Vincent S. Moore Presents:
A Mule And Forty Acres Of My Own, Part Eight: O Brothers And Sisters, Where Art Thou?
Welcome, one and all, to the final Omnium Gatherum column for 2009!
As the year ends and we all look to the future, the kind folks here at the Comics Waiting Room are preparing for a long winter’s nap. Meaning, I couldn’t do just about any old thing for my last column of the year. I had to send the year out with a bang and a few new thoughts for y’all to think about while I’m gone.
For those who have read this occasional feature on any regular basis, the above title will not be unfamiliar. For those who are new here and haven’t bothered to go through the archives, the title will need some explaining.
The main title borrows both from Virginia Woolf’s famous essay “A Room Of Her Own” and from the broken promise made to the freed slaves at the end of the Civil War about receiving forty acres of land and a mule with which to build a future. I intend this series to be the place where I tackle issues of race, comics, genre fiction, and pop culture. It is where I try to talk about subjects other creators of color have to which they have given much thought but to which they may have never given voice or public display.
This part borrows its subtitle from the Coen brothers film of the same name. And much like the movie, takes time to discuss an often mentioned mythic quest in black comics circles.
And without further ado…
O Brothers And Sisters, Where Art Thou?
As I grow older, I find myself struggling to keep up with the ways of this postmodern world. The whole idea of social networking to me usually means meeting a person in person and going to a coffeehouse or a bar or a strip joint for a drink or three and some serious conversation. It can also mean the time when I’m at Comics Ink shooting the shit with some of my favorite regulars. It is only now coming to embrace the whole MySpace/Facebook/Twitter thing.
And so I struggle to make the efforts spent setting up the various accounts worth themselves by occasionally making use of these places to try out new thoughts and to get out of my usual antisocial attitude about the internets.
One of those experiments took place a month ago.
Via Twitter, I asked a simple yet provocative question: Why do black superheroes scare so many white comics creators and fans?
A simple question, right?
It didn’t take too long for some of the folks who are connected to me on Facebook to respond with their thoughts. Some of what was said was interesting if only somewhat repetitive of points that have been made many times before in comics shops all over this country. And as far as I was concerned, the question failed to elicit the response I wanted. Namely, getting more people to start watching my Twitter feed.
However, one person posed a counter question to me that stopped me in my tracks.
That person was Glenn Brown, artist extraordinaire.
What he asked was why can’t a group of black creators get together and launch a company publishing (mostly) black comics characters, i.e. superheroes?
When I tried to answer him there on Facebook, the initial response I dashed off was swallowed up by my lack of web fu. It was a good thing too. Because, in the time since, I was able to generate for him a far better answer. One that may explain why the American comics industry doesn’t have one or more major independent publishers owned by blacks, creating new black heroes and heroines.
First, though, one cannot talk about what doesn’t exist and why without discussing what did exist. Namely, Milestone Media.
My intention here is not to repeat the tale of how a group of black creators both inside and outside of superhero comics got together and launched a multicultural publishing house in the days of the early 1990s, taking the comics industry by storm. For those who are black and comics fans, the tale is all too familiar to you. For those who don’t know, the information is out there. Besides, essentially what I say to start this paragraph is the bare bones version of the events surrounding the birth of Milestone.
Milestone was not alone in those hectic days of the speculator boom and bust period of a decade and a half ago. There was another collective that put itself together quickly as a response to the announcement of Milestone.
That group was the ANIA group of independent publishers.
Now, one would have hoped there was room enough for two black owned comics companies. Especially when the early 1990s was a time when it looked like anyone who put out a comic could have a hit on their hands and money a’plenty in their pockets.
Whoever would have hoped for that would have been incredibly wrong.
From almost the very moment of its own announced launch, ANIA took aim at Milestone for being everything bad under the sun. For being sellouts. For being tools of The Man. For daring to pull attention away from ANIA towards Milestone, even though the latter company launched first.
Perhaps, in many ways, one reason for the conflict between the two entities goes back to the days of slavery. One could put the whole Milestone versus ANIA conflict in terms of the house negroes versus the field negroes. What with the Milestone founders having all come up through the systems of Marvel and DC to reach the positions in the industry they held when the company began. Compare that with most of the ANIA members who were coming from the independent and self publishing side of comics, all banking their hopes upon following Image’s example of collective success. Only to find another black comics company, backed up by the second of The Big Two, coming onto the scene. Even if one didn’t look at the conflict in this fashion, the folks behind ANIA themselves all but openly viewed it in these terms.
Which is sad, to digress slightly. When I interviewed the artist Arvell Jones a few years ago, he pointed out that ANIA could have been the place where creator owned concepts could have been developed, free from the pressures of having to adhere to corporate standards, as well as being the training ground for new talents. That would have put them in balance with Milestone as the company where those trained talents could have found wider exposure and a larger audience.
