Feb 10 2015
Today’s BlackComicsMonth interview is with POSTAL writer, Bryan Edward Hill. Bryan talks about losing his father at a young age, being a black man writing in a predominately white comic book industry, Postal’s decision to have a character with Asperger’s Syndrome and much more.
Hi Bryan! Thanks so much for joining BlackComicsMonth and agreeing to do this interview with us. Please, introduce yourself and tell the readers what you have done in the comic book community.
I’m a bit of a “Jack of All Stories,” having sold a few screenplays and now preparing to direct my first feature. I started in comics with a short story featured in a WITCHBLADE trade, and then my first mini-series I wrote in that universe with Rob Levin called BROKEN TRINITY: PANDORA’S BOX. I’ve done a Pilot Season book called SEVEN DAYS FROM HELL (created by me and co-written by Rob Levin, published by Top Cow), and then Rob and I wrote a book called NETHERWORLD.
After that, I took a break from comics and did the screenplay thing for a bit, and recently I’m back in comics writing POSTAL with Matt Hawkins. I’ve got an original series of my own coming later this year, and a few more comic projects on the way.
Comics are my favorite storytelling form, all things considered, but I did go to film school so I feel like I need to justify all of that debt and make a movie, LOL.
I knew about POSTAL, back in November I believe, but I had no idea that a black man was attached to this project. I recently found out on last Wednesday while searching the #BlackComicsMonth hashtag. I was excited and frustrated at the same time. Why do you think that black comic book creators aren’t as well known as other creators in this industry?
Okay, here I go. LOL.
Every industry has its celebrities.
As a writer in comics, celebrity first begins with the character you write, celebrity by association. In film, if you work with Brad Pitt or Ryan Gosling, you become famous by association. The equivalent in comics would be marquee characters like SUPERMAN, or IRON MAN. Traditionally, black writers don’t get hired to write white characters so gaining that celebrity by association is difficult. Of course Marvel or D.C. will explore a black writer when there’s a black character like CYBORG or BLACK PANTHER, but you don’t really see that with a character like BATMAN, or WONDER WOMAN and those books have more fans. I don’t think that’s an intentional exclusion, it’s just the status quo procedure but it creates something of an invisible barrier.
Here’s where I have to give Matt Hawkins at Top Cow credit. Never once did my race prevent me from exploring a white character in the Top Cow Universe. Matt’s never brought it up. That’s one of the reasons I like to work with him. Our book POSTAL has a predominantly white cast and he’s never questioned by ability to write white characters. It’s freeing. Every time I type a word I’m not trying to make a statement as a black man, in fact, most of the time I’m simply trying to tell a story. Matt accepts, understands and supports that.
I don’t believe that the black comic book creators are getting the same opportunities as other creators? Is that a fair assessment? Why do you suppose that is the case?
As I said previously, the biggest selling characters are white males (for the most part) and it’s standard operating procedure to hire a white male to write a white male so I don’t think black writers are really considered for those books. Again, it’s not a matter of racism, but just a matter of “exclusion by tradition.” That’s the nature of working on established characters.
In terms of original creations from black creators, I think it’s a matter of commerce. Smaller publishers are very interested in their comics becoming movies and television shows. Because it’s hard to make a predominately black movie or television series, publishing a black themed book isn’t seductive from a commercial point of view. Now this concerns books written about black characters (or any ethnic characters, really) and it would apply if those books were written by a white male too.
It’s important for these companies to have their works sold and transformed into movies and shows across platforms so the books they choose to publish need to fit within that model, for the most part. You do have publishers like Archaia that will break that business model with their titles and publish left-of-mainstream fare, but that’s pretty rare.
To be frank, a book about white people has an even shot no matter who’s writing it, but many black creators don’t write about white people. I think that accounts for the lack of black creators on shelves, as well.
You recently said to me, “If you’re not writing about a black character, then no one thinks you’re black.” This is so sad, but true, why do you think this is the case?
It’s due to the misunderstanding of what “blackness” is, a collection of assumptions that create a cloud of ignorance around how culture and race actually work in the hearts and minds of people. Many people think that black people are only interested in black themed work. WRONG. Many people also think that a black person cannot write a white group of characters without inserting them into an obvious racial theme. WRONG.
I was hired by Paramount to adapt THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA into a “Batman-like” franchise. There isn’t a black person in that screenplay as it takes place in 19th century Paris (even though I’m certain there were black people in Paris at the time, LOL). I’ve had people read that script and meet with me, obviously surprised that someone who looks like me wrote it. That’s the culture of assumption. I grew up listening to THE BEATLES and N.W.A. I was never in a homogeneous culture, so race isn’t the first, second or third thing I think about creatively.
