Crossing the streams.

I’ve been thinking about my previous post concerning Eric Stephenson’s recent interview. If one has read any of my older posts regarding the comics industry and diversity, I know it must sound as if I’ve contradicted myself. I often state that writers can express themselves creatively and reach others even while eschewing the mainstream. I believe that. But, for me, there is the black individual and the black collective. There is the impulse to create and the need for a community to be heard and to provide for itself.

The comics industry is closed to me. I understand that now and I accept this fact because it has absolutely no impact on my ability to either create new works or share those works with others. Any individual with working vocal cords or access to a library can create and distribute a story. Yes, the scale is certainly limited and there is no monetary compensation, but the need to create and to share one’s creation with another can easily be fulfilled. WordPress journals are free; a vanity press will allow for one’s book to be published. For me, this is enough.

However, the mainstream comics community is also closed to professional black writers. An entire racial group has been shut out, their stories barred from the one arena that garners the most money and the most attention. I do not understand this and refuse to accept it. Black men and women with decades of experience as writers, fame and fan followings, and widely distributed works have been denied access. Unlike their peers, they are not sought to provide pitches nor are they considered for work unless there is a rare book featuring a black lead (and more often than not, white men are chosen to write those books as well).

I cannot accept this because I have the need to see black people and hear their voices when I consume mainstream entertainment. No, I do not expect black people to helm every project or star in every vehicle, but I do expect them to have a clearly heard voice in every creative industry.  The comics industry as it currently stands is unable to meet those expectations. It is for this reason that I am no longer a consumer. I’ve simply walked away from the mainstream. For the industry, this abandonment is no great loss. Eight dollars less a month certainly will not cause any major comic company to crumble. Being one reader short will not result in a book being cancelled.

However, I am not the only one to walk away. Many black men and women who once created comics have been lured away by film, television, animation, books, and magazines—industries where their contributions are desired. The impact is glaring. An entire component of American culture has been severed from the industry. Given America’s obsession with its black subculture and the comic industry’s mad scramble to create projects that will appeal to an increasingly diverse audience, this seems blatantly stupid.

For the most part, I attempt to remain quiet. (Really, I do!) These are topics that should be addressed by men and women working in the industry, not outsiders, but their overwhelming silence often causes me to blurt out impatiently.

I promise to try to do better. Instead of using this blog to focus on what and how mainstream comic companies must change, I’ll use this blog to champion the creators I enjoy. A little positivity never hurt anyone!


Cycles.

“RE: The Stephenson interview. The Image method is meaningless when it comes to creators of color, so I wish that Eric Stephenson wouldn’t push it as the method of finding talent. All of the creators he named as new finds were white. I don’t see Jimmie Robinson being offered a slew of Marvel and DC books. (Note: it’d be nice!) The only way new writers of color can break in comics and receive regular mainstream work is if they’ve achieved success in another arena. And Image is not searching for creators of color in other arenas to lure them to Image. That is what DC and Marvel have been doing. I could not care less how we get new writers of color. If we need to steal famous people from other mediums, that’s great! But that whole ‘rising through the ranks of Image’? Son, that doesn’t work for you if you are black. Can we just be honest about that? The Image grooming process works fabulously for white people though. Still, it’s not gonna get me a Hudlin or Liu.”

—Cheryl Lynn Eaton

My comments on Twitter, shown above, grew out of a discussion of Heidi MacDonald’s interview with Image’s publisher, Eric Stephenson. It also grew out of the acknowledgment of the dearth of black writers in mainstream comics and the lack of upwards mobility for black writers within the comics industry. For talented white men with aspirations of working in mainstream comics or gaining widespread notoriety, the “Image to Big Two” cycle awaits: embark upon your career with an Image miniseries; get offered work on mid-tier Marvel or DC comics; develop a cult following; get offered work on a major Marvel or DC ongoing series; develop a need to branch out creatively and own one’s own intellectual property; return to Image with huge fanfare; bounce back and forth between corporate and creator-owned work until mainstream fans grow tired of your industry dominance and Marvel or DC will no longer offer projects.

This route is sealed for black writers. Jimmie Robinson has not been tapped for a Marvel miniseries. Enrique Carrion isn’t registering on DC’s radar. I’m baffled as to why. Marvel and DC rifle through Image as a kid skips through a candy store, gobbling up all the jellybeans save the black ones. (To be fair, black jellybeans are awful, but black writers—like all writers—run the gamut when it comes to talent.)

DC and Marvel do occasionally notice the need for diversity within the talent pool and actively seek out writers of color. However, instead of seeking these men and women at Image, they scout for popular writers in other arenas—film, animation, television, video games, music, prose. It seems the only way a black writer can garner mainstream success in comics is if he or she has already achieved mainstream success outside of it.

I don’t know why the route to mainstream success for black writers has become so narrow, warped, and difficult to navigate. All I know is that there thankfully is a route and I want to see black writers with the fame and talent needed to manage the journey traveling it. I want black people to have a voice in comics that is able to be heard by mainstream audiences. We are not a niche. We are not a tiny subculture to be denied larger access. We deserve to tell our stores, not in a quiet corner, but in front of a microphone.

