You Could Be Drawing Black People Wrong (But MALIK SHABAZZ Wants to Help)

How To Draw Black People
Credit: Malikali Shabazz
Credit: Malikali Shabazz

For comic book artists, there are instructional books on how to draw everything from superheroes to Looney Tunes, but artist Malikali Shabazz has noticed a big gap - on bookshelves, and more importantly in comics art.

Scheduled to launch January 2019, How To Draw Black People aims to focus on one of the commonly-overlooked aspects of in comic book art (hint: it's more than just a color added by the colorist).

Malikali Shabazz is in the final hours of a successful Kickstarter campaign that's raised over $18,000 to self-publish How To Draw Black People, and now he's looking ahead to finishing the book and recruiting other voices to explain and demonstrate this nuanced subject with authenticity.

Shabazz spoke with Newsarama subject, using his own background as an artist - with some illustrated examples - to explain why this book is needed.

Newsarama: Malikali, given this is about an instructional book, let readers know who the instructor is. Can you tell us about yourself?

Malikali Shabazz: I’m an indie comic book artist, been making comic books for about 7+ years. I self-published three comic book series and my latest book was an anthology called Cyber/Punk/Funk! I like long walks on the beach and poetry at sunset…(joking) I dunno, I’m not really good at talking about myself.

Nrama: Let’s get to it then – talk about your book.

Shabazz: It kind of started as a joke, a passive observation of poorly drawn black characters throughout comic books, animation, etc. But the more I thought about it the more I realized no one taught me how to draw black people and how I had to learn how to do that myself. I remembered how all the tutorials I had looked up or “how to” books I bought used cis male and female models with Eurocentric features to teach me how to draw. Even in college my figure drawing classes had nothing but white models to draw from. When you put two and two together and speak to a lot of artists and see how black people are being depicted, it’s an easy conclusion to come to that the difference between people and cultures is something that’s being largely overlooked.

So, I wanted to change that.

Credit: Malikali Shabazz

Nrama: Is this something you’ve taught before in classes or presentations?

Shabazz: I have taught small classes before but never with a focus on black features or cultures. At that time, I was pretty much of the same mind that I was taught: that if you could draw white people, you can draw anyone. I didn’t really think about it because being black my features aren’t really a mystery to me. My skin tone, my culture, these things are what I always try to include in my work. To someone outside of black culture however, there is sure to be a void between what that person understands and what they can observe.  

Nrama: Your Kickstarter deadline is just a few days from, and you just surpassed your $16,000 goal. Do you have any last-minute stretch goals planned?

Credit: Malikali Shabazz

Shabazz: When I started the campaign, I offered free portrait sketch commissions for the first week and later I brought it back for anyone who ordered a physical copy of the book. We’ve got 400+ backers so I’d love to compile them and put out a companion book for those backers as a thank you. I think that would be really cool.

Nrama: Into the book itself, how did you break it down? What are the chapters about?

Shabazz: The book is unique in that it focuses on culture. It would be easy to just make a book giving instructions on how to draw black features and some might argue that you can google things for the answers you need, but that’s not true. This book is very much about how to respect black people and our culture. While we have chapters on things like facial anatomy, hair texture, skin tone, costuming and expressions, the book goes further in to explain the why of things. Why black people wear their hair a certain way, why colorism is a big deal within the black community, why people from a borough in New York may dress a certain versus someone who is from Watts, California.  A lot of art instruction is about teaching artists what to draw what they see. How to draw black people to do that but also interpret culture so they can communicate more clearly through their art.

Nrama: What do you feel are the biggest problems with the way black people are drawn in comic books?

Shabazz: The biggest issue is that black people have their culture cropped completely out. Black people are just there, in a sea of white people, with no friends that look like them, no history, no real connection to black culture. You add in the fact that many of the people who write the stories are they themselves not black and the problem becomes exacerbated. I’m not speaking in absolutes, obviously there are instances of black culture that can be found if you look hard enough, but it’s not the norm. I always tell people that John Stewart’s greatest power is that he’s never had to visit a black barbershop for a shape up in all the years he’s been in comics.

Credit: Malikali Shabazz

Nrama: From looking this over, what I appreciate most is how you break down that there's not just one type of "black person". It's about where their ancestry comes from, be it "West Indies, Ethopia, Brazil, or South Africa" as you stated. How would you explain that briefly?

Shabazz: Just that we’re not a monolith, visually or culturally. We are diverse in every way you can imagine. We are connected by oppression but that does not mean we are all the same. We also respect our differences for the most part. We know there’s a difference between Haitians and Jamaicans, between afro-latinx and afro-Mexican, so on and so forth. The biggest thing is that we try to let everyone be themselves under a category that none of us chose.

Credit: Malikali Shabazz

Nrama: Are you doing this entire book yourself, or do you plan to bring in other teaching artists as well?

Shabazz: The core of the book will be my art, my techniques and explanations but I have a tentative list of artists that have agreed to give their perspective on the topics discussed so you get more than just my view on how to do thing. Keith O’Malley who used to work on Marvel card sets;  Lindsey Bailey is a fantastic up-and-coming artist that recently worked with the founders of Black Lives Matter;  then there’s Niecy Red, the artist behind Peachy Plush and a few others that have I have to be tight-lipped about until they can confirm.

Credit: Malikali Shabazz

Nrama: If this is successful, do you have a sequel in mind?     

Shabazz: I want to create a whole series of books that focus on various cultures. Mexican, Native Americans, Japanese, Korean every culture that gets over looked and or lumped together under a single category. Art is first and foremost a language, especially visual narrative and it’s a big oversight to have so many artists clueless about culture. Hopefully How To Draw Black People will be the first in a long line of cultural education books tailored to artists.

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