Starting in 1995, The Comedy Store in Hollywood turned over a small room on a struggling night to Guy Torry and let him program many of the Black comedians who, for whatever reason, weren’t getting space on the club’s main stage on its busiest nights. The weekly event, dubbed Phat Tuesdays, helped reinvigorate midweek at The Comedy Store and launched countless careers.
Phat Tuesdays lasted for a decade and was essential to bridging a difficult time for The Comedy Store, but a recent five-hour premium cable documentary about the venue didn’t even mention the showcase.
“Honestly, it was a blessing, because why should we settle for 10 minutes in another documentary? We had three hours, easy, of story to tell. So let us tell our story in full,” says Reginald Hudlin, executive producer and director of Prime Video’s new three-part docuseries Phat Tuesdays, which makes up for that previous absence.
Hudlin, series creator Torry and comics Finesse Mitchell and Luenell sat down for a THR Presents panel, powered by Vision Media, about Phat Tuesdays, noting how important it is to tell stories like this one.
“It’s very easy to underrate the importance of what I call ‘near-history.’ Right?” Hudlin said. “We’re not going back to the 1940s or 1970s. These are things that happened in our lifetime, in our prime. We were there. We were part of that whole movement, but for those of us talking to younger people, talking to our kids, who don’t know how things happened? Very often we don’t know how things happened because we were too busy doing it.”
It’s a time the comics remember vividly.
Of being asked to participate in the series, Luenell said, “I couldn’t have been more pleased, because those Phat Tuesday days and that era were some of the happiest times that we had in comedy. Not to say that other times were any less happy, but there was a real community in Los Angeles. … It was star-studded and electric and fire.”
Added Mitchell, “We were fans of each other. We were really rooting for anybody to get something and if you couldn’t get on-stage, Phat Tuesday was definitely the place you wanted to be, even if just to network and hang out and be around people that you knew were going through a similar struggle. I think a lot of us were struggling back then and doing shows for pennies. We could at least go to that one spot on Tuesday, all feel like kings and queens, whether we were gonna crush it that night or root for somebody to crush it that night or — I’ll keep it 100 — want somebody to bomb so that they won’t be in your way next week.”
The series walks a difficult line with The Comedy Store, which gave Phat Tuesdays room to exist, but also, in failing to champion a wide swath of Black comics, created the system that made Phat Tuesdays necessary.
Hudlin noted, “I really respect an institution that honestly admits, ‘Hey, there’s this thing we did in the past. It wasn’t cool. We acknowledge it to everybody and we’re OK with acknowledging it, because we have evolved beyond it.’ That’s a stance that takes courage and I respect it.”
I’ve done a lot of animated projects over the years – BEBE’S KIDS, the first African American animated feature film, BOONDOCKS, the BLACK PANTHER animated series, PAWS OF FURY (coming out this summer)….so it was nice to be included in this historic photo.
Nickelodeon Recreates Iconic ‘Great Day in Harlem’ Photograph With 54 Black Animation Professionals (EXCLUSIVE)
In 1958, Esquire published “A Great Day in Harlem,” a photo taken by Art Kane of 57 jazz musicians ranging from Thelonious Monk to Coleman Hawkins gathered together on a New York City stoop. In an homage to that historic picture, on June 5, 2022, Nickelodeon Animation and Paramount Pictures organized “A Great Day in Animation,” which features 54 Black professionals working in animation today. Taken by Randy Shropshire with Jeff Vespa as production lead and obtained exclusively by Variety, the photo is above.
Though Nickelodeon and Paramount put the event together and hosted it on the Paramount backlot, “A Great Day in Animation” includes artists from all across the industry. The idea for the photo came from Marlon West, a visual effects supervisor for Disney whose credits include “The Lion King,” “Encanto” and the upcoming Disney+ series “Iwájú.” For decades, West has been moved by “A Great Day in Harlem,” as well as Jean Bach’s Oscar-nominated film of the same name, which documents how the photo came to be.
“I’ve had a framed copy of that photo in my office or somewhere for 30 years,” West tells Variety. “And I thought it would be cool to do the same thing with Black animators.”
