Black (Comic Book) Lives Matter

Black lives matter.

I understand where the response 'All Lives Matter' comes from, but it's a moot argument as far as I'm concerned.  There is a problem in America that for once everyone seems ready to tackle.  It involves the horrible treatment of African Americans, and how racism still exists.  I'm not willing to go to the point of saying that the vast majority of American's are nazi's, but it almost doesn't matter how much or how little of white supremacy exists: Bottom line, racism is still out there.  The bottom line is we should be beyond this.  The bottom  line is if 'all lives matter,' then this means 'black lives matter' as a logical extension.  I want to be part of the solution and not the problem.  I don't always know how to do that.  For all the merits I may have as a person, I can be wildly frustrating to talk to because I'm such a logical person.  I try to see all sides of the argument, see how we got to this point, and then I propose what I see as a solution.  I'm certainly not one who gets so mad he picks up a sign and marches in the street (though I respect those who do).

I can't say anything about this movement I'm not qualified to say.  While I have black friends, I can't say I understand what their every day life is like.  I'm so cautious to avoid getting too political, I decided the one way I COULD get into the conversation was to write about comics books that chronicle the lives of African Americans...and that's when I hit a road block.  Because when I thought back to all the years I've been reading comics, there were few series that featuring black characters in the main narrative at all.  Series with a black protagonist...well, those were more rare.  I did read one on a monthly basis though...

"Static Shock" (or just "Static" in the early days) is the most notable title I could think of that I read as a kid where the main protagonist was black.  Now, not to make myself seem super woke and progressive, but I really didn't give it much thought.  I read the title because it was good.  I liked Virgil, I loved the conflicts presents in the book, and it had excellent action sequences!  I was turned onto it because of the animated series that aired on Kids WB, but I loved both the show and the comic.  I remember when I was reading an article about the show in The Sacramento Bee newspaper (remember those) and at one point the writer called the series 'a revelation' because the main character was African American.  I think I was around 10 or 11 years old at the time, and when I read that I remember wondering why that mattered.  Why did it matter what color his skin was?  Couldn't I just enjoy it because it was a good show?  I'll get back to how I was naïve at the time, but even if that was the only show I could think of at the time that featured a black protagonist, it wouldn't be the last.

Shortly after "Static Shock" aired on Kids WB, the Disney Channel decided to air a series called "The Proud Family" (created by animation legend Bruce Smith) and I ate it up!  It was basically a classic family sitcom in the vein of "Family Matters" and "The Cosby Show."  These shows were popular because they showed African Americans as the 'All American Family' just like mine was (with the major exception being that these families were MUCH funnier than the families I knew).  "The Proud Family" was a return to that style of sitcom, except it was animated.  What the show means to me is fairly limited.  It was a high quality show and I believe anyone could see that.  If you want an example of what it means to young African Americans, Toonrific Tariq made an excellent video on the subject (Warning: It's pretty long but WELL worth a watch):

The only other comic book I can think of that I read as a kid that was predominantly about African American's was a little read series called "@ Large," which was the result of a contest by former manga publishing superstar Tokyopop...

I hesitate bringing this one up because I personally didn't enjoy it very much.  Part of the reason may be because I didn't relate to it.  The world of Ahmed Hoke is not one that I was a part of, and it came along during a time when I wasn't very much interested in at the time.  I no longer have the book, but I wonder what my reaction to it would be today.  Would I be more open to it?  More willing to give it a chance?  While I may not have given it a positive review, when I think back at the title I do remember it having a unique art style while being one of the most unique titles I had read.  Still, I wasn't much into the whole graffiti thing, so the title didn't do much for me.  I was however very much taken in with a series I picked up several years later where an aspiring blues player made a deal with the devil...

