Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants: Arvell Jones

Wed, February 22nd, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Vince Moore, Contributing Writer

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Welcome once again to CBR's celebration of Black History Month.

What I have to offer you folks this time is a lengthy and long overdue interview with Arvell Jones. Arvell has worked for numerous publishers from the time he entered the comics game in the 1970s, from Marvel to DC to Milestone. What he has to share with us is a wealth of stories about breaking into comics, the importance of diversity and different voices being in comics, and how the creators themselves really should be the driving force for change in comics.

Let's take a listen to what he has to say.

Jones: "This photo features myself, Stephen Leialoha, Trina Robbins, Jerry Robinson, behind the flowers and cut off are my wife Wanda and Jerry's wife. This was shot in Japan in I think 1993. Still looks like me."
CBR News: Okay, let's start out with having you introduce yourself to our

Arvell Jones: Arvell Malcolm Jones is my name. I am a creator, a producer, a business owner and a dreamer.

CBR News: Now, let's talk about the comics industry and you. Talk to us about your first big break. How did you get it? And what was it?

AJ: My first break, I guess, came after doing assistant work for Rich Buckler, on the "Black Panther" or "Deathlok." From there I got an offer to do a bimonthly.

Rich was the first person from our so-called Detroit Mob to get a break, after we all worked together and studied together in Detroit.

Rich had been in New York for a couple of years. We (Rich, Tom Orzechowski, Keith Pollard, Jim Starlin, Mike Vozburg, Al Milgrom, Terry Austin, Mike Netzer (then Nasser), Aubrey Bradford, Greg Theakston, my brother Desmond and I) all used to know one another and get together to critique our work, and work on projects together. We even had a Fanzine called Fan Informer. Most of us worked on the Detroit Comic Conventions as well; back then called the Detroit Triple Fan Fair. We made a vow to help one another if one of us broke in. Rich was first and then Tom.

[The book was] "Marvel Premiere" #20, featuring Iron Fist. Tony Isabella sort of helped to campaign for me to come on board with him. Really I'd done a "Marvel Two-in-One" a year before that, but it didn't see print until a year later.

CBR News: As we all are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, would you like to mention any mentors or wise ones who helped you along the way?

AJ: Besides the guys I already mentioned? Yeah, we were sort of the blind leading the blind, we had a big love of comics. I guess the old pros that helped would have to be Neal Adams, who used to fry us every time we showed him something. Jim Steranko, who was less harsh. Gil Kane, Joe Orlando, Dan Atkins, Bernie Wrightson, Mike Kaluta, John Romita, and Jack Kirby who came to Detroit one year and just fired us up. We learned a lot from just looking at their work. There were a couple of old masters who I should mention like Tom Fieldings (yes the Tom Fieldings) and Don Vaughn. I know some of you [modern] comic guys won't know them, but, believe me, I learned a lot from just talking to them.

CBR News: I'm a bit familiar with the history of Marvel during the '70s. I was wondering if you had a chance to take part in any of John Buscema's chalk talks, the sort of art classes he used to teach at Marvel. Did you pick up any useful tips from there that you would like to share with any artists reading?

AJ: I think when I arrived at Marvel John was already doing his school. I used to sit with Neal Adams, Joe Orlando, Gil Kane, and whoever walked into the bullpen at Marvel or the offices at DC to turn in work. I learned a lot from just looking at Neal Adams' pencils when he did the "Superman vs. Muhammad Ali" special -- that was powerful stuff to look at. We used to go over to Neal's studio and hang out in the backrooms just watching what was being done and asking questions. Ron (Wilson), Keith (Pollard), and I use to make copies of Buscema's pencils, as well as anyone else's we thought had something to teach us.

Useful tips? Aw, I got a ton of tips, I should write a book.

The main thing I learned is you need to draw more than comics. Draw from life. Draw, draw, draw! Also, storytelling is maybe the most important thing.

I teach a traditional comics class at the College of Creative Studies (CCS) and, before that, I taught Comic Art Workshops to keep developing talent for the industry before things slowed down. We had some amazing talented guys come out of that, like Joe Cooper and David Perrin. It's just that the industry didn't really give these guys a chance.

CBR News: What about the challenges or difficulties you may have faced while getting into the comics biz?

AJ: Well, Marvel and DC were interesting places in the early '70s. Racism was there, but not the kind you would think. People were trying to be very open minded, but they only could draw on what they knew. I spent a lot of time getting to know people. It was hard at first because, in some cases, we had nothing in common but our love of the industry. Plus, the industry is very much like a little Hollywood: it's about who you know, as well as how good you are.

