Shedding Light on Women Empowerment: Sheena Howard

By Hannah Newman

Award-winning author and communications professor Sheena Howard has continued to let the power of written work amplify the voice of her community after making her first contribution to Marvel.

Howard’s comic, “The Illusion of Fairness,” incorporates a traditional African folktale that showcases the well-known character Anansi, a spider who has traveled across African folk over time and contributes to the story of a new trainee of the Dora Milaje, the group of female warriors who protect Wakanda. 

This was not Howard’s first time in the comic sphere, also making contributions to DC Comics in the past.

Howard said, “The stories that we tell in the comics medium do not have to be confined to a box. We can think outside the box. That’s how the comics industry grows — by interacting with other industries, other cultures and different vehicles to tell a story.”

This story is one of five new stories in the anthology series “Marvel’s Voices: Wakanda Forever #1,” released on Feb. 15, which centers around the heroes of Wakanda and spotlighted Black History Month through its writers and illustrators that centered their work around “Black Panther.” 

“For my story, I wanted to sprinkle in some African mythology because we’re so used to our comics using Greek mythology, and so that was important for me in developing the sake of people in my community who had been saying they wanted to see those things,” said Howard. “At the highest-level places like Marvel and DC was a perfect opportunity for me to include some African mythology and kind of switch up what’s typically done a little bit and add something new to the medium.”

With an undergraduate business degree in marketing, a master’s degree in graphic design and a Ph.D. in communications, Howard’s studies were not centered around the profession of writing, but Howard’s love for it was always present.

Growing up, Howard knew that the creativity behind the art of writing was something she could never get enough of; however, she felt that public school systems never prioritized students’ creative minds, but rather their ability to write grammatically correct, which discouraged her vision of having a writing career.

 “I wish I had decided to be a writer a long time ago,” said Howard. “My journey is my journey and it’s obviously led me here to do some very amazing things, but the school system never encouraged writing, and so I think because of that, I never saw it as a vehicle for me to actually do as a job full time.”

Despite the lack of focus on writing in the public school curriculum, Howard refused to allow the environment to deter her from exploring literature and the universal language of storytelling. 

Contrary to her eagerness to write, the concept of reading digested poorly with Howard throughout her adolescent years. It was Howard’s mother who inspired her to read more after she spent years as a kid tagging along to Borders Bookstore, a chain that went out of business over a decade ago, grabbing a smoothie at the bookstore’s cafe after choosing a book.

“It’s my mom that kind of brought me into the world of reading, but writing has been my preferred way to express myself. So I had journals when I was little, I wrote poetry, and so when we talk about an author, we usually think about somebody that is publishing something for the world, but I think you’re an author when you’re writing, right?” said Howard. “When you’re writing in your journal, you are authoring something. And so I would say from the beginning of when I was able to write I’ve always preferred to be an author in that way.”

The small dream evolved into a much stronger craving for Howard, one of her published works with her name and authorship filling stores and bookshelves. 

With a goal of publishing her first book at 30, Howard’s first became “Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation,” which came out in 2014 and was filled with foreshadowed success for the future of Howard’s career. The book was based on Howard’s dissertation, which focused on the history of Black comic strips.

“There are amazing stories yet to be told and yet to be tapped into, because we haven’t included different types of storytelling in our mediums historically,” said Howard.

Howard’s publication earned her an Eisner Award, the highest award in the comics industry, receiving the award at the San Diego Comic Convention.  

Howard’s first publication also etched her name in history, as being the first Black woman to receive an Eisner Award. 

Since her first release, Howard has published at least one book a year, and continued to multiply the amount of awards that have her name on them. 

As Howard proceeds to reach heightened levels of success within her writing career, she mentioned that this publication has come with some of the best feedback she has ever received.

“I’ve won a lot of amazing awards, but people are crazy about Marvel, and they were super amped about this book, and so I think just being able to write for them is something that you can use as leverage for the next thing,” said Howard. “It puts you in front of more people because I write books for celebrities, CEOs and social impact companies, and so this is just another step on the ladder in terms of making an impact at scale with helping people tell their stories.”

Howard’s success as a professor has paralleled her career as an author, as she continues to inspire her students to achieve their wildest dreams.

Junior communications major Angelina Leunes said, “When I took an academic course with Dr. Howard, she was nothing but encouraging and supportive. I feel like her publishing a Marvel book has taught me that you should continue to fight for your goals; if you set your mind to something, you can achieve anything. It may take time, but never give up on yourself.”

Regardless of the level of success Howard has reached, her main goal remains the same: touch the lives of her audience and change the world, one reader at a time.

“For me, the rewarding part is the end user, so the reader. When people send me pictures of their kids with something I wrote, that is the reason why I write, when someone sends me a message and says, ‘I just read this and I love it and it was super inspiring.’ Everything I write is to encourage people to challenge the status quo,” said Howard. “Whether that’s the status quo of your relationship, your household, your relationship with your parents, anything that you need to break out of so you can be the best version of yourself, that is the mission.”

This article is a part of the Shedding Light on Women Empowerment series by The Rider News to showcase impactful women at Rider University.

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