People of color in comics
Black Ink is a Docuseries examining the contributions to the comic book industry by people of color: the challenges and the triumphs inherent in overtaking stereotypes and replacing them with archetypes that can shape generations of comic creators, fans and pop-culture. Now with movie studios and television networks mining comics for source material, as well as internet shows devoted to comic books, comics are big business and a powerful cultural influence.
In this, the first episode of BLACK INK, comic historians Professors John Jennings and William Foster III, launch this docuseries by recounting the early start of the comic genre. In the spring of 1939, the first comic book ever devoted to a single character was launched, Action Comics Superman. Jennings, Foster and others shed light on general attitudes and perceptions of African-Americans and the overall presentations of people of color that dominated the media at that time. Writers and artists within the industry recount how film, radio and comics promoted racist stereotypes and false assumptions about black people. History disassembles the systemic inner functioning of the comic industry, past to present, that forced black creators into a struggle to develop and promote positive presentations of themselves.
Representation is vitally important; you are what you see. Will you be the hero, villain or nowhere at all? Erika Alexander shares her experience as a co-creator of Concrete Park, a futuristic science-fiction graphic novel with then-husband Tony Puryear. She recounts being told by a potential publisher that “black people don’t see themselves in the future”. She underscores the importance of knowing one’s historical place and contributions as persons of color to society. In this episode comic creators validate the magnitude of visual representation that makes real the possibilities available to young minds. What one does not see also speaks volumes. The erasure and negative portrayals of people of color can adversely affect how people of color see themselves. Prolonged exposure to content that presents whites as belonging in any setting doing whatever the plot of the story calls for while relegating the person of color as “the other” helps shape self-image as well forms the foundation of personal expectations. If we are to take seriously comics impact on black youth, we cannot dismiss the power of portrayals of racial groups as mere entertainment.
Black characters don’t sell. Black characters do sell. A quick google search of either of these phrases yields information supporting both opinions and offers ideological views that support both positions. In this episode comic artist, entrepreneur and author, Turtel Onli as well as African-American comic book artist of Big City Entertainment Dawud Anyabwile offer their views on the subject.
Despite a turbulent comic market that is in transition, movie profits portraying superheroes increase with each new release. Black Panther remains the highest-grossing solo superhero movie ($1,346,913,161 globally). On the DC side, its most popular movie character is Aquaman ($1,147,761,807 globally), portrayed by a person of color (Jason Momoa). What does such information indicate about the success rate of characters of color and what is the reality of the business of black comic books?
The Future. What does it look like for black comic creators and their intellectual property? If you look at the work of Anthony Piper’s indie graphic novel Trill League and its anime-inflected, hip-hop-informed vision of a black superhero universe, the future is bright.
The same can also be said of Greg Burnham and Marcus Williams’ the creators of Tuskegee Heirs. The comic series that follows a group of young aviators who become earth’s last line of defense. With great visuals and thought provoking story telling these young creators are an inspiration for everyone desiring to tell their stories their way.
In summation, Shawn Martinbrough, David Walker, Robb Armstrong, Joseph Illidge, Kwanza Osajyefo, Regine Sawyer, Jamal Yaseem Igle, ChrisCross, Barbara Brandon-Croft, Alex Simmons, Robert Jeffrey II, Whitney Taylor and many other contributors to the comic industry bring their characters and tell their stories of trials and triumphs. In this final episode it cannot be denied black comics and their creators are here to stay. ‘Nuff said.