Many of the people I worked with I'd know for sometime through the convention route, or from zines, like [the ones done by] Roy Thomas (when we had our zine, Roy was our source for news at Marvel) and Paul Levitz. Marvel and DC tried to be open to us but, in a way, they didn't know quite how to relate to us. It helped that most of my friends from Detroit helped to open doors. We would take a 13 hour drive and spend the night with Al Milgrom and his roommate, hang at Rich's, then go see John Romita at Marvel, get our butts spanked, and go back to Detroit to work on our samples again.

CBR News: What about the struggles you may have faced in comics? Were there any ways or situations in which you felt the comics industry let you down? Or disappointed you? Share with our readers some of your most notable experiences in comics.

AJ: In the beginning, the climate became a little more political once I got some assignments, but I can't complain. I look back on it and, for the most part, I think because I believed in myself so much that, for the most part, I was given a break.

I couldn't draw worth a damn under pressure and the first job I got -- that "Iron Fist" job -- was under the worst conditions you could a imagine. I was homeless, with only 25 dollars and a credit card that was close to maxxed out. Living first in a flea-bag hotel and then in other peoples' apartments for weeks until I could afford to move into a place that had no windows. I used a piece of glass I took off the hotel room wall that housed a fake watercolor painting as my drawing board. I had only Marvel paper to use to make straight lines for perspective and I had less than two weeks to pencil the comic.

Long story made short, I felt that this was my shot and after I got it done, I was waiting for the axe to fall. Stan Lee, who still had an office in Marvel's Madison Avenue HQ at the time, came out of his office, held up the make-ready for the book (a printed but not finished version of the comic) and demanded to know who was responsible for that issue? I mean, I was standing at the end of the hall, talking to Tony Isabella, and everyone else stepped aside and pointed at me. Stan walked up looked me in the eye and said, "Did you do this art?" I managed to get out a yes, as I felt my heart leaping out of my chest, and he grabbed my hand and gave it a hardy shake as he praised my storytelling and said it reminded him of the old days with him and Jack Kirby on Captain America. I felt I was still one of the worst artists at Marvel, but Stan Lee liked my work, so I'd made it! After that, it was about my trying to help others give them the lowdown and work with them.

While on the other hand, I found myself in very frank discussions about stereotypes in how blacks were shown in comics. I wanted to get a few black writers in; there were few to be found. I also pitched some radical new superheroes to Marvel, which were turned into assignments, but always didn't make it past the development stage. It was frustrating for me, but I never stopped enjoying what I was doing.

DC was a world of difference.

Unlike Marvel's Bullpen, DC was very businesslike. You felt a little uneasy if you tried to just hang out. Paul Levitz was an editor then and, when I when to go see him, I was surprised [to see] he wore a white shirt and a tie! He was real cool though. He didn't have a lot of time to talk to me, but I found him to be very friendly and that was always a big hurdle to jump when I was trying to get work. Joe Orlando, who was the creative director at the time, was great as well. He'd sit us freelancers down and give us drawing instructions and go over our pages, if he felt we needed some feedback.

It was just so businesslike over at DC; it was a culture shock to anyone who'd worked at Marvel.

When I got over there, they started opening it up a little. They started letting freelancers hang out a little in an office we called "The Freelancers' Room." There, we would intercept pages as they came in and go over them with the artists bringing their work in. I got in a little too much trouble for just stating whatever was in my head. Some would take my critiques and just hate me forever. I tried to be very honest and my work didn't always back up what I was saying. Although I knew I needed to improve as well. I just kept that attitude I had when I was back in Detroit, but it didn't always fly too well in New York.

Because I could take it, I did a lot of growing as an artist at that time. You can't stop growing as an artist and you learn more about the negatives in your work than when someone says "oh, your work is great." When artists told me what they didn't like about my work, I tried to see what it was and fix it. Then I would hear conflicting statements and you had to go with your gut.

In all, it took a while to put everything together but that was good growth experience.

I viewed everything [during my time in comics] as an adventure and I had a ton of fun. Maybe too much fun. Because, after I got my first assignment and then was offered "Iron Man," I called the next batter up from Detroit: Keith Pollard! I told him to quit his job at an art studio and get up to New York; I was getting work. Which he promptly did. I wasn't quite making enough money to support Keith when he got to New York, but since Keith had been saving, we managed to not kill one another while we struggled. Really we had a good time living on the edge. Ah, to be young and foolish again.

