With her art recently gracing several covers of Marvel’s Black Panther: World of Wakanda, Afua Richardson is coming in to a well earned prominence in the comics field. She recently chatted with us at Ace Comic Con about the meaningful symbols in her art and her upcoming projects.
- You recently did the Black Panther World of Wakanda covers – how did you get into that and how were you approached for it?
Well, it was interesting because I was asked by Marvel after doing Captain Marvel and Totally Awesome Hulk, if I was interested in doing a variant for Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther: World of Wakanda – which was amazing. I’m a really big fan of Brian Stelfreeze and he is someone who when I was an aspiring artist came along and was very encouraging and very precise with critiques. If anyone is looking for someone kind and encouraging but precise critique on their work- he is the Yoda of comics. He’s the person you go to, seriously. So, I was like, yes, of course, I would love to do a cover. I decided I was going to put a little piece of me in the cover because it meant so much. And Black Panther has had so many other writers and artists but it felt like a new life was being poured into it and not due to the movies.
- The comic was in development before the movie?
Exactly. And it was supposed to be just a variant for the series. So I put in what are called adinkra symbols of West Africa, symbols from Ghana, which are philosophies embedded into those sigils. I put in the adinkra symbols of West Africa, Ghana, which originally there was a war happening in Ghana in I want to say the early 1900s, and essentially a king decided to replicate what was called The King’s Seat – I don’t know what it was or why it was important but it was such a taboo to replicate this seat of this throne, which apparently was formed from a rock from heaven or space or a meteorite. He decided he was kingly and he should have one of these as well. A war broke out because of this and many people died. And he thought ‘okay, I don’t want any of my people to continue to suffer for this, I’m going to surrender myself.’ And he requested a cloth be made from these symbols and each meant something different, and it became almost a funeral procession,march of walking into enemy territory with this giant shroud with all these symbols that mean different things. I was like whoa– that’s very heavy.
- That adds a whole different dimension to it and it’s not even textual. I wouldn’t have picked up on that.
And so those symbols are from the same place my name is from. My name is Afua, which is a West African name that means Girl Born on Friday.
- Were you born on Friday?
Yes! I was! I’m a Friday girl! It would be terrible if it was Tuesday. So, these symbols in Africa are from the same place my name is from and I thought, growing up, my parents meant well, but anything that was culturally African was demonized or primitive, superstitious, or wrapped up in voodoo because people didn’t really know. I’m sure in their heart of hearts they meant well but it discouraged me from looking to the culture, and then I found these symbols. I gravitated toward one- the nkyinkyim, which I have tattooed on my wrist and it looks like a little snake and it means maneuverability, twisting, so whatever comes, you deal with it.
- That’s very cool because I read that you are also a classically trained musician, voice acting and all these other things, so even in that it shows your ability to traverse different landscapes and come out on top.
I had a lot of things happen to me that were very negative in my life and I was like ‘well, I just have to pick up and deal with it,’ you know? Be the best me as possible and deal with it. So, I decided to look at these symbols and find ones that were relevant to the story. In issue #1, right behind T’Challa, it is very hard to see but it is a square with a circle it in and something that looks like an arrow. And this symbol translates into ‘He who wants to be king, but must first learn to serve.’ I was like whoa – that is so relevant, because T’Challa of course was away from Wakanda and during that time Namor flooded the land and because of this great catastrophe on his homeland, and his sister dying or in the process of dying, frozen in a minute before dying stasis, so the country was in turmoil. When there’s a vacuum of power, the thugs come in…
- And say to T’Challa, you don’t have a claim in here…
Exactly, so with that vacuum, the elites swooped in and some started enslaving women, taxing heavily, and it became a terrible place. So there was a disdain for the elite and it comes back in ‘why do you want to rule us?’ So now he has to be in a position of service to try and undo some of the damage. He wants to be king, he has to learn to serve. And I was like, yes, thank God this symbol exists! Behind the Dora Milaje, Ayo and Aneka, there’s a symbol that kind of looks like a flower and that translates ‘freedom comes with a cost.’ So it is the price of emancipation, so they in the absence of T’Challa try to rule as best they can but people were kind of getting irate and they killed one of these leaders. She was executed, so they rebelled, they freed the women and they started this whole revolution. You’re going against your king and kingdom, but you’re for the people.
