Open Your Mouth: Issue #37

Thu, February 26th, 2004 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
J. Torres, Columnist

A change in the plan this week, readers.

The "March Ahead" sneak peeks and previews column announced last week as running this week will be moved to next week.

In its place, we have a round table discussion led by Erick Hogan. You'll remember Erick from the piece we ran here three weeks ago in honor of Black History Month. That column was actually supposed to also contain a virtual panel moderated by LeSean Thomas, but unfortunately things didn't come together as planned. Enter: Erick Hogan once again. He offered to pick up where LeSean left off and have the dialogue ready before the month was out. I promised that if he got it together in time I would pre-empt my sneak peaks and run that column next week.

So, we end the month of February as we began it, with another look at the black experience in the comic book history, but this time the focus is on what's going on today…

SAY WHAT?
Three African American Artists' Perspective on the Comic Book Industry


By Erick Hogan

"…people are afraid of books that… hit them over the head with the fact that everyone is black."
As a follow up to the Afros, Icons, and Spandex column I wanted to touch base with African American creators to get their take on the comic book industry.

Thanks to the miracle of the Internet I was able to chat with three of the hottest artists in the game, Sanford Greene ("Galactic," "Planet of the Apes"), Khary Randolph ("Sleepwalker," "New Mutants"), and LeSean Thomas ("Cannon Busters," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"), about their experiences, insights, and predictions on the future of black creators and characters in comics.

HOGAN: In 2003 Marvel released several controversial comics, two of which ("Cage" and "Truth") were panned in the media for depicting racist stereotypes of blacks. What did you think of those comics?

RANDOLPH: I flipped through "Cage," but never bought it. I thought the idea itself could have been very interesting, but the imagery was a bit much to take. I don't consider myself all that sensitive when it comes to race issues, but it did bother me a little. I mean, let's face it, there are black people with gold chains and gold teeth, it's not made up. But then again, I find most rap videos pretty offensive, too. If there were more black characters in comics that were portrayed in a positive light I might not have an issue with Cage. As for "Truth," I don't think I can really speak on it too much. I bought the first issue and wasn't really hooked, so I didn't continue reading.

GREENE: Interesting, for the most part, I saw "Truth" advertised in the "Source" magazine. That made me realize the hip-hop world was waiting for something like that.

THOMAS: Inner city culture, like hip-hop, is hot right now. So Marvel's going to try and capitalize on that, hence them trying it with "Cage" and "Human Torch." I think you touched on it when you explained it's with the times. Back in the '40s, it was zoot suits, black faces and conks that were depicted in comics. In the '60s it was "Black Panther" and Civil Rights connotations. Today, it's bucket hats, do-rags, chains, and hoes.

HOGAN: What do you think of DC's decision to introduce an African American teenager as the new "Firestorm" in the upcoming series?

GREENE: I think it's a dope idea. The writer for "Firestorm," Dan Jolley, mentioned it to me a few months ago and wanted to know my opinion. It's cool to see that they are making a conscious effort to get African Americans into a medium that is mostly white males.

RANDOLPH: It's the first I've heard of it, actually. As long as it's written and drawn well, I'm all for it.

THOMAS: I had no clue about this. Although it's a nice sentiment, I don't know the purpose behind that decision. I honestly think DC should focus that energy on creating a new black character entirely rather than seemingly trying to change their franchise characters' race to try and bring in more cheddar from that market.

HOGAN: Despite critical acclaim Marvel cancelled "Black Panther" and "The Crew," due to low sales. Why do you think that books featuring primarily black casts fail to find a following?

GREENE: I don't know honestly. I guess not pushing the books enough, to let people now they are out there

"I've never seen a comic book store in a black neighborhood."
THOMAS: I'll agree with Sanford in saying that it's possibly a result of lack of support. I think if there's a real belief in the content they produce (publishers) go all out, they didn't.

