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Beyond funny: black voices in the world of comics and graphic novels.

Welcome to the new world of the funnies. Comics, anime/manga and graphic novels--the last cultural frontier. Yes, when it comes to comics, everything old is new again.

Graphic novels and comics in general are on the upswing in terms of sales and literary respect. The novels, which include the vastly popular Japanese illustrated tales known as manga, have been enjoying a jump in sales, with performance going from $75 million in 2001 to $207 million in 2004, according to current industry figures from Publishers Weekly. Internationally, booksellers in much of the industrialized world have seen graphic lit become one of the rapidly growing categories in books. At Borders Books & Music, one of America's strongest bookselling chains, graphic novel sales have leapt more than 100 percent a year for the past three years.

Comics have an endearing history. In 1905, Winsor McCay created Little Nemo in Slumberland; 1913 witnessed the arrival of George Herriman's Krazy Kat; and in the 1950s. Charles M. Schulz introduced Peanuts. In the 1960s, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee developed some of the most cherished superheroes to enter mainstream American culture, including the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men.

New Format, New Themes

Now a new and improved comic literature has come out of the specialized shops and into the major bookstores and libraries. The topics and themes of these graphic novels are more provocative, edgier and much more mature than those in earlier comics. Even Hollywood has taken notice of this trend and captured a younger, more sophisticated audience, as its dream factories have made movies out of several graphic novels, including Daniel Clowes's Ghost World, Max Allan Collins's The Road to Perdition, Frank Miller's Sin City, and Man Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta.

One award-winning comic artist and graphic novelist, Ho Che Anderson, a black Brit named after the Vietnamese and Cuban revolutionaries Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara, knows the inner workings of several major mediums, for he has been a novelist, radio producer, newspaper reporter and commercial illustrator.

Asked about the difference between a graphic novel and a comic, Anderson, the creator of the King and Pop Life series, says: "Comics are what sell on newsstands. Graphic novels are what sell in bookstores. They're fancier versions of the same thing. Comics are generally six-by-ten-inch pamphlets doled out on a monthly basis that are chunks of larger, complete stories.... Graphic novels are glossier publications that collect and complete those ongoing narratives or are self-contained stories created for the format itself. They can run anywhere from forty-eight pages to three hundred pages (or more), depending on the story. The basic idea behind them is that you get a complete story in one book, rather than the serial nature of most comics."

The concept of the graphic novel was brought to the fore by Will Eisner, who popularized the format of a serialized story within two book covers with his 1978 work A Contract With God (paperback, DC Comics, 2000). The social themes supposedly too serious for the usual comic book have been welcomed into the increasingly sophisticated scenarios of the graphic novel. These themes include oppression, terrorism, sexism and racism. In fact, in the daring philosophy of the artful novels, it was not a long leap from the 1986 release of Art Spigelman's Maus, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize, to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Chicken With Plums or Joe Sacco's War's End or Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar. Graphic novels are simply not child's play.

"Right now, graphic novels are on center stage because so many films have come out based on them," says Bob Hobbs, one of the artists at the forefront. "Also, what I see is more established writers and authors who are known for their straight novels putting out graphic novels, too."

Follow the Money

In fact, several black authors have added writing comics and graphic novels to their repertoire. Walter Mosley, of the Easy Rawlins mystery series, is in partnership with the Marvel Comics' team to produce a large, $50 re-creation of the initial issue of the Fantastic Four, honoring the art of Lee and Kirby. It was Mosley's brainchild and should lead to other collaborations with this unit. The project should be in stores next year. Eric Jerome Dickey has recently created an X-Men series for Marvel based on two black superheroes. (See "Comic Relief," BETWEEN THE LINES, BIBR, March/April 2006.)

Writers and artists go where the money is. Opportunities abound as they're flooding into the ranks of the comic book industry, an industry not known for its cultural diversity. "In many areas, black artists and writers are doing a lot of interesting work," says Calvin Reid, senior news editor at Publishers Weekly. "We're in a period of self-publishing, and the Internet has improved the ability of all artists to find an audience. I'd say black comic artists, like comics in general, are in a new golden age. There's just so much inventive new work that it's hard to generalize. Going to San Diego, for the world's largest comics convention, every year as I do, I'm surprised at how many black artists and writers I see doing sophisticated work on books that are not even obviously black comics."