Yes, black writers can thrive outside the mainstream, just as a musician can earn a living foregoing radio play and an actor can make a living never appearing in a major motion picture or national television show. However, when an entire group composed of multiple ethnicities is denied access to the mainstream? The industry is woefully incomplete. Imagine if one could only hear black musical acts via college radio stations. Imagine if Lucy Liu’s available roles were limited solely to those in plays. Imagine if the four women writers currently at Marvel and DC had their books cancelled, were not offered new projects, and fandom said not one word regarding their disappearance. (Note: the latter actually happened in regards to black writers.)

What do I want? I want exactly what I’ve been getting in drips and drabs, successful black writers from other arenas being offered work. However, I want this occurring in much greater abundance and at mainstream Marvel and DC (as well as at smaller imprints and independent comic companies). I also want something I haven’t been getting as well—talented black writers with years of industry experience (Priest, Burrell, Benardin, Trotman, etc.) being tapped to write series.

It’s 2013. Let’s make some changes.


Ether.

My last post concentrated on damage control tactics for DC regarding the Before Watchmen project and DC’s early termination of Chris Roberson’s stint at DC. I’d like to use this post to “hop over the fence” and discuss possible ways in which independent companies such as Image and Dark Horse can capitalize on DC’s large public presence and apparent marketing weaknesses.

DC is an industry behemoth—fat, sluggish, and slow, but also massively powerful. Its size is a blessing that affords it the best spot in Previews, constant press from popular news sites, and the rapt attention of a legion of long-devoted fans. Its size is also a curse. It has become an antiquated bureaucracy, limiting its speed. It is unable to make adjustments quickly in regards to negative press, unhappy fans, or dissatisfied talent. Any action required is initially bound by ribbons of red tape unfurled by editors elucidating edicts from on high. Its inflexible nature forces it down narrow paths that will one day restrict its growth, for example, catering to a shrinking subset of homogeneous readers or allowing nepotism to dictate the talent pool. But we all know what DC is. The question for the competition is this, how can we—as independent publishers—make money from it?

In my last post, I stated that DC should make moves to appear creator-friendly. Dark Horse and Image need to show that they are truly creator-friendly and sabotage any inroads made by DC into their creator-owned domain. And, much to my pleasant surprise (because there is nothing that delights me more than a shrewd PR move), this is already occurring—cheaply and efficiently. Again, DC’s size affords it instant publicity. Attacks on the behemoth bring publicity too. A simple blog post from Stephenson or a Facebook interaction between Mignola and Hama will be picked up by news blogs and fan sites to be carried far and wide. And, amusingly, DC has played directly into their hands by responding, naming, and calling attention to both the attacks and the competition, assuming the role of Ja Rule instead of Jay Z. Think long and hard about the fates of both of these public personas, and of the two men who challenged them.

But it is not enough to simply stick and move. The comic industry is, to put it mildly, incestuous. Of course, its incestuous nature allows for certain deals to be easily made. Creators move from project to project with a speed that rivals the label-hopping of current rap stars or bed-hopping of video vixens. A young industry hotshot cuts his teeth at Image, builds his reputation at DC or Marvel, and perhaps has another dalliance with an independent publisher when the restrictive nature of the two conglomerates occasionally curtails his creativity. The goal of the independent publisher is to increase the frequency of said dalliances until a permanent relationship with a creator is formed and it becomes the first option a creator considers when attempting to launch a project. How can one accomplish this goal? Spit game. Editors from Image and Dark Horse need to aggressively pursue well-known creators working at Marvel and DC—especially now that budgetary concerns at both companies have forced the conclusion of certain exclusivity contracts. Woo them with words that prove you can provide the best of both worlds—the freedom of Kickstarter and the brand security of a long-standing company. Not only will you be rewarded with a successful project, but the publicity that comes from a former unhappy and currently famous creator raving about his new “crew” and disparaging his old one is icing on the cake.

However, some successes cannot be stolen or sabotaged. Sometimes, they must be methodically recreated. DC sits upon a tower of icons and industry lynchpins. Said tower was not created overnight, but required decades of creative input and calculated marketing. When I say that DC’s success should be recreated, I do not mean that companies should produce thinly-veiled versions of DC characters. No, what should be copied is DC’s slow and steady method of building franchises and brands. I want Graham’s excellent work on Prophet to be bound as soon as possible to be pushed as a mainstay for college literature courses. I want to see Hellboy and B.P.R.D. constantly cycling through high-profile film, television, and comic projects, never getting a chance to fade from the mainstream’s collective memory. I want to see an Empowered short story published in Playboy. I want a copy of King City to be found in every Barnes & Noble.

What I don’t want is for a creator with exceptional talent and an interesting project to be handed nothing more than a logo and a handshake. Foster loyalty, foster a crew, and then foster an image (no pun intended). Show and prove.