A Lifetime Of Finding Peace, Purpose And Voice In The Pages Of Comics

Nov 13, 2017
Originally published on November 15, 2017 7:47 am

Becoming a fan of something often means becoming a part of a community. And finding that group of like-minded people can feel like finding a place you truly belong. Other times, that community isn't all that welcoming.

As part of Morning Edition's exploration of fandoms, we profile Stephanie Williams, in her own words, about her love of comics. Williams, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., says her fandom has shaped many phases of her identity: teenager full of angst, a new mom emerging from the fog of postpartum depression, and now, as a strong African-American woman and parent.

This has been lightly edited for clarity.

I've always loved the escapism of comics and being able to just get away.

When I was a teen I was really angsty. It's crazy thinking about it now because how tough do you really have it as a teenager because you're not paying any bills or anything like that? But ... the world felt really, really tough for some reason. Like, I need to be studying for the SAT, and you gotta go to college and all this other stuff.

So I was really good about just kind of holing up in the corner of my bed and against the wall and reading, and I just felt at peace. And after I was done reading, the world would come crashing back down.

I feel like another reason why I'm drawn to X-Men is because the X-Men for me, like, I just saw them as people of color. Because of the way they were persecuted, they were kind of stigmatized, set aside, they couldn't do this and that. I just felt like that kind of paralleled with the struggles of people of color, especially in America.

Professor X and Magneto — it didn't hit me until maybe late elementary, junior high, I was like, "Oh, wait, Dr. King and Malcolm X."

These stories are more than just fiction. There is something very real rooted in them and that's something that you can gravitate toward.

When you're passionate about something, I found, it gives you purpose. I didn't see the importance of that until I had my first child and was going through postpartum depression. And I was into fandoms and stuff like that, but I had kind of pushed that part of me away.

Prior to having him I was just really caught up in being an adult, but the fog of postpartum depression, when I was going through that, it was really hard to focus on anything. So I started picking up my comics more, and comics in general really helped me find my center. Like, it reminded me that hey, you are still somebody outside of motherhood, because people kind of forget about you and just say, "How's the baby doing?" They never ask you how you're doing.

Being a mom is important, too, but he's gonna get older, and I'm gonna call him, he's not gonna pick up his phone, and that's gonna be that. I pick my comics up, they're still going to be there.

Williams says she has felt minimized in the comics community. In particular, a tweet she wrote about the lack of black women superheroes in comics went viral, with many responses challenging her expertise. It sparked a podcast, Misty Knight's Uninformed Afro, where she and co-host Jamie Broadnax talk about black superheroines.

As social media has really gotten rolling, I've noticed that when a woman says something — voicing how she felt about a comic — there's always some man waiting in the wings to swoop in and tell her how her opinion is not important.

I just kind of wish Misty Knight's Uninformed Afro was around when I was younger. I was at a comic bookstore in Charlotte on a free comic book day and a man and his daughter came up to me because I had on my Misty Knight's Uninformed Afro T-shirt on. And she's just telling me how appreciative of the podcast she was, and I could just imagine myself being in her shoes and how wonderful that is to have these two black women talking about characters — and the fact that they listen to our podcast together, I was just like, "Oh, that's cool!"


Jamie Broadnax, editor-in-chief and founder of blackgirlnerds.com, and director of community outreach for Universal Fan Con, appears in the audio version of this story.

Dave Blanchard (@blanchardd) is a producer with Morning Edition. Digital News producer Heidi Glenn (@heidiglenn) adapted this story for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And sometimes being part of a fan community means finding a welcoming group of like-minded people. Other times, fellow fans may not be so nice. Like, maybe you don't want to be in a comic club with Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

HANK AZARIA: (As Comic Book Guy) Someone has mixed an "Amazing Spider-Man" in with the "Peter Parker The Spectacular" "Spider-Man" series. This will not stand.

GREENE: All right. So all week we are going to be exploring fandom, what makes people fall in love with a particular show or sports team or comic book. As part of our series, we spoke to Stephanie Williams. Comics are an important part of her identity, but as a black woman, she has not always felt welcomed by the fan community.

STEPHANIE WILLIAMS: My first early experience with comics was actually reading my brother's "X-Men" comic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "X-MEN")

ALISON SEALY-SMITH: (As Storm) Professor Xavier is our leader, and he has named us the X-Men.

WILLIAMS: I want to say that on the cover it was Storm.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "X-MEN")

SEALY-SMITH: (As Storm) I summon the full power of the storm.

WILLIAMS: Then he caught me, and I left my little fingerprints on his comic, and I was dead. Finally when we went to grocery store, I was like, oh, they sell comics here. So from that point on, I was always sneaking comics into the cart and then hoping my mom wouldn't catch it between the cereal and the eggs. (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "X-MEN")

PATRICK STEWART: (As Professor Xavier) When I was a boy, I discovered I had the power to control people's minds.

