By Guy A.Sims
After reading two very interesting pieces in Bleeding Cool and supplementary comments from artists, writers, and fans alike, I would be remiss if I didn’t add my voice and commentary to the topic of the disconnection or misconnection of the African-American (Referred to from now on as Black for this piece) comic book consumer and the Black comic book creator. It is an interesting dynamic that for some time has intrigued me.
First things first. While the big two, Marvel and DC, are part of the equation, as well as some similar media outlets, they do not represent the entirety of this cultural and economic question. Marvel and DC have done an outstanding job of creating, promoting, and maintaining images and mythos for more than eighty years. Kudos for their efforts. They should be lauded, and the blueprint for their success should be studied. Let’s be clear, there’s no hate or shade being thrown in their direction. Now, to the question at hand.
The two articles in question which continue to circulate among artists of color are the September 27, 2015, article, Larry Stroman On When Black Fans Avoid Black Creators at Comic Con and Asking Why Black Fans Avoid Black Creators At Comic Cons- The Pros Speak (both September 29, 2015). Both articles are insightful, probing, and not afraid to challenge notions of race, imagery, ownership, and cultural inclusion. Interestingly, the questions presented in these articles, although almost a year ago, continue to be raised at the many comic cons and comic festivals today, more apropos to the discussion, has been the experience since our creation of the comic book hero, Brotherman, back in 1990.
Before going further, it is important to note that across the United States, only about 1% of the population reads comic books (watching comic-based films and TV shows don’t count), which is roughly 3,000,000+ people (US Census, 2015). Blacks represent approximately 40 million in the United States. For the sake of the conversation, if the same percentage of Blacks as the general population are comic book readers, the number of that demographic sits at about 400,000—not a lot of Black comic reading customers.
I added the above, as identified in sociological circles, to present an operational definition or simply, an understanding of the commercial environment in which Black comic artists find themselves. So, to the question, why do many Blacks avoid Black artists at comic conventions? Before one can delve into that question, it is important to understand that the vast majority of Black comic book creators and sellers do not travel within the mainstream comic-con circuit. As independent artists and entrepreneurs, the cost to attend many of those events is financially prohibitive. Many, if not most, attend neighborhood-based festivals or smaller-sized comic-cons, HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) vendor days, or sell at local barber and beauty shops, etc. Unfortunately, the question remains the same, even among predominantly Black shopping populations.
Here are my thoughts on the challenges we as an artistic community face and must overcome.
- Reality-Based Exposure and Experiences
When my brothers and I first brought Brotherman to the market at the New York BlackExpo in 1990, we received a strong and positive reception from a diverse consumer population who found our book to be both refreshing and needed in the pantheon of traditional comic books. This is not to say that everyone felt this way. We also experienced a segment of the population who felt challenged by an image and presentation that was counter to what they were accustomed to.
The first comment that left me scratching my head came from a woman, who after leafing quickly through the book, told me without hesitation, “This isn’t real. I’ve never seen a black man in a suit.” (Not a costume mind you, a suit) Caught off guard, I asked her to repeat herself which she did. My only retort was to ask her if she had ever been to a wedding or a funeral? Other questions put to us included: Does he fight drug dealers? Does he help the community? Our kids need role models; does he do that? These and other similar exchanges helped me to realize that there is a segment of the Black culture challenged to see themselves in presentations that are not based in reality. Case in point, in 2013, the themes of the top ten films targeted toward the black demographic, six of the films were either based on historical events or historical personalities, three were contemporary comedies or dramas, and one was social satire (in a contemporary setting). It is a similar landscape for 2015 and so far for 2016. The themes of books of fiction directed toward Black readers tend to be the same. Take a look. An interesting observation of mine, when asked to name a fantasy film targeted towards the black demographic, the response is the same, The Wiz.
Clearly, there is a dearth of stories of Blacks adventuring in space (by themselves), adventuring in the jungles of wherever looking for treasure, time-traveling. We still question, where are the tales of creating artificial intelligence (eventually going berserk), communicating with alien life, encountering new dimensions, living in lands of dragons and swords, or being the administrators, teachers, and studying in schools of magic?
- The Monolith Myth
The Black comic buyer is like a box of chocolates—a box of assorted chocolates with different interests, different tastes, looking for a product that appeals to different sensibilities. Like their Caucasian counterparts, some look for traditional/mainstream heroes, others anime; even others seek out indie productions. Some favor images that reflect their culture while others submerge themselves in worlds of dragons, talking dogs, fairies, or whatever. This poses a marketing challenge for black comic creators. A decision must be made as to understanding and reaching the customer that will help them achieve success. This does not mean changing your stories or adapting your characters. To the contrary, the artist should stay true to themselves while concurrently working to expand the circle of interested parties.
I have attended a major mainstream comic convention, a major Black comic convention, and a swell of neighborhood and local festivals. The reaction has been the same. There are some Black patrons who walk right on by, others who take a glance at the art and keep going without missing a beat, those who glance at the art and come over, and those who make a beeline to our table because we are what they want. That is just consumerism. While we may not be able to capture the ones who walk right on by (for now), those who come with curiosity may walk away a little more familiar or as a new fan.
- Mainstream Validation
Another challenge producers of Black comics have to contend with is mainstream validation. In short, many Black comic book characters are not as well-known as those from companies like Marvel and DC. (Note to self: Even those characters may not be as well known as I thought. Check this video: Name 3 Black Superheroes. I was pulling for the guy in the Star Wars shirt)
Therefore, Black consumers (like many general consumers) need to draw a comparison to what is already out in the market. Is this like a Black Batman? That question was asked of us for years as we continued to introduce and re-introduce Brotherman to people. Without a major marketing firm to constantly promote our images and stories, it fell to us on a daily basis to work to get our character to stand on his own. It can be frustrating for independent artists to respond to questions like, especially with their personal connection to their creations. Unfortunately, that is the nature of things that are new and different.
- Brand Value
Related to #3, many consumers, even Black ones, may consider “Black” products to be inferior to mainstream products, even similar indie products. That kind of culturally-ingrained bias is not new. It affects and impacts all kinds of markets: food, clothing, services, etc. The original series of Brotherman was in black and white, clearly the best financial option for us. Many Black consumers looked at our book and questioned why was the book presented this way. Their early and uninformed comments implied a cheapness or lack of quality while our mainstream counterpart’s b/w books were looked upon as artistic or avant-garde.
This piece is not designed to discourage but to encourage Black writers and artists to seek out strategies to reach audiences beyond the usual demographics. You can remain true to yourself, your culture, your opinions, ideas, and your dreams while connecting with others who do not share your experiences or perspectives. If your works are engaging, exciting, dramatic, or humorous, you will connect with the world on a human level—on your terms.
The battle for the market share continues. It is one that is daunting, relentless, long on hours, and often, short on rewards. But to the committed, to the dedicated, and to those focused on the bigger picture, the goal of creating and delivering to the universal cultural repository of ideas will find a success unmeasured.
DON’T BE DISCOURAGED! KEEP ON DOIN’ YOUR THING!
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.