Photo: Bob Gore
Five years, four side-jobs, two Kickstarter campaigns, and two Black Comic Book Festivals later, David Crownson’s comic book Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer is being developed into a television series. Crownson exemplifies the challenges of Black and Brown artists. Many hold other jobs to pay the bills as they work on their comic books.
Crownson discusses his initial struggles with getting Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer to readers and looks back at how the BCBF supported his work as the festival celebrates its 10th anniversary. (The festival is from January 13–15, 2022.)
Harriet Tubman (circa 1822-1913) escaped from enslavement and made over a dozen missions to bring other enslaved people to freedom. In 2016, Crownson reimagined the abolitionist as a ninja warrior fighting off demons, witches, and werewolves enlisted by slave owners to stop Tubman’s efforts.
The former struggling actor, who held jobs babysitting, delivering pizzas, tutoring theater history, coaching for actor auditions, and waiting tables, created two Kickstarter efforts to fund the first two installments of the series. He sold the comic books at festivals and directly to independent comic book stores.
The innovative concept met with unsuccessful results as Crownson met with mainstream publishers to sell his idea. In a meeting with one white editor-in-chief, he recalled that the woman enjoyed reading Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer and then made a shocking suggestion. “I think we need to have more scenes of slaves being whipped and Harriet being whipped,” he recalled, declining to name the executive and company. The comic book was "too much fun to read and has too much action in it," the editor added.
Crownson refused. “I don’t think she got it,” Crownson said. “We’ve seen that a billion times in movies. We’ve already been traumatized enough. We have to get re-traumatized by our entertainment? I just wanted my comic book to be something different, to make Black people feel good about ourselves when we read it.”
That conversation, plus a string of other unsuccessful meetings over the years, led Crownson to form his company Kingwood Comics in 2020. Self-publishing gave him the creative freedom to write his storylines and release content on his timetable.
Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer was on the way to becoming a best-selling indie success when BCBF organizers reached out to him to become a vendor. He took part in 2019. Tabling at the festival was also a lucky break that year, Crownson said, because he was between jobs. Meeting and speaking with festival attendees added to the book’s buzz and boosted sales.
“Everyone who came, they just showed a lot of love,” he said. “They thought it was cool and then they read the comic and they really liked it because they liked the idea, first of all. They liked the visuals. Then, I appreciated that they liked the story. And, they came back to buy more. And, then, just them taking pictures and telling their friends about it. That helped a lot as well.”
Photo: Bob Gore
Crownson returned in 2020 as a vendor and panelist for the discussion, “Critical Race Comics.” The conversation, which featured Robyn Smith, TJ Sterling, Jerome Walford, and BCBF cofounder Deirdre Hollman, focused on using comic books to discuss past and current day racial inequalities.
In November 2020, Crownson decided to make a commercial to promote the fifth installment of Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer. He recruited longtime friends such as actors Tiara Baxter, Caroline Heinle, and Tony King, along with cinematographer/editor Lex Kimbrough for the effort.
Crownson initially released the video on social media. Later, he shared it on YouTube. The clip caught the eye of Sebastian A. Jones, founder and publisher of Stranger Comics. Jones recently formed a partnership with Prentice Penny, an Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning writer and producer. The two would support and nurture independent comic book creators of color through a joint venture entertainment company.
The development deal with Jones and Penny includes Crownson being one of the series’s writers—a rarity for artists of color who sell the rights to their work. The agreement also gives Crownson the financial freedom to work on the series full-time, while developing a new comic Nightmare in Newark through his publishing company.
Photo: Bob Gore
Covering four rooms at the Schomburg Center, the BCBF has provided a platform for over 40 independent publishers each year to sell their works directly to readers of color from 2012–2020. The Schomburg Center building was temporarily closed to the public as a safety precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2021. The festival, which occurs in January, took place virtually. The digital edition featured over 30 vendors of color.
Although more Black graphic novel creators are getting imprints and moving into leadership positions within the industry, 10 years after its inception, events such as the BCBF are still needed. There are a wealth of Black and Brown comic books, graphics novels, and points of views that are still struggling to be heard. There’s no reason for more mainstream publishers to have stories where people of color are not the lead characters, Crownson said.
“There is so much imagination and character in these books,” he said. “They are all different in tone. They are all different in character. The only thing that makes them the same is: Black writer(s), Black characters, and Black artists.”
Crownson has advice for aspiring storytellers and graphic novel creators. “Write every day,” he said. “Really access that inner circle. Make sure you are with people that are ‘team you.’ (The journey) is going to be hard regardless but the weight will feel less heavy.”
Want to learn more about Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer? Crownson discusses the comic with Rhonda Evans, Assistant Chief Librarian at the Schomburg Center’s Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division. Watch their 2020 conversation.
Return to the main page of the blog series: The Black Comic Book Festival Is Turning 10!
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