This past weekend was the fourth annual Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomberg Center in Harlem, and it seems finally to’ve outgrown its space. Besides half-hour lines around the block just to get in, the aisles in-between the booths were so crammed with onlookers that it was difficult getting near much of the art.

Eric Wilkerson, for instance, was literally mobbed by fans seeking an autographed copy of his evocative print “Alien Lives Matter,” based on a painting of the same name—an oil on canvas whose subject takes the easy metaphor of minorities as outsiders, inevitably surrounded by an angry mob, fueled on by ignorance. It didn’t feel necessarily cheap, yet if subtly is more your style I suggest a less flashy artist like Shawn Alleyne, whose Pieroglyphics Studio offered just a few prints and one self-published book of illustrations at the festival.

At first glance, Alleyne’s seemed some of the least politically-involved work here. His illustrations of popular characters like the Incredible Hulk and Skeletor (of Masters of the Universe) were offset by a few straight-up black superheroes, none of which made the kind of overt statement that artists like Wilkerson were going for. That’s not to say Alleyne’s work is not bold.

His Hulk, for instance, is exaggerated to the point of hysteria. He seems not just inclined to break out of Bruce Banner’s street clothes, but out of his own green skin, with a look in his eyes that manifests inner-rage on the brink of psychosis. (Alleyne’s many superhero drawings appear to have been done on spec, not as freelance assignments for the major comic companies.)

When the artist does turn to black characters, they seem more subdued and meditative. A futuristic landscape (below) boasts a post-apocalyptic female and child drifting through a desert landscape, trailed by a bulky machine-like character wearing a tribal African mask. A sun sets as a pyramid-shaped space-craft hovers in the distance. The setting is the future and the characters are decidedly sci-fi, though its few references to ancient African symbology suggest a basis in diaspora. The easy thing to do is dub it another example of black pride and politicking, though I think that’s just boxing Alleyne in.

To suggest black artists speak only in a voice of oppression is to marginalize their ability to speak a language that touches everyone. We know that to be untrue of popular music, whose basis in black forms is indisputable; difficult to see why other mediums, from film to literature to art, remain so deeply segregated.

And yet the opposite—to expect artists like Allyne to turn off their identity politics and join the general decadence of the mainstream—is to strip them of their power, as well. Scholar Homi Bhabha called mimicry of the oppressor by the oppressed “slippage.” These days, black artists everywhere, especially in comedy (see the Daily Show and SNL), are asking the difficult question of why blacks with strong, mainstream opinions are so often put into specialized categories and secondary roles.

Alleyne, I believe, probes the same territory, though with much less fanfare. That is to say his work isn’t showy, even though it is in a popular form. His jagged line-work, sense of movement and exaggeration, and wide-angle contemplations are extreme, outward expressions of a complex inner-psychology which, more and more, has been recognized of comics in general. (Brian Chidester)