For example, crime novelist Gary Phillips, who sits on the national board of the Mystery Writers of America and is author of Monkology: 13 Stories From the World of Private Eye Ivan Monk (McMillan Publications, 2004), teamed with illustrator Shawn Martinbrough to produce Angeltown, a well-received miniseries for Vertigo/DC Comics, in 2005. He's also done a comic book about a hit man for God called The Envoy, for Moonstone Comics. Phillips has just completed a 90-page graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics called Culprits. He describes the project as Donald Goines meets The Sopranos by way of Jack Kirby, as it has a main character named Rack Butler, an antiheroic, gang boss with super strength.

Phillips is currently working on Thief of Evil, an upcoming manga graphic novel, for Tokyopop. And Oni Comics is set to publish his graphic novel Promise of Night, a murder mystery set among the black WWII veterans who've settled into the jazz and literary scene of 1950s Paris.

"I started out decades ago wanting to be a comic book artist and writer," says Phillips. "I wanted to work for Marvel so bad that I would have sold my sister if I had one. The comic artists knew how to tell a story, how to maintain pace, mood, tension and drama. That hooked you, made you want to find out more as comics and graphic novels (which are really just fatter comic books) are a visual medium. My job as a writer is not to get in the way of the pictures. I may set direction and focus, but the artist makes it all come alive. Because comics is such an immediate medium, this wonderful mix of words and pictures, its hold on me remains after all these years."

The Success Stories

Another mystery writer, Christopher Chambers, author of A Prayer for Deliverance (Crown, 2003), recently signed deals with Moonstone Comics as a contributing writer for books of Buckaroo Banzai, from the '80s cult film, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, based on the classic horror TV show from the '70s. He is in talks with the DC Comics' imprint Vertigo to expand his short story Leviathan into a graphic novel as well.

Author Mat Johnson, creator of the award-winning novel Hunting in Harlem (Bloomsbury, 2003), is writing Incognegro, his first original graphic novel, for Vertigo. Incognegro is a noir mystery based on actual stories of undercover race spying in the Jim Crow South; it's due to be published in 2007. While authors like Johnson--who recently wrote Hellblazer: Papa Midnite (Vertigo/DC Comics, April 2006)--are penning graphic novels, interest in the genre has spilled over into the world of literature, as Chambers and Phillips are developing The Darker Mask, an anthology in which super authors, including Steven Barnes, Eric Jerome Dickey, Tananarive Due, Gar Anthony Harwood, Naomi Hirahara and Walter Mosley, will write about superheroes of color.

One success story in the comics industry is that of Dwayne McDuffie, who has enjoyed major achievements in both the comics world and Tinseltown. After writing for almost every major comic book company--he started creating black characters at Marvel--and penning a successful series, Deathlok, he formed a major black company, Milestone Media. "My work on Deathlok gave me the money to cofinance Milestone, my own company, in 1992," McDuffie recently said to a reporter at Writer's Guide to Hollywood, a film industry newsletter.

"We called ourselves multicultural and we took that seriously. Both our product and our creative staff were representative of many different racial, religious and ethnic groups," McDuffie says. "My hope was that we would find fresh water if we looked in different wells. I think we succeeded. I'd love to make my living writing for the screen, but I have to admit that my experience writing for comics probably translates more directly to episodic stuff like TV."

Some black artists and companies are illustrators and animators, as well. Take for example Gettosake Entertainment, which is owned by Jeremy Love and his brothers, Maurice and Robert. The Gettosake team features comics, custom-made illustration and animation--all with a hip-hop slant. While the Love brothers have scored several times, for instance, with the infamous Fierce miniseries and the Shadow Rock graphic novel at Dark Horse Comics, they are particularly proud that their graphic novel Venus Kincaid is being reoptioned for filming.

