What Is A “Black” Comic?
Comic Creators Tackle the Question
By Robert Jeffrey II May 20, 2011
Often when you’re left with no outlet through which to hear yourself, or the sources that attempt to speak for you fall flat in their attempts, one route to go is to simply do it yourself. For African Americans, this is a message learned all too well. Take the wide field of mass media. Be it through newspaper, film, television, radio, music, literature, online media, and so forth, African Americans now have a wide library of works that attempt to speak to some part of their life experiences. Though many conversations can be had about the authenticity or quality of such works (check out Lee vs. Perry), Black creators (and creators of other races) have worked to broaden the voices of an often overlooked people.
There are Black films, Black Sci-Fi, Black Entertainment Television, Black sitcoms, and so forth. But what makes these examples “black?” Simply the fact that they’re prefaced by the word “black,” that they feature Black people, or that they are created by individuals of African decent? If that’s the criteria, anyone can make an argument that “The Matrix” trilogy was a Black sci-fi epic (in addition to the fact that the idea was possibly stolen from a Black author, but that’s a discussion for the message boards).
Within the comic book industry, African American creators have contributed widely to this growing question. Ranging from the independent (the highly successful run of “Brotherman” and “Black Jack”) to the mainstream (Milestone Media, “The Boondocks,” or Reginald Hudlin’s “Black Panther” run), Black comic creators have consistently created some of the industry’s best works. With a host of examples like these, has the question of “what is a black comic book” been answered? A few creators recently chimed into this discussion, while also expounding on what they as Black creators attempt to do with “black comics,” and other questions that surfaced during this dialogue.
“Unfortunately, I think that just about any comic that has a Black character as a lead is considered a "Black comic book," said Jerry Craft, creator of the nationally syndicated comic strip “Mamas Boyz”.
“I use the word ‘unfortunately’ because I think that it limits the books’ audience. Many shop owners still think that only Black readers buy Black books.
Yumy Odom, the founder of the long-running Philly-based East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention (ECBACC) , gave his thoughts on the question, utilizing some of independent comics’ most well-known African American heroes to make his point.
“A ‘Black’ comic book is any which has as the focus a Black or African-descent/Pan-African character that covers the gamut or demonstrates the range of types from the ancient mythic heroes like Heru and Memnon to the more contemporary, urban heroes like Brotherman, Sankofaman and Dreadlocks!,” Odom explained.
As with anything, there exists a quality which differentiates something from everything else. What if anything, separates “Black comics” from other titles?
“When stories are created to be sold to the African Diasporan community with integrity and respect for the audience, then it can be culturally aimed and specific,” said Joseph Wheeler III, comic book creator and founder of the Atlanta based Onyx Con convention. “Are the characters relating to various personalities in the culture(s)? Within these and other parameters, a book could be labeled ‘Black’.”
“So much of what makes American society independent from Europe, Asia, or even Africa is the cultural aspects that came out of the enslaved Africans, who after being totally stripped of their Africanisms, created a culture that in the 1960s decided to, by way of cultural revolution, to call itself “BLACK,” explained Turtel Onli, comic book creator/ teacher/founder of the Black Age of Comics Convention.
“Black culture, the Black community, and those non-blacks who have an interest in the Black community need to see the autonomy of the Black Age characters and creators, becoming a force that promotes literacy, values, culture, and true diversity. Could you imagine growing up in a world were the validity of Superman would be under debate due to his being White? The inversion of that is an echo that questions one’s own validity.”
Many would argue African-Americans have “made it,” having capitalized on inroads made since the 1960’s fight for social and economic equality. Some might argue that classifying something as “black” is honestly no longer needed. Is the term being misapplied in our current time, and are creators limiting themselves from appealing to wider audiences?
“[The word] ‘Black’ is going to be a catchphrase in America. It’s like Black Music. It will stick, but I have no problem with alternate descriptions as long as no one attempts to dilute or discredit the foundation that was and always will be credited to a Black, African American, or African Diasporan artist that have produced the first major books and related works in this ancient category,” Wheeler explained.
“Our stories and cultural uniqueness is no different than other cultures in terms of music or food. If most comic book fans had never loved 70’s anime, including the boom of anime and Manga in the 90’s until now, it would have not grown into the phenomenon it is. We must imagine how rich the future of all art can be when we support new cultural experiences in the arts.”
Such support doesn’t extend to all consumers, explains Craft. “…We really don't support ourselves the way that we should. I do feel that “Black” comics can appeal to a wide audience, but I've found the biggest obstacles to be parents,” he said. “When I did the Miami Book Fair a few years back, any White children who stopped and said they wanted my book, almost got their arms ripped off as their folks couldn't get them away from my table fast enough. Our movies, music and fashions all appeal to a wide audience, for some reason there isn't that same reaction to our comics yet.”
Craft continued: “Ideally they (Black comics) should all be comic books. ‘She Hulk’ and ‘Ms. Marvel’ were never labeled as girls’ comics. In fact, no book is labeled just because the character is a certain way. If comic shops treated Manga the same way, meaning they think only Asians would read it, it wouldn't count for half of their inventory.”
Odom hit on this very idea of an ostracizing that takes place, while also believing that such books could appeal to a large audience.
“Those who enjoy dynamic art, intriguing stories and exciting tales will find ‘Black’ comic books as appealing as any other. Unfortunately, too many people still carry the social baggage and pathologies attributed to all things ‘Black,’ But when properly introduced to the genre of the ‘Black’ comic book, I have found that everyone, with very few exceptions, finds something to which to connect as a reader, thinker, and human being,” Odom explained.
In the long run, maybe it’s best to just enjoy Black comics for what they are, or attempt to be: well written and drawn works that seek to tell quality stories, drawing from a wider perspective than is normally the case in the comics industry.
Though the discussion of what makes a comic “black” continues, the father of the “Black Age of Comics,” Onli, provided a healthy summation on what such comics can bring to the table.
“The Black Age movement is about everybody and has the power to liberate the mainstream industry in the same manner that Black music, (the blues, jazz, rock, funk, or hip hop), liberated the mainstream music scene. We are not about race, but about place.”
Robert Jeffrey II is an award-winning Atlanta-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Ja Dore magazine, The Atlanta Voice newspaper, and Urban Voices In Comics. When he’s not ranting and raving about comic books, he’s actually writing them. Check out http://www.terminusmedia.com/ for his comic book story, Daddy’s Little Girl, featured in the anthology, Terminus Tales Presents #1: Platypus vs. Monkey.” Robert can also be found at http://robertspageofwriting.blogspot.com/.