Aided by his friends and colleagues Bruce Smith, Peter Ramsey and Everett Downing Jr., West began putting together a list of animation professionals to include, aiming for legends like Floyd Norman, whose work on 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty” made him Disney’s first-ever Black animator, and his close collaborator Leo D. Sullivan.
“In the original photo, Coleman Hawkins is standing front and center. He was one of the elders of those folks,” West explains. “I just envisioned Floyd Norman standing in Coleman Hawkins’ spot, and all of us radiating out from him, and Leo Sullivan and other grandmasters who have upped the game.”
It was also important to West to invite up-and-comers such as Latoya Raveneau, who recently directed “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” and Chrystin Garland, a background painter and designer on series like “Solar Opposites.”
“If people look at this photo 10 or 20 years from now, [I hope] they’re like, ‘There’s so-and-so when they were just starting out!” West says.
After scouting around Los Angeles for different locations to take the photo, West was drawn to the New York-style buildings of the Paramount lot. (“And on a personal level, I was sleeping on floors of my friends’ apartments five blocks away from Paramount when I first moved to L.A.,” he adds.) He then reached out to the studio’s animation head Ramsey Naito, who sought the help of Camille Eden, Nickelodeon’s vice president of recruitment, talent development and outreach.
Eden had long been a fan of “A Great Day in Harlem.” “It has been long enough that I can admit this, but when the documentary came out about the photo, I actually skipped work to watch it in the theater,” she tells Variety over email. “When Ramsey Naito called to tell me about the project, I didn’t have to think twice. I immediately called my event manager, Robbie Siron, and let him know about the project. Robbie was on board, and we went for it. From the time Ramsey called, it took about five weeks to pull it all together.”
The day of the photo was emotional for many. For two and a half hours, 54 Black animation professionals (and one director’s child) met for the first time, had long-awaited reunions and shared their stories.
“The first person to show up was Leo Sullivan. He came with his family. He is such a legend, so to see him walking in was big,” Eden recalls. “Little by little, more people showed up, and I remember thinking, ‘This is really happening.’ I wish I could put into words what that felt like to see all this amazing Black talent gathering. Many hadn’t seen each other for years. Many met their idols and heroes in person for the first time.”
“Carole Holliday was there, and for the longest time she was the only Black woman I knew doing animation. I wanted to introduce her to some of these younger sisters, and it was beautiful to be able to do that,” West says. “To see her surrounded by folks who knew of her, or maybe even didn’t know they were standing on her shoulders. I was fighting back my knees knocking, my voice cracking and my eyes welling up.”
Like “A Great Day in Harlem,” “A Great Day in Animation” will stand to remind the industry that there is a wide wealth of Black artists excelling at their craft.
“I think people are going to look at this photo of 60 Black people and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was that many,’ — and that’s a fraction of us,” West says. “In most of my career, I’m either the only brother in the room, or one of the few, and that was the experience of everybody there that day. So I think people are going to be surprised. It was almost [enough artists to staff] a studio standing there.”
“I hope that people interested in animation will see this photo and see several generations of people who look like them being successful and paving the way in animation,” Eden adds. “I hope that studios and executives will see this photo and think of all of the films and projects that each person in the photo had a part of and realize the impact and reach of Black talent in our industry.”
And for the people pictured, West hopes that “A Great Day in Animation” will be a worthy commemoration of a once-in-a-lifetime moment and the special nature of what they do.
“We’re in the business of making things out of thin air,” he says. “What we do does not exist [in advance]. We draw it. We build it. We sculpt it. We paint it.”
As states across the country continue their attacks on Black History with racist and ridiculous anti-CRT laws, one of the biggest publishers in comic books is using its heroes to illustrate that Black history is World history.
Milestone Media and DC Comics are set to release the one-shot anthology Milestones in History. The 96-page book features eight stories chronicling the influence of Black people from the dawn of man in “Born in Africa – Mother of the World” through a celebration of Prince in “Controversy.” Icon, Rocket, Hardware and Static are the Milestone heroes featured in stories about the Queen of Sheba, World War I pilot Eugene Bullard, groundbreaking pilot Bessie Coleman and NASA astronaut Mae Jemison. Milestone partners Reginald Hudlin and Denys Cowan spoke with The Root about the book’s creation and importance.
