Artist navigates challenging upbringing, discovers strength in comics

Hakim Callwood is happy. He's got a skateboard, a backpack full of books and sketches, and two-tone hair. He's making art, doing a little teaching, spending time with his friends.

Not much has changed since he was hurt and sad. He had a skateboard and sketches then, and hung out with friends, so he's not sure he wants to spend a whole lot of time thinking about and talking about the tough times. But there they are, and all of the times have helped make the 25-year-old artist who he is.

Callwood had a nomadic childhood. Born in Columbus, he spent his preschool years in the Virgin Islands, his father's homeland. He subsequently spent three years living with his grandmother on a farm in rural Tennessee before moving back to Columbus to live with his mother on the far East Side. He bounced from Christian school to public school to charter school, and developed a sometimes-adversarial relationship with his mother.

“I always was able to have a group of friends, so I guess [moving from community to community] never held me back. I guess I was good at it. It was just what I did,” Callwood said in an interview at an Olde Towne East coffee shop. “I was super nerdy, and the nerdy kids always hung out together.”

It was while living in Tennessee that he first discovered comic books and video games. “I was bored. I didn't hate it. Life wasn't awful, but it was on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and I wasn't really into tending to the farm,” Callwood said. His older brother was a comics fan, and Hakim looked up to him.

It wasn't until he started school at Columbus Alternative High School that Callwood was presented with the notion that art was something that could be taken seriously, exploring new opportunities with both visual art and poetry. But his relationship with his mother was becoming increasingly fractured, Callwood spending lengthy periods of time staying with the families of friends.

“It got harder and harder for us to live together the older I got,” Callwood said. “In school, I was just acting silly and being a distraction. But I was getting into trouble outside of school.”

Poetry gave his creativity an outlet, as did art, which quickly took the form of graffiti. “I took every art class I could — Columbus Alternative High School, Saturday Morning Art Class at CCAD — anything I could that I thought I could spin over into the graffiti,” Callwood said. “I never really had any confidence in myself until I had art.”

After graduating from high school, Callwood spent a year at the Art Institute of Cincinnati. Things didn't work out in art school, and Callwood dropped out, moving back home to live with his mom again. It was around this time, in 2011, that his father died. While his parents were no longer married — they had split up and reunited several times, Callwood said — his father was always a presence, even if, at times, only financially.

“For a while there, it was hard for me to draw. There was just too much baggage. I was back home, just bullshitting and kicking it with my friends and getting high,” Callwood said.

Again, art helped Callwood channel his emotions. “I'd wake up sprawled out at one of my friend's cribs, and I'd roll over and pull out my sketchbook,” he said.

As he drew, Callwood felt that confidence start to come back. And that, in turn, became happiness.

“I'd always done characters that represented myself. They were sad or sarcastic. But I started becoming happier in my drawing, and that happiness, subconsciously, eventually became Spaceboy,” Callwood said.

Callwood has been drawing the character ever since, recently adding Spacegirl as a companion. This summer, Callwood released the first full-length Spaceboy and Spacegirl comic. There's a sense of innocence to the characters, even if they are brave and adventurous and not, Callwood, said, specifically created for children.

Indeed, the comic is relatable to readers of any age, and while it may not have overt messages, there are certain things that Callwood believes are important. Spacegirl and Spaceboy are equals, he said, and neither uses a gun. Oh, and did we mention, they're black?

“I know there are systemic things that are holding people back, but I don't know if I can have animosity toward someone who doesn't have any black characters if they don't really know any black people,” Callwood said. “My characters are black because I'm black, and I hang out with a lot of black people.”

But his comics universe can be more diverse, too.

“I loved sci-fi before I knew what sci-fi even was,” Callwood said. “I happen to be black, but with sci-fi, there's so much opportunity for diversity, in a world where anything can happen. I want to continue to do different things.”