Over the years, I would leave comics because of other things happening in my life. I looked at comics as the poor man's movie or TV production. I wanted to get more into that field. So I started working in TV, for about 11 years. First at a local TV station, then for a second on the nationally syndicated TV show "Superboy." Which lead me to wanting to find other outlets for comics and the ideas I had.

[In the early 90s,] Denys Cowan called me out of the blue one day and asked me to remember an idea I had back in the '70s along with Keith Pollard, Trevor Von Eden, Ron Wilson, and Skip Kirkland to create an African American Comics Company. I remember feeling there was a need to put comics out that would help to make Blacks have fantasy figures, that did what the mainstream wasn't providing enough of. Most of the blaxploitation movies showed black heroes from a stereotypical point of view. I would go to the movies and wonder what I was looking at. I didn't know a (lot of) blacks that acted like what I was seeing on the screen. Hey, I lived in Detroit, so I knew a lot of brothers. Yet what was on the screen wasn't representing us. I tried to lead a small revolt on how we were depicted, by creating an African American Comic Company that would control every aspect of how we were depicted. All of us felt that it was up to us to see this through, but we didn't get a lot of support from the industry, outside of the six or seven black creators involved. There was a lot I needed to learn about business and it was too soon.

At that time, Denys was my assistant and we had high hopes, we had a publishing backer, but it all fell apart.

Anyway, I said yeah to Denys, I remember. I still remember the day I moved back to Detroit, after things didn't work out, Denys looked like someone had killed his dream. I told him that he had nothing to worry about, he was bright, gifted, and smart as hell. No one was going to stop him or, for that matter, us.

So here we were years later and he then told me about Milestone Media! I felt like a proud papa! I was so excited to hear what Denys had done. I think I called all the old gang, bragging on Denys, as if he were my son. Over the next couple of years I was honored to have worked with him and Dwayne McDuffie. I met some lasting friends in Brian McDonnell and John Rozum as well.

I was peeved at the rift that developed in our creative community over Milestone and others that felt that Milestone had sold out to The Man. I mean what the hell was that about? Why must we always fight among ourselves? A better business move would have been to work on a way to push each product into the community, building market share, creating art and story visions that would otherwise not see the light of day. After all, there was an underserved market that needed to be developed.

CBR News: You mention a rift in our (i.e., black) creative community. Are you talking about the whole Milestone versus ANIA (a group of independent black publishers that launched about the same time as Milestone) situation of the early '90s? Could you discuss some of that for our readers who may not be familiar with it?

AJ: I could but I won't, ... well, maybe a little.

I really just didn't understand why two major forces -- Milestone and ANIA -- in the comics industry couldn't find a way to work together to build the comics medium within the black community. It was ugly and it should have never happened.

Since Milestone was the mainstream company, it was promoting a vision that showed that African American creators could produce mainstream comics for a multicultural market, a market that was overlooked by the industry. ANIA was more radical and could tackle stronger subject matter and could have been a training ground and an avenue of expression for creators that didn't have to worry about the comics code.

Working together could have also helped to ensure the survival of one or both of the entities. That only made sense. But noooo!!! It had to be a turf war -- us vs. them -- on who represented "true" African American comics.

The funny thing is, I know Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan and, for the most part, they were hurt by that reaction. They only wanted to prove black creators had ideas that would work in the mainstream, as well as challenge the stereotypes that were being fed into [the minds of the] American Public.

There was room for different points of view in what, for the multicultural market, would have made comics a new medium. What a waste of misdirected energy!

CBR News: Switching gears a bit, could I ask you more about the camaraderie you had with other black artists of your early days in comics? Do you still keep in touch with most of them? Do you see that kind of spirit amongst today's black creators? Is this spirit something we newer creators should aspire to?

AJ: Now I'm going to sound like an old man. When I was trying to break in, there were not the huge conventions you have today, not the Internet, not the different possible business models to get into the industry or launch your own title.

In fact, it wasn't "cool" in my neck of the woods to even read comics. Much less write or draw them. So when you saw someone else who looked like you reading a comic, showing artwork, or even writing a comic, a novel, or a screenplay, or a play for that matter, it was exciting. You had to meet that person. You had someone to share your vision. Someone else to explore your dreams.