As libraries and schools continue to remove books and lessons on Black history, Hudlin asserts that now is the perfect time for Milestones in History. In fact, he feels their approach will be even better than what schools are capable of, because they don’t have an angry mob of parents criticizing and censoring everything they write.
“These kinds of Black history comics had a huge impact on our childhoods. When Denys and I talked about relaunching Milestone, doing something like this was a high agenda item for us,” Hudlin said. “And thank goodness, because now we have a situation where 30-plus states are using CRT as an excuse to basically ban all Black history. We’re in a position via what we do in the media business, to supplement what’s being taken out of schools, and in some ways, doing it better. Because schools, God bless them, sometimes they just drain all the excitement out and we’re like, ‘No, let’s put the excitement back in. And let’s not half-step and worry about offending people. Let’s just tell the whole truth.”
For Cowan, the new book represents a return to the classic comics that got him interested in the genre in the first place.
“When we were growing up, it was like three comic book companies. There was Marvel, DC and Golden Legacy. And Golden Legacy were the ones that did the story of Benjamin Banneker, the story of Frederick Douglass, and they were all done in comic book form by professional artists,” Cowan said. “If you weren’t reading about Spider-Man, you were picking up one of those and that got you into Black history, learning about all that stuff at a very young age. I looked at it because it was comics. Anything comics I was in. And you know what, all these years later, I bet a lot of people still feel that way. So that was another reason why we did this.”
The first story in the book is “Born in Africa – Mother of the World,” which follows Raquel Ervin/Rocket as she explains the history of “‘Lucy,’ the collection of Australopithecus Afarensis fossil bones discovered in Ethiopia,” per a press release from DC Comics. From there, we get tales on author Alexandre Dumas’ family, military commander Hannibal and dancer Katharine Dunham. The intro has a line that says these won’t be the same old stories, and that’s definitely true.
“Give Reggie credit for the scope,” Cowan said. “Because when we first started talking about this, I wasn’t thinking about the dawn of man. But Reggie took it way back to the dawn of man and the birthplace of civilization, of human beings and then brought it up to Prince, which might be the cap of civilization.”
Hudlin and Cowan aren’t looking at Milestones in History as a project they necessarily want immediate success from. Obviously, they want the book to do well, but they also want it to leave a legacy that impacts readers long after they’ve enjoyed it.
“When someone reads this, this is some Johnny Appleseed stuff. You’re planting so many different ideas,” Hudlin said. “Each individual story, plus the idea that all these stories are collected. So we’re saying this is all your heritage, this is all your culture. And that’s going to change someone’s worldview. And that’s going to play itself out in a lot of interesting ways for the rest of their lives.”
Milestones in History is available Tuesday, June 21.
When a number of young, aspiring comic book writers and artists of color crowded a conference room at the Burbank offices of DC Entertainment for a chat with Milestone Media executives Reginald Hudlin and Denys Cowan, some general and generational concerns came up.
How much should we be getting paid? General. How can we stay true to our authentic selves? Generational. How can we work for a company but protect our IP? Both general and generational. The same queries would be raised by anyone entering a creative career, but getting answers from two of the people behind the industry’s best known and successful Black comic book company is probably priceless for this group.
The participants in the Milestone Initiative, a program designed to bring more people of color into the business of comic books, attended multiple seminars at a summit during their orientation recently. The young creators were in the midst of a 10-week program offered through Milestone Media and sponsored by DC and Ally, a financial services company that also prides itself on community involvement.
Announced during DC FanDome 2021, the initiative is giving 24 writers and artists both in-person mentoring from working comic book professionals and a virtual education through the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. The initiative wraps up next week, and the participants will be paired with comic book veterans to create new, original stories for the Milestone Universe.
“Creating content that is inclusive of diverse stories and characters is an important mission for DC,” says Nancy Spears, DC’s vice president of sales and marketing. “With the Milestone Initiative we’re making a concerted effort to focus on building a pipeline of talent that will contribute to those stories and characters from perspectives uniquely their own.”
Hudlin and Cowan understand that creators of color are still a vast minority in the industry. When it was brought up that there are many, the notion was “challenged.”
“Many? Let’s think about that,” says Cowan. He and Hudlin then proceed to name a few fingers’ worth, but their point is made. The Milestone Initiative will help, but even among the people of color who are working, the pool of talent is so diverse in their goals and beliefs that there needs to be a home for the many.
