In the Jim Crow era of the 1940s and 50s, Black travelers around the United States relied on the “Green Book,” researched and published by Black writers, to identify welcoming spaces in a hostile and segregated society. Now three veterans of the comics business have created a modern-day guide to the imaginary landscape of graphic storytelling called The Access Guide to the Black Comic Book Community 2020-2021, designed to introduce new audiences to the world of comics by spotlighting the work of BIPOC creators, publishers, events and retailers. The book starts shipping today online and will be in selected comic shops by the end of the week.
The Access Guide is the brainchild of Dimitrios Fragiskatos, owner of Brooklyn’s Anyone Comics shop, who sees potential to get more people from diverse backgrounds reading, enjoying and participating in the fan culture. Fragiskatos recruited Joseph Illidge, a longtime comics executive and current editor of Heavy Metal to help produce the project, along with illustrator/designer George Carmona 3rd.
The guide covers scores of currently-published titles from dozens of comic imprints, ranging from the “Big Two” (DC and Marvel) to independent and crowdfunded books that might be harder to find on the shelves of the average comic store. It also offers publishers the opportunity to discuss their efforts to engage diverse audiences and include BIPOC voices in the creative and business processes; highlights some of the minority-owned comic retailers around the United States; and promotes the dozen or so conventions, events and conferences focused on BIPOC content and Blerd (Black Nerd) culture.
Because Fragiskatos, Illidge and Carmona started work on the Guide in October, 2020 and were making edits right up until the last minute, the content is as current and complete as they could manage. The authors say they plan to update the Guide annually, with new material and anything omitted in the sprint to get the debut book out quickly added in subsequent editions.
Illidge says one of the motivations behind the project is to build bridges to readers looking to see more of their own experience and perspective reflected in the stories. “We live in a polarized society right now,” he said, as shown by the killing of George Floyd and the reactions to it. “That made the entire world pivot.” He says the team used the “Green Book” metaphor, recently showcased in the HBO series Lovecraft Country because in both cases, the goal is to help Black people navigate potentially toxic and dangerous spaces to find material that feels welcoming to them. “We want to reframe the negativity to get more people enjoying great stories and involved in the community.”
Carmona echoed that sentiment. “The Access Guide is a new guiding light for comic readers. I want readers to think of themselves as explorers. I want [subsequent editions] to go from that north star starting point to using a compass, and finally GPS,” he said.
Fragiskatos emphasizes that the Guide does not make judgments about the extent or nature of the participants’ efforts at inclusion. “We present the information they provided to us and let the readers come to their own conclusion,” he says.
All told, the Access Guide paints a picture of an industry that is, belatedly, making strides towards greater equity and inclusion. There is a dizzying array of content from BIPOC creators, ranging from mass market best-sellers like Jerry Craft’s New Kid and Class Act aimed at teens, to imaginative Afrofuturist science fiction and fantasy, to top superheroes like Black Panther and Captain America being written by prestigious African-American writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates. BIPOC representation at all levels of the industry is increasing, including several top executives and editors.
Importantly, that equity is also extending to the grass roots of the comics business: the local retailer. After a year that has decimated small retail businesses, and where minority communities were especially hard-hit by Covid-19, Fragiskatos says the dedicated fanbase of comics helped keep many small stores afloat, including some Black-owned shops. “It helped that a lot of people were home with nothing else to do but read comics,” he said. “But seriously, the customer relationships did more for us than any loan could have.”
The authors hope that The Access Guide will continue to build that audience, while also serving as a resource for librarians, educators, parents, and readers outside the BIPOC community looking for stories with universal appeal, told from different perspectives.
The Access Guide to the Black Comic Book Community goes on sale this week. It can be ordered online or through your local comic book retailer. All proceeds from the project go to the Dwayne McDuffie Fund.