I started meeting guys like that after I decided that I wasn't going to be bullied. When I mean bullied, I mean take-your-lunch-money-and-bloody-your-nose bullied. That's where I grew up. Half my peers wanted to grow up to be a pimp. The other half wanted to work for one of the Big Three, work on the line at an auto factory. I felt like an outcast. I was born in the land of the Purple Gang and sometimes had to fight just to get an education. Showing my talent would just get me jacked because I was a sellout, I wanted to read, wanted to learn. All the things that weren't cool. Plus, I was a Boy Scout Patrol leader. So, my early friends couldn't hang with that kind of peer pressure. Where I grew up, I had to get on my bike and ride outside of the neighborhood to even go buy a comic. If I didn't want to miss an issue of one of my favorites, I would have to visit several stores. My few geek friends would get hooked on a book and you couldn't find the next issue! Getting a subscription wasn't much help because anyone who had the only copy of a comic that was good wouldn't own it too long. I used to think that was inconvenient.

Now, unless I get in the car to take my son and ride for about 20 minutes, I won't see a store where you can buy comics. My son is the only one in the neighborhood that owned comics for the first 12 years of his life; his friends would use him as a library. I'm talking about a neighborhood that has a softball league with 25 teams, Boy Scouts, you name it. For me, that says a lot about the industry. It's not growing a market for the next generation.

So, to answer your question, yes, I keep in touch with a few of the guys who made it. Remember, besides myself, there was in the beginning only Trevor Von Eden, Keith Pollard, Aubrey Bradford, Skip Kirkland (one time editor of "Foom" magazine ,or was it "DC Presents?"), Denys Cowan, my brother Desmond (letterer), and Ron Wilson. Billy Graham [penciler of "Luke Cage, Hero For Hire" and "Jungle Action" featuring Black Panther] was around as well, but he was older and he didn't have time for us kids.

So, I try and stay in touch with them. I haven't talked to Trevor in years. Back in the day, we worked together and hung out together, we brainstormed ideas, worked on each others assignments and shared information about artistic development, and anything else we could think of. I remember us going out to discos and watching the crazy stuff we use to get into, the adventures we would have in New York. We were buddies.

These days, I don't know the younger guys I meet ... I am, in some ways, a mentor and to others, I'm just some old dude. I don't feel old, I don't think I ever acted my age, but I guess the time for meeting new buddies might be near an end for me (comics seems to be a young man's game).

My observations about the new crop of creators are hopeful because I see the same kinds of camaraderie. I don't know if the new creators try and help each other as much. I know they try to form partnerships, joint ventures and collaborations but they seem to die before they really get started. I think part of that is that the money isn't there. The market needs to grow. It hasn't really in ten years.

CBR News: What's the future hold for you? What's next? If you can, please talk about any upcoming projects you're working on in the comics industry or in any other media.

AJ: I'm enjoying teaching at the College of Creative Studies here in Detroit. I teach a traditional comics class, and Web Design and Reproduction Technology for Illustrators class. It's fun and a little challenging at times.

Right now, I have nothing new to report. I'm always working on something interesting so, maybe real soon, I'll have some news for you.

CBR News: Any website you'd like to promote or send our readers to?

AJ: Well, I have a site and a online magazine we've been developing called Decode Magazine. It's a pop culture entertainment magazine. We cover games, movies, anime, music, extreme sports, oh, and comics. A little bit of everything, to expose our audience to what's happening or to "Decode" the latest trends.

CBR News: Lastly, as an elder -- in terms of your professional status -- in the comics industry yourself, do you have any words of wisdom to pass along to the next generation of creators? Any advice specifically to readers of color?

AJ: For any art form to grow, I think the creators -- the writers and artists of the media -- need to look, first, at developing compelling ideas, new ideas that maybe haven't proven out in the marketplace in the past. Or ideas that were never fully developed.

I know that everybody already knows that but, consider for a minute, that we are in a new technological age. Building an audience and getting the word out is not too hard these days. A group of intense creators who are not looking at the bottom line right away has the chance to define and capture a new market, using new technology in ways that haven't been used before. With Flash and personal video players like the iPod, After Effects and email, why just define comics as ink on paper or static images?

The industry cannot move as fast on these new tools as a group of resourceful creators could. Problem is, creators always need money and they can't seem to focus on the long-range goal or work together without losing focus.

I'm struggling with that myself these days. I've had partners for almost five years now, and the development cycle is nearly complete on some ideas. We've forged some great relationships with Fortune 500 companies, but the infighting has made me narrow the group down to those who can keep focus and not lose the vision. Everyone will know soon if this experiment will work. If it does, it might be a model for how creators can build better products and build wealth, while they do what they dream of.