“Not everyone has the same agenda,” Cowan says. “Everyone’s supportive of Milestone, but not everyone is going to work with us for whatever reasons. They’re more interested in mainstream comics, or they want to [do other things]. My idea is to create a space for all of it. You don’t have to be down with what we do specifically, but if you’re a writer of color or an artist of color, you’re going to have an opportunity in comics. We want to elevate everybody.”
Hudlin believes that what Milestone Comics provides may also be something that the initiative’s participants can understand as people of color.
“Right now, the comic book buying audience is a very narrow group of fans,” Hudlin says. “There is diversity — whenever I walk into a comic book store, I see people of color — but there’s more people not buying the books than are buying them. But they’ll turn around and watch the movies and TV shows, so how do we get more of those people into shops? That’s the kind of success we’re having with Milestone.”
“We’re trying to immunize our kids and have them feel strong by giving them their own mythology.”
It’s part of the reason that a financial services company, one that prides itself on being an ally to the community, is investing in the program
“For us, stories that represent diverse communities are so important to culture,” said Erica Hughes, director of multicultural marketing for Ally. “So one of the things that we talked about with Milestone is how can we make sure that we’re advancing culture forward.” The company backs up its community-first ideals with programs like the initiative and Moguls in the Making. Not only do they fund the event, they also offer the participants their financial expertise for their future success.
“Some of our new cohorts will be coming into a financial windfall,” Hughes says. “We curated a curriculum that is going to help them learn about investing, saving and budgeting based on responses they gave [in an earlier survey].”
With the participants being new to the industry, and to DC, they were not “cleared” to speak on the program’s behalf. They also haven’t finished yet, but their enthusiasm was palpable. Cowan and Hudlin would “love it” if all of the attendees worked for Milestone, but they understand that’s not realistic. So with the Milestone Initiative offering creative, career and financial guidance, what is the post-program plan?
“Some may be called upon to develop the creative for our media buys and campaign activations. Others may develop customized comics for promotional partners. And even more still may be called upon to mentor future talent we identify to help drive storytelling at DC,” says Spears.
“The Milestone heroes of the Dakotaverse are part of DC’s Multiverse. This affords us a great opportunity to look forward for ways to tell stories where these heroes meet each other, maybe even written or drawn by some of the talented people that are here.”
“Blood Syndicate” is back, and Milestone Comics’ most hardcore and at times controversial series is pulling no punches in its updated revival of a group of gang-affiliated people who gain various superpowers and form a rough-edged alliance in order to protect their neighborhood from criminals.
“‘Blood Syndicate’ has always been the bastard child of comics. People were always afraid to touch that book,” said ChrisCross, artist on “Blood Syndicate” and one of the company’s originators during Milestone’s ’90s heyday.
“People like Static and Icon, but Blood Syndicate is its own thing — you cannot sidestep it. It’s basically like looking at some black hip-hop artists that people try to get away from, but they keep showing up with even better hits. It’s like, ‘I want to deal with this guy, but he’s just so rough. Just the tone of his voice.’”
Cross and writer Geoffrey Thorne have taken on the task of writing a book that was born amid the gang culture of the ’90s. It was a gritty storyline set in a gritty neighborhood of Dakota, and the original cover proudly exclaimed, “America eats its young.” The characters were steeped in violence, and there was often more internal strife than there were villains to fight. Blood Syndicate are no Justice League or Avengers, and their turf is Paris Island. Though they often don’t get along, they protect it ruthlessly against invaders and troublemakers.
“Paris Island. It’s the ‘f—-around-and-find-out’ island. Whether you’re a good guy or a bad guy, you don’t want any of this. That’s the one warning you get,” said Thorne. “We solve problems permanently on Paris Island. We’re not trying to take the Joker to jail.”
Both Cross and Thorne weren’t sure that the book would ever come back. Even as Reginald Hudlin and Denys Cowan talked for years about relaunching the Milestone brand, the current “Blood Syndicate” team did not know if, in this new superhero-heavy society, the group would be embraced.
