The Black Comic Book Debate
I don’t always jump into debates on email chains, but I had to on this one.
It started with an email sent out to a bunch of people from the talented and classy Kevin Grevioux:
OK, the language is a little too harsh for my tastes, but the over-all message is REALLY interesting.
So I click on the the link, and really dig the clip. I feel hopeful when I hear smart racial analysis from white people. I basically say such on the email chain.
Then Vincent Moore responds with this:
I agree with Reggie. Now the real problems are: how do you get a critical mass of white comics and/or game buyers to buy black product and how do we get more black people into buying black comics and games? Or am I aiming in the wrong direction?
And another person responds with:
I enjoyed this. Thanks Kev. Bell Hooks talks about some of this type of thinking with Black women when it comes to film, in an essay called ‘The Oppositional Gaze’. Definitely makes things more hopeful.
Which is then followed by this statement:
First of all, I am humbled and honored to have been included in this forum. My sincere thanks to you all.
I believe that you’re asking honest and appropriate, demographically-sound questions. The answer, in my opinion, has already been provided by Bill Cosby. The Huxtables were a dynamically appealing American family to most racial demographics that had a TV tuned in to NBC during The Cosby Show’s heyday in the mid-80’s. Everybody I recalled loved the Huxtables for who they were. The Huxtables just happened to be black. And I think this is where I’d like to make my point.
Producing comics and video game media featuring black main characters in stories, which will have the potential to attain the critical mass appeal that is aimed at white and black consumers alike can be done if the substance of these stories are specifically more oriented toward common-sense values and morals, which could appeal to most common sense consumers, and less ethno-centrically driven themes, which could likely marginalize your finished product. Take the Evans family of the ’70’s-era show, Good Times, for example. Another massively appealing family of levity during its time, too, but certainly far more popular among blacks Americans, due to fact that it was more culturally ethnocentric. Nowadays, I believe that focusing upon a character’s character while deemphasizing the self-evident factor of that character’s race may be the key to success. Author James Patterson has been extremely successful with this template with his series of novels featuring his hero, Alex Cross, who happens to be black.
Currently, I am developing several titles of comics that feature main characters that are black. The aim is to highlight who these individuals are individually and how their character is revealed in the context of the story each appears in, but with no emphasis on who they are ethnically. They are simply good men and women of character, who just happen to be black.
I believe, Vincent, that this may all or part of the answer you are seeking.
Happily & respectfully,
Quenton Shaw, Owner
Which then inspires Dwayne McDuffie to chime in:
I disagree. The "happens to be black" canard is disingenuous at best, and delusional at worst. We’re creators, we make choices, among those choices is the race of our characters. If we create characters whose background and experiences don’t inform their personalities and worldviews, we’re creating Barbie dolls, lifeless plastic for others to project their fantasies upon. That doesn’t mean this approach will fail, Barbie’s very popular for precisely this reason, although I’d suggest she’s not the best example of a way to improve the numbers and kinds of images of women available in the media.
The Huxtables didn’t "just happen" to be black, they didn’t just happen to have Romare Bearden paintings on their walls, or attend black colleges, or listen to Jazz and R&B, these were creative choices that stemmed from the decision to do a show about a black family. The specificity of those choices, the truth of those observations, are what helped to create the universality of identification across races. Using Good Times (a show that was as highly-rated among blacks as whites, probably because of Jimmy Walker’s buffoonery) as an example of cultural ethnocentricity as opposed to The Cosby Show, which was at least equally ethnocentric, indicates one of our problems, the notion that black culture is entirely encompassed by the ghetto. We’re both of those things and more.
Video games and comics face a much more difficult task than comedies, particularly action genres. Unlike comedies, action pieces have very little sugar to help the medicine go down. Moreover, for a distressingly large portion of the mainstream audience, heroic action from a black male protagonist is offensive on its face. Ask Mr. Hudlin how the audience reacts to a cool Spider-Man bit, verses how they react to an identical feat performed by the Black Panther. In the first case, Spider-Man is awesome, in the second, Reggie’s shoving super negro down the audience’s throat. Even black audiences have been trained to be skeptical of black heroism. If Rambo or James Bond dodges a hundred bullets while killing dozens of attackers, they’re cool, if a black hero does the same, it’s campy.
