Growing up in Winnipeg, Autumn Crossman-Serb spent her free time reading Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side and For Better or For Worse. She loved the characters, but felt like something was missing. The 26-year-old graphic novelist and illustrator, who was raised Muslim, says she couldn’t identify with anyone in particular in her childhood comics.
So she put pencil to paper and created her own, dreaming up characters featuring more people of colour and women wearing the hijab.
“I always wanted to tell stories and be a storyteller—and for me illustrating stories was the best way to make that happen,” says Crossman-Serb.
As a teen, Crossman-Serb traced the layouts of comics she loved reading to practise making her own. Today, she shares her work on her website, Art by Autumn C-S, and is also a contributor to Elements, a crowdfunded anthology featuring comics by artists of colour from award-winning queer comics creator and editor Taneka Stotts.
Elements is one of a growing number of responses to diversify the comics industry. As its Kickstarter campaign explained, “Elements looks to add to the current conversation happening in the book industry: yes #WeNeedDiverseBooks, but #WeNeedDiverseCreators too. We are no longer just the sidekicks or token characters, we’re creators with our own stories to tell… we’re the main characters, dismantling tropes with our own stories that see people like us saving the day.”
Crossman-Serb remembers back in 2002 when Marvel Comics introduced Dust to its X-Men series, a Sunni Muslim teen with the ability to turn herself into sand and blind her opponents. Dust took on bad guys and did so while dressed in a niqab (a face-covering veil) and abaya (full-length outer garment)—but Crossman-Serb wanted more out of the character. “I liked her, but I only liked her depending on who wrote her, because sometimes they would draw her niqab and abaya skin-tight. It was so off-putting,” says Crossman-Serb.
“Sometimes, I feel like people create Muslim characters but don’t put any research into what Islam or being Muslim is about,” she says.
By 2014, Marvel had introduced another Muslim character, one that Crossman-Serb really appreciated. Kamala Khan, a shape-shifting Pakistani American teen from Jersey City, was Marvel’s first Muslim character to headline her own comic. In addition to fighting crime, Khan had storylines that explored her home life and faith without being too heavy-handed. “It was inspiring to see a young Muslim teenager that everyone could relate to. It’s a such a cute comic,” says Crossman-Serb.
Despite reading about Dust and Kamala Khan, Crossman-Serb says she was hesitant to feature hijab-wearing characters in her own comics. “Being a young teenager after 9/11 was pretty rough,” she says. “I had it pretty easy compared to most, because I am really light-skinned and my name is an English name, but there are still a lot of inappropriate things that people have said to me over the years. As I got older, I thought that maybe people just don’t want to see anything about Muslims, because they don’t understand Muslims.”
That idea was completely foreign to Crossman-Serb. “Throughout my childhood, I mainly hung out with awesome Muslim women and all of them were like entrepreneurs or really into sports or the arts,” she says.
When Crossman-Serb finally felt confident enough to share her characters in the hijab for the first time, to her surprise she received really positive responses. “I have had a lot of people over the years on Twitter telling me how much I changed their perspective on religion—not jut Islam, but religion in general,” she says, “They said things like, ‘You really helped me understand that Muslim women are just people too.'”
“After all the positive responses, I thought, ‘Oh, I didn’t have to be so worried about this.’”
As part of her continuing efforts to shake up the comics industry, Crossman-Serb has been developing characters that range from “monster girls,” Greek gods, women wearing the hijab and other everyday heroes.
“To some extent, traditional comics are still a boys’ club,” says Crossman-Serb. “It’s better than it used to be, but it’s still something that needs to be changed from the inside out rather from the outside in.”
Crossman-Serb hopes to continue creating her diverse characters and sharing them with broader audiences so that one day they won’t seem like such an anomaly.
“I feel that every time a Muslim woman is called stereotype-breaking, it’s code for she isn’t docile,” she says. “People have this idea of what a Muslim woman is, and if she does something that doesn’t fit that idea suddenly it’s breaking stereotypes. But if you knew as many glamorous Muslim women as I did, you’d know this is not the case.”
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