Also, “blackness” is much more than skin pigment and bone structure. It reaches to deeper and more universal themes of isolation, self-esteem, repression, identity, purpose, endurance etc. All of these things can be explored through characters of any color. In fact, being a person of color might make it easier to write characters like WOLVERINE, or BATMAN, THE HULK or even SUPERMAN. Characters like this struggle with those issues daily and being a person of color might grant a fresh and compelling perspective to those stories, but that’s not how most think about it. Most of the time the focus is simply on “I’m black in a white world” and that’s far too simplistic to be of any real use.
The X-MEN is widely understood to be a franchise about intolerance, however I’m not certain if a black person has ever actually written a single issue of X-MEN, or a mini-series about a character in that universe. I could be wrong, but I can’t think of one from memory. To me, those are missed opportunities for companies and fans because there are great stories that can be told by people who walk in the shoes of being a “mutant” every day. We get so much commentary about MAGNETO being Malcolm X and Xavier being Dr. King, we see “mutant and proud” quotes in X-MEN movies, but the industry of comics could do a better job of including people who have that specific experience into the process of telling those stories.
Finally, I think there’s also an assumption that black people constantly resent white people and that resentment will show up in the storytelling. There’s a small fear that black people want to label and punish white people in their stories. Also false. Once we can start attacking and destroying these assumptions, I think you’ll see an organic diversity start to emerge.
Look, the world is becoming more and more unified with people of many cultures influencing the economic success of everything. For any entertainment business to survive, diversity needs to be part of their strategy. Adapt and survive.
Let’s talk marketing for a second, there aren’t many black character books out there to begin with and those that actually make it, why do you think there’s piss poor marketing for them? Why bother green lighting the book just to watch it fail?
Marketing is a spooky art. It always has been. For generations it’s just been an organic process of publishing books with page ads about other books sold in comic book stores with posters advertising more new books. That’s a closed circle of influence, pretty much only attacking the core comic fan. Combine that with MARVEL and D.C. sucking most of the wind out of the room every month, and it’s hard for anything to find a new audience.
I don’t fault the companies, especially the ones publishing new stories and characters. They have so many books coming out every month, continuing stories and launch issues, and with a limited marketing staff it’s hard to give anything the attention it might need to find its audience, especially if that audience is non-traditional. It’s not a conspiracy to have these books fail, it’s just a large problem with scant resources to solve it.
There are brilliant, good people in comics marketing. Like Christine Dinh and Mel Caylo over at BOOM! They’ve done excellent work, especially over these last few years, but there’s so many books to manage, with different types of fan bases. It’s incredibly taxing to increase awareness for a title.
Let’s put superhero books aside. Those titles have fifty years of pop-culture helping them along. If you’re talking new books, the ones that break through are usually led by dynamic creators who know how to create cultures around themselves and their work. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction are brilliant at that. Mark Millar. Greg Rucka. Neil Gaiman. They communicate with their audiences and grow them, book by book, year by year. That’s important.
As a creator, you can’t just expect the company publishing your book to do all of that work for you, because they don’t have the resources or time. That’s across the board in entertainment. If you’re a novelist, it’s the same thing. Most novels fail to find an audience. Most new musicians struggle to sell records. Most independent films are dead and gone in two weeks. Creators have to be part of their own marketing. You’ve got to use social media. You’ve got to engage, engage, engage.
I’ve been away from comics for a while, but now I’m back writing them you’ll see escalating levels of engagement from me. It’s just part of being a creator in 2015.
For new writers, I tell them work to get a large social media following, and then tell an excellent story for your submission. Show people you have both the talent to tell a great story and the ability to get people to pay attention to it. That’s a compelling combination.
What are some of the challenges in terms of writing a black character vs a white character? Will that entice the consumer to purchase, or better yet, give the marketing team something better to promote?
I trust the hearts of comic book fans, so I don’t think they’re adverse to buying a character’s book due to their race. I really don’t. They love the medium and they love good stories. Go to any comic book convention and you’re going to find hundreds or thousands of very fuckin’ good people. People sharing the love of the medium. So I trust them to give a book a fair shot no matter what color the character is.
However, people also have a limited amount of money they can spend on these things. So if someone can afford to spend 30 bucks a month on comics and they have four superheroes they’ve followed for years, you’re competing for the ten bucks they have left. That’s a war so your non-superhero book needs to be original and compelling. That’s more of the issue.
