THE COLOR BARRIER: Complainers, Navigators and The Mission Ahead

Tue, September 2nd, 2014 at 12:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Joseph Phillip Illidge, Contributing Writer
6

In the June issue of The Atlantic, an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates called "The Case for Reparations" was published. It was a history lesson, unflinching dissection, and a call to action all in one, about the many ways in which Black people were unfairly denied the opportunity to own a home. Additionally, it detailed the ways in which such practices continue to this day, in clever and disgusting ways, and profiled some of the people who fought against the system in years past.

I'm not going to try and equate the racial inequities of the comic book industry with the centuries-old discrimination mechanism that makes a case for reparations. After all, to my knowledge, no person of color ever had their life threatened, or was killed, within the comic book industry because of their ethnicity.

That said, we can look at the comic book business as a landscape of creativity, defined in part by the vast presence of the intangible assets called "intellectual properties."

We are now at a point in the global culture where the ideas created for, and realized within, comic books are respected by everyone as stories of value and resonance, due the same level of respect as various ideas first realized in the formats of prose, film and television.

The graphic novel, "Watchmen," written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, was voted one of Time's Top 100 Novels in 2009, more specifically one of the best English-language novels published since 1923, the starting year for Time.

Last February, "The Walking Dead," a television series based off of a long-running Image Comics series created by Robert Kirkman, was the number one television show for the coveted 18-49 demographic, beating out one thousand and four hundred other shows for that spot.

The Marvel Studios film, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," based on a Marvel Comics storyline by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting, is one of the top-grossing films this year on a worldwide scale.

These three examples are significantly different, as one is corporation-owned, one is creator-owned, and one is corporation-owned but identified in connection with its creators to such a degree that it is viewed as creator "owned", respectively. But all of them came from comic books, and none of them were created or co-created by people of color.

Don't mistake that for a complaint. It's an observation that should and must serve as fuel and inspiration.

Because the comic book industry is a business that does not provide or allow equal opportunities for writers of color to pen tales for company-owned intellectual properties, or to publish creator-owned works through high-profile publishers, the potential for windfall in the forms of money and exposure is reduced a great deal.

Writer Chuck Dixon, formerly one of the most prolific authors of the Batman line of comics, received monies due to a character he co-created called Bane who appeared in the Warner Bros. film "The Dark Knight Rises." Chuck Dixon does not own any percentage of the Bane character, and yet he received a check. Dixon was also featured in a variety of mainstream press outlets during the film's release.

Money.

Exposure.

Both of which yield opportunities, and opportunities can lead to more money and exposure, while also providing the means for future opportunities for others, family and otherwise.

Legacy power.

"Mighty Avengers" art by Greg Land.

As far as I can tell, the comic book community of color, comprised of the fans, creators, and employees of color in the business and consumer groups, can be broken down into four categories:

The complainers, each and all of whom will focus their sentiment and thoughts on how Marvel Comics and DC Comics are "The Man," doing them wrong on a daily basis and not giving them their forty acres and a mule, their fair share.

While a number of their points are surely valid, the truth is that words will not stop a locomotive, or get it to change its course.

The apathetic, who don't want any part of this Black, Latino, Asian comics and heroes talk. Having zero interest in an agenda or cause that brings unwanted attention and comes with risk, they want to be left alone like the people Howard Beale referred to in his famous spiel in Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet's film "Network."

It's understandable. Who wants to risk promotion within the ranks, the reward of a sweet 401K package and benefits, or good standing in a well-known comic book company with a potential shot at a name character, just by being viewed and defined by their ethnicity, in an industry dominated by Caucasian males?

The fighters. Those people whose actions as a creator and/or consumer are in opposition to Marvel and DC Comics. Operating on the independent scene exclusively or almost, they challenge the system.

To challenge the system, your work must be as good or engaging as the work within the system. To support independent works, you must take the time to investigate and find them.

The last group is the navigators, those people from diverse groups who manage to operate both in the mainstream and independent circles, and succeed in their creative and business endeavors.

Despite the inequities and lack of fairness in the business of comic books, and entertainment in general, the navigators are making an impact, and they're not going to be stopped.

And with that as an example and inspiration, the mission in front of us can be intuited, ascertained, but maybe it needs to be clearly stated. Anyone can choose their words, their mantra, and since every person should not ask others to do something they would not do themselves, these are the words I choose:

The Mission… is to develop one's ability to its highest potential, and use it in service of helping to realize the equal creative and business playing field all people from diverse groups deserve.

The mission is not exclusive to people of color, or heterosexuals, or people who are cisgender. Various people are living the mission, in some cases without specific intent but by virtue of who they are as people.

Maya Angelou.

We have walked through The Color Barrier together, and now, on this side, I'm going to sharpen my focus on the navigators, across demographics, the ones who are succeeding and paving the way for others to succeed. Action instead of complaints. Efforts instead of apathy. Fighting with endurance. Growth through trials.

After all, I could care less about The Falcon sleeping with a 24-year old woman.

On May 28, Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86.

On July 1, Walter Dean Myers passed away at the age of 76.

The leaders of a new age are among us.

Let's talk to them.

Let's become them.

Joseph Phillip Illidge

THE MISSION will begin with the next installment, in which a certain producer and director of the global animation scene will be interviewed, a man who's walked the road less traveled and returned home with some Dynamite in his pockets.

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