Yet it was not to be.
In a brief amount of time, ANIA was no more.
And for the most part, so too would Milestone fade into history, not withstanding the recent revival of the characters in the DC Universe.
(Another digression. For the purposes of this discussion I’m excluding the Dabel Brothers for this reason: the majority of their company output has been licensed works, none of which are created by black authors or star black heroes. And the unknown number of small black (self) publishers are being ignored as well because of reasons that will become apparent below.)
So, at the dawn of the 21 Century, with an African American sitting in the White House, there isn’t one mainstream black owned comics company out there publishing books. And if one did exist, who is to say that another ANIA versus Milestone type of internecine conflict might not erupt.
Here may--and I say, MAY--be the crux of the problem.
That any black owned comics company has so many views and agendas to satisfy amongst black readers and creators that it may be very difficult to get one going, let alone for it to survive.
The potential for a repeat of the Milestone/ANIA situation is not the only problem facing those who would launch a black comics company, but it is a major one.
Another problem was brought to my attention by Glenn along with his question. Namely a fear amongst black comics creators of each other. That somehow we black folk cannot work together to our own betterment in any way.
I find that hard to believe.
The myth of the inability of black people to get together over shared goals is one perpetuated by mainstream white society as well as by black society. It was and is a necessary myth of racism. For whites, it’s a necessary myth to keep alive to discourage any number of blacks from forming groups that will strive for change in any way that changes the status quo. For blacks, it’s a necessary myth that allows those few amongst us that have the capacity to lead to keep others from feeling they could do the same.
It is a myth that needs to be put to rest.
The existence of the number of black fraternities and sororities, the 100 Black Men of America, the NAACP, and other organizations alone put this myth to rest. Those organizations get together on whatever basis best fits the group’s nature and accomplish whatever goals are on their various agendas. And they do so without fear of their fellow black members stopping them.
So it is not fear that stops a group of black creators from trying to form a company.
Then what is it?
Could it be the quality of the work produced by these creators?
Being at ground zero of comics shop culture at the time ANIA and its members made their run at comics superstardom, I can attest to the fact these folks didn’t have a chance to compete with Milestone on even grounds. The self understanding of not having a chance with Milestone in the game may have been another part of why ANIA needed to take them out of play. For the quality of the work in many of the ANIA titles was subpar at best, well below that of fanzines. In other words, the kind of work that Rob Liefeld would have said was bad.
A state which is not unusual amongst some but not all black creators, unfortunately.
Some but not all black comics creators, particularly artists, produce work that is below industry standards. I have sympathy to some extent because the desire to create comics can drive one to any lengths to achieve the dream. However, if one doesn’t view his or her work honestly, if one doesn’t have a group of fellows that will honestly critique and judge one’s early work, then one will not improve. One will stay at the level of amateur for a long time. One cannot adopt the attitude that one’s style does not matter. This is a business. If one’s art isn’t as good as or better than Jim Lee, then one is not ready for primetime. If one’s story can’t beat Geoff Johns or Brian Bendis, then one is not ready for primetime.
The sad but true flipside of this is that any black comics creator may have to approach the dream of creating comics from the perspective of having to be twice as good as the white boys in order to be considered half as good. Even one can write circles around Alan Moore and draw better than Brian Hitch, some folks in the comics industry may not want to pay that much attention because of the color of one’s skin.
Both of these harsh realities--of not being good enough or of not being seen as good enough--could be what’s stopping the birth of a new black comics company. If black creators aren’t capable of producing the work, then why should they have a company? It would only fail. But these reasons too are not enough.
If that is the case, what happens if we assume the talent pool is available, then what’s stopping a new Milestone from coming into being?
Well, it could simply be the lack of money and other resources.
The creation of a comics company is both time consuming and cash intensive. I don’t have the figures at hand anymore but it could be an exercise worth doing to see what it would take to start up a company. Anyone wanting to do get into comics would have to do this anyway. It’s called a business plan. A map that would tell any investors and/or banks exactly what you plan to do, how you plan to make money, and what kind of sales you expect to have.
Speaking of how one would make money publishing comics, that brings to mind another myth, one more specific to comics, that one would have to contend with. Namely that ‘black books don’t sell’ and any company publishing a majority of such titles would have to explain to their investors why they are trying to create a business doomed to fail from the outset.
Because ‘black books don’t sell.’