- So even though this came out a few months ago, a year ago, it eerily resonates with what kind of goes on today with the upheaval of Hollywood and even breaking free of the silence.
There was a consolidation of power and they decided to speak out about it. And they were the controllers and gatekeepers. And now all the gates are getting kicked down. I think because Hollywood is decentralizing and people can independently create films and their own projects, I think that’s sort of loosening up the grease. Creators can say I don’t need to go to one of the big companies to get this project done.
- That also applies to the comics industry, you’re also writing and illustrating your own book. You’re doing that indepently, correct?
I’m doing it independently right now and I’m in the research phase. But I just got asked to be a part of a really, really big project that I wish I could tell you about, but it will be announced in January.
But going back to the last symbol [referencing the Black Panther cover], behind Zenzi who is a Inhuman who can extract emotion, so she can exacerbate the feelings of hate and resentment because she is one of the poorer classes in Wakanda. Even though it is a rich nation, with anything, there’s still a class system. And not all of it is opportunities and funded capitalism, some people are poor, they’re farmers or live simple lives. But with that vacuum, there’s always the opportunity for those to be in power. Killmonger moves in to try and recruit people and they don’t want to participate and he kills them. So she watched her entire family be slaughtered and she realized she had this power. She thinks, ‘I wish they could kill each other’ and that’s what they do. And she’s mortified – what is happening, what am I, what did I do? And she learns to control it and she has a teacher who guides her along but it’s to a negative direction, that says screw the leaders, let’s start a riot. On the upside she can also feed love and all these other positive emotions.
The symbol that is behind Zenzi, is like a kinetic empath, is tamfo bebre, and it means the enemy will stew in his own juice, which is perfect.
So each one of these has a symbol that is relevant to the story and I put them all on my website with the translations.
I was always such a big fan of occult symbolism, and when I mean occult, I mean hidden symbolism. A lot of things were sort of pushed under the radar during the Crusades unfortunately, so a lot of things were demonized and turned into a secret society. Not because things were evil or dark but because if you didn’t worship the way the others wanted you to you would pay with your life. I love looking into those things because you start to see that each culture has its operating system for explaining nature. Krishna is Dionysus is Jesus is Horus is Superman- 33 years old, powered by the sun, Kal-El love his only son that he sent to Earth. You see this – Neo in the Matrix – same symbolism over and over again to represent the sun, the literal sun. Our universe is amazing and it is always represented in fictional characters, almost as if it ferrying the information onto another generation. We inherit and we fall in love with these characters not because they’re super but because they are human despite being super. It reminds us to be heroic even if we have superpowers that we still have the everyday problems.
- Like who is going to take out the trash?
- So how did get into your new project, it is about mermaids. It’s funny because I was reading about your new project with mermaids and I was recently turned on to the fact that ooh, there is more than The Little Mermaid out there, very recently. I started reading Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath, which features all of these women of history stories who you wouldn’t read about at all in a Disney film, and he Disney-fies him.
- Yeah and he has a blog and he goes into some fictional characters, and he goes into the mermaid lore of like, I can’t recall, maybe indigenous people of Columbia or some South American tribe, and it was the same kind of premise where a mermaid/siren calls men to their death, and it’s crazy to think this was in South America versus the whole homogenized Western European view.
Yes and I think what brought me into making a whole book of mermaids, because honestly I wasn’t super into mermaids. There’s The Little Mermaid and Starbucks — and that story is crazy, The Starbucks mermaid, Melusine, or Melusina is a French mermaid. She is the daughter of a fairy and a Scottish king of Alba, and that’s the story. Apparently, there was a lake in France, the Lake of Thirst, and the king convinces the fairy to marry him, and he didn’t know she was one, but any time you make a bond with them, there is a cost, a bargain.
- This is a lot darker than I thought it would be.
