Communication professor achieves milestone with Comic-Con win

Dr. Sheena Howard became the first African American woman to win an Eisner Award
Adam Grybowski
Communication professor achieves milestone with Comic-Con win

Dr. Sheena Howard accepted an award for the book she co-edited with Ronald L. Jackson II, "Black Comics."

Dr. Sheena Howard became the first African American woman to win an Eisner Award when she received the prize on July 25 for her first book, Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation. Eisner awards are considered the Oscars for comics and are the highest acknowledgement one can receive in the industry. The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards ceremony was held July 25 during Comic-Con in San Diego, Calif. 

“When I won, I was in disbelief,” Howard says. “I didn’t even expect to be nominated. I actually cried. When I got to the podium, I couldn’t talk because I was in tears.” 

The book is a collection of critical perspectives on how black comic artists have represented and explored the African American experience. Howard accepted the award along with the book’s second editor, Ronald L. Jackson II, a faculty member of McMicken College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati.  

An assistant professor in Rider’s Department of Communication and Journalism since 2011, Howard received a summer research fellowship her first year at Rider to complete Black Comics. “The goal is to call attention to the salient themes around race, gender and representation prevalent in historical and contemporary comics,” she writes in the book, which won for Best Scholarly/Academic Work. 

Black Comics grew out of Howard’s dissertation at Howard University, The Continuity and Extension of African-American Communication Dynamics through Black Comic Strips, an analysis of Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks comic strip. Since its publication, the book has attracted enough attention that Howard regularly appears at conventions and other comic-book gatherings, feeding the steady appetite of a hungry fan base. 

“I was interested in that particular comic strip, and I thought it was a good topic for Howard University,” Howard says. “I thought it wouldn’t do more than get me my degree.”

The nomination and resulting win has propelled her — an entrant into the world of comics — into the ranks of its most acclaimed artists, writers and creators. Far from a lifelong fan, Howard had never owned a comic until around 2007. “When I started my Ph.D., if you would have told me I would be writing about comics, I would’ve said, ‘How the heck is that going to happen?’” she says. 


Sheena Howard poses with Kelly Hu and Ronald Jackson after winning the Eisner

She cites the sheer amount of material as one barrier to entering the field. Following Batman or Spiderman on their superhero adventures has spawned thousands of editions over the decades. “It’s overwhelming, but you can start anywhere.” she says. “You can become interested any time.” 

She started with The Boondocks, a daily strip that ran from 1996 to 2006. Aaron McGruder originally wrote and drew the strip, which featured two African American boys assimilating to the suburbs. It often addressed politics and popular culture and, along the way, attracted a big audience that crossed racial lines. 

The humor was savvy enough that readers of different races were often laughing at the same jokes but for different reasons, Howard says. She became curious about how the strip achieved its effect — and its popularity. The Cartoon Network adapted The Boondooks for TV, and the show premiered on Adult Swim in 2005. “Very rarely does something like that reach mainstream syndication,” she says, adding that, going back to the 1920s, no more than eight nationally syndicated strips centering on African Americans reached a mainstream audience. 

Since earning her doctorate in communication and culture from Howard, she received several accolades, including the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education’s Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation award and the 2010 Doctoral Dissertation award from the National Communication Association (AACDBC division). She earned her master’s degree in graphic design from the New York Institute of Technology and completed her undergraduate degree in business administration with a concentration in marketing from the Hagan School of Business at Iona College. An expert on race, representation, politics and sexual identity negotiation, she’s also written two other books, Black Queer Identity Matrix and Critical Articulations of Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, which were published in 2014.

Howard has begun initial talks with the publisher of Black Comics, Bloomsbury, for a follow up.

She appeared at the awards ceremony at Comic-Con from July 24-27 in San Diego, Calif. About 130,000 fans attend the annual convention to celebrate comics, movies, television and video games. To attend Comic-Con, Howard flew from Denver, Colo., where she was participating in a two-week event at the HERS Institute to promote women’s leadership roles in higher education.