LAWRENCEVILLE, NJ (PIX11) — “Black Panther” is, of course, a Marvel comic and film franchise. It currently has a five-time Oscar-nominated feature length film, “Wakanda Forever,” in theaters as part of that franchise, which expanded further on Feb. 15 with a special edition comic book volume to which a professor at a New Jersey university is a major contributor.
The comic book, titled “Wakanda Forever #1,” is a collection of stories, all written and illustrated by Black creators, in commemoration of Black History Month. Sheena Howard, a professor of communications, journalism, and media at Rider University, wrote one of the stories in the new “Wakanda Forever” volume.
“For me, it feels like a natural progression to finally write for Marvel,” Dr. Howard said about her contribution to the new book.
It’s the latest installment in a long and growing list of publications by the specialist in pop media. She’s written various academic books about Blacks in comics literature, including her 2014 book “Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation,” which won the Eisner Prize, an award considered by many to be the Academy Award of the comics world. She was the first African-American woman ever to win the prize.
She’s also written a Wonder Woman comic, as well as “Superb,” one of the first comic books ever to feature a superhero with Down syndrome. So her contribution to the “Wakanda Forever #1” volume is part of a lengthening bibliography.
“I’ve been writing comics since 2017,” Howard said in an interview in her campus office.
Having written for the other major U.S. comics label, D.C., before, she said that she wanted to expand her range of publication.
“I did reach out to Marvel like, a year ago,” she said, “and then they finally hit me up and [it] was like, ‘Hey, we have this anthology. We want you to write the story,’ and here we are.”
Her story in the “Wakanda Forever #1” anthology is titled “The Illusion of Fairness.”
It’s about an aspiring member of the dora milaje, the all-female warrior protector force of Wakanda, the fictitious African nation from which Black Panther hails.
“The young dora milaje [trainee] has locs, like me,” Dr. Howard said, referring to her hairstyle of long, twisted strands. “And she’s dark skinned,” she said, describing the protagonist of her story, a young warrior named Chante.
Having a main character who looks like her, Howard said, is an important aspect of storytelling.
“So sometimes I do get to contribute to the aesthetic,” said the professor, “so that we can get more diversity around even what these female superheroes look like.”
It’s part of how Howard uses the comic medium to bring more aspects of African heritage to a wide audience.
“The feedback that I’ve been getting over the years from the African-American community,” she said, “is like, ‘Hey, we want to see some African mythology in these comic stories, since it’s all about Greek mythology, historically.'”
Both in response to demand, and because of her own priorities, said Howard, she added another important character to her “Wakanda Forever” story: Anansi, the spider figure of West African folklore.
Anansi is known for using brainpower to overcome enormous challenges, much the same way, in Howard’s story, that Chante must.
“[She’s] learning that her fighting ability is not always going to win the fight, but she also has to use her intellect,” Prof. Howard said. “So I use the telling of the Anansi spider story to bring the point home for this young dora milaje trainee.”
Howard is a Black female academic who, at least in her comics-writing career, works in a medium that has very few people like herself. Being unique, she said, helps to make her work stand out.
“So when I go to write my stories, I’m always thinking about, ‘What can I add that’s going to be different? What can I add to Marvel and DC that hasn’t been done before?'”
“I’m not trapped by the confines of what a comic book story is supposed to be.”