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Indie Comics Spotlight: Black creators are finally getting the attention they deserve. But will it last?
All over the world, people have taken to the streets demanding justice for the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many more, as well as an end to the ongoing police brutality against Black people in their communities. Online, companies have echoed the sentiment, denouncing racism and promising to do everything from donating to #BlackLivesMatter to hiring more Black employees. The response from the comic book community has been equally as swift. Black indie comic book creators have been inundated by editors and publishers who suddenly want to see their portfolios.
But, is all of this newfound attention creating more work for Black creators? Has exposing years of bias in the comic book business helped to create lasting change? Or has the sentiment disappeared as quickly as the black boxes that populated so many profile pictures during Juneteenth? SYFY WIRE reached out to several Black comic book writers, artists, and editors to get their take on whether publishers are truly dedicated to instituting real change, what stories they’d really like to tell, and why everyone is so skeptical.
According to a recent Lee and Low Baseline Diversity study, publishing as a whole is still very white and very male. Although some progress has been made, the comic book industry suffers from the same problem. Even with the success of movies like Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, as well as TV shows like Black Lightning and HBO’s Watchmen, comics featuring well-written Black characters and comics created by Black creative teams rarely exist in mainstream or indie comics, with the exception of creator-owned work. Veteran comic book writer David F. Walker (Young Justice, Bitter Root) feels changes definitely need to be made for the industry to actually be more inclusive. “The system absolutely has to change — it is broken and oppressive, and it plays favorites,” Walker says.
Currently, the need for Black creative talent in the industry really only reaches an audible volume when it’s socially advantageous during Black History Month, or when it’s got more “mainstream” clout, like when Jordan Peele’s horror movie Get Out won several Oscars. Unfortunately, the only other time discussions of race really seem to transcend the news cycle is when the entire world is shaken by the story of a Black victim of a tragedy. “It's interesting that it took multiple instances of Black death and a global pandemic for studios to get interested in hiring Black creators,” artist and writer Nilah Magruder (M.F.K., Marvel Rising) says.
Many artists feel the current outpouring of support is nothing more than “lip service.”
“Some of the attention is more of a curiosity that feels more like some kind of voyeurism — like people want to look at us, but only from a safe and detached distance,” Walker says. Ngozi Ukazu, who found initial success with her wildly popular creator-owned webcomic Check Please, agrees. “The recent attention being paid to black creators feels empty,” Ukazu says.
“This diversity push... what does that look like, exactly? What are the goals? How are these plans being carried out over the long-term?” Magruder asks. Vita Ayala (Nebula, Livewire), one of the few Afro-Latinx creators who have found success both in indie as well as mainstream comics, isn’t surprised by the current push for Black creators. “Every few years, Black creatives as a group are ‘discovered,’ only to be forgotten again,” they say.
Right now, every genre is trying to get its proverbial hands on Black stories. While many African-American creators stated they were flooded with new interest in their work, few have landed paid gigs. But writer Che Grayson (Bitch Planet, Rigamo) was one of the lucky ones. “Within the month, I started getting calls for comic and animation work,” Grayson says. “But the thing that should get more attention are the kinds of projects we get offered. I don't want to just get the projects that have BIPOC characters. I want to be considered for every project.”
The issue of Black talent only getting opportunities to write Black characters is not new. In fact, Christopher Priest, one of the architects of Milestone Media, who has also written Black Panther, Deathstroke, Spider-Man, and countless other characters, famously refused to work in comics for years until he was offered Deathstroke, a white character at DC. As Priest recently told Marvel Comics EVP Joe Quesada in an interview: “I don't want to be thought of as a ‘Black writer.’ I know it's a controversial thing to say. But I feel like I want to be taken seriously on my own merits… I'm eligible to write anything.” Priest said.
“Black people have as much of an understanding of whiteness; we have to, to survive,” Ayala explains. Brandon Thomas (Horizon, Excellence) advocates for both — Black creators writing both Black and non-Black characters. “There are so many Black characters in mainstream comics with untapped potential that have never been written by a Black writer,” Thomas says. “On the other hand, I don’t believe that we should be exclusively working on those characters.”