More comics featuring black characters are a good thing, but if the audience knows the characters are black, no amount of "just happens to be black" in the creative approach will immunize you from the portion of the audience that’s not ready to accept the humanity of people who have a different skin color. We should stop worrying about those guys reactions and just tell our stories as honestly as we can.
To which I respond with this:
As usual, I agree with all Dwayne has said.
Except for one point.
White movie audiences today don’t have a problem with black action stars. From Wesley Snipes in BLADE to Will Smith in..well, most of his career, today’s white people don’t have a problem with black men doing superheroic feats. In the world of music, there are white folks supporting very aggressive black artists, from Public Enemy to Little Wayne. Similar to Dwayne’s television analogy with GOOD TIMES and THE COSBY SHOW, there are many ways to cross over. You can be James Brown or Dionne Warwick. Both have large white audiences.
I think the problem is the white comic book buying audience. They appear to be the deep south of the entertainment world.
Which leads to the bigger problem. The inability of comic books to be a popular art form. It’s as narrow as the Broadway audience.
Have you ever tried to get a non-comic book reader to buy a comic? They don’t know WHERE to buy a comic. They don’t know HOW to buy a comic (one time? monthly? weekly?). They don’t know how to read a comic (left to right? up and down? across the pages? oh it changes from book to book..and from PAGE TO PAGE?).
Maybe the future of black comics doesn’t involve characters in tights at all. Maybe they are romance books. Because black women read a lot more than black men.
Maybe they are not on paper.
We are going to have to be as creative with our business practices as we are with our content.
Then someone posts:
I’ve always felt the comics have the poorest distribution in almost all of entertainment. Most kids living in poverty or rural areas dont have access to comic stores and we wont even get into the Internet therefore have no access or any opportunity to be an audience to build on or solicit.
That being said there isn’t a huge demand for books with a broad scope of black characters that the audience can relate to because that part of comics due to the small base is underdeveloped.
I think there are many Blacks and Hispanics that have had exposure to the characters on lunch pales, tv shows etc. but I dont think most people have actually purchased the books in there areas or might not have the means to get to a brick and mortar outlet.
Over the years this has led to many people feeling that they have a relationship with these characters but dont necessarily have them in their possession. Its one of the reasons I think the movies have done well now that those generations have gotten older wider accessability with games and film.
I dont think the infrastructure of comics can support them being on paper in a PROFITABLE way in general. I think this exposes the industries major flaw to ALL of its audience lack of accessibility. The major players have never created a sole entity that could help advance the industry and improve its bottom line. There are many opinions on "Why" that is, but regardless I thinks its too late in general to turn that around media is king.
On to the positive. I think the answer to distribution or an alternative to access is being built. I think whats next is a more media friendly solution and its more advanced that even Motion Comics because its more viral and easier to consume.
What I mean by consume is that everything that the consumer wants they want on the go, its hard to read comics on the go, on the plane ( getting it out of the carry on bag, or read it while driving etc. ) If comics were being delivered in a more media savvy way like film, but in a format perfect for iPhone, Sprint online sharing and collaboration with the creators now that would be something special.
Consumers want to be a part of their entertainment now theres no way to do that with a comic as they are being published currently. I feel that will change as well and for 5 years I’ve been working on the solution.
I’ve been building an alternative distribution channel for not only the comics but for how media is built and populated partially because I think in order for comics to return to glory they need to have multiple formats that are based on how consumers want to enjoy them. If less people read, then read them the consumer and if they dont want to listen make the pictures moving tell the story.
You know what they say "If your just pointing out the negatives and not offering up solutions your a part of the problem".
I want to be a major player in the solution, because I think the upside is tremendous and I think it will give EVERYONE an opportunity to consume the content.
Great entertainment is colorless and distribution is king. Comics as they are ( in general) are losing on both sides of this equation. Hopefully I can change that to some degree later this year.
Everyone who has responded has raised some very good points. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, having completed my first novel, featuring a teenage black hero, and wondering if I will ever find an audience. I didn’t want to have a character who "happened to be black" nor did I want a character whose sole defining trait was his blackness. Instead, I did what ever good writer should strive to do, and I made my character a complex human being. His blackness is a part of him and at the same time, it isn’t something I shy away from.
