Written by Ryan Hall
Afua Richardson is a comic artist, a musician, and so much more. She made a big splash in the comics world in 2016-2017 by providing covers to Black Panther: World of Wakanda, Totally Awesome Hulk, Captain Marvel, All-Star Batman, Genius, and X-Men '92 - and she has long been rumored to be attached as the artist for a new Blade title from Marvel. Nerd Team 30 contributor Ryan Hall had the chance to sit down and talk with Afua at the recent ACE Comic Con AZ. The resulting conversation reveals a woman far more wise than her "rising star" status might imply. Her new Aquarius project looks beautiful and I personally can not wait to see what she does next. From the sound of this interview, it could be anything.
Ryan Hall: All right so the #1 question: inquiring minds want to know, who is Docta Foo?
Afua Richardson: (Laughs) Docta Foo is Afua Ricahrdson. I am a comic book artist, a musician, a writer, just a Jane of all trades.
RH: You do have an extensive background in performing arts. Is it true you have performed at Carnegie Hall?
AR: Yes, at age 11 I was a classical flautist. I started at 9 and by 11 I joined a borough-wide band that performed at Carnegie Hall and I was accepted to LaGuardia for performing arts. While at LaGuardia I attended Julliard. Our school was adopted by Julliard and so part of the day we would be at Julliard. Learning from the teachers there was almost like a mentoring program and was a fantastic time. We were exposed to professionals, went to Marcellus, I met Tito Fuentes when he was still alive and just other amazing, amazing creators.
Then I decided I don’t want to be a classical musician, this is not what I want to do. I joined an all-female hip-hop crew. They were like break dancers and MC’s. I just discovered underground hip-hop - it was philosophical, it was like poetry, it was jazz infused and I was like, "this sounds amazing". I was their female human beat-box artist because I would read sheet music and sometimes we would have to sight sing, is what it was called. You would read the music, you have never seen it before, and you would (melodically reads out beats). It was very percussive and maybe that lent to beats but that’s what I ended up doing. I mimic drums and animals and birds and all sorts of things. I started to mimic singers and then I became a singer. So I went on tour as a background singer, toured Europe, performed with Sheila E. I always draw a blank when it comes to the artists because they are so amazing that you kind of have to remind yourself ‘Oh my God, they are right there and what am I even doing here? I play classical flute what am I even doing here?’ But John legend, Alicia Keys, Parliament Funkadelic, Sierra, TI, Outkast, I was on Soul Train. I was on Jimmy Fallon with this artist Har Mar Superstar who was amazing and hilarious and super talented. It was a lot of fun. Some of these you can find on YouTube. But I think at age 26 or so I was drawing. I had already been going to comic conventions and anything I did I was like, "I really love doing this, I want to be good at this, this is what I love". I nerd out about this stuff. I don’t want to half way do it, because when I was younger I was really shy and I didn’t really trust what I said or what I thought. I was very self-conscious, but I trust what I made. Reading comics, Swamp Thing, or even getting back into it in the 90’s with early Top Cow stuff like Fathom or Witchblade, you know the embarrassing time of comics but it was in its adolescent phase and we loved it anyway! Even manga like Blade of the Immortal- (Can-Can plays over the convention intercom) Can-Can!
RH: Well that was another one of your talents right? Back-up dancer?
AR: (Laughs) For a little bit. Gosh I keep forgetting like MTV Jams, they had like background dancers. Oh my gosh that’s right like BET, MTV Jams they had like a modern day Soul Train! They had like background dancers - so I wasn’t a professional by any stretch of the imagination but I loved dancing. Like I actually loved going to raves and I loved mosh pits and I loved metal and going to those parties, because they were just so high energy. I loved Deftones and Stone Temple Pilots. They were actually very heavy vocal influences. I loved Chris Cornell’s scream, I wish I had that gravelly timber to my voice. Later on I started doing more like RB and soul and things like that I started getting involved in a music duo. It was me and another girl - it was called ScarletBlu, and it was kind of like pop-soul. I guess I sounded a little bit like Lauren Hill, which is what I got back and is a huge compliment. If I’m compared to Lauren Hill I’m not doing too bad. Like a jazzy Lauren Hill is what I got compared to. So they were like "let’s put you with a rapper, let’s get you out there doing this pop R&B stuff" and I was like, "ah, well I really like rock and soul and I love No Doubt, like that reggae-ska kind of stuff". Like if I wanted to do pop, I would want it to be more like that but that’s not where the industry was at that time and there weren’t artists like Thundercat or Flying Lotus which were more eclectic. They would ask me not to mention Bjork or infuse any of my other more non-black influences to my voice.
