Growing up on Roosevelt Island in the 1970s and 1980s, Micheline Hess was addicted to comic books. Her father traveled for business and would bring back comics from all over the world. “I was fascinated by them,” she recalls. “I couldn’t understand what was being said a lot of the time, but it didn’t really matter, because the visuals are what strung the story along. It really sparked a love of comics in me.”
But within the pages she spent so much time pouring over, she says she seldom saw anyone who looked like her.
Now in her 40s, Hess, who lives in Rivercross, is working to change that. Her graphic novel Malice in Ovenland features a young Black heroine from Queens who falls into an underground world full of strange, grease-loving creatures. She has also become a voice within the comics industry speaking out about the importance of diversity in comics and the struggles women of color face in getting their work noticed.
“I started doing this because I wanted kids to be able to see the kinds of comics that I never saw myself in as a kid,” she says.
Finding a Path
Hess describes her journey to becoming a comic book artist as “winding.” After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College with a fine arts degree, Hess says she didn’t know what to do with herself and ended up bouncing through retail jobs.
Then, while working at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo gift shop, she began taking Japanese language classes so she could understand what was being said in the anime video games and movies she had become obsessed with. That class led to a three-week trip to Japan that Hess says completely transformed her.
“I came back, I was standing behind the register, and I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”
Hess began teaching herself graphics and animation software in her spare time. She earned a master’s degree in design and technology at Parsons School of Design and began pursuing, in earnest, her career in art, ultimately landing in a dream job at the TV network Nickelodeon.
“It was arduous [doing graduate school while also working] but it was totally worth it,” says Hess of her time at Parsons. “The best thing that came out of my affiliation with Parsons was my connections. It really was like getting a golden phone book. If you’re willing to work those connections, who knows what can happen?”
Today she has a day job as a senior designer for advertising agency Publicis North America and works on her own projects in her free time.
Finding a Voice
Hess says she began drawing Malice in Ovenland in earnest in 2009.
“Up until then, I’d really been hemming and hawing on it because I was giving in to those voices that were saying, ‘Why are you doing that? No one’s going to like your stuff.’ I got to a point where I didn’t want to wait until years down the line when my eyesight was even worse. I really wanted to do it while I had the juice.”
She printed the first issue herself before being picked up by an indie publisher who saw her work at a comic convention in Philadelphia. She reprinted issue one with Rosarium Publishing and then released three subsequent issues digitally. In 2016, all four issues were put together in a paperback, which can be purchased on Amazon.
“Response to the book has been amazing,” she says.
“When you see these girls open the pages and they are like, ‘Hey, that’s me!’ That’s what it’s about. If you’re in this for the money, you’re probably going to be really disappointed.”
Recently, Hess had her work published in The Encyclopedia of Black Comics, a first-of-its-kind collection by Sheena Howard featuring more than 100 artists, writers, and editors of color who have made significant contributions to the field.
Hess says she’s grateful to have found a strong support network of other women of color in the industry, including the Women in Comics Collective, which hosts workshops and lectures about the role and merit of women in the comics industry.
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In early October, Hess was invited to speak on a panel about the importance of diversity in the comics industry at New York Comic Con. “We had a really good turnout,” she says. “It’s amazing to sit up there and have a NY Comic Con microphone in front of you. It feels real.”
Hess says she definitely sees an audience for diversity in comics. “If you see the way people are responding to the upcoming Black Panther movie, people are losing their minds because it’s a predominantly Black cast in an action movie based on a comic book. It’s unheralded, unfortunately. I would love to see these things become commonplace.”
In the meantime, though, she believes it’s up to audiences to seek out different voices.
“I think the issue is, a lot of people are standing around waiting for the bigger companies like Marvel and DC to be the purveyors of that. We’re hoping people will look more toward independent artists.
“I’ve met a lot of people who are doing books that are focused on young women of color. But it’s frustrating. It’s like you’re behind thick glass banging on the windows shouting, ‘I’m here, I’m here!’ Trying to find avenues to get out there and get seen is a constant struggle.”
Just Do It
To others dreaming of pursuing their passion in comics or the arts, she offers this advice:
“If you have an idea, just start. Don’t get hung up on how you’re going to do it or what it’s going to be. Start writing; start drawing. Dive into your world. Don’t worry about people who say it’s stupid or that it looks silly. Don’t let your doubts stop you from working on your project.”
Looking back at her own journey, she has no regrets. “There’s a part of me that wishes I had started sooner,” she says. “But I’m really happy I did this because it’s led me down such an interesting path and I’ve met different people. I’ve had so many amazing experiences. It’s been a great addition to my life, making it the adventure I was always hoping it would be.”
After a pause she does offer one regret. “I do wish my father had lived long enough to see my comic. I think he would have really appreciated it.”
Seeking Out Diversity
We asked Hess to share a few of her favorite sites and artists specializing in diverse comics.
Peep Game Comics The site features over 200 titles by Black artists and publishers. peepgamecomix.com
Fulcrum Publishing This book publisher offers a wonderful collection of diverse authors and subjects. www.fulcrum-books.com
Africomics.com Offering more than just comics, this site is a portal to all types of media featuring diverse characters, including books, movies, and even toys. www.africomics.com
Women in Comics This collective offers discussions, exhibits, and workshops for women of all colors in New York City and beyond. www.womenincomicscollective.org