“Remember back in the day when they had the Comics Code Authority? They had to constantly take it off of that book. It was just not working. They kept trying to do a PG version of ‘Blood Syndicate.’ There is no PG version of ‘Blood Syndicate.’ Come on. I drew Wise Son peeing on somebody. Tastefully. And people were dying like crazy in that book.”
The gang culture in the original book may have also changed since Blood Syndicate’s initial debut, but Thorne, who says he was deeply influenced by the book and told anyone he came across about it (“I was John the Baptist of the freaking Blood Syndicate!”), understands that it’s always been more “complex than just making everybody a bloodthirsty, drug-dealing, murderous thug.”
“Of course that is a component of that sort of criminality, and I’m not here to shy away from that. But I’m not promoting gang culture as a legit response to oppression because it’s not. This is a story about several powerful people figuring out what their response will be and if maintaining their affiliations is actually the best way to go.”
The second issue of “Blood Syndicate” hits stands next week. It’s early, but the creative team doesn’t plan on taking it easy in the new pages. Backed and distributed by DC Comics, the Milestone book could be a darker look at urban life than most products on the stands that are put out by more mainstream publishers. But Thorne is ready for the tough stories to come.
“Walking a straight line in this world isn’t anything close to easy. These are superpeople, for sure. But not everyone is or needs to be a hero. Life is way more complicated than black and white.”
This anthology from DC and Milestone Media is packed with great information and great heroes
DC and Milestone Media will publish the one-shot anthology Milestones in History on June 21, and DC has finally revealed details about the creators involved and the stories they’re telling.
For this collection, Milestone Media is steering away from superhero stories and instead focusing on real-life moments in Black history throughout the world. Milestone partner Reggie Hudlin says this is very intentional.
“In developing Milestones In History with DC, it was important that this not be another book about the commonly known names in American Black history, as important as they are,” Hudlin says in a statement. “Our goal with this anthology has always been to identify great storytellers from different backgrounds to celebrate Black history beyond the borders of America, and beyond the confines of slavery and oppression. While Black History is certainly all of that, it really is so much more.”
However, Milestone heroes Rocket, Static, Icon, Hardware, and more will narrate each tale. The 96-page Milestones in History will feature the following creators and stories, among others.
Writer Alice Randall will team up with artist Eric Battle for ‘Born in Africa – Mother of the World,’ which chronicles the historic discovery of ‘Lucy,’ a collection of fossilized bones discovered in Ethiopia. Milestone’s Rocket will narrate this story.
Randall will also team up with artists Don Hudson and Jose Marzan Jr. for ‘The Brilliant Black Russians: Pushkin and His Family of Genius.’ As implied by the title, this story follows the life of Russian novelist and poet Alexandra Pushkin.
Static and Rocket discuss the competing origins of the Queen of Sheba in ‘The Many Queens of Sheba,’ written by Amy Chu and illustrated by Maria Laura Sanapo.
Steven Barnes, Ron Wilson, and Mike Gustovich team up for ‘You Will Follow a Great Man,’ which chronicles the history of military commander and statesman Hannibal Barca.
‘The Dumas Legacy,’ narrated by Icon and Rocket, follows the family history of The Three Musketeers writer Alexandre Dumas. This short will be written by Tananarive Due and illustrated by Jamal Yaseem Igle and Chris Sotomayor.
Eugene Bullard was the first Black American to fly in combat and the only Black American pilot in World War I. Writer Pat Charles and artist Arvell Jones tell his story in ‘Ace.’
Writer Karyn Parsons and artist Franceso Francavilla explore the life of dancer, activist, and anthropologist Katharine Dunham in ‘Spirit Step.’
‘Controversy,’ by writer and activist Touré and artist Ray-Anthony Height, looks at the life and career of musical icon Prince.
In ‘The Sky’s the Limit,’ writer Melody Cooper and artist Domo Stanton follow the life of stunt pilot Bessie Coleman, who was the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license, and also former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison – the first Black woman to travel to space.
The heroes of the Dakotaverse will introduce DC and Milestone Media’s Milestones in History anthology, in a short comic by Reggie Hudlin and artist Janhoy Lindsay. And in ‘Things to Come,’ by Reggie Hudlin and Leon Chills, with art by Milestone co-founder Denys Cowan, readers will be treated to a teaser for what’s to come for the Milestone superheroes.