Author: Atiya Irvin-Mitchell
As Black Student Union president Diarra Clark pointed out during the opening remarks, getting Chatham students to come to campus events can be challenging. However, on October 18, there were hardly enough seats in Mellon Board Room to accommodate those who came to hear poet, professor and now comic book writer Yona Harvey speak.
Harvey introduced herself nervously but graciously to the room and began her lecture by thanking friends, organizers and colleagues, sharing her fondness of the Chatham community. The 42-year-old was in awe of the number of people there. “Poets hide out, so I feel really outed by the Marvel project,” she said with a laugh.
The University of Pittsburgh professor is known for her poetry, but she’s stirring excitement as the first black woman to write for Marvel comics, an honor she shares with “Bad Feminist” author Roxane Gay. They’re each writing stories for “World of Wakanda,” a companion series to Ta-Nahesi Coates’ acclaimed Afrofuturist take on “Black Panther.” Harvey, while thrilled to be working on the project, feels the historic development is long overdue.
Despite the full room, the lecture was incredibly intimate, with Harvey sharing details from her life ranging from her children’s childhood artwork to her regular sessions with an astrologist.
Because of a prediction from her astrologist, Harvey playfully said her comic in the “World of Wakanda,” series was “written in the stars.”
Fated or not, Harvey admitted to the audience that at times she worried the opportunity would be taken away at the last possible moment. Yet, in between her self-doubt and anxious exchanges with Coates, an old friend, Harvey immersed herself so deeply in the project that at times her dreams were filled with the citizens of Wakanda.
The first entry in the new series, Harvey’s comic tells the origin of one of Black Panther’s nemeses, Zenzi. In spite of the character’s villain status, Harvey and the book’s artist connected deeply with Zenzi—so much so that at times the poet’s love for the character makes her hesitant to even classify her as a villain.
“She’s really a thorn in the Black Panther’s side; some people think that makes her a villain. I think that makes her great,” Harvey said.
Using memes, text messages and photographs to take them through the making of a Marvel comic book, Harvey endeared herself to the audience, paying compliments to other local Pittsburgh writers along the way.
Once finished, she was met with applause and many photo requests. Marvel fans in attendance were even more excited than before to read “World of Wakanda.”
“The Yona Harvey talk was really cool. I’m very interested in Marvel comics, so hearing about the process of making one was very interesting,” said Maddie McGovney, a senior studying Pre-Med. “My favorite part of the talk was hearing her perspective on villains, because to me it really showed what I like most about Marvel: almost all of the villains have no idea they’re villains.”
Although there were many Marvel fans like McGovney in the room, some came because of their love of Harvey’s poetry.
“It was so interesting to hear about her interactions with a new medium: comics. I think one of the main reasons this event was so important is because it spoke about black women, their agency, and their beauty,” said Jess Turner, a senior Creative Writing major. “Dominant culture does a good job erasing and manipulating black voices. Harvey, however, speaks back to this through her art, whether that is poetry or comics.”
Chatham students weren’t the only ones in Mellon excited to see Harvey. Quite a few students from Taylor Allderdice High School were in attendance. As a field trip, Traci Castro, Michele Papalia and other history teachers brought a group of students from Allderdice’s Black Student Union, Feminist Club and Women’s Studies class.
Allderdice seniors Paris Crawford-Bey and Sierra Brown shared their enthusiasm about the lecture.
“I actually thought it was a really, really nice event because I am such a comic book fanatic. We usually don’t see a lot of diversity in comic books or in movies, specifically Marvel, you usually see them [diverse characters] being criminals,” Brown said, adding that she’ll be first in line when the book comes out.
“It was beautiful, it was really inspiring,” Crawford-Bey said. “It’s always awesome to see history being made, especially when it involves African-American women.”
The first issue of “World of Wakanda” will make its debut on November 9. Harvey, although sworn to secrecy, hinted that Zenzi’s origin story may not be the only comic she writes for Marvel. If the response she received in Mellon Board Room was any indication, should she continue comic book writing, she will have no shortage of readers.