So with the disappointment of the narrow voice black comics held, seemingly unable to create something new or NON-stereotypical, I shifted my focus BACK to comics, in general. It wasn't a hard transition as the general mainstream, was what brought me into the form in the first place -- PLUS, if there was an absolute need to connect my ethnicity to it, there was a ripe cache of characters to fit the bill: Steel, Bishop, Maggot, Shard, etc...
But my specific focus was on developing my artistic STYLE. That was definitely something that stuck from fanning over Stroman's work -- he had a specific style and at that time, I was becoming more aware of what that meant, not just in being able to determine WHO did the specific art, but the beginnings of gleaning why it worked or didn't work. So bring on Roger Cruz, Humberto Ramos (Crimson-era when he had a little more reserve in his work), Joe Madueria, Chris Sprouse, Dan Jurgens, John Romita, Jr. and more...I wanted to grow as an artist and picking apart the talents of these superstars seemed to be the best start. It also didn't hurt enrolling at Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center, an alternative high school with a focus on the visual and performing arts. And that's where things took an amazing LEAP forward.
Forgive my fuzzy memory, as I can't quite remember how we found out about it, but in Shot Tower, our main art building (the school was essentially a campus with 5 separate buildings) there was a working gallery that would house various exhibits throughout the year. On this particular occasion during my freshman year, they were showcasing the work of the school's alumni and sitting right there, just as appreciated as Expressionist paintings and life-model illustrations was the work of comic artist, Darryl Banks! Like I said, I don't remember all the details, but I can tell you there were MANY lunch periods skipped with me just STARING at his work.
I mean, this was the first time I had even SEEN live comic book art! Sure there were the occasional sketches in comic magazines or as promotions in upcoming series (like the Fatal Attractions ads for the 30th anniversary of Uncanny X-Men), but never before had I seen the original works -- able to understand the use of the Blueline board and its myriad of lines. And more than that -- he was GOOD! I mean, REALLY GOOD! Great line work, establishing shadows, moving the eye along the page, capturing emotions in body language and facial expressions. Instantly and without question, I became a fan. He carried textbook draftsmanship with a creative flair, he was black (which I think I was told prior to meeting him) AND with that, he didn't pigeonhole himself into doing BLACK COMICS, with a healthy resume of mainstream titles. But more than all that -- he was tangible. I had never been to a convention at this point, so Darryl was truly the FIRST professional comic artist I had ever met.
I think I bought every piece of work I could find with Darryl's name on it! Even the Christoper Hart drawing kit he worked on (and I still have)! He became a mentor, guide and hero, however subtly over the next few years, taking a role I had kind of loss with the passing of my uncle. Though I didn't directly study under him or anything, he influenced my art and creative thinking and made me one of the coolest kids in college when he visited and showed that he knew me. It was in reference to Darryl that I wrote this article, when a friend of mine asked if I was allowing for myself to be the possible mentor for others that Darryl became to me. He pointed out that there are so few blacks in the comic community and fewer still that have attained true notoriety for their work and that maybe, with even the nominal success I've achieved, I could sort of represent this new faction of black creators to young artists who, like me at one time, had no clue as to how many of "us" there are.
So, both in honor of my friend (Danny Cooper of Mutant Cactus, btw), Darryl Banks, ALL of the black creators who came before me and those I hope to inspire -- I will no longer SIMPLY aim to be a good creator, but I will also celebrate being a black one. It doesn't mean that I have to make black comics, featuring ALL/MAJORITY-black characters (The Trouble w/Love, Spectrum), but it doesn't mean I can't either (The Samaritan, Hotshot). What it specifically means is I can create whatever comic I want and that ideally, anyone and everyone can enjoy them.
"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.