Which sounds an awful lot like the myth that ‘girls don’t read comics.’ And we all know what happened to that myth when those funky Japanese comics called manga hit American shores. Similarly, completely contrary to Tom Brevoort’s poorly timed and received statement of the summer of 2009:
“Because we're an American company whose primary distribution is centered around America, the great majority of our existing audience seems to be white American males ... whenever your leads are white American males, you've got a better chance of reaching more people overall”
a significant number of black and Hispanic males and females do read and buy comics of all sorts. Any visit to Comics Ink, the one example I know best, would find the store filled with a majority of black readers. And the store is in a predominantly white suburb of Los Angeles.
So there are plenty of black readers. Yet the myth persists that ‘black books don’t sell,’ which means the real trouble is getting those very same white readers that Mr. Brevoort is talking about to be willing to give a comic starring a black or Hispanic lead a shot.
But is that really necessary?
Are there enough black and Hispanic readers out there to provide enough financial support to a book featuring black and Hispanic characters such that white readers are not needed?
There is no easy answer to this question. But it needs to be explored.
Because as long as the ‘black books don’t sell’ myth and the assumption of there being little to no black and Hispanic audience for comics both prevail in the comics industry, then it might be next to impossible for there to be a black owned comics company publishing black and Hispanic superheroes.
So the answer to the question is no. Otherwise, if factors change, then who knows.
If one has to take white readers and retailers into account as the biggest obstacle, could the answer then be to create concepts with white leads and strong(er?) black supporting characters?
This approach defeats the raison d’être of a black comics company in the first place, it seems to me. After all, wouldn’t such strong(er?) black supporting characters do little more than perpetuate the magical negro syndrome in most mainstream comics, books, TV, and films? I would think so.
Besides, what happened to showing blacks as being fully human the way white folks are seen? You know, having goals and motivations and conflicts, traits and other character attributes and not just being black. After all, us black folk are not aliens fallen from the sky. We are human just like white people are, right? Right? If that is so, then it is possible for black books to sell and for a black comics company to get up and running and do well by appealing to readers who want to read about heroes and adventures. If not, then there are bigger problems to tackle than starting up a black comics company.
After all, shouldn’t real equality being with being able to see the hero in the so-called other? As I’ve brought up again and again and will continue to do so until someone provides me an answer that doesn’t sound like bullshit, it baffles me that white comics readers can believe in an alien can fly, a billionaire can fight crime dressed as a creature of the night, and a clay doll brought life by the gods, but they cannot believe in an smart, wealthy African king or a brilliant black engineer/inventor or a young black man flying around town on and electrically powered disc. It may just be because the way white Americans see their black counterparts does not allow for heroic and fantastic heights, only for criminal and impoverished depths.
Which may lead to another reason why there may never be another successful black comics company.
Basically what I’ve chosen to call Al Campanis Syndrome, after the infamous former baseball player and executive who claimed that blacks did not have the capabilities necessary to become managers and executives in baseball. So it may just be that black comics creators do not have the wherewithal to become publishers of any major note. We simply are not capable of the effort.
Except the existence of Milestone disproves this. If one group could do it, then what’s stopping another?
I gave my initial reasons why it may not happen again. But that may not dissuade anyone reading this. So, let’s say that the desire to start up a black comics company trumps the potential problems. Let’s say there is a group of black creators out there crazy enough and passionate enough to try to start Milestone version 2.0, how would they do it?
What would go into a group of black writers and artists giving birth to a comics company?
What follows is solely my opinion, informed by my reading of Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. It is this book that has led to the creation of a number of successful American businesses. It is also the book that author Steven Barnes recommends to young writers before any other. As such, the advice in this book must be of some serious value to have so many folks pushing it upon those who wish to succeed in business. So let’s start with that.
First, there has to be the desire for such a company and it has to be a deeply burning one. It has to be an obsession for all those involved. This desire has to be backed up by a deep faith in the attainment of this goal. Everyone has to believe that no matter what they are going to create this company and make it successful.
Now, if ‘black books don’t sell’ is taken into any kind of consideration, then it might be difficult to have the faith necessary to give birth to a black comics company. So the members will have to overcome the power of this myth on the industry and themselves.
Second, the group has to become a Master Mind Group as per Hill’s instructions. Meaning, those involved have to agree to a shared vision of the company’s goals. Or, more simply put, the group would have to check their egos at the door. The goal would have to be of a black comics company becoming a success, not for the individuals involved to become successes. Image, for example, worked best when the goal was about everyone succeeding in selling tons of comics and it stopped working as well when the individual founders spent more of their energy building their separate corporate identities than the total brand name. They lost the shared vision.
The shared vision aspect would also mean the individual writers and artists might have to forego working on creator owned concepts for a time of three to five years or so in order to focus on a set of company owned properties. Because an aspect of the master goal to create a black comics company has to be insuring the company will outlive the individuals who built it. That implies a set of company owned properties for good or for ill.
