WHAC! A New Superhero in Washington Heights

A male superhero with a goatee and long black hair is flying chaotically over an unidentified cityscape at the comic opens. Townspeople cringe and run away, but our hero is heading right into the heat of battle — with a giant figure of Donald Trump who is, Godzilla-like, breaking buildings in half and destroying the metropolis. The large Trump-like monster swings as SuperManuel ducks and dodges. In the spirit of all great superheroes, he provides some witty banter in both English and Spanish, “You’re Fired!”

The comics are drawn by Carlo Quispe in installments. At the end of the next page Supermanuel is trapped in a giant fist as he hurls insults and plans his escape. Supermanuel is a satirical political comic based on Superman, with a Latino hero who combats villains and ICE alike to defeat racism and evildoers. The comic is drawn by Washington Heights resident Carlo Quispe. Quispe recently had his hands full of sidewalk chalk and bilingual coloring books he designed and drew. He weaved through people in the small space and passed both out to visitors at the art-making party hosted by Washington Heights Arts & Comics.

Quispe works with seniors and women dealing with domestic abuse in workshops that chronicles their lives in a creative way. He leads people in making autobiographical comics that focus on the experiences and needs of adults. They display their work at art nights at the UpstART Gallery in Inwood, and at the Harlem and the Heights Historical Society.

Quispe may not be a big guy, but his fist can pack a punch. Especially when he’s using it to draw the comic SuperManuel, or any of the other characters he’s designed, such as the Latina Wonderwoman, La Mujer Maravillosa.

Art supplies are provided by Materials for the Arts and distributed to drawers and passers-by who stop in to see what’s going on in the colorful UpstART Gallery in Inwood. They serve alphabet cookies and free lemonade for people who want to draw. The walls are covered with black and white ink drawings of the things that Quispe sees every day around his neighborhood.

Quispe is wearing a silk-screened t-shirt and shorts and a long black ponytail. He smiles easily and is warm and welcoming to everyone who walks in the door. A whole family stops by to draw, first two young girls sit down, and then their mother and her partner, Oro follow suit and pick up a pen.

Ariana, 14, is a freshman at Fashion Industries high school in Chelsea. She just started just classes a few weeks ago, and says that drawing helps her relax and forget about the pressures of a new school. Her head is half buzzed and her Marvel backpack is filled with sketchbooks of comic book and cartoon characters tucked in between textbooks. Her younger sister draws on the sidewalk outside as another local artist, who goes by Eddie, draws a bridge scene on a ream of paper taped up to the picture windows of the gallery.

Ariana’s mother says that this one of the reasons she loves Inwood,

“It’s homey, a village, but Spanish. The kids are free to wander about.” She learned about WHAC soon after they saw the mural Quispe had designed and painted in their neighborhood, near the train station on 184th street. When Quispe found the spot, it had already been an undeveloped site for some time. The wall fencing it off was painted, but was plain and ugly, sometimes with hateful graffiti that was up for days without being covered or removed.

His public mural, titled “Animals on Parade,” covered the wall with colorful paintings of plants and animals and their names in English, Spanish, and Hebrew. Local artists and some passers-by, including students attending nearby Yeshiva University, all contributed to the painting of the wall between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day 2016.

“It was so cute,” Ariana says. ”It had different languages, to me that meant that a lot of different people came together to make it, a nice group .”

Quispe’s vision for the arts through WHAC is exactly that, to bridge gaps between diverse communities uptown and “encourage other people to make art, especially adults.”

Later, outside the gallery, Quispe’s husband Mark Blacklow speculates about the reason that the mural resonated with so many people in starker terms,

“There’s always horrible talk about a wall.” Blacklow says referring to Trump’s active initiative to build a wall on the border between the US and Mexico. “Everyone is talking about a wall that is going to be put up. Well, we’ve got a wall right here. Let’s make a wall that welcomes people rather than a wall that’s keeping people out.”

Quispe is from Peru and moved to Long Island in his teens. In 2004, he moved to Manhattan to study at the School for Visual Arts. In his twelve years in Washington Heights, he’s tried to organize events around local artists and make art that people already living there can appreciate and participate in, not for anyone else who might move to the area in the future.

“I never want to walk down the street and not hear dominoes clacking together,” Quispe says. “To be Peruvian, to be neither Dominican nor a white person, nobody has a beef with me already, nobody is threatened by Peruvians,” which gives him a fluidity to move across the cultural lines that exist in the city. It’s important to listen and be diplomatic.”

Long after election day, Supermanuel will give a voice to some upper Manhattan voters, and continue to fly the friendly skies.