Leesa Dean is a cartoonist and former jazz pianist whose graphic novel Chilltown is winning the favor of young and old alike, especially the cool rapper crowd. "I had reached a point in the music business where I felt like a hack," says Dean. "So I started exploring other mediums."

Coming to an iPod Near You

"That comic book led to other avenues of expression. Once I did the comic, I was hooked," Dean adds. "Cartooning is just a natural extension of my creativity. I'm well into my second printing and the Web site (http://www.chilltown.net) has a fan base of over 2.5 million people. I sold it to BET a few years back, but it never left development. Now I've gotten the rights back, and I'm in the process of animating it myself for mobile media, iPods and DVD. It's called Chilltown TV and the anticipated release date is fall 2006. I'm also creating a new graphic novel, Stories That Are Beyond III, based in part on my childhood experiences in the Bronx."

When a graphic novel is exceptional, with its artwork and text perfectly blended, it's easy to understand why this is a genre on the rise. "Sure, comics have been perfect for sixty years, but now the culture has finally caught up with the art form," concludes Mitch Cutler, manager of New York City's St. Mark's Comics, one of the country's most eclectic stores. "Graphic novels have long flown trader the radar, but it's their time now. There is a new, accepting audience that doesn't [care] if the books are by black or Asian or Latin artists and writers. They just want a good story and great artwork. They can always tell if it's false or bogus. That's why this stuff continues to sell."

For a listing of graphic novels and Web sites dedicated to graphic novels and comics fans, visit www.bibookreview.com.

BIRTH OF A GRAPHIC NOVEL

The Boondocks debuted in national syndication in April 1999 with its irreverent satire mining such hot-button subjects as the Iraq war, bird flu, interracial love, gay themes in film, the Bush White House, hip-hop and the very nature of American politics.

Cartoonist Aaron McGruder began writing the strip in 1997, while attending the University of Maryland. Currently, it's featured in nearly 350 newspapers. Some even carry the strip in their hallowed editorial pages. Last November, The Boondocks empire expanded when a TV adaptation of the comic strip debuted on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.

McGruder's latest offering--Birth of a Nation: A Comic Novel (Three Rivers Press, 2005), a graphic novel--was created along with filmmaker Reginald Hudlin (House Party and Boomerang) and cartoonist Kyle Baker (Why I Hate Saturn). The story elicits raucous laughter. It's about a black town that decides to secede from the United States after 1,000 of of its citizens are barred from voting. Hudlin and McGruder were chatting together at the San Diego Comic Book Convention when they came up with the idea for this book. When Hollywood wouldn't bite, they turned to Baker to pen the ingenious graphic novel.

It's social and political satire at its best. McGruder told Playahata magazine: "Hudlin wrote the Foreword for the book ... The book is satire, but there are factual things in that book [that] probably seem so ridiculous they couldn't be true. However, not to confuse anybody, the book on the whole is satire."

Not only did Hudlin copromote the McGruder project, he also revisited a superhero, the Black Panther, 40 years after the character's creation. Hudlin, who owns more than 20,000 comics, wrote the graphic novel Black Panther." Who Is the Black Panther (Marvel Comics, 2005), which stirred a bit of controversy with its maverick, pro-nationalist messages, leading a critic to label the comic as "dealing in broad caricature."

Baker, winner of the Eisner and the Harvey Awards for best humorous cartoonist for his Plastic Man (DC Comics) in 2005, completed not only the McGruder-Hudlin project but also a nonfiction biographical work, Nat Turner (Kyle Baker Publishing, 2005). For the Nat Turner format, Baker selected a wordless story rendered through dramatic pictures for emotional impact. Earlier this year, Baker released a hardcover collection of The Bakers, a graphic novel featuring the cartoonist and his family, including his three children.

Robert Fleming is a contributing editor to Black Issues Book Review. He is also the author of the books Havoc After Dark: Tales of Terror (Dafina Books, 2004) and Fever in the Blood (Kensington Publishing Corp., May 2006).
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Author:Fleming, Robert
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
Words:2352
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