Mar 10 2015
Our #BlackComicsMonth campaign really opened my eyes to a lot of black creators in comics. One of the creators that I had been overlooking was Karl Bollers. I did a review of Watson and Holmes #6, and was really liking the book. So I read the first arc of the book, which was written by Karl Bollers. I was put into contact with Karl, and he really gave an interesting insight into the comic book industry. Karl also touches on what he is working on right now, and how he got started in comics. It was really enlightening interview and I can’t thank Karl enough for his time and insight.
BeauxKnows: How did you get into comics?
Karl Bollers: I applied for an internship at Marvel Comics through my college. I interviewed with Ralph Macchio who was editing such titles as Avengers, Fantastic Four, Daredevil (love Daredevil!!!), Thor and Doctor Strange and got the position. Ralph’s office ended up sharing me with the Spider-Man editorial office but I didn’t mind the extra work in the least! It was a real thrill to actually meet, learn from and work alongside folks whose names I had only seen in the credits and letters pages of the comics I’d read. I was loaded up with twenty credits that semester, but didn’t care. I worked hard, geeked hard, learned comic book production from the ground up and loved every moment of it.
It was during my internship that I expressed my desire to write to several editors. Terry Kavanagh, who was editing Marvel Comics Presents—a weekly anthology series that contained 4 stories, each of them 8 pages in length—looked at a story pitch I submitted that featured the X-Men character Northstar. I really liked the idea that here was this super-powered mutant who had super speed and flight and secretly used them to become an Olympic gold medal champion before eventually being exposed. I mean, what a jerk, right? No one had ever really written a story that focused on that aspect of the character so I took a crack at it. Terry liked the story I generated off that idea enough to greenlight it and I joined the legion of every one who’d ever sold a story to Marvel. After my internship ended at the end of junior year, I continued to intern a few days a week that summer in Ralph’s office until I went back to school in the fall. I sold another story to Terry during senior year and was hired at Marvel as an assistant editor after college. And that’s the long version of how I got in.
BK: Did you read comics as a child? If so, what were some of your favorites?
KB: Yes, once I could read. I was looking at them before then. At first I read from my brother’s collection—everything from Marvel, DC, Archie—before eventually starting one of my own. I just really connected with the medium—the combination of words with sequential art to tell a story really grabbed me because I guess I realized that here was a means of visual storytelling that virtually everyone had access to. After all, you don’t need a film crew or actors to create a comic. You just need a pencil, your imagination and you were off to the races (skill levels may vary of course). Some of my favorite comics were Daredevil, Batman, X-Men, Power Man and Iron Fist, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Teen Titans, and I loved reading reprints of old DC Comics from the forties, fifties and sixties featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman in really weird, goofy stories. Those writers back then really had imagination!
BK: Who are some of the comic book creators that you looked up to?
KB: As a kid, I really enjoyed Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko’s work with the early Marvel characters. Without a doubt, those three individuals shaped my destiny and put me on the road to a career path in the medium I love. I was blessed to meet both Stan and Steve while working at Marvel, but unfortunately did not have the opportunity to thank Jack—who co-created the X-Men, Black Panther, S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain America and countless other characters for both Marvel and DC—before he passed away. I liked the work of John Romita, Denny O’Neill, Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, Tom Palmer, Gil Kane, Frank Miller, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Michael Golden and George Perez. These guys really broke the mold on how comics were presented when I was growing up.
As a teenager, I got into the work of Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette (Facebook friend extraordinaire!), Paul Smith, David Mazzuchelli, John Romita Jr., Bill Sienkiewicz, Walt and Louise Simonson, Rick Leonardi, Denys Cowan, Kyle Baker, Howard Chaykin, Ann Nocenti, Alan Davis, Mike Baron, Mike Grell, Bernie Wrightson, Matt Wagner, Neil Gaiman…I can do this all day. And I haven’t even gotten to the creators that have inspired me as an adult.
BK: What are some of the challenges that you face as an African-American creator in the comic book industry?
KB: Access. It’s mainly about access. Access to publishers who can see your work. I got as far I have in the industry due to my college internship which granted me access. And, of course, this isn’t just an African-American challenge. It’s one faced by all, but when you look at the face of the American comic book industry since its inception, you can’t help but feel that, overall, minorities and women have a lesser chance at access. It’s no secret that the American comic book industry has been dominated by white males in terms of creation and content mainly due to the fact that it started decades before the Civil Rights and Women’s Lib movements when the common belief was that African-Americans weren’t smart enough to craft stories and a woman’s place was in the home. As a result, comics were mainly written, illustrated and edited by white men.
Take a look at the creators I looked up to while growing up and there are only two black males, two white females and one Latino male. Unfortunately, this is still the makeup of the comics mainstream today, although admittedly there are more female and minority creators than ever. I think there’s also a perception in the mainstream that African-American creators have some type of agenda when we craft stories using established characters, particularly characters of color.