At the same time, calling on Black creators as “consultants” for Black characters written by white writers is just as problematic says Joseph P. Illidge, Executive Editor of Heavy Metal Magazine. Illidge is no stranger to the role, having served as a Senior Editorat Lion Forge, Editorial Director for A Wave Blue World and Executive Editor for Valiant (where he launched the Livewire solo comic). “Don't talk to me about Storm and then give a Storm series to a white writer informed with my Black perspective,” he says.
Many believe that this awkward scenario only exists because of the dearth of Black editorial staff in comics. Currently, there are only two Black editors at the Big Two, assistant editors Chris Robinson at Marvel and Marquis Draper at DC, and no Black editors at some Iarger indie imprints, including Valiant and Image. “We need Black folks working behind the scenes in positions of power in editorial, so that Black creators aren’t standing alone against an army of all white folks that think they know us better than we know ourselves,” Walker says.
Even if Black creatives do get their foot in the door, there is almost no training or margin for error. “I can rattle off tons of white writers who had several projects (and years) to develop into exceptional writers through continued training and development,” Thomas says. “These companies aren’t willing to develop Black and brown writers.” Writer Kwanza Osajyefo (BLACK, Ignited) agrees: “When you’ve done your decade in comics and the first Black people you see on lead titles had to produce a string of popular essays, novels, and books outside of comics to be recruited for the starting lineup — that tells you what’s up.” Osajyefo says.
Marvel’s 2016 Black Panther reboot is a prime example of this. Award-winning writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay were given the opportunity to write Black Panther and Black Panther: World of Wakanda respectively, while many Black indie creators, who had been trying for years to work with the Big Two quietly bristled. Rather than supporting and elevating Black creators already in the indie comic community who were more familiar with the medium, Marvel had felt it safer to go with creators it considered more marketable: high-profile, well-established, non-fiction prose writers. (The question remains whether or not they were given the same support internally as their white counterparts). Although Coates’ project did well, promotions for it aimed at Black fans were sparse after the first volume and almost non-existent for Gay’s project, which unfortunately never found its footing and was canceled after the sixth issue.
Many of the gigs Black creatives are being offered aren’t long term contracts either. “It is not enough to employ a Black creator to work on a one-off character or story. The real impact that we want in storytelling will come from widespread, thoughtful, structural change that gives agency to Black creatives in every step of the process,” Ukazu says.
“No more one-night diversity stands!” agrees Thomas.
Ayala also thinks that Black creatives should give a chance to indie publishers who are honestly willing to make a change, but not blindly. “I think we need to hold them accountable by being firm in what is needed to make amends. And if they don’t come through, then we don’t support,” they say. “I think we are at a point now where we have a little more leverage because we can opt out of doing that and viably make our own stuff.”
Which is exactly what most Black artists and writers do in this industry. It’s so rare for artists and writers to get repeat gigs in comics that most do creator-owned projects in their downtime. Some are lucky, like Ukazu’s Check Please, which made over $350,000 in its first Kickstarter, and has garnered both Harvey and Ignatz awards. Walker’s Bitter Root has also received accolades and is currently being adapted into a live-action film by Black Panther director Ryan Coogler through Legendary Pictures.
But they are the exception and not the rule. With the crowdfunding model and social media access, many creators are not waiting for the comics industry to find them. Instead, they are developing their own audiences and creating high-quality comic book series on their own. YouNeek Studios publisher and writer Roye Okupe (Malika, EXO: the Legend of Wale Williams) always knew he would self-publish. His focus has always been creating his own content for an international audience. He has even expanded his universe by developing his own animated pilot. “There's a huge world out there. And people are dying for great content. I've gotten nothing but love for my comics from people from all corners of the globe,” Okupe says.
The pathway to success for Black creators in this medium appears to come down to the fans and to indie publishers who are skilled at connecting with them. The more creators like Okupe who create their own work and maintain their own audiences, the more success they will have. They will not only be more attractive to companies with the marketing budgets to support them (Okupe’s comics are distributed by Diamond,) but, perhaps more importantly, they will own their own content. “I have always been a person that supports self-published work,” Ayala says. “And I think we are in a place now where it is more viable than ever. We don’t have to compromise, we have communities backing us up. I think we can and should do both!”
Illidge sees a brighter future for Black creatives in the industry. “The support for Black indie creators will last from the fan and consumer perspective. That's beyond question,” he says. “People will always want stories of heroism in which they see a reflection of themselves or the themes of importance in their lives”.