RANDOLPH: I never read "The Crew," but I thought that "Black Panther" started off very strongly. I personally stopped reading when the art crews kept changing. But in general, I think that a lot of readers are weary of what are considered "black books." I think people are afraid of books that they feel will hit them over the head with the fact that everyone is black. I don't even like the term itself. I have faith that a book with a majority of ethnic characters would sell if the race of the characters wasn't such an issue. Like, not a "black book," but a book that just happens to have characters that are ethnic. It should address issues that have to do with ethnicity, but shouldn't revolve around it. That's not to say that either of the above mentioned books do that, but I think that that may be the perception and why they don't sell as well.

HOGAN: At conventions I've noticed a strong contingent of black fans, not to mention a growing number showing up at my friendly neighborhood comic book store on Wednesdays. Yet despite an ever growing fan base, the number of Black characters in comics remains low. Do you think comic book publishers are ignoring the African American comic book reader demographic?

GREENE: Not really, I think they look at comic readers as a whole and they just want readers, period. But they are realizing some untapped markets out there and are attempting to reach them but I think they just want readers from any demographic.

RANDOLPH: The comic book reader demographic in general is so small that I think publishers have to go after whoever the hell they think will buy the books. Black people have always bought comic books. It's just the fact that it's so hard to get them these days. I've never seen a comic book store in a black neighborhood. When I was younger it was easy enough to just go to the corner store and pick up the latest books. Now I have to travel out of my way just to get them. You have to be a diehard fan like myself to make that trip. The publishers probably feel as though their biggest market is white males, so that's who they market their books too. It's unfortunate, but that's the reality of business.

"…people didn't know I was black until they met me at SDCC in 2003. They thought I was some French dude."
THOMAS: I don't think it's a matter of demographic. I think it's a matter of expressing yourself and depicting your environment. Stan Lee and Kirby created Captain America then as a reflection of themselves and how they view their country, the patriotic poster child for all things "American." Any culture will create content as a reflection of self. Blacks took the backseat in that time period (no pun intended). We all know the history and how things went down. So try to imagine them back then, sitting and arguing whether Captain America would be black is comical in itself. By the same token, I don't feel it's any publisher's responsibility to depict a race they have no true knowledge of or personal experience with for the simple sake of representation. I think you should do what you know. It's the same as Disney not ever animating black characters in their features. They do what they wish, they create a reflection of themselves. People complain, but I don't blame any big mogul in power for not representing my people. I blame my own people for not getting up and doing our own stuff. Which is why I always encourage cats to make their own comics and do what they love.

HOGAN: If you were an editor at Marvel or DC what changes would you make?

THOMAS: Editors have no power. (Ha-ha.) Seriously, all joking aside, I don't know. Maybe I'd publish a magazine for the little people in comics: indy artists, aspiring cats, newcomers, new readers. An alternative magazine for the indy heads with the same support Marvel gives Wizard. Like a junior version of Wizard that gives younger cats and the like the chance to get in and express themselves.

GREENE: Man, I would most definitely get more new talent and allow them to put their spin on traditional characters like Superman and Captain America. I know Marvel is attempting to do that but only time will tell. I would really make that effort to see new talent get a chance, even if I had to make a new line. I would try my best to advertise and get people interested in these new artists. Also I would pay the artists on time, guaranteed.

RANDOLPH: I would just try to diversify the content so that it's not all superhero adolescent young male power fantasies and try and push new ideas that would appeal to wider audiences, specifically women and kids. I'm sure these companies are trying to do the same thing, but it isn't working as of yet. I'm so sick of reading about the same 50-year-old characters fighting the same old villains over and over and over and over.

HOGAN: Despite what Khary just said, I have to ask, what black comic book character is most in need of a revamp?

GREENE: Black Lightning.

RANDOLPH: I pray for the day when there is a good Blade comic book.

THOMAS: Bring back Larry Stroman's "Tribe."

HOGAN: How have your experiences as an African American male translated into your art?

RANDOLPH: I wouldn't call my art "Afrocentric" or anything like that, but I do try to approach things in a different light, that'll give you an idea of where I come from. I mean, I'm not going to have all my characters wearing dashikis or anything like that, but I think that if someone saw enough of my art, they'd know a lot about me. I feel all of my art, even the commercial stuff, is somewhat personal.

