A couple of years ago, a very bright and talented young man asked my take on African American comic book characters, their market viability, and other related questions. I unearthed the interview and thought it may have value, especially in light of the San Diego Comic Con which is going on right now. Some of his questions are inquiries and ponderings I have heard from many artists and writers so I hope this helps. As the co-creator of the Brotherman series, the graphic novel, Revelation, and the writer of the graphic adaptation of Walter Dean Myer’s Monster, I responded as best I could from my perspective. I hope this has some value to you, the reader.
In creating ethnic characters, especially in our extremely integrated and contemporary society, do you think it’s possible to create an African-American character that is fresh and original without relying on stereotypes to make the character popular?
I think the first question you have to ask yourself is the definition of “popular”. If you mean well-known then that becomes a matter of marketing. There are a lot of “popular” images and people like that in today’s society but that doesn’t mean that people care for them. Another name for that would be over-exposed. To me, the other term is invested. This is represented by those who actually invest their money, time, and energy into the image/product. The market will reflect this. Superman, determined to be the most popular comic hero, has produced 17 films (inclusive of film shorts from the ‘40s to the latest film in 2013) whereas Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has spawned over 100 films. Which is more popular? I guess it is who you ask.
In truth, in the end, you have to create the character which speaks to you. It is impossible to create something that everyone will fall in love with. For every person who thinks one artist is a terrible singer, there are enough people to fill their concerts and buy their albums. Thus the media says they’re popular. The same with your characters. If you try to make them something with the intention of appeasing the masses, it won’t work because the masses are fickle.
When we created Brotherman, we didn’t set out to figure out what the market was missing. We didn’t say to ourselves, make him cool or make him ultra-soulful. When I wrote him, I just drew from what I thought was heroic, what made him a dynamic character both in and out of his costume. The final product first connected with my brothers and then an audience. No science there.
I understand that comics is a business, like anything else. It’s similar to wrestling in that it’s all about gimmicks; people like to see their favorite characters do/say what they’re known for, and that’s how creators make money. Do you think it’s easier or harder to come up with successful
gimmicks for AA characters these days?
I think I might have addressed this in the first question, but I’ll expand. I don’t think you should develop your materials with the mindset of gimmickry. Even wrestling isn’t a gimmick. How they market it to you might rely on gimmicks to get your attention, but the event or activity itself is the show. Remember, with wrestling you know what to expect, you can forecast outcomes, and if that’s your thing, you leave satisfied when you leave.
The same should be for your work. How you bring people to your work is all marketing…which has to have gimmicks because the market is flooded with people trying to get your attention. Movie trailers are gimmicks. Cups with the image of Thor on them at 7-11 are gimmicks. Buy one book, get one free is a gimmick…but the product itself maintains its integrity.
I mentioned before my friends, and I have plans to create a universe dominated by AA characters. Do you think the African American community would even welcome an AA comic universe?
The initial answer a soft no because the AA community is not monolithic. The AA community in Compton, CA may not share the same cultural values as the AA community in Fairfax, VA. Do you know Blacks who like to ski? My nephews who grew up in San Diego (with a physician for a father) went skiing often. I couldn’t tell you if any of my brothers ever went skiing (perhaps my older brother—who went skydiving). So a single community should not be your goal to impact.
Can you create a universe dominated by AA characters? If you have a pencil and paper, the answer is yes. There’s nothing stopping you. I had a conversation with my 12-year-old son some time back. Somehow we started talking about comic characters. I asked him did he think Brotherman could beat the Hulk. Instinctively he said ‘no.’ I told him that he could. Of course, he countered with ‘how’? My response was, “if I wrote it.” So create the characters which reflect what’s in you and what you want to present. In the end, an audience (AA or others) will find and follow you.
I’ve been grappling with a very real concern about sometimes feeling tempted to rely on certain stigmas when thinking about the construction of a smart character; I realize they have to have an authentic quality about them to connect with the audience. To be frank, most AA’s aren’t known for their diction, and I’m really afraid if too many “big words” are thrown in I’ll lose the connection with the audience because they’ll accuse the characters of sounding “white.” Any advice on how I can address this perceived problem of proper diction being exclusive to other races besides blacks?
From reading the questions, the biggest word you used was contemporary, yet I understand you completely and appreciate your inquiries. Don’t fall into the trappings of culturally constructed perceptions of intelligence (now there’re your big words). Simply, communicate the way you need to communicate. I have advanced degrees, but when I’m with the fellas, I talk like I’m with the fellas. When I’m with my colleagues, then I colleague-speak. When I’m with my children, I talk parental-style. I am sure you do the same thing. Its call code-switching. In Brotherman, you will see the broadness of how the characters communicate with each other. Duke does not speak like Antonio, nor does Melody speak like either of them but they all work in the same space. Then you have the ancillary characters who have their way of communication, but all can be understood. So, get the “Talking White” or “Talking Ghetto” out of your thinking. Just think about how you communicate on a daily basis. Think about the times you use “ten-dollar words” and who you use them with.
What do you think is a decent number to focus on when creating issues on a monthly basis?
Now this question is a little murky for me. I’m not sure what you mean. How many individual issues to come out on a monthly basis? That’s what I’m feeling from the question so I’ll answer that. It is a matter of time and finance. I don’t know what you do outside of comic book development.
If that’s all you do, then the answer is one thing. If you have a regular 9-5, then the answer is something else. When we first produced Brotherman, we didn’t have a timeline to work with (which is the advantage of being independent –Prince said that…not me.). Now that I’m writing the Duke Denim series, again, due to all of my other responsibilities and Dawud’s responsibilities, the book is on an accommodating schedule. What I have to do is to keep the fans in the loop of when things are happening. Fans are very understanding and forgiving if you’re communicating with them.
There you have it. There are a lot of independent artists and writers who have volumes of information and advice. I would love to hear from them. If you have specific questions, don’t be afraid to drop it in the comment section.
Guy A. Sims is the author of the novel, Living Just A Little, and the crime novellas, The Cold Hard Cases of Duke Denim. He is also the head writer of the Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline comic book series and the Brotherman graphic novel, Revelation.