"DiasporaCon" Puts Black Comics, Creators Center Stage

Shawn Murray | April 28th, 2022

Arts & Culture  |  Visual Arts  |  Quinnipiac University  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  Elm City LIT Fest  |  Comics


Shawn Murray Photos.“Part of what  ‘Lit’ means in LITfest is ‘literacy’ and if comic books are how people read, that enhances everyone’s literacy. And that’s our goal. Especially for people of color," said Gardin, pictured at center. 

Bookworm IfeMichelle Gardin hasn’t always read comics.

It’s safe to assume, for example, she hasn’t picked up Alan Moore’s seminal run on Swamp Thing, or Brian Michael Bendis’ game changing Ultimate Spider-man series. Normally, she doesn’t spend time thinking about them. But after hearing a panel on Black voices in comic books at a literary festival she’d organized two years ago, her interest was sufficiently piqued.

Last Saturday, that interest birthed DiasporaCon, New Haven’s first-ever Black comic book festival and conference at Quinnipiac University. Over six hours, panelists, artists, writers and comic book geeks gathered to celebrate Black comic books—and a bevy of heroes that look like them, and like New Haven. Dozens attended, and all went home with at least one complimentary comic book.

The first murmurs of DiasporaCon emerged in late 2020, when Gardin held the first annual Elm City LIT Fest online during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. During a panel on Black voices in comic books, panelist and longtime friend Bill Foster discussed comic book festivals that celebrated and included Black people. A retired professor from Naugatuck Valley Community College, Foster encouraged Gardin to expand on the idea. 

“So I said ‘Well, let’s do one here,’ and here we are,” she said. 


Though Gardin hadn’t spent much time with comics personally, she found that she had a  newfound appreciation for them. Foster, along with New Haven's One City One Read program, both allowed her to see them as a gateway to literacy for many young readers. Foster “started sending me a bunch of comics,” she said. She read the graphic novel version of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, this year’s One City One Read selection, alongside the novel.

“And I got enthused about them,” she said. “Part of what ‘Lit’ means in LITfest is ‘literacy’ and if comic books are how people read, that enhances everyone’s literacy. And that’s our goal. Especially for people of color. ”

Readers and artists alike looked to comic books as an entry point into reading Saturday. Reggie Augustine, a New Haven based comic creator and a teacher at James Hillhouse High School, traced his love for and obsession with comics to the fourth grade. Now he’s a published comic book writer and illustrator, who uses comics in his lessons and runs a comic book club after school.

“I always felt it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you read,” he said. 


Augustine told a story of attempting to submit a comic as his Master’s thesis. At first, “[My professor] told me, ‘We don’t do comics, we do serious writing.’” So he removed the superhero elements, adjusted some story elements, excised the art, and resubmitted it to rave reviews. He later revealed it was the same story.

“As long as the characters are believable and you can make some sort of connection with them, that should be all that matters,” he said.

There were a number of other speakers, from comic book artists to actors who had become trailblazing Black superheroes. Artist Raheem Nelson brought his exploration of the ever-growing NFT marketplace. Homegrown cartoonist, producer and Guinness World Record Holder Joe Young spoke on how young artists can expand their brand. Foster moderated a keynote panel that featured actor and producer Michael Jai White and John Jennings, professor of Culture and Media Studies at the University of California, on the Black film and media legacy.


Robert Sodaro, who has collaborated with Ford on a new series called Zephyr.

Attendees soaked new  knowledge in as cartoonist, publisher, and comic historian T.C. Ford  spoke on the history of Black people in the world of comics. Ford, who in the past has teamed up with Foster to host Black comic conventions, has witnessed much of that history first hand and delighted in outlining how far back that history goes.

“There’s always been Black writers and artists in comics, all the way back to the beginning. It just wasn’t promoted as much.” Ford said. He said that diversity isn’t new in the world of comics—highlighting and publicizing that diversity has changed. With that bump in publicity came more Black comic book writers, artists, and fans.

As a former editor of Connecticut-based Charlton Comics, one of the oldest comic publishers in the U.S, Ford served as the link from the past to the present. When asked what he thought of the explosion of Black comic conventions in recent years, he showed a deep pride.


Ford talks to a visitor.

“It’s still a niche idea because there are always people who’ll say ‘I don’t know if I like Black comics,’ but those of us who are people of color say ‘now there’s something that’s for us.’’

Comic book artist JaVon Stokes, one of the vendors at the event, is a direct result of that expanding niche. Stokes welcomed the opportunity to attend DiasporaCon and other conventions like it and spoke of how he became a creator.

“I’m a child of Milestone Comic Books, who showed me that making Black comics was possible,” he said. “Because of them, I am where I am. So any time I get to do [a Black comic con], I try my best to do it.” 

He’s in luck, as Gardin plans for this year’s DiasporaCon to be the first of many. She said that both Quinnipiac University and Dr. Don Sawyer, vice president of equity, inclusion, and leadership development and a professor of sociology at the school, have invited her to make it an annual event at the university.

“We’d like to see it grow and become a part of the series of Black lit cons all over the country,” she said. “I like showing the Connecticut flavor.”

In the meantime, Gardin has quite a few comics to catch up on. Foster has sent her dozens of recommendations. She discovered John Lewis' March and Masters of the Sun by the Black Eyed Peas. 

“Right now, [my favorite] is still the Parable of the Sower," she said. 

Learn more about Elm City LIT Fest at their website