“It’s like the Super Bowl of Black creators on the West Coast,” says Oakland artist Avy Jetter, a longtime BCAF exhibitor known for her zombie horror comic Nuthin Good Ever Happens at 4 a.m. and a series of personal zines that detail her struggles with grief and health. At the first fest, she felt like “such a noob,” worried that she would stick out amongst the other more established artists. But as the day went on, Jetter was surprised at how many fellow comics lovers and creators approached her to offer support, encouragement and collaboration. Now, every time she returns, it “feels like a family reunion.”
BCAF was sparked by a conversation between comic book artist John Jennings and NorCalMLK Foundation executive director Aaron Grizzell as they sat for a meal in the summer of 2014. Inspired by the Schomburg Center’s annual Black Comic Book Festival in New York, the two were determined to carve out a space that would celebrate and honor Black imagination in the Bay Area. Soon after, comics creator David Walker and cultural anthropologist Stanford Carpenter got on board, forming a seminal part of the fest’s advisory committee.
“You have a group of people who are creatives, who are scholars and who are managers and executives at nonprofits, who just got together and asked, ‘Would it be cool if we did this?’” says Carpenter. “And then answered it by doing it.”
Organizers say BCAF was a success from the get-go, drawing large crowds who were hungry for the bold, diverse stories that were often missing from the shelves of their local comic stores. In place of cookie-cutter superheroes, attendees found Black characters like the brawny vigilante Luke Cage, the nerdy and sensitive student Miles Morales and the katana-wielding apocalyptic survivor Michonne Grimes.
There were also independently published zines, comics and graphic novels that illustrated poignant stories — both real and fiction — about the struggles and joys of navigating different worlds and challenges as a person of color. From the beginning, organizers stressed the importance of spotlighting local, indie creators at the convention, as well as the power of representation.
“When we begin to see ourselves in cultural spaces and sort of interact with ourselves in regular and normal ways in popular culture,” says Grizzell, “then we find out that, like back in the day, ‘Black is beautiful,’ right?”
At BCAF, all comics lovers, old and young, are encouraged to wander without shame. Nothing is a “guilty pleasure,” says writer and BCAF advisor Shawn Taylor. “It's such a liberating feeling,” Taylor continues. “Imagine being able to be in your full cultural, ethnic, mythological, folkloric self without having to filter that self through oppressive whiteness, or oppressive maleness or oppressive heterosexuality.”
BCAF 2023 will take place on Jan. 15 and Jan. 16 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Attendance is free. Limited space is available for the BCAF Party, a celebration at the Cartoon Art Museum on the evening of Jan. 15. Registration is required. More information here.