It took some wrangling to fit nearly 30 Catholic school eighth-graders into the basement space of Most Wanted Fine Art gallery in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood where St. Bede English teacher Becky Baverso took her comic book club to see artist Marcel Walker’s exhibit.
“So this show here, ‘To Tell The Troof,’ this is my first solo gallery show,” Walker told the class, pointing. “I’ve had work in gallery shows before, but this is the first time it’s all mine.”
While creators of color have always contributed to the likes of comic giants like Marvel and D.C., today there is a growing number of prominent artists, writers and characters of color in the mainstream books.
That diversity is reflected in Pittsburgh’s own comic scene, and Walker is among its most prominent.
The native Pittsburgher has worked in the city for decades teaching cartooning and drawing and creating commissioned work. Many of his characters, like those bursting off a shirt from the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, evoke action and strength. Others, like those commissioned for the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh's "Chutz-Pow," denote the terror and trials his real-life subjects faced.
Students milled around the four, low gallery walls filled with framed sketches and final copies of Walker's published work, including original artwork from his independent comic book "Hero Corps International."
Walker has completed two issues so far. This year, he received an Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant to make the third, which is scheduled to come out in January.
The main character, The Pro, Walker modeled after himself.
“There’s a huge comics community here in Pittsburgh, so I’m not the only one. I am the best,” Walker told the students, joking.
Wayne Wise would agree, at least with the first part.
“It’s amazing right now, it really is," Wise said. "Pittsburgh’s always been this odd little oasis of comic scenes.
Wise works at the Phantom of the Attic Comics store in Oakland, teaches a comic history class at Chatham University and is a creator.
He said in addition to Pittsburgh’s sizeable number of comic shops, one of the first mainstream artists of color is from the city, and there are a few contemporary notables here, too.
He said like other art forms, comics reflect culture. That’s been true since the comic boom of the 1940s, which portrayed some American sentiments of the time, he said.
“Particularly with the Japanese, the horrible, horrible stereotypes of how they were drawn in the comic books," Wise said. "They were the enemy. This was propaganda, and there was that element of dehumanizing them."
He said during the 1950s, the very few African American characters received the same treatment, although they were often seen in a more flattering light, often as sidekicks.
But Wise said that’s starting to change. African-American super hero Black Panther is getting a reboot. Black super hero Luke Cage is the subject of an upcoming show on Netflix. And, he said, the people behind the work is starting to change, too.
“It’s still overwhelmingly a white boys club,” he said. “Some of that is the history of this medium.”
Wise said big companies are responding to movement in the underground comic world.
“There are more options for self-publishing than ever before," he said. "People are putting their comics online, putting them up on Tumblr and developing huge audiences. And there are a lot of alternative voices coming out of that."
Wise said he’s seen a shift. The children who started gaining access in the past few decades have become creators themselves.
“I’m an old white guy,” Wise said. "The comics were aimed at me when I was 15, and they were aimed at me when I was 30. I didn’t have to look very far to find representation, and I’m very aware of that. This is something I’ve always been into and wanted more people to love, and I understand why a lot of people couldn’t -- bringing in more voices brings more people into this hobby I love.”
Walker said his love of comics started at a young age, eventually fully consuming him. He found the characters engaging, especially Superman, the one he latched onto.
“And I think part of that was stability," Walker said. "My early years were characterized by a lot of familial instability and superheroes, those characters are about that, Superman almost more than any other."
He said he didn’t think much about how many of these characters, and the artists behind him, didn’t have the same racial identity as he did.
“Without knowing what people looked like, I just presumed certain creators were white," he said. "But I never took that to mean that you couldn’t be black or there were no black creators or I couldn’t do it."
Though the industry was mostly white, that didn’t deter him.
“I don’t begrudge anybody for creating, we needed characters like Black Panther and Black Lighting and Luke Cage," Walker said. "They had to be there. We had to start somewhere. At least we were seeing ourselves somehow represented in books.”
Marvel just hired its first black female writers, including Yona Harvey, from Pittsburgh. That matters, Walker said. He said that as a black artist, his independent comic book isn’t intentionally about being black, but is naturally shaped by his unique personal experiences.
And those new points of view are one thing Baverso said she wanted her students to see at the gallery.
She uses a lot of comic books and graphic novels in her regular curriculum.
“The most important thing is the kids want to read it,” she said.
That’s what motivated her students to request the comic club last year. They join in superhero battles and talk about their favorite books, like "Mouse," a graphic novel about the Holocaust.
“The way that it’s drawn and its simplistic form is a way to access some pretty tough themes in a way the kids can understand, but isn’t too graphic,” Baverso said.
Student Liam Wiexel, 13, said he was impressed by Walker’s work.
“I like reading superhero comic books mostly,” he said. “Maybe it’s that I’ve grown up with them, and it’s kind of cool to just see them in a different light now that I’m a little older.”
Wiexel said he likes the assortment of characters in Walker's work, based mostly on the artist's friends and community.
“I think that’s really cool,” he said. “Having a diverse character set not only adds flavor to any story, it brings people in.”
That’s something Walker said he didn’t realize about his own comics at first. Until one day, when he was 11, and had all his comics spread out on a table at his aunt’s house.
“One of my cousins sat down and asked me to hand him one," Walker said. "And he said, ‘That one there, the one with the brother on the cover,’ and that clicked for me. This means something to people. I remember that awareness kind of clicking into place.”