It’s totally dark! She says after awhile, ‘okay, I will marry you, one condition: if I bare you children, an heir, you cannot come into the birthing chamber and you cannot come into the room when I bathe them.’ I thought to myself, why?! Why not, but she never says in all of the stories – French translations too, there is no mention of why she can’t. So that’s what I’m doing with is that I’m elaborating on all these stories. I’m closing the story and making it make sense. So eventually the king breaks the promise and he walks into the room when he finds out his wife is having triplets. He’s overjoyed and goes to the birthing chamber and she has to leave immediately. So, the three daughters that she has, the oldest is Melusine, she brings them to a secluded island surrounded by fog, and I thought, wow how Wonder Woman-ish. When they’re 15, she explains to them what happened, that she married a king and that the reason they are living on this island was because he broke his promise. The daughters were furious… like… ‘what? We live in a hut!’ So they go back to Alba and they convince him to come out to the mountainside with all of his money and then they lock him in a cave. They move a boulder in front of the cave.
- That’s very Jesus-like.
Right? And so he dies in the cave and no one can find him. He’s lost in the mountainside They take all his money and go back home and show their mother what they got. She was like, ‘I loved this man! What is wrong with you?’ So she curses each one of them, but curses Melusine the worst, so that every Saturday from the waist down her legs are fish tails. So when you see the Starbucks mermaid, she’s holding one leg and the other.
- At first I thought that was her hair, but that doesn’t make sense.
Each leg is a tail, because of the curse.
- I knew the name of Starbucks was from Moby Dick. That’s about all the Starbucks lore I knew.
And apparently, she eventually turns into a full-on dragon and has like a ton of grown children, some are a cyclops, some have tails, some have fish scales. History is sort of braided into it, people will be like the granddaughter of Melusine and say they have dragon blood in their veins. So, I’m taking all of those stories, from the Ningyo in Japan to the one in Nova Scotia to the sirena in South America, to Mami Wata in West Africa and Ghana- braiding all of those stories together.
- That’s incredible, does this come out in the spring?
I wanted it to come out in the spring but now that I have this [other] project I’m going to have to start the Patreon. So I will just put it out one page at a time until I have enough for a full issue.
- That’s the way a lot of people have been getting it done and there have been so many artists and creators that have started that way and also have continued their work that way too.
Yeah, I wanted to have a first issue done, but I got asked to do an amazing project and I can’t say no to this one.
- It sounds like it’s definitely worth the wait.
What the wait is allowing me to do is do more research, so speaking to alternative historians, technologists, flood myths, and talking about mineral deposits and different lake strata and cultures that were cemented in stone and done in my catastrophe that completely changed the surface of their civilization. So, I know some more upon speaking to a technologist named Randall Carlson and he hosts a website called Sacred Geometry International and basically he gets into ancient temples and ruins and different geological landscapes and sort of unites the mathematics between them. A lot of ancient societies would make these stone textbooks out of buildings to preserve knowledge and he decodes that and teaches it to other people. He spoke to a group of people, speaking of the Clovis people who are supposed to have rendered the mammoths extinct which is kind of ridiculous because mammoths are the size of buses and I don’t really know how much elephant murder a single tribe could eat but it’s like these are huge animals and you can’t really hunt these things to extinction. He and a bunch of other people have been finding evidence showing that a comet hit North America, froze a large piece of landscape, broke off a giant ice sheet and raised sea level 400 feet. Imagine if Japan was a chain of mountains and not a chain of islands, imagine 400 feet of water being receded and most of the land and culture on the shore and how much of it was lost and swept away. We have all these legends everywhere about floods and people coming out of the water and teaching them agriculture.
- And water is often connected with birth too in a lot of different mythologies.
Yes! Oh man, I have my work cut out for me! I’m going to make a bunch of series that anyone can pick up at any time, but at the end of each of them I’m going to tell them where they can learn more and share my research and say I interviewed this person or this place is real and you can go here and see it! You can go to the cave where the 900 year old nun accidentally ate mermaid meat decided oh I’ve lived long enough and I’m going to mediate myself to the beyond, and that place still exists. One day I hope to go.
- That would be a cool journey to visit all these places that have a mythical connection.
That’s my plan!