The Black Panel at this year's Comic-Con International in San Diego consisted of producer and marketing strategist Tatiana El-Khouri ("Dark Girls"), actors Wayne Brady ("The Wayne Brady Show") and Orlando Jones ("Sleepy Hollow," "Tainted Love"), artist and collegiate professor John Jennings, musician Tony Rich, writer David Walker ("Number 13"), artist Ken Lashley ("Batwing") and panel moderator and Milestone Comics co-founder Michael Davis. The mood throughout the 90-minute panel ranged from boisterous to heartfelt. In fact, there was a short video presentation that introduced each panelist, but also poked fun at Lashley for having accepted his panel invitation too late for inclusion in the video presentation as well as most press releases.
Before continuing with the opening pleasantries, Davis felt it prudent to address the not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial over the death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin. Needless to say, with the jury having just reached its verdict less than a week prior to Comic-Con, the topic was still very fresh on everyone's minds.
"You know what I like about The Black Panel? White people. In a time when a young black kid could be murdered, and his murderer walk free; in a time when the Supreme Court can gut the voting rights acts; in a time when its first black President can repeatedly be asked to show his patriotism, we at the Black Panel reflect what the United States of America really is -- white people, Latino people, Asian people, all people," said Davis. "So let us not despair over this whole Zimmerman thing. Let us not complain. Let us not lose our focus. Let us keep our eyes on the prize.
"Remember: the people in this room are America. We're sitting here because we have a common goal -- our love of what it is we are here for. So despite what house niggas (yes, I said it) like Clarence Thomas do, we shall overcome."
It was a fitting coincidence that toward the end of the panel a journalist from Racialicious.com came to the mic during the Q&A portion to inform the panel of President Barack Obama's first public response, which he had delivered far from the halls of Comic-Con while this panel was held. The journalist, Arturo Garcia, read aloud a few choice tidbits of the speech to the panelist: "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago... I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different."
"Obama said that?" Davis' responded. "Well, I'm voting for him for a third time."
El-Khouri, who is curating the Milestones art show later this year, said that when she has discussed the Zimmerman verdict with others, some are unaware that because of her lighter skin tone that she is indeed black.
"I've lived in an area where they were rioting, and have listened to people talk like -- 'I can't believe they're out there rioting.'" She stressed how difficult these conversations have been, but also added her appreciation of the President's words. "It is really good that he [President Obama] acknowledged that."
After introductions from the panelists, Davis opened the floor for questions from the crowd. One of the first fans at the mic was dressed an adult Static Shock and asked what the panelist thought about taking their comics-inspired projects, specifically referencing Jones' live-action graphic novel web series "Tainted Love," to movie studios, and trying to cash in on the current superhero movie craze. In addition, the fan voiced his hopes about one day seeing a "Static Shock" feature film. "Why wouldn't the most successful black superhero in the history of mankind make a good movie?" Davis responded sarcastically. "Why would you bring that up?"
In response to the earlier part of the fan's question, Jones said he believes that what medium a story is told in isn't as important any longer, citing music's evolution from 8-track to cassette and later from CDs to digital. "For me, this is about creating indelible characters that speak to all of our complexities and problems," Jones said, specifically regarding his web series. "That's what "Tainted Love" is: people who have no dignity, but have humanity. We forget that often."
As far as making money is concerned, Jones felt making connections with audiences through his stories was more important, and why "Tainted Love" is online and available for free. "The money making aspect is always a part of the business. But I believe that as creators, if we don't get back to the story, if we keep losing ourselves to the medium and the business, we will lose what brought us here in the first place, which is just to tell our stories. That's all I care about, and if it makes money, then great. If it don't, I don't really give a fizz!"
As the conversation turned to current projects, Lashley began by talking about the reasons he almost didn't make it Comic-Con. Lucasfilm invited him to a convention in Germany and "You don't think to much about these things, you just take the calls, and go about your business." When Lashley looked at the roster of other artists planning to make the trek, he found that he was not only the only Canadian, but also the only artist of color. So when Lucasfilm asked Lashley to create poster art for the convention, he felt particularly inspired to create a 1970s blaxploitation themed piece.
Later, Lashley answered a fan's question about how to go about maintaining success. "I don't go into many meetings where I see someone who looks like me. So the biggest factor I can control is how good I am," Lashley said. Adamant about carrying one's self with confidence, Lashley added, "You have to have faith in your abilities; you have to have that ability to walk into a room and say, 'Yes, I belong here. I deserve to be here, and I'm not gonna take whatever they give me. This is mine.'"
As a humorous aside, Lashley recounted the time he was interviewed by a Wizard staffer who asked what it was like to be a black artist, to which Lashley responded, "It's completely different from when I was a white guy."
