If you haven’t heard of Alitha E. Martinez, let me provide a brief explainer on why you should know who this eminent comic book artist is. With a nearly 20-year career in comics, Alitha E. Martinez is an inker and penciller, who has worked for both of the big 2 — Marvel and DC. She once worked as an assistant to Joe Quesada, the former editor-in-chief of Marvel. Alitha has worked on a plethora of titles such as — Iron Man, X-Men: Black Sun, Marvel Age Fantastic Four, Black Panther and Voltron. She’s also self-published her own work under her company Ariotstorm Productions with the superhero book Yume and Ever.
Currently, she’s working with Lion Forge comics on a new book called Superb. Alitha took the time to stop by and chat with Black Girl Nerds about her latest work on the Xfinity’s Black History Month campaign called Groundbreakers: Heroes Behind the Mask. Alitha discusses her participation, her knowledge of Black Panther, the Dora Milaje’s fashion choices and what it’s like working as an AfroLatina in the comics publishing industry.
Jamie: I know that you are featured in the Groundbreakers: Heroes Behind the Mask series. Without giving too much away, what kind of topics did you discuss in this series?
Alitha: Well, they did discuss my background a bit, and [they weren’t] the kind of questions I wasn’t expecting. Everyone is so interested to know [more about] diversity and stuff now, but it really wasn’t that way when I first started — so I have a really crazy different experience. They were concerned about your gender at that time, not diversity at all.
Jamie: What was the culture like during the time you first got started in comics?
Alitha: Good ol’ boy network. It was the deep, good ol’ boy network, that’s what it was. And they meant it, oh boy did they mean it.
Jamie: Now, I’m curious too, because the landscape of comics have shifted a little bit, and we are seeing more women writing and drawing comics, and I’m grateful for organizations like Women in Comics, which you’re a part of, support women of color in comics — do you think opportunities are getting better for women in this field, or do we still have a long way to go?
Alitha: Oh yeah, this thing has changed so much. When I first started, there was no one except Amanda Connor. All the women were behind the scenes, like auxiliary support. The writers, I didn’t know any writers. You heard of them now and then, but this was definitely a thing that you could not do. The answer was always no, because it had never been done before. So, even with Amanda, this was before the Harlequin stuff, it’s like oh she drew Barbie. I would hear so much mansplaining it would make you crazy. I have fanboys mansplaining to me why our company wouldn’t invest in a woman. We couldn’t even get beyond that, so we can’t even get to diversity. They were diverse, they were like Ken dolls in their diversity. Black, white, Asian, Spanish, Ken dolls, all telling you no.
Jamie: I mean, that’s the thing, it’s like diversity for some people means something completely different and if there are just one or two people in the room that are not white and male, then that’s considered diversity to some people. In my opinion, no that’s not.
Alitha: No, it’s not. I like the people screaming and crying about “oh Black Panther”, but nobody says anything about the six Lord of the Rings [movies] with not one person of color. I’m going to leave that alone, just put that right there on the table, just leave that right there.
Jamie: Speaking of Black Panther, I mean hello, this movie is groundbreaking in so many different ways. It’s really a movement, and I want to talk to you about Black Panther, for obvious reasons. Before I ask you about the movie though, I should add that you have done artwork on Black Panther for several years. Working with writers like Christopher Priest, and you did the art on the recent World of Wakanda series, so if anyone one knows T’Challa it’s you. Since you’ve been working on this character since the late 90’s — my question is, did you ever expect to see the kind of response happening with all of the hype that’s surrounding this film right now?
Alitha: You know, I did not expect it. Then again, I welcomed it. I just knew it was time for it, but it frightened me in the sense that I wondered if people are responding to the character or are people responding to the lack of…this vacuum that we’ve had all these long, long years, of not having strong representation. As we well know, it’s sort of like what people think people of color are like. So, you have always the same scenarios. Drive-by shootings, drugs, and poverty. You don’t have anything else, there’s no other narrative. That’s what is being told. Even when I first started doing anything with Black Panther, quite frankly the ladies have changed a lot, because they sort of look like streetwalkers in the beginning.
Jamie: They did. Let’s talk about Nakia and Okoye, looking like the lost members of En Vogue, like really.
Alitha: I asked what are they there for? They were like oh well they’re his bodyguards.
Jamie: In stilettos?
Alitha: In high heels and short dresses? Let me just keep my head down and do my work. Again, a layering of what they think. No ability to go beyond that and really dig into all of the sudden Black Panther changes. Coates comes in, you have Brian come in, and they add a sheen to that, and we all sat up and went “go look at that”. Now they’re beautiful, they’re powerful, they’re strong. They’re not streetwalkers anymore.
Jamie: Did you expect anything like what we are seeing now when you were working on the character back then? I can’t imagine that a whole lot of folks really knew about Black Panther — unless they were comic book readers. Did you ever expect that this character would be a part of the pop culture spectrum?
Alitha: No, you know what I’m surprised about? When I was first working on this, [I had] a strong focus on what [I was] doing. You don’t have time to stop and smell any roses. You’re constantly thinking of your next job. I’m still that way. It’s the next job, it’s the next book, it’s the next thing you’re doing. What catches, catches. Then, there was Daredevil and all of these other books. Black Panther was secondary. There was something missing. There was story missing. No matter how good the character looks or how much you put into it — if it’s not meat, no potatoes, you can’t hold people. There’s no story, there’s no depth, you’re not going to hold peoples interest, and he wasn’t holding anyone’s interest back then, not at all. It was just, we’ve got a little tale to tell about Black Panther, then suddenly, he’s got this world and Wakanda comes to life. It came to life in such a way that it makes me sad that it’s not a real place.