As black creators, I believe our responsibility is to create compelling characters, period. If our characters are black, white or purple, they need to be well developed. This is the best way for any audience to invest their time (and money) in the stories we are telling. All too often, black creators fall into the trap of thinking that if a character is black, then that’s enough. We’ve all seen these movies, read these books and comics. That is too much like the Tyler Perry School of Catering to the Lowest Common Denominator. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Tyler Perry, I’m just waiting for him to make a movie that I can enjoy.
Which was followed by Scott Christian Salva, who responded to my post by saying:
Man…this is the best response so far (sorry to the other guys).
As the…uh…"white guy in the room" I guess. I was comfortable sitting silently and trying to understand this a bit more from your perspectives.
I write both kids and teen graphic novels. I stay away from Super Hero books. And haven’t worked for Marvel since I did Spidey back in 2002.
My books don’t sell well in comic shops for (I believe) the SAME reason why Reggie is saying that comics with black characters aren’t selling as much.
Any time I see a comic shop (be it in NY, Los Angeles, or here in Nashville) it’s owned and run by white guys, and populated by them.
Not kids. Not girls. And not much ethnic diversity.
So…my books don’t sell well there.
But…in bookstores. They do.
In schools they do.
Kids are in schools. They love the books.
Teens are online. They love my online webcomic.
Is it possible (and this is something Kevin and Mat and I have discussed at length) that we’re killing ourselves trying to "fix" an industry that’s too far gone…and going the way of the dodo bird?
Rather than trying to fix the old and tired "monthly pamphlets" system…why not be at the forefront of something bigger?
The next step?
Be it webcomics or a color kindle or bookstores…why not REBOOT the comic industry with a more realistic world view?
Hope this makes sense.
And thanks for letting me be a part of this thread of conversation.
Which was followed by:
The answer to this, in my opinion, is maybe a little more simple than any of us want to admit, or are willing to except.
First, black creators need to upgrade their product.
Dropping content into this genre that is targeted at fitting in with "mainstream" productions and then competing for those dollars is starting at the bottom, and trying to push this dead truck up a proverbial mountain. It can be done, but in what time and at what cost? If our product is not visionary, and game changing, than we are wasting our time. The unaddressed market that we are speaking to expects more out of us than merely fitting in. Mr. Hudlin states "Maybe the future of black comics doesn’t involve characters in tights at all." This I believe, speaks to the true heart of the matter. We all know that when adapting a comic property to film a reworking must be done… an enhancement for a seemingly more sophisticated media and audience. In actuality, the audience is the same, and the capability of a comic to pull off advance design concepts is at least equal to the other mediums. Why then are we relegated to men in tights, or rather, black men in costumes that imitate white men in tights?
Secondly, doing "Black" product is not self-sabotage, but is far too limiting for the problem to be addressed on any scale outside of family, friends and neighbors.
The problem here is "Black" product. When defining it and labeling it so, it is implied that anyone who buys it, is buying into the concept that they are joining a cause, investing in a movement that may not be consistent either with their agenda… or maybe not what they want to think about when stepping into an escapist medium.
It is the time to produce content that features Blacks as well as other minorities in marque positions conceived by the people who are able to understand the subtleties in characterization enough to produce compelling portrayals… themselves. It is also time to address the short-sighted nature of black professionals within this industry. It is reactionary and backward, limiting itself by the rules of a construct that has discriminated
against, demeaned and insulted it.
We all have been guilty of this. It is part of the process by which we developed our individual skill sets, but enough already time to graduate.
The product created must address better design and more complete stories like other media productions do… not downgraded for what is perceived to be a mainstream audience… and geared toward affecting, or infecting, an international community with powerful intuitive concepts including sensitivities and sensibilities that can only come from the sociologically oppressed… like Blues, Jazz, and Hiphop.
Thirdly, addressing the medium of comics in relation to new technology is paramount to the success of the art form. Relying on paper and current paper distribution to address a modern electronic based market is just old.
Reginald Hudlin: "… Maybe they are not on paper. We are going to have to be as creative with our business practices as we are with our content. "
There’s more posts and I’ll add them later, but I thought this was a great, civil, already public discussion that needed a home, so I put it on the board. Sorry for not knowing everyone’s name who posted.