Once you start thinking about a character as “black” or “white” you’re fucked. That’s just surface. You’ve got to think deeper than that to make a compelling character. If I was writing about Dr. King, for instance, I’m not writing about him being black. I’m writing about his relationship to God. The difficulty of being a man and a symbolic leader. The constant fear of death. Seeing those that follow you suffer. Yes, the specificity of his circumstances have to do with his blackness, but if you just focus on the black then you have a pretty shallow, reductive rendition.
Let me get annoyingly pretentious. Well, more annoyingly pretentious.
THE HULK can be read as a story about repression and anger. I can access some of my experience to write Bruce Banner and make that compelling for fans of THE HULK. In fact, I might be able to address those ideas within Banner in a way someone else might not be able to because of my experience.
Writing is a game of observation, empathy, interpretation and regurgitation. A writer has to be able to identify with a character beyond the surface in order to tell an effective story. ROCKET RACCOON is a genetically engineered, cybernetic rodent. I am not. However, I can find something inside him, a point of identification and then the character flows from there.
What keeps you firmly planted in the industry seeing how it’s more beneficial if you’re of the other persuasion?
Adversity, of any kind, is a great teacher. It teaches you your shape, what you can endure and what you’re capable of in the world. You’ll go insane focusing on the the advantages other people have and that will rot your creativity and give rise to bitterness and anger. Everyone in America is relatively comfortable and safe compared to people living in Syria, Iraq, the Eastern Bloc. Comparing my adversity to a white male is ludicrous when I’m never hungry, I live in a safe place, I have equal protection under the law (most of the time, LOL) etc. So I rarely go there in my thinking.
I want to also offer that race is often a chimera. The issue is more socio-economic. Most of the gatekeepers in comics come from the same middle/upper middle class background and that dominates their perspective and affects their choices about what stories to tell. Even if we suddenly had an influx of people of color in both the creative and editorial spaces we might have aesthetic diversity, but if those people are from the same socio-economic background, we would still have a homogenous perspective.
To directly answer your question, it’s the fans of comics that keep me here. There’s nothing like sitting at a table and speaking to a fan about something you’ve written that’s affected them in a positive way. Fans, by and large, don’t give a shit about what color you are as long as you’re writing something that’s worth their money and time. Stories affect lives. They help us form our ideas of right and wrong, of possibility and capability. To have that opportunity to be a positive force is far more rewarding than the occasional issues that may arise because I’m black.
My father died when I was a boy. That same day I picked up a BATMAN comic and read about a child whose parents were killed in front of him and he used that to turn himself into a force for good. He gave himself nearly impossible rules to follow and he struggled every to keep those rules in the face of madness, greed and evil. That helped me cope. It gave my grief context. I never cared if BATMAN was white or black because he suffered like I was suffering and I learned from that example. That’s what I keep in mind when I tell stories, the possibility of doing that for other people, people I may never meet.
BATMAN doesn’t let adversity stop him. Neither will I.
Neither should anyone else.
You’re writing POSTAL with Matt Hawkins, how did that come about as well as the decision to “give” Mark Shiffron Asperger’s Syndrome. Do you know someone who has Asperger’s?
Matt and I were having lunch and we talked about doing a comic together. I really admire Matt’s love of science and I wanted to combine that with a philosophical exploration of character, human darkness, redemption, those kinds of issues. It was Matt’s initial decision to have Mark be a character with Asperger’s. I found that interesting, and especially interesting for a comic because much of what people who have Asperger’s (and I believe that term has since been eliminated with the redefinition of Autistic Spectrum Disorders) happens internally, the place of inner monologue.
Being a life-long fan of Frank Miller and Jim Starlin, any chance I have to write an internal monologue, I’m gonna take with both hands. That made me gravitate to POSTAL, combined with the sort-of Truman Capote nature of this town created for and by criminals. I thought it could be a great way to explore the dark underbelly of Rockwellian Americana. I grew up in Saint Louis, Missouri and that’s a large city, but I know people in small Missouri towns, people with violent pasts seeking redemption. POSTAL seemed a great way for me to explore that experience.
The best part about being a writer is that you can do fun things and people help you out. For instance with POSTAL I found people with Asperger’s online in a message board and under anonymity I brought them together in a round-table discussion to talk about what it felt like. I listened for a few hours and continued to communicate via email. That continues to inform my writing of Mark.