When an aspiring, black female comic creator approached the mic, seeking advice from El-Khouri, the enterprising producer offered herself up as an example. She began attending panels as a fan and would walk up to the panelist afterward and find ways to connect with the people in the community that she wanted to be involved with. As far as the aspect of any disadvantages just by being a woman trying to make it in the industry, El-Khouri advised, "You just gotta brush it off." El-Khouri stressed that while she loves the comics industry and surrounding mediums, she has experienced some degree of sexisim. But nevertheless, she emphasized having a dogged persistence, "I made people look, and I've made my way."
"Individually, we have to define success on our own terms," Walker added. "If I'm trying to define success by Wayne Brady or Reggie Hudlin's terms, I'm gonna shoot myself at the end of the night, because I'm not there." He too stressed persistence, adding, "We have to define it for ourselves, and slowly but sure, it will happen."
At another point in the panel, Jennings addressed a fan's question about the black superhero versus superhero that happens to be black paradigm, and if that's changing. "I think it is changing," Jennings answered, noting that the more people of color that are reading comics, and becoming a bigger part of the community, and that its effects are slowly being implemented in the comics themselves. "There is a lot of push-back between those paradigms, but it is changing. A lot of it is what Orlando talked about with the shifts between mediums."
A relative newcomer to the comics field, Tony Rich described his visual art as an extension of his musical side.Further adding that all of these facets are part of a bigger idea, Rich said, "This hat, is what makes the character, The Tony Rich Project. When I take it off, I'm Antonio Jeffries."
Also a relative newcomer to comics is Brady. Although no projects have been announced, Brady is working with Davis on ideas and concepts. Moreover, Davis asked the multi-faceted entertainer to explain why he wants to get into comics.
"These stories are so complex, so real and so involved, that sometimes as an actor in this business, you might ask, 'Why didn't they ask me to do that?'" Brady said. "So you end up creating stuff for yourself. The fact of the matter is, I have dreams that I don't know if they'll ever come true, so I've started on the road to making my own.
"I don't know if they will ever come calling, and make me the next Doctor Who, which I think they should," Brady continued as the crowd erupted into cheers. "Maybe I could be one of the Green Lanterns."
As Brady was beginning to talk about some of the ideas for the comic-related project he and Davis have been tossing around, Davis quickly shushed him, "We'll be sued," the Milestone Co-Founder said, at least partially joking.
Brady teased that he didn't want to create something that is run of the mill, and something that he himself would want to read. The duo is developing three ideas, two of which Brady described as home runs. "Is the third one mine?" Davis quipped.
The plan for these projects is to publish a graphic novel, but also create them with an eye toward developing a TV pilot based on the material. Before closing the topic, Brady related his mindset to what Jones had said about creating good stories. "I'm not chasing a check on this. I'm chasing love. I've finally reached a point in my life where it's great to have a dollar bill in my pocket, and that's a blessing because I know what it's like not having it," Brady said. "But I also have things I want to do. If no one is going to let me do it, then screw ya, I'm gonna do it myself."
When the subject of black content in the film industry came up, and whether or not movies like "Django Unchained" has helped to change the tides for the better, Jones deferred that question to "Django" producer Reginald Hudlin, who was sitting in the front row. Hudlin's short answer was that not just with "Django," but what he has learned throughout his entire career is that "individual success doesn't really matter."
"Black success in general, is an accident. Will Smith was an accident. Eddie Murphy was an accident. Against all odds, some miracle happened, and they ended up at the top of the class," he continued before posing the question of how we can make institutional change, and gave Tyler Perry as an example. "Some people think he's great, some people don't think he's great, but the fact is that his movies consistently make money. That he makes two movies a year, it creates a financial template."
Hudlin further explained that recognizing a proven financial model is the first step, and that the next is figuring out how to break into new genres and categories. He credited all of the panelist for their efforts at doing just that. "We're dedicated to that breakthrough," he said. He also likened his comic book run on Marvel's "Black Panther" to that of what Jones is doing with "Tainted Love." "I thought, 'I don't know that I'm ever going to write a Black Panther movie, so I'm gonna write a six-issue miniseries.'"
Before sitting back down, Hudlin also urged the crowd to check out Walker's "Number 13" website and sizzle reel, and that they would be amazed by what they'd see. The latter is a proof of concept trailer for an adaptation of Walker and Robert Love's Dark Horse Comics series of the same name. Walker noted that based on the buzz from the trailer he has set up meetings following Comic-Con with executives about the project, and hopes that with enough hype and groundswell he and his team can secure a television deal by the end of July.
At the end of the panel, the crowd was treated to the trailer for Jones' "Tainted Love," and the sizzle reel for Walker's "Number 13," both of which received a standing ovation from the enthusiastic crowd.