Growing up, Jasmine Walls wanted to read sci-fi fantasy stories from writers of color. It is easy to find them now, but as a kid classrooms and libraries served as some of the few sources for her, and classroom stories, varying subject-wise, often glorify historical figures from one perspective. It was important for Walls to share stories of success, about anything that is not specifically the suffering of slavery. That desire made her a perfect fit to write Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers – Edmonia Lewis.
First in the Seen series by BOOM! Studios, Seen: Edmonia Lewis diverges from the usual, as Walls described, by highlighting the “life of a black woman being successful in the art world.” Edmonia Lewis was the first internationally-acclaimed sculptor of African-American and Native American heritage, and Walls thought it was important, in writing about her story, to show Lewis’ career in a field that was dominated by men, especially white men in a time before emancipation.
The story couldn’t be more timely, as the global #BlackLivesMatter movement has only gained momentum over the past few months. Still, Walls says she hopes the book will draw in readers regardless of the movement. “On one hand, I think this is a great time for this book to come out but at the same time, I don’t want that to be the reason it is successful,” she said. “I want it to stand on its own merit, much like Edmonia Lewis.”
Writing a biography as accurately as possible is one thing; illustrating with historical accuracy is another. Bex Glendining, a U.K. based illustrator, said the hardest part of working on Seen: Edmonia Lewis was finding references for their illustrations. “Everything was either lost or not documented, or hidden behind passwords— that was the main challenge,” Glendining shared. “At the beginning, I was very worried because I live in the U.K. I really wanted to do her justice, and not put my views or speak over anybody else.”
The San Diego, CA-based Walls, who chose Lewis’s story over other trailblazers, also faced her own unique roadblocks during the novel’s research phase. “When you do find the books on her, a lot of them would be written by white men who would not clarify why she did certain things,” Walls said. “Some of them were very opinionated versus factual so it can be tricky, and I did my best!”
While trying to be factually correct, Walls had to omit some fascinating facts from Lewis’ life as they “didn’t quite fit in the script.” She wanted to convey Lewis’ charismatic personality in Seen, especially her “excitement for life.” There was one incident in particular that she hoped would fit in: “[Lewis] was in Italy watching a parade of French soldiers. She got so excited about this parade, she throws her arms out and trips into a hole in the ground,” Walls chuckled. “She wasn’t paying attention but she had so much excitement for everything in life, it was hard to convey that in the storyline. I wish I could have snuck in a few more of those fun tidbits!”
Seen also comes with a teaching guide that covers various learning standards, pre-reading activities and thought-provoking discussion questions. Walls hopes teachers balance both the worst and best parts of POC history, since the latter is not often touched upon. Glendining compared Walls’ views with the British education system, which followed suit. “I got to take this experience and educate myself about other figures that I had no idea about,” they said, recalling the fascination of discovering Lewis’ grave in London.
For potential projects in the future, Glendining said they would be delighted to illustrate the biography of Mary Seacole, a British-Jamaican nurse during the 1800s, and her connections with Florence Nightingale. “Anytime it’s a black woman or a black historical figure being included anywhere, it’s a shutdown instantly,” they cited the 2012 political uproar that delayed the execution of Seacole’s statue in London. Glendining and Walls are actually working on another POC-related project, Brooms, with Seattle, WA based illustrator Teo DuVall. Walls is writing and Glendining is coloring the Levine Querido-published graphic novel.
Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers – Edmonia Lewis from BOOM! Studios will hit comic shops on September 23, 2020 and bookstores on the following Tuesday. The Seen series will continue to tell stories of unsung heroes, with the next one about Rachel Carson, an American biologist well known for her book Silent Spring (1962), by Birdie Willis and Rii Abrego.
Check out an additional preview for Seen: Edmonia Lewis here.