Talking ‘Queenie: Godmother of Harlem’ With Elizabeth Colomba And Aurelie Levy

by Rachel Bellwoar

Before “Bumpy” Johnson (who readers may know thanks to the MGM+ TV show, Godfather of Harlem), Harlem had a Godmother and her name was Stephanie St. Clair. With Queenie: Godmother of Harlem, not only have artist Elizabeth Colomba and writer Aurelie Levy created a graphic novel to live up to St. Clair’s regal nickname, but they’ve shown how much room there still is for play within the biography genre, finding fresh ways of telling St. Clair’s story (which, unfortunately, hasn’t been told often enough in the past). For more on Queenie and the research that went into this project, check out this interview with Colomba and Levy carried out over email:

Rachel Bellwoar: Aurélie, you’re a filmmaker as well as a writer, while Elizabeth — you have a background in painting and have worked as a storyboard artist. Why do you feel a graphic novel was the right medium to tell Stephanie Saint Clair’s story?

Aurelie Levy: It was a natural fit given our respective background, Elizabeth’s talent and the multilayered aspect of St Clair’s character and story.

Elizabeth Colomba: The idea of bringing Queenie to life was initially conceived as a portrait. Part of my practice as a painter is dedicated to uncovering overlooked Black figures throughout history, and not only render them visible but also immortalize them in a portrait. When my mother first told me the story of Stephanie St. Clair a few years ago, my initial instinct took to portraiture. However, her fascinating and deeply secretive life deserved and called for a bigger stage. Then in 2016, I saw Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective at the Met Breuer. In one of the rooms, he had displayed pages of a graphic novel he created, titled Rythm Mastr. There laid the seed: the graphic novel would be the form through which to tell her story – it would be my portrait’s ‘oil’ so to speak.

Not only does this form offer the opportunity to explore the multi-layered character of Queenie from a rhetorical perspective, but it also reaches a wider audience and engages with the legacy of graphic novels, which I greatly appreciate.

RB: How did you decide on the structure for Queenie? Did you always want to include flashbacks and what made you want to come in right after Queenie’s release from prison?

AL: In order to celebrate this larger-than-life character and avoid the pitfalls of the biopic, we were adamant about writing a story that would be both riveting and entertaining, while preserving the seriousness of the subject and the times. This required we mixed biographical elements with fictional ones. We opted for a “heist” intrigue set in 1933 at the end of prohibition, when St Clair’s business and life had indeed been threatened by Italian mobsters thirsty for expansion. We establish the story when her entire enterprise, her life and that of her acolytes are at stake. This gave our story proper tension. It also allowed us to demonstrate Queenie’s remarkable skills and entice readers into exploring her roots. As the story unfolds, we peel off the layers of her psyche and past through mathematically placed flashbacks: her childhood in Martinique and the abuse she suffered as a child, her resilience in the face of adversity and her capacity to adapt to her ever changing circumstances. Her relationship with right hand man “Bumpy Johnson” was pivotal and well documented and one we knew we wanted to portray. As were her ties with illustrious figures of the Harlem Renaissance we ourselves admired.

EC: Aurelie and I approached the story of Queenie as though we were writing a feature film. Right from the very first scene, we wanted readers to understand who she was, her challenges, who was after her – and why. As her present unfolds across the pages, it is through the flashbacks that we discover at once the violence that has marked Stephanie St. Clair’s past – both personal and societal – and what has made her who she is. We wanted to break up the structure of a traditional biopic so chose to set the core of our story in 1933. From that point we could carve out various branches to simultaneously explore her past, her present, and her psyche. We wanted to generate that same sense of thrill and suspense as in a heist movie and keep our readers eager to turn the pages. Starting Queenie’s story right out of jail would set that tone.

RB: What was the research process like on Queenie? Elizabeth, you mentioned watching some films from the ’30s in the acknowledgements. Would you mind sharing some titles?

AL: Of course we read everything we could find on Stephanie St Clair, academic writings and biographies as well as works of fiction such as writer Raphael Confiant‘s novel entitled Madame St Clair. The writings of Jervis Anderson were instrumental in shaping my understanding of Harlem and its complexity. I also read about Jazz Musicians. Watched countless documentaries about Jazz, prohibition, gangsters of the time. The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation by Anna Malaika Tubbs was particularly inspiring and informative.

EC: The research process was extensive, long and completely enriching. Since there were so few books about Stephanie St. Clair, we extended our research across multiple mediums: from documentaries, feature films, and biographies of other figures equally featured in both her life and the story, we also turned to news articles from the 1920-30s and the field of fashion to learn more from every angle. Trouble in Paradise, Imitation of Life, It Happened One Night, and Scarface are among the main feature films from which I drew inspiration for locations, costumes, props and more. We were voracious in our research; anything that could help us paint an authentic backdrop for Stephanie St. Clair, her context, and her entourage!

RB: Of the things you’ve learned about Queenie, what’s been one of your favorite discoveries?

AL: In researching her life, I was particularly intrigued by the fact that Stephanie St Clair did not have any (known) children. Was this the result of unsafe abortions or physical abuse? Did she intuit that having children would make her vulnerable and subject her to blackmail? If only these questions were no longer relevant. And yet they are just as pertinent today as they were a century ago.

Stephanie St Clair is one of the few gangsters who died of old age. She played her cards well but she also knew when to fold. This is a skill, a form of intelligence rarely discussed or celebrated. And yet so valuable. St Clair was ambitious but not greedy. She was cunning but human. Even though forgotten, she stood the test of time.

