African-Americans in the comics industry may be a rare concept, but they are making more than a little noise. In fact, while their contributions may go unnoticed by the general public, they have helped changed the face of the field.
According to Alex Simmons, things have improved a great deal. “Things are absolutely better if you encompass just my years on the planet. We’ve gone from can’t get work at all or writing under pseudonyms to keep our permanent bronze glow a secret, to getting some gigs, to a few out-and-out super stars,” says Simmons, founder of the annual Kids Comic Con, founder and curator of the Color of Comics Exhibition. He also wrote numerous comic book stories for DC Comics, Archie Comics, and Graphic Classics, as well as his own original creation, such as Black Jack (http://www.blackjackadventures.com). “Can it be improved? Of course. But it’s up to us to build on what has been accomplished. As far as characters of color in the medium — yes there are more now than in 1975, or 85. Do all of them represent properly, no. But they can’t until we become as much a part of the “normal” view of every day life as those of the lighter hue. One note or stereotypical portrayal is not useful whether perpetuated by white or Black folks.”
Jerry Craft, creator of Mama’s Boyz (http://www.mamasboyz.com), an award-winning comic strip that has been distributed by King Features Syndicate since 1995, agrees but adds that it is due to the initiative of African-Americans themselves rather than a change in corporate policy. “I think it’s gotten better in the sense of quality products being produced by independent Black creators. John Jennings and Damian Duffy produced an amazing book called Black Comix that features the work of the best in African-American cartooning. It’s a fantastic piece of work. N. Steven Harris produces books that are consistently of high quality. Dawud Anyabwile has brought BrotherMan back, and Alex Simmons is bringing back Blackjack. Plus there are some great annual conventions such as Kids Comic Con (Bronx, NY), ONYXCON (Atlanta, GA), ECBACC – (East Coast Black Age of Comic Convention -Philadelphia, PA) and BLACK AGE Comic Con (Chicago, IL). So it’s definitely gotten better, but we’ve had to do it ourselves, I don’t really follow the big companies anymore,” he says. Craft, who published two books (Mama’s Boyz: As American as Sweet Potato Pie! and Mama’s Boyz: Home Schoolin’ – Because Learning Shouldn’t Stop at 3 O’Clock) is currently one of only a handful of syndicated African-American cartoonists in the country. He most recently founded the Black Comic Book Day.
According to Turtel Onli (http://www.onlistudios.com), who creates graphic novels, games and movies, the last five years have been both positive and negative changes in the industry. “There are more creative books being done in the Black Age of Comics movement than ever before. We still need to grow our fan base to equal our impact potential. We have annual conventions in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Atlanta towards this effort. We need to compete,” says Onli.
With so few role models, it is a wonder many African-Americans consider the industry as a career choice. But for those who are in it, their love started as a child. “I’m a story-teller. Since childhood I made up stories, first with my action figures and drawings, then in my teens we made mystery movies with a super 8 camera, and I drew comics,” explains Simmons. “By the time I reached adulthood, I was pursuing acting as a career, and drawing for the fun of it. A few years in theater made me realize how there seemed to be only two roles a Black man could play — passive domestic, or angry Black man. Feeling this did not represent my people fully, I began writing scenes, then plays. My work in theater and magazines led to comics … and there you have it. I’ve created my own material like the DEMON CHRONICLES, and written for DC Comics, Graphic Classics, and Archie Comics.”
Like Simmons, Shawn Martinbrough (www.shawnmartinbrough), the author of “How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling” (Random House), entered the field because of his love of comics. “I’ve been a comic book fan since I was in elementary school. It was my dream to draw the great superhero characters of Marvel and DC Comics. After learning that I could get paid to draw, I knew this would be a major part of my career,” says Martinbrough. His recent graphic novel projects for Marvel Entertainment include “Luke Cage Noir”, “Bullseye: The Perfect Game” and a Captain America comic drawn exclusively for the U.S. military. He is currently illustrating “Thief of Thieves”, an original graphic novel series with Robert Kirkman, the creator of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
Others venture into the field after a career or studies in the arts. “I earned a BFA in Art Education and a Master’s in Art Therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It takes brains in this game,” says Onli. “I had a lot of things to say and a lot of ways to say them and felt graphic novels & comic books were the perfect media to set up and express those ideas along with manifesting positive images.” Craft, who worked as an art director and for years as the editorial director of the Sports Illustrated for Kids website, saw the bigger picture. “I’ve always loved to draw, so to be able to make a living doing something I love is a great way to earn a living. But I stay in the field to help give kids (especially kids of color) quality products that show them in a positive light,” he says.
Martinbrough agrees with Craft, that African-American comics are necessary for the younger generation to enjoy. “First and foremost, Black comics are important so that young black girls and boys can see heroes who look like themselves. Second, it’s important to show others that Blacks can be heroes and represented in a positive light. Third, it’s important to show that Black-themed comics can be creatively competitive with what the major publishers produce,” he says. Adds Simmons, “For many they are their first, or most consistent form of literature. If they were not reading comics, they might not be reading at all. Also, the imagination is the gateway to career and life goals. If a young person can imagine their future they can set goals for it. Then they’ll find use for the life and educational lessons before them. And the literacy angle plays just as strongly with many adults, too. They may see them as chronicles of current mythology, or … simply a relaxing and easy bit of entertainment. No matter what, they serve a great purpose.”
Craft sees Black comics as a way to change stereotypes. “Kids should have heroes that look like them. And other kids should see heroes that look like us. That’s why I try to get “us” to give Mama’s Boyz books for kids of color as well as white kids. They need to see us as positive people, too. People give my kids books based on white characters all the time without thinking twice, but it never works in reverse. But it needs to if we’re all going to survive. Plus, we need to think of this in terms of economics. The more support I get, the more products I can create. If you don’t, then don’t say you miss me once I’m working in Wal-Mart,” he notes. Simmons points out, “More so than ever. Whether in print or web form, comics serve not only as consumer items. They’re also a medium by which some people can chronicle stories they wish to tell. Creative expression or therapeutic stimuli, they serve us as much now as they ever did.”
Despite the strides in the last five years, most see room for improvement. “There is a need for a major Black publisher,” says Martinbrough. Simmons finds that the majors are not embracing innovative ideas. He says, “We need more variety. Unlike mainstream books, TV, and film, the comics business is genre-poor. There used to be more back in the 60’s (suspense, super heroes, mystery, history, horror, and comedy). If it were not for many of the independent titles, we would be waist deep in Spandex City.”
Craft adds that consumers must support Blacks in the field. “We need more support,” he explains. “It’s amazing how many folks buy Manga, but won’t buy books that star Black characters. So the better we can support ourselves, the better we can all do. It’s a lot more than just buying a comic, it’s helping to shape our industry.”