When the late Dwayne McDuffie (an African-American creator whose work I look up to and whose achievements within the industry can only be lauded) was writing the Fantastic Four I remember him coming under fire on the internet for having the Black Panther (an African king possessing peak human strength) temporarily place the Silver Surfer (a cosmic-powered being) in an armbar hold. Temporarily. Fans were crying murder on some websites calling it the worst page in the history of comics. Yet, many of these same fans have no problem believing that Batman (a Caucasian millionaire possessing peak human strength) can throw hands with Superman (a solar-powered being). At the end of the day, it’s all fantasy and within the confines of fantasy, anything can happen if executed in a manner that allows the audience to suspend their disbelief. It’s not like the Panther defeated the Surfer in toe-to-toe combat (which admittedly would have stretched credibility), he got the jump on him for a few seconds. Dwayne’s editor obviously had no issue with it, so why did fandom? One can’t help but wonder if a white writer would’ve been criticized so voraciously had they written the exact same scene.
BK: I really enjoyed your take on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. With all the modern takes of the great detective, I found yours to be the most imaginative and yet truest to the source material. What was your inspiration for writing Watson and Holmes?
KB: I was approached by a startup publisher called New Paradigm Studios who were looking to do a series of comics featuring an African-American version of Sherlock Holmes that would be set in the modern-day and would have Watson sharing equal billing with the sleuth. I was hired to write and help develop, along with penciler Rick Leonardi, what would eventually become Watson and Holmes. Our publisher Brandon Perlow and series co-creator Paul Mendoza wanted it to be set in a fictional city, but I felt that would detract from the “realness” of it all, convincing them to have it take place in New York City, specifically Harlem, a landmark of African-American culture. I felt this would allow us to explore topics of race and other themes unique to not only the African-American experience but to the American experience as a whole. Also, I see New York City as analogous to London in many ways.
BK: It is often overlooked how important Watson is to Holmes. Your take on Watson shows his toughness and how important he is to Holmes. Why did you decide on going this route with Watson?
KB: We wanted to create a different cosmology for this iteration of Sherlock Holmes, one where Watson shared the spotlight with his name even headlining the series title. That, however, would require some changes from how he had been typically characterized in past versions. We didn’t make any drastic changes to the character beyond what Arthur Conan Doyle had laid down over a century ago. Medical doctor? Check. Afghanistan war veteran? Check. Knows his way around firearms? Check. That said, we simply decided to ramp up Watson’s war vet aspect and envisioned at him as a guy who’d seen combat and received U.S. military training. Extrapolating some level of “badassery” from that premise wasn’t too difficult.
Rick’s original character renderings portrayed him as being more stocky and round, but by the time he started penciling the first issue his Watson was taller, more muscular, channeling a bit of Denzel Washington and Idris Elba. In other words, he looked like a leading man. Brawn to Holmes’ brain. I added a twist to Watson’s story, not only to modernize it a bit and make it relevant to the world we live in today, but admittedly for personal reasons. Over the course of Doyle’s stories, Watson became engaged, then married. In our version, Watson is separated and going through a divorce. At the time I wrote Watson and Holmes, I was going through my own separation and divorce and because of this, I was able to connect to the character even more and bring a bit of my own experience to the proceedings.
BK: Comic books have really hit the mainstream, probably the most they have ever been mainstream. Everywhere you turn, there is something comic book-related. How do you feel about this explosion in popularity? Does this make it easy or harder as a creator to really set yourself apart?
KB: There are many comic book professionals and fans who regret the explosion in popularity, particularly because they feel that this was their “thing” that for years they’ d been mocked and ridiculed by that very same mainstream for loving. Couple that with the fact that the major comic conventions are less about comics and more about movies and video games and I can see why there would be some level of resentment. On the other hand, I personally love the explosion in popularity. It signifies growth and it’s validating to not only finally see an appreciation for these stories and characters that I loved growing up, but that comics are seen as a viable medium where small dreams have the potential to turn into big ones. To remain relevant, comic book characters have to exist outside of the comic book pages—and that means movies, video games, clothing whatever have you.
I’ve heard there are less than 100,000 comic book readers in the United States. If so, that means the comic book industry, overall, can’t sustain itself by just producing comic books. This isn’t to say that there isn’t some independent comic creator who is having success just producing their one title, but in the overall sense it’s a good thing for all comic creators that we’ve gone mainstream. It means more eyes are on the industry. Comics are hot right now and as a creator, yes it’s more difficult to set oneself apart, but as with all the other large entertainment industries (film, music, video games, sports, etc.) there’s bound to be a ton of competition and yes, it is more difficult to set oneself apart. But still we try.
BK: If you could be the writer for any character in comics, who would it be?
KB: I’d like to take a crack at the Milestone Media character Icon or the cast of characters featured in Milestone’s Blood Syndicate series. It would be exciting to introduce these minority characters to a new generation of fans. The world has changed from when these characters initially debuted and so has the approach to comic book storytelling. I think the Milestone characters in general still remain relevant and would love to see them positioned on a modern landscape.
BK: What projects are you currently working on?
KB: I’m working on a story that re-envisions Santa Claus as an immortal Norse warrior being presented in an anthology that will be published through the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio. Art will be provided by Amelia Sealy, one of the college’s illustration majors. I’m also about to start a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for a creator-owned series I’m working on. Stay tuned!
BK: How can our readers find out more about you?