WILLIAMS: I always loved the escapism of comics and just being able to just get away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: When I was a teen, I was really angsty. (Laughter). It's crazy thinking about it now 'cause how tough do you really have it as a teenager? 'Cause you're not paying any bills or anything like that. But the world just felt really, really tough for some reason, and, like, I need to be studying for the S.A.T., you got to go to college and all this other stuff. So I was really good about just kind of holing up in the corner of my bed against the wall and reading. And I just felt at peace, if that makes sense. And after I was done reading, the world would come crashing back down and, like, oh, no, you're here. (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: I feel like another reason why I'm drawn to "X-Men" is because the "X-Men" for me, like, I just saw them as people of color because of the way they were persecuted. They were kind of stigmatized, set aside. They couldn't do this and that. I just felt, like, that kind of parallel with the struggles of people of color, especially in America. You know, Professor X and Magneto, it didn't hit me until maybe, I don't know, late elementary, junior high. I was like, wait, Dr. King and Malcolm X.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "X-MEN")

IAN MCKELLEN: (As Magneto) The war is still coming, Charles, and I intend to fight it by any means necessary.

WILLIAMS: They're basically the same person on the same coin, just on different sides. These stories are more than just fiction, like, there is something very real rooted in them, and that's something that you can gravitate towards.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: When you're passionate about something, I've found, like, it gives you purpose. For me especially, I didn't see the importance of that until, you know, I had my first child and I was going through postpartum depression. And I was in fandoms and stuff like that, but I had kind of, like, pushed that part of me away prior to having him. I was just kind of really caught up in just being an adult. (Laughter). But the fog of postpartum depression, when I was going through that, it was really hard to focus on anything. So I started picking up my comics more, and comics and in general really helped me find my center. Like, it reminded me that, hey, you are still somebody outside of motherhood because, you know, people kind of forget about you and they just say, how's the baby doing? They never ask you how you're doing. Being a mom is important, too. But, you know, he's going to get older and I'm going to call him, he's not going to pick up his phone, and that's going to be that. But, you know, I pick my comics up, they're still going to be there.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MISTY KNIGHT'S UNINFORMED AFRO"

WILLIAMS: Hey, guys. Welcome to another episode of Misty Knight's Uninformed Afro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WILLIAMS: I am a podcaster. I have my own podcast, The Lemonade podcast. And my favorite, Misty Knight's Uninformed Afro.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MISTY KNIGHT'S UNINFORMED AFRO"

WILLIAMS: I'm joined by my co-host Jamie Broadnax.

JAMIE BROADNAX: My name is Jamie Broadnax. I'm the editor-in-chief and founder of blackgirlnerds.com, also co-host with Stephanie Williams of Misty Knight's Uninformed Afro, a podcast about black super-heroines.

WILLIAMS: It was one particular tweet that went viral that made me realize she would be a great companion for the podcast.

BROADNAX: So the tweet that I sent out, the Olympics were going on and I got all hyped up because, you know, you have Simone Biles kicking butt. And I was like, black women are really doing the doggone thing at the Olympics, but with superhero movies and shows, like, it's really, really lacking.

WILLIAMS: And a whole bunch of dude-bros came into her mentions and, you know, was geeks-plaining her and mansplaining her and diminishing her credibility about her knowledge about comic books.

BROADNAX: Catwoman. You forgot about Catwoman. And I didn't think of Catwoman 'cause I didn't see Catwoman as a superhero. She's an anti-villain, and also, the "Catwoman" movie is terrible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROADNAX: As social media has really gotten rolling, I've noticed that when a woman says something voicing how she felt about a comic, there's always some man waiting in the wings to swoop in and tell her how her opinion is not important.

WILLIAMS: That's kind of the birth of Misty Knight's Uninformed Afro.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MISTY KNIGHT'S UNINFORMED AFRO")

WILLIAMS: I don't know why black hair is so difficult. Figure that out 'cause that's a problem. Because her hair changes so [expletive] much, and it's not that it's changing because she's switching up her styles, it's just 'cause y'all don't know how to draw afros.

Essentially what we're doing is we're taking a narrative that have been historically written mostly by white men and sharing our narrative. Representation matters because when you don't see yourself, you really feel like what's my purpose and why am I here and do I matter?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BROADNAX: I just kind of wish that Misty Knight's Uninformed Afro was around when I was younger. I was at a comic book store in Charlotte on Free Comic Book Day and a man and his daughter came up to me 'cause I had on my Misty Knight's Uninformed Afro T-shirt on. And she's just telling me, like, how appreciative of the podcast as she was. And I could just imagine myself being in her shoes and how wonderful that is to have these two black women talking about characters, and the fact that they listen to our podcast together, I was just like, well, that's cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Stephanie Williams and Jamie Broadnax are the co-hosts of the Misty Knight's Uninformed Afro podcast. Broadnax is also the editor-in-chief of blackgirlnerds.com. We spoke to them as a part of our series on fandom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.