Charlotte graphic novelist discusses power of representation in Marvel exhibit

Devonte Thomas is a student journalist and a graphic artist, and was curious about how Charlotte’s community of graphic artists felt about the Marvel exhibit at Discovery Place. Charlotte-based graphic novelist McNair volunteered to show him around recently, and the two discussed the art form from Spider-Man, Black Panther, Jessica Jones, Captain America and other superheroes.

Here’s what Devonte learned:

Walking through the Marvel: Universe of Superheroes exhibition with Charlotte graphic novelist Wolly McNair provides an escape into a world that answers at least three big questions: Why is Spider-Man so important? What are the superpowers of graphic artists? Can graphic novels change the narrative of someone’s life?

McNair has worked with Archie Comics, Topps Comics, IDW, and other publishers. He said some of his friends and colleagues have visited the exhibit several times, and he wishes it could be permanent. But after previous stops in Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, and Portland, the installation’s stay in Charlotte – and the United States – ends on New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 2024. It then departs for an as-yet-unnamed international destination.

We spent most of our time in the Spider-Man and Black Panther sections.

“Spider-Man was one of those characters that I could just relate to, because he had everyday problems,” McNair told me. “And even though he had these powers – great, great powers, they brought the concept of great responsibility. He had morals, he had principles, he wanted something better for those around them. That idea that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can be something great, was very impactful. Seeing the X-Men and the battles and struggles that they went through being different, as a Black person in this country being different, and understanding what it means to be outcast.”

The exhibition’s original Spider-Man art, with layouts by the Canadian artist Todd McFarlane, was especially meaningful to McNair. He explained that McFarlane enlarged Spider-Man’s eyes, posed the character more dynamically, and created a more detailed, spaghetti-like webbing. McFarlane’s work in the late 1980s transformed Spider-Man, and himself, into graphic novel superstars. And then Hollywood superstars.

After seeing the Black Panther section, I asked McNair how he uses personal experiences in his work. He told a story about collaborating with his daughter, who really liked Wonder Woman, a character from the DC Comics universe. But she said none of the characters looked like her.

It hurt to see her realizing that, McNair said, but he could do something about it.

“I can draw, I can write, I can create. I can actually take her through this process and show her what it is to have a voice and to speak,” he said. So they created a world called “Fairy Tale Knights.” It placed a character named Malia of the Order of the Red Hoods, with his daughter’s hair and skin color, in a setting where it wasn’t typical to see Black people.

They used an Indiegogo online campaign to finance the project.

“She was with me in every step of the process, and you see kids of all walks of life, just enjoying this idea of a little kid in this world of knights and having adventures and doing all of these cool things with our best friends.”

Life as a Series of Frames

As we went through the exhibit, McNair stopped at sections that reinforced how graphic novels have a storytelling superpower – the ability of frames to reinforce moments, to pace a storyline, to give readers time to sit with that moment.

In a conversation afterward, McNair described three frames from his own life.

When he was growing up in Lumberton, his teacher at Carroll Middle School, Ms. Antone, asked him to share observations and sketches from his journals with the class. He declined at first, but she was persistent, and he eventually started reading them.

“I saw that people would get something out of someone’s stories and realized that sometimes it’s good to share because it may connect them and impact other people,” McNair said, “and help them through something in the same way that it helped me.”

Later, in a middle school that may have been in Lumberton or Charlotte, a football coach who also taught literature brought great books – including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – to McNair. The coach, whose name was Dockery, made him realize that great authors had to start somewhere. “Just imagine if you told that from your perspective,” he remembered thinking.

After he began creating and printing his own comic books with copier machines, McNair attended his first comic book convention in downtown Charlotte.

“And I’m looking at their work, I get to the end, and there’s this last guy. And I’m like, ‘man, one day I want to do what you guys do.’ And he just looked at me with this weird look. And I’m like, ‘What’s wrong?’ He said, ‘The only difference between me and you is choices. I made a choice to stay on this side of the table, and you made a choice to stay on that side. The day that you get out of your own way and start making the choice to move forward, you won’t have to say ‘I want to do this’ – you’ll be doing it.”

McNair’s Advice for New Graphic Artists

McNair offers three pieces of advice for new artists: don’t give up, recognize your value, and realize that just as with the humble beginnings of the Marvel universe, your present is the sum result of everything that has taken place up until now.

“Never give up on yourself,” McNair said. “No matter what the obstacles are, coming from where I came from, this was not an option. No one knew about comics or illustration or going into graphic design in the world that I was in. I did have a lot of people who encouraged me, though. They didn’t know how to make it into something, but they stood strong on encouraging me and saying ‘don’t give up.’”

Devonte Thomas is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news.

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