I was also inspired by Stevie Wonder, who I also had the opportunity to sing with just by a random chance - not even on stage. I worked at a Sam Ash in New York City right on 48th street and he would come in and test pianos. It was before they had like whole sound modules, so what he would do is he would come into the store like close to closing and he would go through all of the sounds on a particular keyboard. This must have been in like 2001 or something like that, maybe 2000. So one time I am walking through the store, I had already met him before and he’s playing Tuesday Heartbreak and I’m carrying some boxes, I’m way in the back and I didn’t think he could hear me (maybe he has super hearing, maybe that is his super power - beyond making incredible music). I’m singing the chorus of Tuesday Heartbreak but I don’t know all the words to it but he hears me and says ‘Afua is that you? Come on up here and sing this.’ I’m like, "oh my God why didn’t I pick another song to sing?" So I’m singing Tuesday Heartbreak while Stevie Wonder is playing like a Roland Phantom Keyboard and I’m thinking, "oh my God, this is amazing! I have to take a picture of this". I had a disposable camera there were no cell phone cameras at the time. I knew this was one of the moments that I want to remember forever, because he was just so prolific and he just poured his heart into his music and anyone could listen to it and feel the emotion from it.
With all the music I performed and played the visual aspect of it never separated, like it was never a separate thing. Whenever I listened to classical music I would see images in my mind. Or when I read comics I would listen to the soundtrack of my mind. Like, what would be going along with this Excalibur comic or what would go along with Conan? There would be like a symphony orchestra, there would be like techno, there would be all these different things. So it only made sense that I continued to do both. A lot of people told me to pick one, and for a long time maybe that is really necessary and that is what I needed to do because you can’t divide your time too much. Each craft takes an incredible amount of time and skill to focus. Just like a plant, you need to cultivate it and water it and if you divide your resources then it is not going to be as strong as it could be. But when I didn’t make music I started to get sad. Or when I wasn’t drawing, something in me just didn’t feel complete.
So at one point I was doing the background singing and going on tour and they were very temporary gigs and didn’t feel very stable. I got a gig with Melvin Van Peebles. If you don’t know, he is responsible for all of the Shaft, Foxy Brown - all of those films - and his film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song that he wrote and stared in. But he was like a WWII pilot, taught himself French - and he said one day he was flying over the ocean with the atom bomb as his cargo and he heard a voice. And he makes this face looking up as if he heard this divine voice. He said the voice said ‘Melvin, get your black ass out of the military.’ So he was due to re-enlist and he decided he served his time and he wasn’t going to get back into it. Everyone else who was on the battalion with him didn’t survive - except for his commanding officer, who was like "oh that boy is slick, that voice was right, get out now". But he decided to pursue his passion. He thought now that he had seen what the worst of life has to bring, it has to get better than this.
So he was like I don’t know how to make a film but I am going to make one today. I don’t know French but I’m going to learn it. And he got all these awards. At the time there weren’t any major films starring black leads that had roles that weren’t like butlers, waiters, slaves. I guess that was just a reflection of the time. So he didn’t get upset about it, he just got creative. His film was very political, very sexually charged, there was a lot going on. Basically he encounters 2 police officers who are beating up this guy, he stops the cops but kills them by accident so he is on the run for the rest of the film. It was such a success at the box office. It had never been seen or done before at the time, and they wanted to replicate it without all the politics. So someone had asked him ‘Aren’t you upset that your films are being remade without the essence and the core of what the issues are?’ and he was like ‘No I’m not. My objective was I wanted to see brown faces employed. That was it. I wanted to see more people who looked like me behind the screen. They have a job. What they decided to do with it, that is fine. I don’t need to have every moment of my life permeated by civil rights issues. I want to live my life being happy. I have friends who are not black. I have a life that is outside of this oppression and the only freedom is existing without being constantly afraid of what people think.’