Published by Del Rey back in the day (and sadly out of print), "Me and the Devil's Blues" was a title that went from drama, to coming-of-age, to horror.  The protagonist was real life blues player Robert Johnson and the title of the manga was taken from his famous song.  I read the book with my knuckles gripping the pages and the sweat coming off my forehead.  It was an engrossing read and one of the reasons I LOVE reading comics!  I didn't really care if it was historically accurate or not (in fact, there's pretty much NO chance the real Robert Johnson's life was ANYTHING like you'll read in this book).  I didn't care that it was about a world I didn't frequently take interest in.  It was GOOD!!!  That's all that mattered to me!  It wasn't a series that was going to please everyone (especially with the ending that was more than a little anti-climatic), but it was bold storytelling as far as I was concerned!
All of that said, what is my point?  Am I asking for brownie points because I read/watched comics and cartoons about black people?  No, that would be stupid.  The point is that these are the only stories where African Americans were the primary protagonists I can think of off the top of my head.  This isn't good.  Look, I'm not exactly the target audiences for these series, but I did love them...or, MOST of them!  They did leave an impact.  They touched me.  That's what good art and stories do: They touch people's hearts and mean something to people!  As I really reflect on the events that have taken place in America and my own limited journalism career in comics, I am struck by how few comics about African Americans I've read.  Even when I throw in comics that I didn't read on a regular basis like Black Panther it seems like such a small list.  Even some of the great African American writers like Dwayne McDuffie spent a significant amount of time writing for Superman and Batman.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it was clear the man had more to say in "Static Shock" than he did with the white superheroes.

When I think back to all the comics creators I've met - Stan Lee, Alan Moore, Nobuhiro Watsuki - there's only one black comic creator I can think of whose hand I've shaken: Aaron McGruder of "The Boondocks" (a series I may have neglected to discuss earlier...but only because it deserves its own post).  That seems pretty bad when you take into account how many black men and women are EXCELLENT artists in their own rights, and we are being robbed of their unique voices and art styles!  One of the reasons I started reading Japanese and Korean comics was because they offered a different perspective.  Why do we have to go to other countries for different perspectives?  We live in the Great American Melting Pot!  We have a variety of voices right here wanting to be part of this industry, and it's crazy that we don't look towards them!  Sure, "@ Large" wasn't something that I personally connected with, but someone likely did!  "The Boondocks" may not have connected with everyone, but it connected with millions of people.

Yet despite the successes I listed above (and some I didn't), black comic book characters are still rare.  African American creators aren't people I normally come across.  This is wrong and it needs to change.  If black lives matter than so do black comic book lives.  Because as young men and women, some of our earliest memories is that of reading a comic book.  Some of our first heroes come from comics books.  Whether that is Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Sailor Moon, InuYasha, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, Garfield, or anyone else, some of our favorite heroes and stories come from comic books and animation.  Yet it's a field where black creators are heard less than any other entertainment medium I can think of.  I don't know how to fix it.  I also know comics alone won't change racism.  But I also know that stories matter.  They bring us together.  They help us relate to one another and give us perspectives we otherwise wouldn't have.  I'd love to see comics do more in this regard.

I'm going to end by sharing with you a short film.  This short won the Academy Award last year for Best Animated Short and it's wonderful!

Wasn't that great?!  Here's something you may not know: The short was Kickstarted because no studio wanted to put forth the money to have it made.  Granted, a LOT of people who want to get a short made go to Kickstarter, but this short had some really talented people behind it, like the aforementioned Bruce Smith and Issa Rae.  And no studio wanted to fund it?  That speaks volumes about how unfair this business is to black people and how we can do better.  The quality of many of the aforementioned projects are why we SHOULD do better, because not only do we deprive ourselves when we aren't inclusive, we aren't listening to what they have to say!  My 10 year old self didn't realize that it was a big deal that "Static Shock" existed, because for many other black boys my age at the time, they saw a character and a family that looked like them, when for years they hadn't.  Like most of us today, I wasn't listening to these concerns.  Listening is half the battle in all of this.  I'm ready to start way or another.

Your Comic Book Guy - Kevin

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