He was hooked. “Sci-fi is kinda like my church,” said Smith, who is now age 47 and living in Philadelphia. “It’s spiritual and very much connected to who I am as a Black, queer person.” The problem with his church, however, is that there isn’t very much Black (or queer) representation.
Mainstream sci-fi features Black characters like Morpheus from The Matrix, Mace Windu from Star Wars, and Lt. Commander La Forge and Nyota Uhura from Star Trek. But in general, Black characters aren’t afforded the same prominence and screentime as their white counterparts. And when Black people are present, they tend to be cishet assumed and conventionally attractive. Fat, Black bodies are a rarity.
“It just astonishes me that fat people in general are treated and depicted as second-class citizens in science fiction works, or they’re made to represent something like greed, lust, or villainy,” Smith said, pointing to the character of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Dune.undefinedundefined“I used to do a queer sci-fi reading series called Laser Life,” he added, “and when I was on the hunt for guest readers, the very first story I received depicted a villain who was fat. The character’s fatness was described in loathsome terms and was considered an obvious indicator of their villainy. It’s really disappointing.”
So when easily accessible AI art generators came along last year, Smith, already an established visual artist, adopted these tools to create several Black, fat, and queer characters from a more inclusive futuristic world. Among them was Marcus, whom Smith brought to life using Midjourney and D-ID, an AI platform that creates talking avatars. Marcus heads up a division of the Electric Afro Science Institute, which Smith called “a superhero-led independent afrofuturist organization that works in biomechanics, cosmic engineering, nanotechnology, medical alchemy.”
Smith described Marcus, who is queer, as “kind of a smart alec. A big, cuddly nerd who thinks he’s a little bit gangster. He likes studying moths and ants and tries to see what about the lives of insects can be replicable in human life.” In one animated portrait of Marcus, which Smith posted on his Instagram, the character asks, “Who out here gonna draw me?”