"Society says, that by the time you're 16, you'll either be dead or in jail..."
This was the sentiment my mother shared with me at or around my twelfth birthday. It was a harsh conceit to be told at such a "young" age, to be sure, especially coming from the woman who nurtured and raised me. But harsher still is the absolute truth of that reality, growing up a black male in the early/mid 1990's. We (black youths in general, but especially the males) were reckless and violent back then -- which I don't say with the intent of marking it as the worst of times, but it was enough that people ACTUALLY SAID that black males should be put on the endangered species list. It was in our music, in our movies and had become the standard for which ALL black males would be judged...even me, a fact my mother was simply getting me hip to, so that I'd understand what I was up against, both from the outside world's perspective and hers (she'd kill me before she let me mess up enough to face jail!).
Luckily, my mother and I were of the same accord about proving that standard WRONG. I had already been introduced to the world of comics with the release of the Death of Superman arc, and in dedication to my Uncle Mark, one of my first and best comic art teachers (who was a grown man killed by non-black teens, btw), I had decided that making comics was my career goal. But scarcely did the two goals intersect. As a young black reader of comics, I had a few character notables that I could "call my own" -- the mutant goddess of the elements (Storm), her future-husband, Avenger and king of Wakanda (Black Panther), the Superman-inspired, folk-lore named engineer (Steel) and a tiara-toting, hired hero (Luke Cage) *There were PLENTY MORE black heroes, but these were some of the first that sprang to mind!* As a black comic creator, though, the road was a little less traveled.
My first introduction into black creators came with Todd Johnson and Larry Stroman's Tribe. While I had unknowingly been a fan of Stroman's work from his run on Marvel's X-Factor (because of him it was YEARS before I could appreciate Neal Adam's design for Havok's costume), I didn't know he was black until my uncle Byron met him at a signing, hyping Tribe's initial release through Image Comics. He came back with a few things he graciously parted to me, one of which was a signed magazine,encouraging ME to keep drawing!
And the impact of these black creators doing black comics featuring black characters wasn't lost on me, either. I revamped ALL of the comic characters I had been developing, taking a hard-nosed, "Black is Phat" stance, like I needed to legitimize myself at only 11yrs old (to be fair, this was in the midst of the New-X era, where X hats and Africa-patch necklaces were the norm-- if you were socially conscious, that is...). Mutant Society became Black Street (yes, off of the R&B group), and even their costumes looked more like bastardized versions of Stroman's X-Factor uniforms (they really were that sweet though!). I took it as my personal duty to create a black voice in the comic book world and I wasn't alone.
The Milestone Universe was truly that, an EPIC milestone in the way of giving not just African-Americans, but most minorities, a voice in the world of comics. Published as an autonomous, sister-imprint of DC Comics (I know, right?! Even then, I knew it was something rather remarkable for one of "The Big Two" to do this), Milestone was spearheaded by creators Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis and Derek T. Dingle, creating FUBU'd (For Us, By Us) renditions of some of comics' most icon properties: Icon (Superman), Static (Spider-Man), Hardward (Iron Man) and Blood Syndicate (X-Men). At the time, I wasn't a frequent comic shop goer, so I wasn't in the habit of getting new comics on a weekly basis or being introduced to new titles, so I only had a smattering of issues from Milestones initial launch and of them, my favorite was certainly Icon. It seemed to be the only one that took being a racially motivated derivative seriously enough to comment on it, which I appreciated. It didn't hide under the pretext of being something new, but was something true and honest. But that honesty really shot me in the foot with the title, Blood Syndicate.
Society had painted a target on my back as young black male and the most proficient epidemic to enact its judgement was gang life. Color coded flags signified everything about you, from your gang affiliation (a term I only understood as far as superhero teams were concerned) to what side of town you lived/were from, to who your enemies were. It was part of the existence that I strove to escape in leaps and bounds and through Blood Syndicate, it found its way into my refuge. This book wasn't about a TEAM of superheroes, it was about a GANG of superhumans, who operated out of self-interest and a loathing contempt for anyone they deemed a rival. They flashed hand-signs -- ACTUAL GANG HAND-SIGNS on the cover of the first issue! How was this supposed to appeal to ME?
I was pissed off as a reader and dismayed as a creator -- was this what it meant to make "black comics?" Why did it have to be one of the worst occurrences in our community that was exploited on the page? Couldn't we have focused on the civil servants of times gone? Perhaps I was riding a soapbox or maybe I was onto something, either way, I abandoned the notion with prejudice of making "black comics," converting Black Street into the multiculturally endowed team, Genesis.
*To be continued...
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