When it comes to people of color taking ownership of their own narratives, the fight for sovereignty has been long and ongoing. In 2013, Steve McQueen became the first black filmmaker to win Best Picture for historical drama 12 Years A Slave, after decades of white filmmakers receiving accolades for their own work on black narratives. The struggle has been similar within the comic-book world: While comic-book companies have recently seemed more eager to put more people of color on the page, they've also showed a reluctance to actually hire them to write, draw, or letter the comics in question. More than ever, though, creators of color are taking matters into their own hands—which is how BLACK came to be. The new comic asks the question, "What would happen if superpowers were real? And what if they were only given to black people?"
Recently, I exchanged emails with Jamal Igle, Kwanza Osajyefo, Khary Randolph, and Tim Smith 3—the creators of BLACK—to hear more about the ideas, production, and challenges surrounding a work that presents such a potentially dangerous question.
VICE: The premise of BLACK is that blackness imbues superhumanity and thereby justifies extreme violence against us—something seen all too frequently in the real world. What were the conversations you had with one another around that? What were you worried about?
Jamal Igle: I wasn't worried, particularly because even discussing the base premise would be (and was) considered in some corners as controversial. I walked into the project from the outset with that in mind, so I had no reservations about it. Kwanza, Tim, Sarah [Litt, the editor], and I had a conversation over dinner where we talked about the project in the abstract, and Kwanza and I lined up perfectly on the concept of race, representation, and superpowers.
One of the problems I've had as a comic-book reader and being a casual fan of the X-Men was the idea that the only thing that set mutants apart from characters like the Thing, the Hulk, and the Morlocks was how they were marketed to the public. If Warren Worthington didn't run around in a costume with giant x's all over it, he had enough resources to have the people believe he was an alien—or an actual angelic being. The "First Class" of X-Men were all pretty white kids going to an exclusive private school in Westchester. It's not exactly a bastion of individuality or fear for one's safety, unless you're ginger.
The first cover—a kid in a red hoodie, standing in "hands up, don't shoot" position—is immediately evocative and directly confrontational with white supremacy. I'm curious about what led you and the rest of the team to take such a brute force technique with the covers.
Khary Randolph: We don't pull any punches on these covers. They're brutally honest and don't hold back on what they are about, and I think that's necessary when you're dealing with subject matter that's this serious.
My normal day-to-day comic-book work looks nothing like this. It's much more colorful and pop art. I don't normally do political work, but this was personal—to all of us. We knew we had something to say with this book, so from the moment Kwanza and I first discussed what the book would be about, I knew I had to approach things differently. The very limited color palette, the street art feel, the compositions, and the themes are all very deliberate. On a purely emotional level, this was by far the hardest illustration job I've ever had to do, and I'm very proud of how it's come out.
BLACK is monochromatic—black and white—which isn't the absence of color per se, but is definitely in defiance of the color palette of most modern Western comics. What do you feel like you gained from this technique?
Kwanza Osajyefo: I felt that BLACK is a story that readers bring their own experiences to. It won't be the same read for everyone. I thought adding color would, in some regard, distract readers and entertain their imagination less. You could read into it as a metatextual absence of color as a reflection of blacks absence in comics.
Randolph: For the record, I love color. But with this project, not having it lends to the gravitas of the themes that we tackle—and it helps us stand out in a marketplace that's full of oversaturated color. It's a point of pride for us that this is the kind of book and story that really can't be told at the major publishers. We're striving to do something different, and that extends even to the lack of color.
There's some pressure, but also some freedom, in drawing, writing, or creating a black body. How does it feel, emotionally, to work on a project like this? What's the work like? What does it bring to your day-to-day life?
Tim Smith 3: If you want to break into mainstream comics, you better know how to draw all kinds of people—but you'll be drawing Caucasians the most. But when you work on a book that's mostly black faces, it will make you slow down and get it right because it's not in the norm of comics. Not every black person looks alike, nor does any other person of any other race. But working on this makes me stop and think about making them look like people. And a part of that is to give each of them a look that unifies and separates them from one another.
I talked to a woman who said she hadn't drawn in years, so when she did draw something, she drew the face of a black woman. Now mind you, she herself was black, but she found it difficult to get some of the facial features to her liking. Looking in a mirror her whole life didn't seem to bridge the gap, nor did looking at her family and friends and TV and books—yet she seemed very comfortable drawing a white face. It's ingrained in our culture: the image of what is to be considered the norm. Artists should break out of the bubble and draw all kinds of people. Test your limits, and don't be told what to draw or settle for what everyone has been drawing. For me, drawing BLACK is a fulfilling means to being an artist and an artist of color.
All of you are men, and while the comic definitely makes strides toward inclusion, the voice and perspective is also rather definitively cisgender male. What conversations did you guys have among yourselves about the absence of women from your creative team?
Osajyefo: We're all painfully aware, and it's never lost on me that I need to make extra effort on my contacts list. If black men in comics are unicorns, black women are pegacorns. Fortunately, that's quickly changing.
We were able to have Ashley Woods draw an alternate cover for Chapter One of BLACK that has a Harriet Tubman homage on the cover. I would love work with more sisters on future stories in BLACK, but I'll admit I'm only now just introducing myself.
In one of the issues, a Jamaican man uses the term "batty boy"—a Jamaican pejorative generally meant to target queer men. Could you describe your intent with the phrase and how it fits in with the narrative?
That character is SAVAGE, and he's not a good person. He's a hardcore gangster and murderer. I like to write villains who do bad things, so it stands to reason that they also say bad things. Considering he eviscerates people in the chapter that he appears in, why is name calling the focus? Are we that desensitized to violence?
Black characters are not just these one-dimensional tokens to assuage publishers obilivity and pacify readers of color. All that stated, I also know thatIdon't know all the deep roots of all these aspects in blackness, but I wanted readers to have these characters exist.
You guys made a point to have AAVE as a clear part of BLACK's vernacular, which is, as is everything, a clearly political choice. Am I right in thinking you're big believers in showing multitudes to counteract stereotypes?
A lot of writers don't use the vernacular, pidgin, etc. Maybe that's a fear of making black characters sound ignorant—or perhaps the issue is that there is not enough diversity to allow for it. Name the last black supervillain from a mainstream publisher. They want black faces on their characters but don't have the internal depth (black people on staff) to show our humanity—good and bad. The fears is backlash of presenting us in a bad light, but they also aren't hiring us in positions to influence that content.
In BLACK, we're attempting to show the spectrum of blackness—on our own terms. I love accents, and black people have them. To me, it would be a disservice to gloss over that for pretense.
What are the elements each of you are hoping readers take from your work on BLACK? What's the one thing you'd like us to pay attention to or notice?
Smith 3: This project started as a Kickstarter. I don't know what or where it would have gone if not for that. But we did it there. We were committed in doing it one way or another. But the people wanted it as it was funded so here we are! (Thank you KS and all those helped make this happen!) I want folks to understand that there are no rules to making comics. Whatever you think of the book, know that we got up, did it, and it was accepted and wanted. Now I hope you enjoy something that truly breaks the norm.
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