By Darryl Ayo
In 2010, a book called Black Comix: African American Independent Comics Art and Culture was published by Mark Batty Publisher and directed by Damien Duffy and John Jennings. I’m a contributor, you can see excerpts of my webcomic Little Garden Comics “Beautiful Monster” on pages 36 and 37. Today I am more concerned with pages 106 and 107, which contains an essay written by a Mr. Turtel Onli, who founded the Black Age of Comics Convention in Chicago in 1993. He puts forth that this is a “Black Age” of comics (as in: Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age). Seeing more and more black professionals working in the field Onli decides that the “Black Age” is upon us. Nevermind that the other comic “ages” don’t refer to single demographic trends, but overall industry trends. Onli’s essay contains the usual rah-rah hollow talk that is common among people who suppose themselves as leaders of a community. What really hit me between the eyes is the following passage:
Some refuse to even acknowledge that there is a movement at all. Some say the idea of a distinct black movement in comics hurts them. They maintain the egotistical stance that their work is beyond categorization, yet they still lament racial tensions or the isolation they feel working in settings with few blacks. They will still lament the sting of being unknown to other blacks for the amazing work they create.”
Let me explain this, let me talk about this, let me drop the science: this Onli guy never did anything for me, never gave me work, never created a career opportunity for me, but still–without even knowing that I exist–claims me as a part of his movement (whether I like it or not) and puts ME down if I disbelieve that the sort of nonsense that his ilk (“black leaders…if you have to ask: long story) spout. That a guy can make up a phrase, run a convention in 1993 and then extend his arms, claiming ownership of every dark skinned person to come into comics for all time is the height of arrogance.
Due to the context of this essay within this book, we have an unforgivable insult in which the artists contained within (such as me) come across looking like followers of a guy (Onli) who probably never had any interaction with them. Stereotype goes that blacks often lack father figures. So there’s no shortage in the black community of people who rise to power by trying to assume paternal roles. No thanks, my dad’s name is John Edward Brathwaite.
I’ve attended the East Coast iteration of Onli’s convention once. Nobody in attendance even knew what a minicomic was. I was more isolated and shunned at the Black Age of Comics Convention than I had ever been at a traditional independent comics show. And that’s saying a lot, to be completely frank. Pay attention: sharing superficial physical characteristics with people, sharing a continental ancestry with people, sharing a gender with people DOESN’T AUTOMATICALLY MAKE THOSE PEOPLE YOUR FRIENDS.
Womanthology started out a lot like Black Comix did. A minority-interest showcase book created with the goal to raise awareness in the comics industry for the work of members of that minority. Neither Womanthology or Black Comix paid any of the contributors for their submissions, despite having lavish production values. The difference, in my view, is that there are a lot more women who are deeply involved in comics than there are African Americans of either gender. Womanthology was crowd-funded, Black Comix wasn’t. So when the staggering amount of money behind Womanthology, coupled with the understanding that none of it would go to the contributors became apparent, a small murmur of discontent rose to a roar.
But that is only criticism. Everyone involved in Womanthology, the editor and the contributors entered into the project with the best of intentions. I think the discontent is a result of expectations for funding being exceeded by such a wide margin (Womanthology received FOUR TIMES the requested funds), a changing the expectations for compensation.
On my side of things, when I was involved with Black Comix, I didn’t think much of it until I saw the lavish production values of the final product. I was flabbergasted, jaw agape like a cartoon character. My first thought was “if I had known that they were going to go all out on the production values, I wouldn’t have contributed!” The reason that I felt that is that I was under the impression that I was giving my art to a small, modest niche project that would add my voice to something that (a) was nominally about a group that I belong to (black cartoonists) and (b) probably could use all of the voices that it could get. I was mistaken in my understanding of the scope of the project and I felt put off that some of that budget couldn’t have offered the contributors even a tiny bit of financial compensation for their work which, frankly is the basis for the book.
It is the same story with Womanthology today. Cartoonists have contributed their efforts to a project believing that it needed all of the voices that it could get. But then when the amount of money behind the project became apparent, they suddenly found themselves wondering why NONE of it was being offered to them for compensation. Changing scope leads to changing expectations.
This morning, I woke up to a counter-discussion on twitter led by DCWomenKickingAss (Sue, last name unknown) and 79SemiFinalist (Kelly Thompson), which was highly critical of the women who have been speaking out over the past few days against Womanthology. Particularly, they both claimed that it was inappropriate for these people to discuss on Twitter and Tumblr the problems that they had. Unfortunately (and please believe me, I respect Thompson and Sue GREATLY) these very same two have never ever been shy of publicly criticizing institutions (such as DC Comics) on Tumblr and Twitter. It seems that when the target of criticism is an institution that they support, their expectations for public discourse changed. Sue, with her DC Women Kicking Ass has specifically given many people an understanding of how to use public social media to air grievances that they may be too afraid to talk about privately.
Secret: many cartoonists–I would argue that MOST cartoonists–are timid of authority. Cartoonists are typically one of the most under-appreciated groups of professional artists out there. The comics industry is very VERY small and cartoonists are often afraid to “make waves.” When a cartoonist stands up and makes waves, she (or he) often faces harsh criticism, condemnation, threats, intimidation and social and professional ostracization. There is a reason why people are discussing these in public places. Because if a cartoonist is going to be disgruntled about a contract that she signed, she’d better make sure that she can at the least be a lightning rod for anybody who might agree with her. She had better make sure that anybody else who shares her point of view can see her and possibly be encouraged to stand with her.
It broke my heart a little bit to see Sue and Kelly Thompson (who I am still a fan of and who I still rely on for opinions, views and perspective) condemning much of the discussion against Womanthology. Womanthology is supposed to support women cartoonists. Women cartoonists have an issue with Womanthology. Even though Sue and Thompson don’t agree with the way in which the discussion is led, how can they condemn women standing up for themselves and loudly making a fuss about what concerns them? This is largely people following their own example.
And I’m very sorry to Kelly Thompson and Sue. Again, I greatly respect your work in comics commentary, but I don’t think that you’re completely correct in this particular aspect. Cartoonists need to stand up and be MORE outspoken, MORE critical of those that come to them as friends. Cartoonists, particularly minority groups who feel disenfranchised need to put their feet down and learn to not be as timid as they typically are. Comics is a heartbreaking business and the killing blow is often delivered with the best intentions by a friend, rather than a hand-rubbing villain. Everybody is following your example. Just hear out their criticism and try to see where they’re coming from.
Thanks for listening.