That kind of sacrifice may be impossible because some but not all black comics creators come up in isolated circumstances. That may breed a fiercer independent streak in black creators versus their white counterparts. Such a spirit may dissuade any creator from sacrificing his or her talents to the whole for its success. Such a spirit may lead one or two or three black creators to look into webcomics as an alternative. Because with webcomics no company with its overarching superstructure is required.
But let’s say the group gets the shared vision and the Master Mind going. Next this company will have to dedicate itself to persist towards the fulfillment of their goals despite an industry that will resist them.
After all, ‘black books don’t sell.’
I apologize if it feels like I’m beating this horse to death. However, it is a belief a majority of the comics industry and the comics buying public hold onto with a death grip. Until this belief, this myth is disproven in a way that puts it to bed forever, any black comics company will have to find ways to keep going despite it. It will take incredible faith, effort, and resources to overcome the resistance to black superheroes and other kinds of characters. And if anyone doesn’t think they have to plan for this, then they are fooling themselves. If Marvel has to keep going back to the drawing board again and again to get the Black Panther over with enough comics readers to keep a series going for the long term and the character is over 40 years old and was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, then the challenge is much bigger and greater for a brand spanking new, black owned comics company.
These are just a couple of the issues that come to my mind as needing to be faced by any group of black writers and artists looking to create a comics company of our own, so to speak. There are probably others I’m omitting.
Given what I say above, is a black owned comics company really necessary?
We do live in a modern, multicultural, colorblind world, right? It should not be necessary to force and enforce diversity upon the American comics marketplace. Everyone knows we live in a more diverse world now and the industry will eventually accept this reality amongst themselves and begin to demonstrate this in the projects published.
Yet, looking at the shelves of any local comics shop, one doesn’t see a lot of characters of color. Aside from the odd splash of color in the some but not all superteam books. Also Black Panther stands alone as the only title built around a lead hero of color, and even that title is now much more a part of the new wave of books featuring strong female leads. If one is a male fan of color, the heroes who look like you are only seen as the back-ups in books, little more than glorified spear carriers for the main cast members.
This is in contrast to the growth of blacks and hispanics and Asians as fans and creators, as well as communities at large. In America, by mid-century, hispanics and blacks will be the majority and whites will be the minority. And that’s not taking into account all of those of mixed heritage, like our 44th President of the United States. These sea changes would suggest a need for more characters of color. If for nothing else, then to get these people’s money. Just as Disney is doing with Princess And The Frog. The House of Mouse is smart enough to realize that there is money to be made from all of us colored folks. Are Marvel and DC and others just not smart enough to get on the bandwagon ahead of time? Apparently, they are not.
If that’s the case, then the effort involved in creating a black comics company may be necessary in the end.
Which goes back to my initial argument. Is it really possible to create a successful black comics company?
Anything is possible.
Despite what I did outline above, it is possible. What I outlined are just a sample of what I see that would be involved in such an endeavor and what could be faced. I’ve been wrong in the past and I could be more than wrong in the future.
Those mystery creators out there who would be willing to try to start up a black comics company definitely have their work cut out for them. If what I’ve written has only inspired and not discouraged anyone, then I wish you the best of luck.
In the meantime, we will have what we have now: a mainstream and alternative comics industry run mostly by white guys for mostly white guys and an odd black comics underground populated by creators and companies no one outside of their own circles knows about. And we will have those creators of color who walk in both worlds, wishing there was a way to bridge the gap.
Even if they already have that mule and forty acres of their own, it can feel awfully lonely not to have nice neighbors, no matter what they look like. Right?
And that will do it for 2009 here at the Omnium Gatherum sanctum sanctorum.
It’s been a long year in any number of ways and I’m ready for CWR’s long winter’s nap, quite frankly. Maybe I could use the time for that secret project I’ve been teasing about for far too long. And maybe I will just catch up on some sleep. I don’t know yet.
For everybody who reads the Omnium Gatherum on any kind of basis, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart to the top of my seventh chakra. I hope that whatever holidays you and yours celebrate bring you much happiness and joy in the winter days to come. I hope we will all have a very Happy New Year where we will all start moving our lives in the directions we want to go. Be brave. Make those New Year’s Resolutions and let’s stick to ‘em this time.
Most of all, I thank the ever patient Marc Mason who puts up with my crazy column whenever I get it done. He has big plans for the coming year and I can’t wait to see them. Plus, he has a book out at lulu.com; go and check it out and buy it. Hey, that sounds like a good idea. Maybe I could…
Oops, time to turn this puppy in.
Happy Holidays and Merry New Year, y’all.
Copyright 2006- 2010 Marc Mason/Comics Waiting Room. All rights reserved