TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

‘Black Panther’ is just the beginning: The history and future of the Black Comic Book movement

in Arts & Culture/Feature by

While Marvel and DC Comics are doing a pretty good job of finally trying to erase the race line when it comes to its heroes of color, there are others who have been creating socially and culturally relevant comic book characters for years.

When Dawud Anyabwile was a kid, he loved comic books, particularly Marvel Comics.

But it wasn’t until his father broke down the many ways his beloved comic book characters, like Luke Cage and Black Panther, were portrayed in mainstream comics, that his admiration shifted. Because they were created by white men, the heroes came off as Black stereotypes. And compared to their white counterparts, there weren’t that many Black superheroes.

Anyabwile felt betrayed. And one night, the fifth-grader burned his entire comic book collection.

In 1989, he and his brothers, Guy and Jason Sims, decided to create their own comic book. It was called Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline, an 11 issue comic book series self published through their own publishing company, Big City Comics, Inc.

Brotherman Graphic Novel

The story revolved around Antonio Valor, who risked his life to fight the many injustices that were plaguing his community in the fictional Big City. Anyabwile and his brothers created Valor to be the quintessential Black man, someone who defied the stereotypes that plagued African-American men.

“I think Brotherman was that personification of that man who was there for the community,” Anyabwile says. “And he’ll die for his community and he doesn’t have superpowers. And that was basically the archetype of the men we knew coming up in our community. They took care of their families and played with their kids…a lot of the deadbeats, they’re the ones who get highlighted on the talk shows. There are a lot of men that are doing stuff, keeping gangs off the streets…but nobody knows their names.”

To sell their Brotherman comics, Anyabwile and his brothers would go to Black comic book expos and conventions, set up tables and network with other Black creators. They’d take their books to Black-owned businesses so the money would stay within the Black community.

That was the beginning of the Black Comic Book Movement. And after almost 30 years—thanks in large part to the success of the TV shows Luke Cage and Black Lightning, and of course the Marvel film Black Panther—mainstream pop culture has begun to notice.

“I think a lot of us are excited…but at the end of the day, who owns it?” says Anyabwile, referring to Marvel, which is owned by Disney, both companies that are predominantly white. “I just see it as certain people are being paid and a lot of their money goes back to a lot of the companies that continue to make money off of us. To me, I don’t look at this as comic books, I look at the commerce.”

The Rise of the Black Comics

Right now, there are more than 20 comic book conventions of color, gender and inclusion across the country with more popping up every year. And just like Anyabwile and his brothers, writers and artists are selling their creations within the growing circuit.

Three of these cons were co-founded by John Jennings, a professor of Art and Visual Studies at the University at Buffalo-State University of New York.

Jennings is an artist and writer himself, who has published multiple comic books, including Blue Hand Mojo, about a half-dead man with magical powers who sets out to save his own soul before the devil claims it.

Also, together with his creative partner, Damian Duffy, Jennings has published one of his most well-known works, a graphic-novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s science-fiction classic, Kindred.

As much as Jennings is appreciative of the spotlight that Black Panther has given to Black mainstream superheroes like Luke Cage and Falcon, he’d rather see more attention given to the independent creators that don’t have wide distribution access and rely heavily on events he helps put on.

“It’s a little frustrating because we’ve been at this for a long time and people are still not paying attention to the independent stuff as much because the Marvels and D.C.s and the Images have more money. They’ve been around longer. And I get it. But I’m down for someone like our friend Chuck Collins who is a bouncer, right? And he goes home and makes comic books after he’s bounced people from clubs and stuff, and then writes about being a bouncer. No one’s doing anything like this. These are the people that are out there. So basically, the rest of the world is finally catching up to the stuff we’ve been doing for the last 20 years or so.”

Then there’s Juliana “Jewels” Smith, creator of (H)afrocentric, a comic about her experiences as a young community college teacher, her relationship with her brother and her life in Oakland.

Hafrocentric comic strip. Creator Juliana “Jewels” Smith

Another comic book creator, New York City-based Tim Fielder, who’s known for beautifully-illustrated Matty’s Rocket comics and the just-released High John Conqueror, a retro-Afrofuturistic story loosely based on the African-American folk myth of John the Conqueror and done in the pulp styles of Charles Saunders and Robert E. Howard.

Working to create more awareness for this movement is Deirdre Holland, who has started an online community called the Black Comics Collective where creators and fans can connect about the industry, and to nurture young people to get into the industry, particularly young women.

When Holland thinks about the future of comic books, she thinks about how her kids and others will experience them. “As a mother and a teacher, for generations of young people, we’re writing a new story where superheroes of color exist,” she says. “They won’t won’t have the story that they never saw superheroes who look like them. They won’t have it. It won’t be a part of their story.”

“We are the cultivators and the architects and the storytellers that are pushing these stories forward for future generations,” says Jennings. “Because we’re never going to own Black Panther. We’re creating characters that we can control, and tell the types of stories that we want to make. That’s what we’re doing. That’s revolutionary.”

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Charles Moss is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga with bylines in The Atlantic, Slate, Washington Post, VICE, MOJO Magazine and other publications.

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