Changed my mind about something recently.
Which, honestly, isn’t that monumental of an announcement, when you consider that all one needs is a decent memory and my index to witness the boldest of statements canceling each other out. Whether that’s an indicator of increasing maturity or relative inconsistency is up to you, but several of the “tenets” I was subscribing to back in 2001 have undergone at least some modification, and that’s likely an understatement. One of the only things I’ve managed to remain pretty inflexible about are my feelings about race, and their potential bearing on my aspirations to become a professional writer.
Now, it seems I can’t even get that right…
Shortly before the column started, my mother and I had this conversation, and it centered on the picture that would run in the gutter next to each piece. She raised the concern that letting everyone know I was black, especially in the beginning, could ultimately become counterproductive down the line. Not that I had the attention span or even the interest in preserving a large measure of anonymity, but I couldn’t really ignore that it’s enormously difficult to not read a name, or see a picture, and reflexively develop some preconceptions about the person it belongs to. Human nature, unintentional, and in some instances, not that far removed from the truth, but my mother didn’t want too many people filling in my blanks.
As the blackmail worthy yearbook photo that I posted suggests, I went ahead and did it anyway, but there’s a piece of me that wishes I’d had the patience to write about a dozen articles before slotting the visual aid in. Yes, the fact that this was even a consideration is ridiculous, but if it hadn’t been, at the very least I’m incredibly naïve, and at the worst I’m incredibly cocky for believing that I could just write past all of these deeply ingrained prejudices we’re continually exposed to.
Being shuffled around by some label that tells an editor what type of story I’d be good handling, or the audience what to expect from that story, is an arrangement that benefits no one, but it looks easy to fall into an inescapable niche. The industry will take your first few notable projects and categorize you with them, whether it’s as the funny guy, the team guy, the action guy, etc., and because perception often becomes reality, am I really wasting my time attempting to dodge the inevitable “black guy” tag? Seriously, I’m cool with that, given the lack of comic writers who are black, but the optimist hopes that the description won’t evolve into the more dubious “black guy who writes black stuff” distinction. Logic dictates that the obvious course is to avoid making my initial mark with predominantly black characters, but damn if that doesn’t feel wrong on so many levels.
First, it ignores one of the aspects that sets me somewhat apart from 99% of the comic writers in the game right now, which is what every newcomer needs to properly distinguish themselves in the first place, an exploitable angle. Secondly, for the last couple years in particular, my Wednesday operating budget has been expanding wildly, and as encouraging as that is, because it means people are putting out quality product, I don’t feel very represented on the stands. Not as a young, educated, black male anyway. While you could argue that this is likely true for most divisions of pop entertainment, and I’d be forced to agree with you, I don’t go to the movies every week on the same day, and can’t stand watching television for more than two hours at a time. Comics are my chosen poison, one of only a few frequent indulgences, so this is something that’ll continue to bother me, until it’s fixed.
Obviously, the material is only a reflection of the people creating it, but is that really supposed to satisfy me? Mark Millar, who I’m using as an example because a lot of you know that’s my boy, probably isn’t angry on a personal and emotional level at the lack of black characters in mainstream comics, despite what could be very reasonable explanations. It’s possible I’m overstating, but it can’t bother him as much as me, and seriously, I don’t expect to. But given that, isn’t it irresponsible of me to intentionally distance myself from the problem, because I want to write Batman comics one day?
The word “sellout” immediately springs to mind, but that’s not accurate, because at the very least I’d have money, instead of these contradictory principles I get to nurse from month to month. Because I know better. I know what this is really about. I’m not here to write stories, crack the Wizard Top 10, or sign some exclusive contract that comes with dental coverage. Come a little closer, and I’ll tell you the secret, so you don’t have to hear it from someone else…
I write because I want you to change.
I want to have the opportunity to write long enough to reach that story or approach that propels the industry, hell, that propels the medium forward. Who knows how long it’ll take to reach that level, or if it’ll even happen, but shouldn’t that be what everyone is aspiring to? Please find that dude who’s just writing for the check and car payment, and feel totally justified in expelling him and those like him from the industry, before they succeed in irreparably muddying the water. I’m not here to write, I’m here to show you something that only I can. But is the most obvious thing what you need to see?
What eventually became Codename: Cross is an exercise in relative compromise, attempting to reconcile all of this into the form of an action/adventure serial that looks like a romance comic, if viewed at the right angle. Though the main cast is packing a bit more melanin than the usual fare, the emotions and situations that form the main thrust of the story are purposely non-specific and could easily apply to anyone. If you ever kept a secret from a significant other, for reasons justified or not, you’ll find something to relate and hopefully attach yourself to. It is a very elaborate response to me finding out a girlfriend was trying to be the storyteller in the relationship, and actually, this is how a lot of my stories/concepts begin. And with delicious irony, for all my effort at intentionally bypassing the common stereotypes, after bleeding myself into this story, people will still look at it on the stands and say, “This Codename: Cross thing looks like some kind of black book.”
The only thing more detrimental would be if the character’s race was dictating the story, touching on words like racism, prejudice, and other synonyms that can make people noticeably uncomfortable. I told myself that at this point, I’m not experienced enough to speak at great lengths about some of the aforementioned subjects, but probably after I live a little more life it’ll come up. That was until an artist who I’ve been waiting to work with hits me with this e-mail, containing an idea for a series, as obvious as it is fresh. One of those things that I’m initially embarrassed not to have thought of.
Thing is that the notion will rightfully inspire some pretty “controversial” output, as most relevant social commentary is frequently labeled, but as smart as it may be to ignore it, to decide it’s too expected a route, I started thinking. The ideas, notes, and sketches are still being fired back and forth, the development process in that frenzied stage where you’re just trying to get everything out there before it disappears. I apologize for being deliberately vague, but every time I post a story idea in here, people always leave me mail, telling me to stop giving stories away, so I’m trying to be good.
What I will say is that I’m extremely excited about it, regardless of inherent risk, and despite the fact that I can sit back and point to something else I’ve contradicted
myself on. But if I don’t write these stories, than who’s going to, and what is that they say about people that aren’t part of the solution?
Batman’s played out anyway, and even a rookie like me realizes that any writer worth mentioning doesn’t get that way by giving the audience what they necessarily want, settling for a stance that’s ultimately much more likely to spark change. It’s not about writing what the industry wants, or even responding to what it needs…
I’m only here to give it what it deserves…
B – Hope too many of you didn’t miss me last week, and I’ll be back in seven.