Alitha: Because this movie was a little too close to that. There were too many touches of reality that reminded me of the Dark Knight, where they were speaking to you with that reality. But, there was the reality of the fictional place, Gotham, with these broken people in it. I don’t want to give anything away to the people who haven’t seen the movie yet, but, this had the same touch except it was sort of like Disney meets this reality. Butted heads with things that hurt to hear. Sad that Wakanda is not a real place. That we are abandoned.
Jamie: I really do wish Wakanda was a real place because I would buy my one-way ticket there, ASAP.
Alitha: Now, I must say, as beautiful as I found this movie though, I think I feel like it also allowed me to see what’s missing. Not from the movie so much, but from our talk of diversity. I’m not just the color of my skin, but also my community, the Hispanic community, the island people, we’re grossly, grossly underrepresented when it comes to comic books. Yes, I know there are new ones trying to come up — but there’s a lot of colorism, there’s a place that you feel that you don’t fit. When they think of me, with my last name, they take a look at me, you see how you just don’t fit. You’re not really there, you’re not really a part of this. So I’m looking at this beauty and this power and I’m so happy, but I’m [thinking] would my people fit here [in Wakanda]? Probably not, but I’m glad to see it.
Jamie: That’s a larger conversation that we should definitely have with respect to the Afro-Latinx community about the lack of representation in media. Whether it’s TV, film, and definitely comic books, because quite frankly, Miles Morales is the only Afro-Latino character that I know of in comic books. So, you’re right, it’s few and far between, and the representation really needs to be on equal footing for all different kind of groups.
Alitha: Yeah that shows you how much work we have left to do, right?
Jamie: One last question about Black Panther. What do you hope to see happen next, after the Black Panther premiers in theaters?
Alitha: Well, I can’t say that part, because that’s too much. I hope it continues. I hope it becomes a continuous thing like we have Superman, we have Wonder Woman, I’m still hoping Wonder Woman can continue the trend she’s on. Can Black Panther do that too? Can we finally have a strong, male character of color, that has reached iconic status? Can we feel it? Can it stay for us? Will we allow it to last? Because, ultimately, the public has to buy the book. It’s business. If book sales flip — the book is gone. It’s not for lack of interest, you have to support these kinds of things.
Jamie: I’m going to be talking about this movie long after it ends. So, I really love this initiative by Comcast Xfinity that features comic book people like yourself. What do you think companies and corporations can do to help continue to support Black creatives in this space outside of the month of February?
Alitha: Hire them.
Jamie: Talk about it.
Alitha: I don’t mean hire them on the merit of your skin. Definitely not, but you’ve got to understand that if you have a character that you want to be written, and you need to seem authentic, you have to hire the best people for the said job. You cannot hire people who have no experience with that, and they turn in something that — and I’m being very delicate here — but something that smacks of the flavor but doesn’t touch it really. That would be insulting. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Olympics coverage, but there was a moment they had when the Japanese prime minister come in and the reports said oh yes they occupied Korea all these years, but the Koreans have really benefited and followed the example of the Japanese. That is someone speaking, who should have kept their mouth shut.
Quite frankly, it mirrors comics to me. You have someone without this experience putting forth, with authority, this is the only way they live. They live in ghettos. They live surrounded by drugs. We can’t have a mother, a father, a family life. No, we have to have broken homes. That is the reason behind the heroic journey. I don’t think that’s fair, I think it’s long overdue to have people coming from strong loving families and backgrounds because to me, that’s not telling my tale. Is that telling your tale? So I’m hoping Black Panther is going to stand there and be allowed to exist. Once it does, just like women coming in to do comics, they’re here to stay.
Jamie: I’m happy that you’re a part of Groundbreakers: Heroes Behind the Mask. What’s next for you and where can people find your work?
Alitha: Well, right now I’m working on Superb, and I’ll be working on volume two of that. I’m one of those people that bounce from book to book in the industry, so I’m still looking for a home and looking to be able to draw every book out there, at some point. Of course, I’d like to get my own work out there. I’ve been many years…18 years of my life, working for other companies, I’ve always been quite shy about my own work. As much as I love support for all these characters, there’s a whole sea of other voices being ignored. Black Panther isn’t the only one. We have other types of creators. I’d like to conquer that new frontier that says black female science fiction writers don’t exist, and cannot sustain themselves, but they do. That’s where I’d like to go next. So we will see if it can take me there.
Jamie: Well, I just want to say that your work is inspiring it’s incredibly freaking good, and I hope to see more of it, not only in the comic space but just everywhere. I hope that folks will recognize your work and recognize who you are in this industry, with this upcoming Comcast Xfinity series that you’re a part of. So, thank you Alitha for talking to Black Girl Nerds today. I really appreciate it.
Alitha: Thank you for having me, I’m so happy to do it.
You can catch more of Alitha’s short film for Xfinity’s Black History Month campaign here:www.Xfinity.com/discovermore
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.