Then I looked around his house and he had all these awards, and he had all this different sheet music that was noted with intervals instead of actual notes. He didn’t know sheet music, but he knew the distance between the actual notes - so whatever the bass line was, that would be like one mark and so on. And he scored an entire film with Earth, Wind and Fire (the local band at the time) to soundtrack his film. Then I was looking through some pages and I was like ‘oh this is a great graphic novel. Who drew this?’ and he was like ‘I did.’ I was like ‘What?! Melvin didn’t anyone ever tell you, you shouldn’t do all these things at once. That you should just pick one or two and focus on those?’ And he said ‘That’s because it’s difficult.’ I was like ‘Yeah that’s why they tell you not to do it.’ He said ‘Well if it were talking and walking then it wouldn’t be a problem. No one would warn you 'oh you shouldn’t walk and talk at the same time, that’s dangerous'. Because it’s difficult it makes them feel bad that they haven’t put forth the effort to be a scholar and a warrior and an artist and a poet but you can be all those things. You just have to divide up those 24 hours that you have and say I’m going to decide to do this. I’m going to decide to carve time for myself. Whatever job I am working I have to make time for me because this is my life and I’m never going to be this person again. So you have to decide who you are going to be.’
So it doesn’t matter where you come from. I mean there was a point in my life when I didn’t have a place to live. I went from eating Wonder Bread and wondering where my next meal was to drawing Wonder Woman. I taught myself how to draw and being inspired by people like him who are like yeah, people say I shouldn’t do that but people say a lot of things. They keep talking, I’m going to get to work. You know people can get upset that there is not enough diversity in comics but they could start drawing. They can support what’s there. They can honor what is and just see it as an opportunity instead of a slight. It’s like you know we all have our struggles, we all have our problems. Nobody’s life is easy. Even wealthy people, they have a lot to manage. Money is not going to fix whatever is wrong with their heart or their philosophy and they still have to manage and maintain all that. So I want to with my artwork maybe give different perspectives with just the things that I have learned and just put it out there and see what comes back.
RH: Absolutely. It sounds like for you that a lot of the different arts that you are involved in feed into each other. Maybe you take inspiration from other things you are doing for your drawings.
AR: Absolutely. And I’m working on a project right now that I can’t announce yet. But after that, I am working on Aquarius: The Book of Mer which will be a modern retelling of mermaid myths and legends from all over the world. I’m doing a lot of research right now. I have my work cut out for me. It will involve the Ningyo in Japan, the Selkie in Scotland - there are so many and some of them are creepy and scary. Even Melusine (the Starbucks mermaid), is kind of creepy - don’t know why she is on coffee.
RH: I never ever thought about that but there are different mermaids from around the world.
AR: Yeah, and I was just like, "man why didn’t I ever know about this? Why aren’t there stories?" And I thought, "oh well, there is an opportunity, I’ll tell the story. That is fine." I planned on getting started for May in 2018 but I am going to start a Patreon, and so I’ll just drip the content one page at a time until I have enough for a book. Maybe I can make some music for that and do like a Reading Rainbow style of read-along with the story and narrate and have voice over and do songs. Some of them, like Ningyo of Japan, they don’t have voices. They have flute like sounds which is perfect because I have played the flute for 20 years. So I am going to like over-dub their voices and warp the flute for sound and turn them into these creepy siren whale songs and make it more of an experience.
I had a really great experience at the last Ace Comic Con. I was sitting with a family in the hotel lobby and we were chatting about pink brass knuckles with like tasers at the end. And we were like, "How does that work?" Then we started talking about MMA and this guy overheard that I was working on a commission. He said ‘Hey are you guys artists?’ I was like ‘most of us are. That is the creator of Rocket Raccoon, Coleen Duran was working on Wonder Woman since 1988 and I am the artist on Black Panther: Wonderful World of Wakanda.’ He was like ‘Oh my god! My friend is such a huge fan of Wonderful World of Wakanda - I have to tell him. He couldn’t really make it to the show,’ and I was like ‘aww man that is too bad.’ He said ‘oh yeah he is going to die when tell him.’ So he sent him a text message and he was just so upset that he had to go to work he couldn’t make it to the show. Then I was like ‘Hey you know what, let’s send a video message to your friend and say hey it’s for Richard or whatever. Really wish you were here. Sorry you couldn’t make but we just wanted to send you well wishes.’ He was like ‘Really you do?’ and I was like ‘yeah it will take me like 10 seconds and your friend couldn’t make it and he is bummed out about it.’ I would be bummed too. This man’s son was so moved by it that after they went upstairs he came back downstairs to tell me that his son is really into the Justice League movies but he couldn’t get him to read anything. He just wasn’t interested. Then when he saw what I did and heard who I was he said ‘aww that was really nice of her. She makes comics? I want to make comics.’ So the next day he bought his first comic book ever from me and I was like oh my God! That is amazing. So it made me think, I understand media competing nowadays and books might not be as engaging as the other forms of media for kids and not all of these stories are going to be for kids, but the ones that are that are a little more general audience it might be fun to have something a little more interactive that might pull readers in like, "this is a cool video, it’s like 3 minutes and it explains a piece of the story, I want to read the rest of it". So he was also part of my inspiration for that.
