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From Black Panther to John Lewis, artist finds everyday heroes in comics and in history

Panels from Afua Richardson’s “Run,” based on the life of civil rights leader John Lewis.
Panels from Afua Richardson’s “Run,” based on the life of civil rights leader John Lewis.

Georgia congressman John Lewis is a man of few words until he’s a man of many, says Afua Richardson.

Richardson, a comic book artist, first met the civil rights leader in June, when they were on a panel at Bookcon in New York City. He complimented her dress, then clasped his hands and had a seat. He looked around the room, taking in everything, his overall quiet and reserved manner reminding Richardson of her father. Yet when he took the stage, he lit up. It was as if he had saved all his energy for this moment, Richardson says, and his spirit, his fervor swept through the room. It gave her chills.

“Meeting John Lewis, I didn’t know what to expect. It is almost as if you’re meeting royalty,” says Richardson. “You’re meeting someone who you have only really interfaced with in story, like a superhero from the 1960s – which he is!”

As a comic book artist, Richardson knows a thing or two about superheroes. She has drawn covers or issue art for major titles at Marvel and DC — the “big two” of the comics industry — which include “Black Panther,” “Wonder Woman,” “The X-Men,” “Hulk” and “Batman.” Her current project, and the reason she met Lewis, is “Run: Book One,” the latest in a series of graphic novels chronicling Lewis’ civil rights work and public life.

Afua Richardson, left, first met the civil rights leader and Georgia congressman John Lewis, center, in June, when they were on a panel at Bookcon in New York City. Co-writer of “Run” Andrew Aydin, far right, also attended the event. Abrams Books

This weekend, Richardson will appear among her fellow artists, writers, cosplayers and creators at NC Comicon: Bull City. Notable guests also appearing at the Durham Convention Center include “Fight Club” author Chuck Palahniuk (who appears Friday and Saturday only) and NC Comicon regular Gerard Way, who was the vocalist of My Chemical Romance before his career as a comic book writer.

As for Richardson, samples from “Run,” which does not release until next summer, will be free with any purchase at her booth.

From drawing Lewis’ story, this comic artist says she thinks she understands what superheroes go through when they face a giant opponent. The process was also remarkably personal for Richardson.

“It’s not just telling a story, but it’s telling a piece of my story too,” she says. “My dad grew up in Alabama, and a lot of the people I’m drawing, he knew.”

Richardson laughs about some of the social experiences her dad had with civil rights leaders in the ‘60s, but then turns serious as she mentions her dad, an African-American, walking to school and having cans and rocks thrown at him and getting his ribs broken. She said she appreciates that “Run” isn’t a simplistic tale of good black people and evil white people, but it’s about a diverse coalition standing up for civil rights, up to the point of being injured, arrested and killed.

“It was showing everyone, black and white and Latino and Asian, everyone coming together for a cause,” she says. “I think their names need to be remembered.”

The book jacket of comic book artist Afua Richardson’s new book, “Run.” Abrams Books

The graphic novels by Lewis and co-author Andrew Aydin started with “March,” a trilogy whose third volume was released in 2016. When it came time for “Run,” the followup, Richardson recalls Aydin told her he wanted her to illustrate the project because of how she engages with children. Whenever a child comes to Richardson’s table at a convention, Aydin told her at Bookcon, he noticed that she would get up, walk around the table and take her time in talking with the child, no matter how long the line was. Richardson said she didn’t realize she did this, but to Aydin this said a lot about Richardson’s character.

“She is one of the hardest-working, but also most friendly and welcoming creators that I know,” says NC Comicon Creative Director Brockton McKinney, who looks forward to seeing Richardson like he looks forward to seeing family. “You meet creators, and sometimes it’s one or the other.”

Richardson gets into the convention experience, McKinney continues, and sometimes you can also find her on the convention floor in an impressive Wonder Woman cosplay.

Richardson’s dad was an oil painter, so he made sure his daughter had a broad palette of crayons during her childhood in New York City. Yet this comic artist was a musician first. She started flute at 9, eventually joining a borough-wide band and playing Carnegie Hall as a teenager. She got into comics around the same time, with “X-Men” titles and Alan Moore’s celebrated run with “Swamp Thing” early favorites.

Richardson drew during this time, but didn’t think anything would come of it. She would take a sketchbook on the train, for instance, and draw other riders’ faces. Eventually as she became a beatboxer and a backup singer and started touring, if she needed fliers and press materials, she drew them herself. She worked as a bartender and held down odd jobs, but always made sure she had access to a computer so she could teach herself Photoshop.

Music remains important to Richardson, now that she’s a comic artist, and she sings when she’s drawing – and she still practices her flute. She feels like a complete person if music and drawing are both included in her day, even if her art currently graces DC and Marvel covers.

Panels from Afua Richardson’s “Run,” based on the life of civil rights leader John Lewis. Courtesy of Afua Richardson

“For a lot of artists that is the gold ring you’re looking to grab,” says McKinney. “You get to draw these iconic characters you’ve grown up with.”

For Richardson, there is that excitement of drawing characters she grew up with (and she’s always loved blue characters, like Beast, Nightcrawler or Mystique of the X-Men), but there’s also the beauty of telling true stories in graphic novel form, as “Run” does. She’s also a strong believer in the power of well-told fiction, especially in times of social and political upheaval.

“In a political debate, people will hold onto their ideas and they’ll side with people just because they don’t like the opposition, even if what the opposition is saying is true,” says Richardson. “In fiction, if it’s good fiction, people are willing to accept something that’s fantastic or something that’s non-realistic. Then you can introduce an idea for consideration without having to ask for the psychological permission to do so.”

Correction: Andrew Aydin is the co-writer and creator of “Run.” Afua Richardson is the illustrator. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said she is the co-writer. “Run: Book One” will be released next summer.


What: NC Comicon: Bull City

When: Nov. 9-11

Where: Durham Convention Center, 301 W. Morgan St., Durham

Cost: $50 weekend pass. $25 Friday only. $35 Saturday only. $25 Sunday only. Children 9 and younger free with paid adult. $250 weekend VIP pass.