GREENE: The style I draw is based on urban culture. I'm influenced by other styles as well, but the foundation of my style is urban or hip-hop if you will.

"…the one thing I can honestly say about this profession, race has nothing to do with anything. Talent is the bottom line. "
THOMAS: Hmmm… I don't know. I don't think it has that much of an affect on me considering I've spent most of my life freelancing on projects with only white characters. It has definitely affected my personal projects and my own stories, all of them have blacks as leads. I touch on a lot of personal experiences and people (I know) going forward but as far as it "translating" to my art I doubt it. I was drawing "Arkanium" and "TMNT" for Dreamwave Productions for two years and people didn't know I was black until they met me at SDCC in 2003. They thought I was some French dude.

HOGAN: Do you sneak Black folks in as extras in crowd scenes as a "Comic Book Affirmative Action?"

RANDOLPH: Ha, yeah I do. But not just black folks though, I try and sneak in a much more diverse crowd in general, whether it's race, or young and old people, skinny of fat, etc. I like to keep it diverse.

GREENE: I draw what's around me: friends, family, white people, Hispanics, Asians… I draw my reality.

THOMAS: Comic Book Affirmative Action, there a law for that? Man, if I'd had known. (Ha-ha.) I draw what I know. A lot of times it doesn't matter. This is because I've drawn black characters and the colorist colors them white anyways. Where's the love?

HOGAN: Have you ever encountered a "color line" in your experiences as professional artists?

THOMAS: No, but I've heard my fair share of horror stories.

GREENE: Nah, that's the one thing I can honestly say about this profession, race has nothing to do with anything. Talent is the bottom line.

RANDOLPH: I honestly haven't encountered it like I expected that I would, but then I haven't been around that long either. I've heard stories, but my actual experience hasn't reflected anything that negative; most of the time my clients don't see my face anyways. As long as I deliver the product on time and of an acceptable quality, that's all they care about. I've been a professional artist for about five years now and in the comics industry for a year and it hasn't been so bad. The worst thing I've had to deal with is the few times I've gone into office buildings for meetings and the guys at the front desk thought I was delivering a package and told me to go around the back. That got me a little hot, and it's happened more than once.

HOGAN: What do you think the future holds for African American comic characters and creators?

GREENE: There will be more of both.

THOMAS: I don't know. Comics are a sub culture catering to a niche market. I don't see a lot of influence in communities to be comic artists. Being an artist, period, is kind of frowned upon nowadays; unless 50 Cent retires to launch a comic book company, then you'll see an influx for real.

RANDOLPH: (I think) it's bright. Things are getting better, it just takes time. Just the fact that I'm doing this interview means something, right?

Erick Hogan is a contributing writer for "Inside the Lines" magazine as well as "Open Your Mouth." He refuses to stop stalking J. Torres until he is introduced to Starfire of the Teen Titans.

Related Links


www.ledheavy.com
www.sanfordgreene.com
www.leseanthomas.com

OPEN YOUR MAIL

Jeffrey Earls, who interviewed me for Toon Zone back in November, is working on a new project called "The Sorrow." It's a benefit book to help raise money and awareness for the National Association to Protect Children. Jeffery writes:

"Compassionate writers and artists needed for dynamic pro-child, anti-crime benefit comic. Please visit http://www.freewebs.com/thesorrow for more information."

Andrew Vachss ("Batman: The Ultimate Evil") is already endorsing the project and if you'd like to contribute your time and talent please contact Jeffery at storylinestudios@hotmail.com

Next week: Next week: Steve Gerber, Brian Hurtt, the Micronauts, zombies, an upside down flying crotch shot and more! (No, really, I mean it this time.)

Meanwhile, Erick polled his panelists on who should play Storm in the X-men movies if Halle Berry bows out and he wants you to vote on one of their nominees in the OYM forum.

Thank you for your attention.

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