EC: There are so many anecdotes…! Stephanie St. Claire lived at the exclusive building in Sugar Hill, at 409 Edgecombe Ave, amidst some of Harlem’s most legendary and influential Black intellectuals, professionals, and race activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois. Though notorious as a reigning racketeer, it was surprising to find out how fierce an activist she was too. Not one to shy away from controversy, she would take out newspaper ads in the local paper – the Amsterdam News (still running today) – educating her community about their rights, city politics, advocating for voting rights, and calling out police brutality. Running alongside these articles would be a photograph of her, dressed in her full regalia, replete with fur coat and adorned with jewels. Stephanie St. Clair defied norms of early twentieth century Black female activists, all the way to the visual level.

RB: Could you talk about how you approached depicting the violence in this story in a way that’s both truthful but not exploitive?

AL: Violence is an inherent part of the story and St Clair’s life. One scene in particular carries meaning for me. When the project began, over five years ago, Elizabeth drew a scene to present the graphic novel to our publisher. In it, St Clair is attacked by KKK members in the South in the 1920s after she has fled NYC. Elizabeth depicted hooded men pushing St Clair to the ground making it impossible for her to breathe. When George Floyd was killed, we realized that Elizabeth had drawn the very same scene. We decided to add a bubble that read ” I can’t breathe.” Things had not changed.

EC: Writing a story set in the 1930s, at the heart of its criminal milieu, the violence is inevitable – it is inherent. One of the rare Black women to not only be part of but dominate Harlem’s underground gambling scene, Stephanie St. Clair had to employ violence because she was living in a violent world. Her extreme lifestyle and reputation as the dangerous queen of the numbers game not only captured the imagination of her colleagues, her adversaries, and her community, it also earned her their respect. In presenting this necessary violence, we chose to show its impact and effect over the act itself. We felt it was more powerful to focus on the fear and to suggest brutality, and also wanted our readers to engage in the creation of the story by completing the gaps of violence themselves. When you draw a scene, you have to live with it for a while. So the degree of visible violence became weighed with how comfortable I was sharing headspace with it – how much emotional real estate I could concede!

RB: I also really appreciated the pacing and subtle differences in expression and movement between panels. Would you say that working in film has influenced both of your approaches to sequential storytelling?

EC: Film, storyboarding and graphic novel reading! The pace of framing, the Steadicam feel, the establishing shot, … these elements are definitely influenced by film and my background as a storyboard artist. However, despite my experience, I still felt very intimidated facing my first blank page. The choice to render the story in black and white presented new challenges for me in my drawing. I intensely re-read Mike Mignola, Frank Miller, and Eddie Campbell‘s From Hell to study their mastery of black and white spaces. I also delved back to André Juillard (a lot) for his perfect lines and the beauty of his characters (and for sheer fun!). Katsuhiro Ōtomo was my master of movement, I rediscovered Jacques Tardi, and his obsessive attention to detail in the service of historical accuracy, and I must add Andreas for his science of the frame and the belief that “nothing” sometimes means “a lot”.

RB: Where did the idea to explain how Queenie runs her numbers game as a silent film come from? Did you always want to include nods to cinema (like the scene where an Indigenous American breaks the fourth wall in a Western)?

AL: Yes, Adam McKay was an influence. We love the way he can extract a character from the main storyline to explain facts to the audience. And we were adamant about James Baldwin being present, some way or another in the story. Even though he was only a child in the 1930s, his legacy lives on in this theater scene. The quote about Cowboys and Indians is so powerful we just had to include it. That’s the beauty of fiction, one can bring the future into the past. And vice versus.

EC: The nods to cinema are numerous, not only from a rhetorical angle in how we approach storytelling and in Queenie’s very form, its framing, and fast-pace, but also because we simply love cinema. We were inspired by The Big Short directed by Adam McKay, and chose to employ a similar stylistic treatment: interrupting the narrative to explain facts, providing examples in a playful and accessible way… It was second nature to us to incorporate cinematic tropes and types into the graphic novel format. The silent film is one example. The idea evolved from having Queenie as a sequence, and took form as a silent film as soon as I started to draw.

RB: Did you ever consider adding color or did you always want to tell this story in black and white?

AL: There is a “film noir” aspect to our graphic novel. Back and White was an obvious choice and one we never questioned. We questioned so many things. Fact checked so many things. We felt a huge responsibility to be historically accurate. But Black and White is the one choice we never questioned.

EC: The story called for black and white. I wanted this work to be a dramatic contrast to my painting practice, as well as capture the sense of film noir and its undeniable vintage feel in the images. Aesthetics with high-shadowed lighting style heightened the psychological expression of the visual composition, which was best rendered in black and white. I played with variations in the intensity of the ink,  the intense contrast of black, white, and the shades of gray, which evoke Stephanie’s past in Martinique. The constant oscillation between the Caribbean and the US exclusively rendered in black and white also outlines another geography, one intimate and protected, as though offering access to the inner weavings of Stephanie St. Clair.

RB: In a case of pure coincidence, the same week I started Queenie I started watching the TV series, Godfather of Harlem, about Bumpy Johnson (who I didn’t realize was an ally of Queenie’s). If MGM+ ever made a prequel series, who would you dream cast as Queenie?

AL: The adaptation of Queenie is already in the works. And the A list star who will play Queenie is very much our “dream” choice for the role. Unfortunately we are not at liberty to divulge her name but I assure you we could not hope for a more exciting lead actress.

EC: There are no coincidences; Stephanie is on to you! In all seriousness, while we do have our dream cast, I’m afraid we cannot share it!

RB: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Elizabeth and Aurélie!

Queenie: Godmother of Harlem is on sale now from Abrams ComicArts.

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