By Chris Mueller

Photo by Vania Evangelique

As a lifelong comic, Shawn Atkins aims to tell the stories of “average people doing extraordinary things” – blending elements of entertainment and escapism into a cohesive narrative designed to resonate with the experiences and passions of his audience. 

In this interview, Atkins expands on the deeper meaning behind his illustrative work, his Pittsburgh-centric projects, and the advice he’d offer the younger version of himself. 

What compelled you to pursue a career in the arts? Do you have any primary influences that have helped shape the fundamental components of your work? 

Most of what really inspires me about art is telling stories. That’s why I’ve gravitated to comics. When I first got to Pittsburgh 20 years ago, I started at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh but didn’t really delve into comics at first. I wanted to be an animator, storyboard artist, and character designer because I figured you need to be versatile. But after hanging out around the Pittsburgh art scene for a while, I fell into the comic scene a bit more. I’d say Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, and Bruce Timm are my top three influences.  And if you take anything from my work, it’s about average people doing extraordinary things. 

In your comics, you are currently exploring the “corruption of American society’s political class.” What is the message behind that? How do your illustrations bring the story to life?

The project was kind of like a very angry comic that I had coming to fruition during the early stages of the pandemic. Like a lot of other people, my whole life got turned upside down for reasons that were outside of my control. In the comic, the two main villains are a rich guy who never worked a day in his life because he was born into the right family and then another rich guy who is a political powerhouse and knows the harm he is causing, but still chooses to do it anyway. Both characters were a lot like Donald Trump at the time. His presidency gave me a lot of frustration, so I had to do stuff like this to channel that energy in a healthy way. I see these systems of corruption and weave them into my stories. But at the end of the day, I still always try to entertain people with my comics as opposed to force-feeding political messages.

Another project you are working on is Yinzer Magic – a series of illustrations of known Pittsburgh neighborhoods “spliced with magical creatures walking around.” Which neighborhoods have you featured thus far? And can you walk us through that creative process?

I’ve been doing comics for most of my life, but they take a long time to finish so you don’t always get that artistic satisfaction. I went to an open studio at Radiant Hall and they proposed the idea of doing projects with a quicker turnaround time. I was in the process of doing illustrations and one of the things I wanted to try was a series around Pittsburgh. I knew Pittsburgh stuff sells well around here, but didn’t want to be one of those placating people exploiting Black and Gold as a way to monetize their work. I wanted it to at least come from the heart, so I started thinking about places I used to go around over the past 20 years. 

Is that how your “Beehive in the Fall” illustration depicting the former South Side coffee shop came to life? 

Exactly. I used to go to the Beehive a lot. My wife hung out there a lot. We’d go there with friends a lot. My Coffeehouse Comics series stemmed from the places where I would draw comics. I’m not going to beat around the bush. Some of my Pittsburgh-centric work is financially driven. You need to figure out how to monetize your work and make your career sustainable. However, I’ve always made sure that there is still heart behind it. 

As a Black artist, have you faced instances of adversity that prevented you from being able to express your full creative self?

I can’t think of a single incident. If there were, it was never overt. I’ve been called names before, which is never pleasant, but it never hindered my creative process or became an obstacle from pursuing what I wanted to pursue as an artist. Nothing is ever going to stop me from being creative regardless of what kind of societal barriers are put in front of me. No one is going to tell me that I can’t create what I want to create, and as a father, no one is going to tell my daughter that she can’t create what she wants to create. Escapism has always been one of my drivers. When I draw stuff that relates to systemic barriers in our society, I hope that people of color will read it and have some escapism. I want them to read it and relate, but not feel like it’s a heavy-handed message.

For fellow up and coming Black creatives who are considering a career in the arts, what advice would you give your younger self knowing what you know now?

First and foremost, I’d tell myself that comics are an art form. When I was growing up, comics were more considered a low-brow art. Me and a lot of my friends were stuck in that mental mode. I thought the art scene in Pittsburgh didn’t really embrace that stuff. But knowing what I know now, it’s definitely a form of art just as much as anything else. When I got over that mental hurdle, a lot more opened up for me. A lot more engagement happened. I wasn’t as afraid to reach out to various art organizations because I was “just” a comic. So I’d tell up and coming artists not to be afraid of reaching out and taking a chance to showcase your work. Don’t discredit the time you put into your work. 

What type of projects or gallery shows do you have planned for this summer? Where can people check out your work? 

I’m going to be teaching a couple workshops at the Pittsburgh Center of Art and Media. And then this Fall, I’m going back to school. I transferred to Carlow University to pursue becoming a K-12 art teacher. I haven’t decided what level yet, but that’s why I’ve been taking teaching jobs here and there to get my feet wet and develop an understanding for it. Teaching is something I’ve always been passionate about. 

Shawn Atkins is a former participant of the 2022 BOOM Universe summer residency program.

Chris Mueller is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. Twitter/IG: @bychrismueller