When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, it struck author and illustrator John Jennings as so unprecedented, such a break from American history, that it was like an event from some far-flung future.
"Before then, the only time you would see a president who was Black was in a science-fiction movie," he said in a recnt phone interview. Jennings compared it to the sorts of imaginative leaps one finds in the most forward-thinking works categorized as "Afrofuturist."
This year, fans of Afrofuturism will see a bumper crop of comics and graphic novels, including the first offerings of a new line devoted to Black speculative fiction and reissues of Afrofuturist titles from comic book houses like DC and Dark Horse.
Afrofuturism, whether in novels, films or music, imagines worlds and futures where the African diaspora and sci-fi intersect. The term was coined by writer Mark Dery in 1993 and has since been applied to the novels of Octavia Butler ("Kindred"), the musical stylings of jazz composer Sun Ra and more recently films such as "Get Out" and "Black Panther," which presented a gorgeously rendered vision of the technologically advanced, vibranium-powered nation of Wakanda.
"Afrofuturism isn't new," said Ytasha Womack, a cultural critic and author of "Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture," a primer and history of the movement and aesthetic. "But the plethora of comics and graphic novels that are available is certainly a new experience."
Graphic novels published in January included "After the Rain," an adaptation of a short story by Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, and "Infinitum," a tale of African kings and space battles by New York-based artist Tim Fielder.
This month marks the long-awaited return of the "Black Panther" comics written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which the National Book Award-winning author began in 2016, as well as the latest installment of "Far Sector," a series written by N.K. Jemisin and inspired by actor/musician Janelle Monáe, about the first Black woman to become a member of the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps.
Even older works are getting new looks. Black superheroes from the '90s-era comic company Milestone — including Icon, a space alien who crash lands on Earth in 1839 and takes the form of an African American man — are finding new readers on DC Universe Infinite, a subscription service launched in January. Meanwhile, Oregon-based publisher Dark Horse plans to release the comics of Nigerian-born writer Roye Okupe, who previously self-published them, including his Afrofuturistic series "E.X.O.," a superhero tale set in 2025 Nigeria.
Comics are particularly well suited for Afrofuturism, Womack said. Many Afrofuturistic narratives are nonlinear, something that comics, with their ability to move and stack panels to play with notions of time, can convey. Comic artists can also employ visual elements such as images from the Black Arts Movement, or figures from Yoruba and Igbo mythology.
"Afrofuturism is constantly moving into the future and back into the past, even with the visual references they're making," Womack said.
"After the Rain" marks the launch of Megascope, a line of books from publisher Abrams "dedicated to showcasing speculative works by and about people of color."
"Afrofuturism is the catchall," said Jennings, Megascope's founder and curator. "It's really Black speculative fiction. But that's sort of a mouthful. I just don't want people to think that Megascope is only Afrofuturist. We're dropping horror books, crime fiction, historical fiction.
"And just because it's about a Black subject doesn't mean it's just for Black people," Jennings said. "I love Daredevil, but Marvel would never say: 'Oh, you know what? This is just for white, poor Irish-American people.' These stories are for everyone."