I would say for the creators of color... I like that phrase... creators of color!! Sounds like a bunch of art types that work in paint!

We're doing a lot in our cultural point of view and in every other media, except in comics. The problem is there are not enough writers. The majors don't support the growth of writers to a great deal and "Writers of Color" are not recruited. It's a very uphill battle for them. If we don't draw from ourselves and our experiences, we can't capture the market that every other media entity has already seen as worth growing.

The African American Market and the Latin Market are huge! Waiting for their versions of Thor and Batman. The market has been proven in music, movies, TV, video games, magazines you name it. But not comics. I mean, sure you got Blade and Spawn, but how much of the Black experience are you getting? The Black Panther is great because it helps lift the spirit and reminds Brothers and Sisters that we are and have been Kings and Queens, not just Slaves. Since it's written by a Black Man, he understands what's been longed for in this medium, he grew up feeling it. Reggie Hudlin is doing a great job. But he had to learn his craft outside of the field and now he doesn't have to do it for the money. So, for him, he is without fear. They can take what he writes and run with it or not. He's not shaking in his boots over what happens. Really, the industry needs people like him now more than ever.

I was invited to Japan in the '90s by the Fred Shott who represented Tezuka Productions Co., Ltd. They use to sponsor a tour of American Artists to Japan. I'm not really sure if they still do it or not. I was referred to the tour by Dwayne McDuffie.

When we got to Japan, I found out that the Tezuka Productions, the Manga Publishers and Japan Cartoonist Society's, had a week-long tour of Japan planned. They had invited a cross sections of American Creators, including Jerry Robinson, Sergio Aragones, Trina Robbins, Steve L, and their significant others (wives and girlfriends got to come along).

Tezuka Productions, Ltd. paid for everything. We went to plays, night clubs, restaurants, took tours of temples and castles as well as staying in the finest hotels in Toyko and in Kyoto. They treated us like true diplomats, like you've seen in the news. We went to a park where the president of Tezuka Productions announced to a bunch of young school girls and boys that we were American comic artists. It felt like we were a rock group the way the mob closed in around us!!!

Anyway, we, the American comic artists, kept asking ourselves, why are we here? We've been wined and dined for about a week and they have spent a lot of time getting to know us. When is the other shoe going to drop?

Well, after a very good meal at a very fancy restaurant with the Publishers and Presidents from many different companies ranging from what I understand were anime companies, manga publishers, and maybe game/toy companies, we were asked to sit and have a round table discussion. We were all pretty loosened up by then and we said to ourselves, what the hell, let's talk.

We sat down in this smoke-filled room that felt like a Union Hall, meeting with the heads of the auto industry. We were all passed something to drink and asked if we wanted to smoke or have gum. We're still pretty loose after all the Saki and beer, plus all the laughing and joking (I don't drink). Then, all of a sudden one of the big shots from the publishers stood up and started yelling at us in Japanese. The interpreter (Fred Shott) wrote down as much as he could and then turned to us and said, "He wants to know why don't you grow your market!?!"

Well, the rest of the meeting felt like they brought us to Japan to spank us for not taking advantage of our rich cultural diversity.

After all, in Japan, as they had explained throughout the tour, they have Manga on almost every subject, and for all age groups. They explained that the Manga market suffered the same way the US market did, but they found a way to bring it back, and to make it grow. They let us know they were coming to the US and they would show us how it's done. Well, they really told us that they weren't interested in the US market because it was too weak to bother with. But we kind of got that they were concerned because they were coming.

Now I go to the bookstore and they are here! Heck, they are winning the minds of people we have never approached to be in our audience.

They kicked our butts for a few hours and we expressed the fact that we were lowly creators and the companies defined the market. They looked at us as if we didn't get it. As creators, making comics for only one market segment (white male between the ages of 18-34) was just bad business. They explained they had comics for brides, comics for old people, comics on how to build stuff, how to do stuff. They talked to us about the fact that words and pictures did a lot to enhance and make clear a storytelling experience.

This industry hasn't yet discovered the true value of the medium. The new creators can forge new paths and discover new markets, not just superheroes, or sci-fi.

I think it's all about being creative, but you have to be on all aspects of business. The world has changed. The industry has to change with it. We, as creators, have to grow our markets!

Well, thank you so much, Arvell for sharing so much with us.

I hope you folks out there are enjoying this series as much as I am in bringing it to you.

I'd like to thank Arvell Jones again and Hannibal Tabu for production assistance.

Join us next time for Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants.

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