One of our writers for VixenVarsity.com, Brian who goes by ProfessorBLove, is an Aspie. As I was reading Postal and came across the panel where Messersmith said “Give me my fucking mail, retard.” and Mark said to himself, “He’s incorrect. I’m not retarded. I have Asperger’s Syndrome. It’s not a disability. It’s a difference.” I sat back and thought about Brian. He’s different, but he’s extra special and I won’t front, I shed a tear reading that panel. Perhaps I don’t have a question here, but I had to share and thank you and Matt for that panel.
Fuckin’-A, that makes me feel good. Well, not the fact that you were crying, because you’re a nice person and I don’t want you to cry, but the fact that it reached you in that way. I heard that from one of the people in my roundtable, and I thought it was simple and powerful. It created dignity and that’s important. Shame is a very destructive emotion that gives rise to many, many dark things in our psyche. I live for the elimination of shame. In that moment, I wanted Mark to surface his dignity and continue on with his day. I like Mark because Mark endures. You’ll see more and more of that as the story continues.
I’ll never forget the first time someone called me a nigger. What that felt like. The absolute reduction of everything I was to something less than human. The saturated need to harm me in the way it was spoken to me. Since then, I’ve developed a philosophical perspective on all of that so you can’t cut me with the word anymore. I wanted to show that Mark had done the same thing.
Mark Shiffron says some things in this panel, that our writer, Brian, has discussed in great lengths. Working his hardest to not say the first thing that pops into his mind, seeing lights and sounds everywhere that it gets overwhelming. What type of research was done on Asperger’s Syndrome and how high on the functioning end of the autism spectrum is Mark?
I haven’t diagnosed Mark, but I think he’s certainly on the higher functioning end of the spectrum, but even that bothers me. “The spectrum.” That really means “how well can you function in traditional western life” but it doesn’t apply to someone that can’t hold a conversation but can write a beautiful piece of music. Because of that, I refrain from definitions that depend on societal context because they’re subjective.
I’m very interested in people’s experiences, so much of what I researched was the experience of having Asberger’s and those moments come from that. I find that if you want to relate to someone about your situation, don’t tell them the facts of it. Tell them what it FEELS like. We empathize with feelings much more than we empathize with information. That’s why the artistic rendition of the human condition is so powerful.
I can tell you about the struggle of racial identity in America, factually, but none of that will compare to listening to Sam Cooke singing “A Change is Gonna Come.” He shows you what it feels like.
When I first opened Postal and saw that some ish was about to go down, I thought what have I gotten myself into. In a church nonetheless, goodness. Can you tell us a little bit about how did this town of fugitives in Eden, Wyoming came in to existence?
The American space between cities, the land of towns and counties is really a world unto its own. This idea that a small town was essentially taken over by a band of criminals and turned into a “second chance haven” is absolutely possible when you’re talking small populations, and an intense dislike of federal interference. I don’t think every member of the 2,198 member population of Eden is a criminal, but they’re all aware of the rules and they abide (until they don’t).
We’re going to explore the origins of the town in further issues, to be sure.
How soon will see the FBI rear it’s head and will we find out just who the undercover agent is or will we be suspecting everyone as the undercover agent?
Who told you there was just one? Heh. Keep reading.
As the story goes on, we’ll discover that there is a price to pay when you create a place like Eden, and maybe the bill is overdue and someone has come to collect.
Postal is a great read, the art is phenomenal. You, Hawkins and Goodhart have a hit on your hands for sure. Is there anything else you have on the horizon that you can share?
Thank you so much for reading and thanks for the thoughtful questions!
Let me just take this time to mention Issac Goodhart’s great work. I give him VERY difficult moments to draw and he attacks them with such a passion. He’s always tossing out ideas and it’s a true collaboration. Betsy Gonia does a great job with the color palette and Troy Peteri is the best letterer in the damn business (who’s also a great writer himself). Ryan Cady at Top Cow does a great job managing the ancillary content as well. It’s a team effort over there and the process is a joy.
Matt and I are working on another book, this one is hard-science fiction, about as far from POSTAL as you can get. It feels like a lost Ridley Scott movie and I’m very excited about that. I’ve also got an original book coming later this year and I can’t share details about that, but it does feature a female protagonist and houses a lot of my interest in martial arts practice, culture and philosophy. Very excited about that one, as well.
I’m gonna figure out what I’m doing with Tumblr, LOL. Follow me on Twitter so when I do, you’ll know.
Pick up Bryan Edward Hill’s Postal from Image Comics in stores NOW!