Activist and Black Comic Book Festival Cosplayer Isake Smith Talks LGBTQ+ Representation in Comic Books

By Lisa Herndon, Manager, Schomburg Communications and Publications
January 10, 2022
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Left: Coplayers is dressed as an astronaut in bright blue jumpsuit with patches on shoulder. Right: Isake Smith is dressed in naving and white stripped top and pants with red and blond wig
Isake Smith  (right) says comic books have been ahead of mainstream society when it comes to representation of the LGBTQ+ community.

Photo: Bob Gore

Black Comic Book Festival (BCBF) attendees from 2020 might recognize Isake Smith, who dressed as the anime character Shoto Todoroki, as the host of  the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s cosplay showcase. Smith has been an attendee since the first BCBF in 2012 and first came in cosplay as Luke Cage in 2017.  

Her “muggle job”—a Harry Potter reference to what she does in regular life—as she calls it: working as a consultant for nonprofits covering issues such as diversity, equity, and internal management training. She is also an activist. Through the podcast Smith co-hosts, Cheers & Queers, she provides a digital space "for and by Black queer femmes where people can be open and honest about their successes and frustrations.”

Below, Smith looks back at her time at the festival and discusses the portrayal of the LGBTQ+ community in graphic novels and comic books over the past decade.

How did you first learn of the Black Comic Book Festival? Why did you decide to attend?

Right: A young girl dressed Supergile. Blue shirt with Supergirl log. Isake Smith is on one knee next to young girl smiling.
Isake Smith has attended the Black Comic Festival since 2012 and began attending in costume in 2017. 

Photo: APM

I love the Schomburg, and when I heard that there was going to be a festival I was overjoyed. I remember showing up to the first one with the line wrapped all the way around the corner. I kept seeing people I knew waiting to get in, and everyone was just as excited as I was.

How was the representation of the LGBTQ+ community in comic books and graphic novels 10 years ago? If there have been changes over the past decade, what have you observed?

Comics have always been ahead of the curve in terms of representation, so there is a long history of canonically queer characters. In the last 10 years, however, we have seen that canon expand to include more dimensions of diversity such as race, gender expression, and disability.

A few classic queer characters I really love are Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy (everyone’s favorite power couple!), and Batwoman. My favorite queer character is Agent 355 fromY: The Last Man (by Brian K. Vaughan). She is an agent of the Culper Ring, and her story is the first time I saw a Black queer woman in a graphic novel. She’s complex, messy, and full of fear and doubt. But she leads anyway. She consistently makes a way out of no way. I go back to her story often.

You’re probably most well-known for dressing as Ariel fromThe Little Mermaid. What does that character mean to you? 

I like Ariel as a character because she was focused on finding a way to fit in. She felt out of place underwater, and had to figure things out on land. She's brave, and takes a chance on Ursula (who isn't a villain, but that's another conversation) and sticks to her goals when things get scary! I also love dressing up as Ariel and Ursula because representation matters, and little Black girls deserve to see themselves as princesses and powerful sea witches.

Tell me about a moment at the BCBF that stands out to you and why? 

At the 2019 event, I cosplayed with my sisters, Karimah Smith and Kiya Hampton. They wanted to see what all the hype was about, so I didn't have to do much convincing. My friends and I had been talking about the comic book festival for weeks, so they wanted to experience it for themselves. I lent them some cosplay pieces, we all did our makeup together, and took the train to Harlem from Brooklyn. 

Karimah wore a gender-bent version of Captain America and Kiya went as America Chavez.

We were VERY cold waiting in line to get in, but once we arrived folks were really excited about our cosplays! They had never cosplayed with me before, so it was definitely an experience!

Do cosplayers of color need events such as the Black Comic Book Festival? If so, why? 

A group of people dressed as comic book characters are onstsage at the Schomburg Center.
Events like the Black Comic Book Festival refute the degrading narrative about people of color and offer supportive spaces,  says activist and cosplayer Isake Smith.

Photo: APM

Black cosplayers, writers, artists, and fans ALL need events like the Black Comic Book Festival. We deserve space that is built for us, by us, and centering us. Systems of oppression seek to tell us that we are less than, that we don't deserve to have our stories told or to be able to access joy. Spaces like the Black Comic Book Festival refute that narrative and give Black folks an avenue ESPECIALLY for joy.

What are some tips you could share for those who would like to attend a comic book festival in costume?

Optimize for comfort. Eat food, drink water, and take care of your body before, during, and after the event. Your shoes, clothing, accessories, and makeup should all be things you can comfortably wear for at least three hours. 

Do a test run with the whole outfit ahead of time so you are sure you feel good about your look. Also, be prepared for LOTS of attention. People are going to talk to you about your cosplay! Do whatever you need to before getting to the convention to prepare yourself for a lot of social interaction. Don't be afraid to negotiate your boundaries. Cosplay does not equal consent, so feel free to say no to people touching you or taking your picture.

Watch the 2020 Black Comic Book Festival's Cosplay Showcase

Return to the main page of the blog series: The Black Comic Book Festival Is Turning 10!

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