Actor and A Place of Change Church pastor Mark Smith led a spirited conversation at C2E2 about Black male representation in American comics. Over the course of the presentation, the panel addressed issues of distribution, education, and more. On hand for the panel were "Power Man and Iron Fist" and "Cyborg" writer David Walker; director Eric Dean Seaton, creator of the graphic novel series and short film "Legend of the Mantamaji;" John Jennings, writer of "Kid Code: Channel Zero" and the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler's "Kindred;" and "Kid Code: Channel Zero" and "I am Alfonso Jones" artist Stacey Robinson.
Smith began by asking the panelists why it is important to confront stereotypical representations of Black males in comics, with Walker quickly answering. "Because that's almost all there is," he said, describing the racial bias as "dehumanizing." "Even some of the best black characters exist within this ideological framework," Walker said, explaining that pushing back against stereotypes is "about trying to reclaim our humanity."
"The root word of stereotype is stereos, from the Greek, which means hard and fixed," Jennings added. Stereotypes are "almost like logos for people, and they function very well. When you're talking about a system of images that are built to erase humanity, you end up with this situation that endangers us. You think about somebody like Trayvon Martin, who was a 'thug,' right? Because of how he was dressed and the skin he was in, he's characterized, he's read as a danger. Not able to present himself as an individual, because the stereotype is standing in for everyone who looks like us." The need, then, is to "construct alternative images to re-teach people how to see us properly." Stanton added that this also "teaches us to see ourselves."
Asked whether any of them had received pushback on elements of their work, Walker, who has done the most work with mainstream publishers like DC and Marvel, noted subtle but systemic conflicts. "Not to compare myself with anybody from the Harlem Renaissance," he began, to considerable laughter, "but one of the big problems the artists of the Harlem Renaissance faced was the problem of patronage. They were white patrons by and large, and the moment their art went too far into their blackness, a lot of patrons started pulling out their money, saying, 'You're doing this wrong,' or, 'This isn't a good representation of blackness. You don't know what it means to be black.' I haven't got a lot of that, but some will say, 'Oh, it's not like this.' And I'm like, no, it is like this. So there are certain arguments -- and there are younger people in this audience, so I won't say how I typically respond to those arguments.
"In the comics that I write, there are coded messages throughout. Usually, comics come out on Wednesday, and by Wednesday night or Thursday I get a text message or a voice message from John [Jennings] telling me the message got through."
Walker said when he's told "this is how black people act," he responds, "No, that's the stereotype, and I'm not here to write the stereotype for you." He noted that the problem originates in there being so few African Americans in the publishing chain of command at mainstream comics publishers. "If I have to go all the way down to the mailroom, or talk to the guy who's mopping the floor to get another black person to say, ok, my reference to 'The Invisible Man' has nothing to do with H.G. Wells and everything to do with Ellison -- the problem is, that's not my problem. I don't care that you don't get me; I've earned my place in the room, take your ass down to the library or go on the Internet and figure it out."
Robinson boiled down the importance of fighting stereotypes even further. "How do you instill hope in a people who are not supposed to be here? Being black and being alive in this space is a political act.
"We're not meant to be here; we were never brought here to America to be free," he continued. "It is important to confront these stereotypes because we need to exist in the future. In doing that, you have to write narratives where there is hope. We need to look at ourselves and see us in the future, because science fiction has shown us that we do not exist in the future. Listen: they're colonizing Mars, for real. They're building space stations on the moon, for real. They're landing on asteroids, for real. But science fiction has shown us that, when we exist in the future, it is a lottery; only the rich get to go; where are we at in the future? We are the writers, we are the artists, we create those images so that you all can imagine being in the future."
"These are political acts. We are not here by accident. We fought to be in the space that we are in so that you all, we all, can have hope," Robinson said.
Smith then asked whether "black lives matter" in comics. Jennings, an Associate Professor of Visual Studies at The State University of New York at Buffalo, spoke about how both his creative and academic colleagues are engaging with BLM as it intersects with arts and culture to engage in "critical making," "the products coming from that space." His project with Robinson, "Night Boy," deals with police brutality and features a young hero who possesses "the power to use the potential energy of deferred dreams."
Continuing the idea of image creation as necessary to a new way of seeing and being in the world, Robinson stated, "The first thing that needs to be decolonized to deal with this is the mind."
Robinson said his son brought a sword to C2E2 as part of his cosplay, a decision that unfortunately drew his mind to Darien Hunt, a black cosplayer who was killed by police. And this was not the first time he'd been concerned. "My son went to school on Halloween dressed as black Goku -- I called him Broku… My seventeen year old son is going to school to express himself, and my mind goes to Darien Hunt."
Seaton said, because black Americans "have to make up our past" for ancestry prior to being brought to this country, it is doubly important to see a powerful future. "It's empowerment when you see someone who looks like yourself doing something heroic, because you can imagine it for yourself." This goes not only for superheroic personas, but alter egos as well -- he advocated for more black heroes who are doctors, lawyers and the like in their day jobs.
"The comics industry was primarily created by Jewish immigrants, or the sons of Jewish immigrants, because they could not get other work because they were Jewish," Walker said. In the process, they created a new mythology, explaining "why we're here and how we exist in the universe."
"The moment someone is excluded from mythology, they are excluded from the existence," he said. "It's not just black folks, there are whole lot of people who are excluded to the meaning of life. We're trying to give meaning back."
"How many black kids go to the barbershop, get fresh haircuts?" Robinson asked as the discussion turned to the modern comics industry's distribution issues. "We've always had our distribution network. The chitlin circuit was a distribution network. We've always looked at connecting to the mainstream as our way of getting in to the mass public, but we've always commandeered spaces. Black Twitter is a commandeered space. It was not made for us to talk about these political issues. We've had to take our space out of the mainstream space so that we can find our space of resistance."
Walker added, "librarians and schoolteachers are crucial" for distribution as well.
Asked about bringing humanity to black male superheroes in an industry with entrenched stereotypes, Walker said, "All I do when I write my comics is try to show things that I've always wanted to see in comics. What the rest of society sees as villains is our cousin, or our uncle. He may not be so much a criminal as someone trying to feed his family." Walker said that a childhood best friend "is currently doing time for murder. But he's still that kid." If Walker is writing about a killer, "the least I can do is give him that humanity."
Seaton said the hard part "is getting people to see it and support it," by which he stressed he did not mean "buying stuff you don't think is good." He advised fans to talk to creators in artist's alley, take the time and "read a chapter" of their comics. "When you say, 'I'll be back,' mean it."
"One of the things we can do is share on social media," Walker said. "Honestly, 'Batman vs. Superman' does not need more publicity. But Eric's work needs more publicity, John's work needs more publicity." He also spoke about the importance of leaving reviews on Amazon (regardless of where the book was purchased) because this affects "what Amazon recommends to other consumers."
Ultimately, Seaton emphasized, "the real power starts with you," as a consumer. "The main thing they're looking at is the bottom line," he said. Publishers are watching what consumers are doing, "and they're telling their people to make a change."