found that 69% of polled Filipinos think the Philippine National Police (PNP) is corrupt, even worse than the judiciary (56%), the legislature (52%), and the military (43%).

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