RH: Bringing in other media. That is kind of how comics started by bringing in the illustrations to grab a younger audience. That is smart, it’s brilliant. You mentioned that you were a big fan of Swamp Thing, did you start with the Alan Moore run?
AR: Yes. I had no idea what was going on but I loved it. And I loved the drawings and illustrations. I was like, "man this is deep this plant is seriously depressed, I get him". You know in this cross over universe, Swamp Thing and Poison Ivy, why has that not happened?
RH: That’s a good question. We are still waiting for that one. Do you think that is why your material is more adult because you were interested in more mature comics?
AR: I think so. I was really into Heavy Metal magazine also. That was my introduction to Moebius, just that art style. I love sci-fi and really techy, ornate, psychedelic really culty type stuff - and that was really introduced there for me. It let me know it wasn’t just a kids medium with super heroes and powers, which are awesome I am not discounting that. But it can have really, really advanced concepts as well and still be embraced and I thought, "wow this is great". It really covers the gambit.
RH: I know we have taken quite a bit of your time, but I wanted to touch on one thing, can you tell us about The Ormes Society?
AR: The Ormes Society. Jackie Ormes was the first black illustrator to be recognized for her talents and what the Ormes Society does is sort of feature female black artists or just female artists in the industry and educate the public on who they are where they can find them to support their work.
RH: That is awesome. You are involved in the Society as well right?
AR: Yeah, they made me an honorary member and they feature and support my work very prominently. There are some really great gals over there and they are really supportive. So when they let me know and educate me on other artists I should know I try to spread the word.
RH: That is awesome. Did you have anything you would like to add? Any advice for fans? Or anything just in general?
AR: Learn your craft and learn the business too - because you don’t want to be stuck asking questions after you have already signed a contract. And just enjoy what you do. It is not going to be perfect until like the 20th one - and it’s never going to really be perfect. You’re always going to be chasing this dream. Adam Hughes is constantly evolving because he is always critiquing himself, but don’t critique yourself into obsolescence. Allow yourself to make mistakes. You are not going to start doing backflips one day and suddenly become on Olympic gymnast the next. Be patient with yourself while creating. As you go along, complete things. Let yourself complete smaller goals, smaller tasks. Everyone is going to have that magnum opus that they want to create. You are never going to be able to finish it in time. Break it up into smaller pieces. Make it achievable. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t have the money or the means, you’ll make it happen, you will find a way. You have heard that saying that when the student is ready the teacher will arrive? That is absolutely true. When you are really ready to put in those work hours like drawing every single day of your life, then you are ready to do comics.
RH: That is great advise. So other than the things you have mentioned what do you have planned for the future going forward?
AR: Well Aquarius: Book of Mer is primarily my next focus after the secret project but becoming a better writer and a better artist overall. I want to do more storytelling on my own. I don’t know maybe I will write a Marvel story one day about all the blue folks. Nightcrawler, Mystique, Beast, why are they all blue? Like what’s the deal with that?
RH: Great question.
AR: Even throw vision in there, he’s purple, and She-Hulk and Hulk, they’re green. What’s with all of these different colored folks. Just do a fun kind of silly book about that. Or like a Road Warrior story about Storm going cross country on a motorcycle. I don’t know.
RH: That would be interesting, absolutely. Well Afua, thank you for your time. We really appreciated talking to you.