Be the change: The power of representation

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WASHINGTON — Comic book illustrator Shawn Martinbrough met with Pentagon Airmen to speak about the power of representation Feb. 20. A native New Yorker, he has illustrated Black Panther, Batman, Luke Cage Noir, Captain America, and Hellboy characters for Marvel and Detective Comics.

“You’ve got to keep your hustle,” he said. “You need to continually survey your environment, embrace emerging technologies, learn the business side of their industry, and reinvent yourself to remain relevant.”

Martinbrough said diversity was not deliberately excluded in the comic book industry. The comics were developed through the lens of illustrators in an industry lacking diversity. As a black illustrator in high demand, he said that creating images representative of his race is empowering.

“Shawn’s experience resonated with me because I am usually the only cyber female and African American in the room, and as I grow in rank, it is even more pronounced,” said Maj. Dee Randolph, Cyber and Space Strategy Branch chief. “As a minority you need to have tenacity, so you can be eventually recognized for the abilities you bring to the table. You too can be the first if it hasn’t been done.”

Martinbrough elevated black comic characters from sidekicks and villains to leading characters and heroes. When he illustrated Luke Cage, he altered Luke Cage’s image from a street image to a more professional representation with a classic suit and a fedora to show a strong superhero.

“As a parent, it is my job to reduce my children’s exposure to racial stereotypes. I do not want them to be influenced by negative perceptions,” said Maj. Chris Owens, Air Force Reserve Policy Integration chief of Congressional Inquiries. “It’s important to constantly ensure that diversity is represented because it helps people who are not familiar with other cultures to be more informed.”

Martinbrough was commissioned to illustrate a book without any specifics about the characters from the author, so he drew the lead female character to represent the strong black female role models in his life. The response from his editor, “Oh, she is black now. Cool.”

The lack of diversity and inclusion in his childhood comics inspired him to illustrate the representation he desired. “You just need to illustrate your story through your lens,” Martinbrough said. “Use your power to be the change you want to see in your field.”

Col. Eries L.G. Mentzer is a National Defense Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The views expressed are her own.