Where Are All the Black Female Superheroes?
Shequeta Smith's five-book series is addressing a major representation problem in comics.
In 2008 Shequeta Smith walked into a California comic shop in search of a black female superhero featured on a cover. The shop owner was at a loss. He couldn’t find a single stand-alone, black superheroine on his shelves. One decade later, Smith’s budding comic book empire is changing all that.
In 2016, Smith launched Shero Comics as a platform for her comic series featuring superheroine Rayven Choi, inspired by her time spent studying abroad in Korea about 20 years prior. The five-part graphic novel series, with three books released so far, was originally written as a script for the big screen. Smith was a screenwriter before Shero Comics, even making it to the final 20 on Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Project Greenlight. When Greenlight didn’t work out, Smith decided to risk it all on her own comic company. So far, her ambition has paid off. “I started this company just to release the books, and it’s transitioned into something way bigger than I ever imagined,” Smith says.
These days, Smith travels across the country and increasingly across the globe introducing Comic-Con goers and store owners to Rayven Choi. She’s also launched her own T-Shirt line under the Shero Comics umbrella. The screen-printed tees, inspired by clothes in her comic, feature sayings like “Bougie Nerd,” “Pussy Kills,” and “Black Girl Mafia.” Smith says they often sell out faster than she can replace them at Cons. This year, Smith is touring international Comic-Cons to compile video for a documentary on the history of black women in comics.
Smith says her experience working on a marketing team at Coca-Cola for six years before writing helped give her the confidence to jump into building her own company. Her previous experience, coupled with a gap in the market for black female superheroes made for a perfect storm that has allowed her comic dreams to take off. Now, with films like Black Panther paving the way for bigger projects, Smith has her heart set on nothing short of world domination for the Shero Universe. Read on below for more of the Shero Comics story, and to see what Smith has planned next.
On selling out her tees… “One of the first shirts I launched was called ‘Pussy Kills,’ and it features a killer cat with a shank on the front. This was around the time Trump was elected president. So, at Comic-Con, men and women were stopping and taking pictures and they were just having fits over the T-shirt. Now our Pussy Kills always sells out. And we sold out of ‘Bougie Nerd’ in four hours at New York Comic-Con. That's never happened before. It’s just amazing to see people's reactions to something that I created that was originally supposed to only to be a part of the book. The T-shirts make me really proud.”
On her biggest obstacles… “I'm doing this all on my own. But paying for everything on your own is a common obstacle as a female entrepreneur. There are not a lot of options for us — especially black women — out there to get money. I think we only get .006 percent of the money in Silicon Valley [from investors]. When expanding internationally, I thought I was going to have investors that came aboard at the beginning, but it all fell through. Like I say, women have it really hard. So, I had to put on my big girl panties and take out a small loan to start things in Korea. Once there, I did a dinner for black women that teach in the country. We talked about being a black woman in Korea, what life was like there for them. And we visited some of the locations that are inside the book.”
On getting it right… “My artist and I had been working together for nine years, so he was really good at drawing Rayven Choi. But when it came to the cover, I wanted to have something on the level of Marvel. I hired this other guy in the UK and he did a really good job with the train and with her body, but her face — she looked like Jessica Alba. I said, ‘She's not Jessica Alba, she’s a black woman like me. She needs some black features, like in her lips and her nose.’ He told me that he was ‘Trying to keep her beautiful.’ I fired him on the spot and had my artist go in and fix her face. The UK artist said he didn't want his name on the cover, so I said, ‘Okay, fine. We won't include you in the book at all.’ Today, the cover of that first book is what gets people the most. They love it. That guy was completely wrong. I didn’t let it get to me, though. I thought, ‘I don't have time for you right now. We're building a company, we're building a movement, we're building a character that hopefully is going to change the world, so if you're not on board, then you've got to get off the train. We're moving on with this thing.’"
On best advice for other women entrepreneurs… “Try to do it as inexpensively as you can. Try to find good people that will volunteer for you. Surround yourself with some really good people who are like-minded and positive. And if necessary, like me, just do it alone, do it rogue. Another piece of advice I would give to the women out there is to let your company evolve. You can't control everything. And if you just let it develop, it may turn into something you never imagined. Because I never imagined all this would come out of me picking Shero Comics.”
On her inspirations… “Marvel was a big influence for me. I'm from a very small town, Salisbury, North Carolina, and we didn't have any comic shops. So, the only access I had to comics was the newspapers on Sunday, the comic strip, and Archie in the grocery store. I wasn't really into comics until I saw Spider-Man, the first movie with Tobey Maguire. I thought that was really cool. And of course, Wonder Woman has also been my hero since I was 4 years old, too.”
On what’s up next… “My goal is to get it into all 50 states and to at least five countries by the end of this year. We’re also working on an international documentary called A Shero Universe, which, for the most part, I've financed myself so far. We’re looking at investors to finance the rest of it. And we’re hoping to have it at Sundance in 2020. So far, we've had Simone Missick and DMC from Run-DMC in it. I'm also emailing Senator Kamala Harris right now because I think it would be great for her to be in it, especially if she's running for president. We're trying to get Oprah, of course, the queen of media. And we have quite a few female Hollywood executives talking about just what this representation means and why it's important for us to be overseas telling this story. We’re also coming out with the prequel to Rayven Choi by the end of the year. It's going to be Young Grand Master Choi, showing Rayven as a young Karate Kid-type of girl growing up in Korea. There's going to be so many little girls interested in this story, and I'm so excited to present this to them.”