The U.S. comic book industry is full of stories about fantastical worlds with superheroes, multiverses and cartoonishly evil villains, but one writer and publisher is opening the door for stories celebrating real life — and specifically, the real, rich lives of women of color.
“I decided to self-publish and I did a Kickstarter, because I didn’t see anything like that in other publishing companies,” said comic book writer and publisher Jamila Rowser. “I was like, ‘Nobody’s going to publish this, and I don’t want them to try to make me change the story to be whitewashed or anything, so I’m gonna do it myself.'”
In an industry where less than half of all comic book writers are women and less than 6% are Black — according to research from the job recruiting platform Zippia— Rowser is on a mission to support her favorite Black and brown artists.
The Eisner-nominated writer of “Wash Day Diaries” is also the founder of Black Josei Press, an indie comic publisher for women of color and queer artists.
Its name “Josei” comes from the genre of Japanese manga, or graphic novels, written specifically for older teens and women. It’s less action and superheroes, and more about everyday life, romance and friendship.
“That’s like a big goal of mine: for folks who have never read comics before to come across Black Josei comics and they’re like ‘What? I didn’t know comics could be about this,'” said Rowser. “That makes me happy because the more different kinds of readers we get, the better the industry will be.”
The original “Wash Day” comic — a “slice-of-life” story inspired by Rowser’s own rituals of Black haircare — was the first title from Black Josei Press. Written by Rowser and illustrated by artist Robyn Smith, the short comic was funded via Kickstarter in 2018, garnering more than $16,000 from fans.
In 2022, the longer graphic novel “Wash Day Diaries” was published by Chronicle Books — garnering the LA Times Book Prize for graphic novels, and an Eisner Award nomination for Best Publication for Teens.
“I want to show people, especially people of color, women of color, that comics exist outside of superhero comics, but even outside of that, you can see yourself in those comics as well. You can create them yourself, too,” said Rowser.
Black Josei Press has since published other slice-of-life and autobiographical comics from Black and brown artists — including “Gordita: Built Like This,” a memoir about growing up as a Mexican American teenager in the Bronx, “Ode to Keisha,” an autobiography about the childhood friendship between two Black girls living in The Netherlands, and “The Saddest Angriest Black Girl in Town,” a memoir about mental health and growing up Black in rural Vermont.
“I feel like I’m more of a patron than a publisher because I’m just obsessed with all these creators,” said Rowser. “I’m a fan, and if I could do something to help more people see their work, I’m gonna do it.”
Through Black Josei Press, Rowser hopes to continue centering the work of women of color and queer artists. She notes it’s not an easy mission — especially as a small, independent publisher — but Rowser says it’s worth the hard work to give artists the freedom to tell their own stories, and for readers, more opportunities to see their lived experiences represented in the comic book world.
“Comics [creators] — especially indie comics and small presses — we don’t do it for the money,” said Rowser. “You do it for the love.”
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