Feb 28 2016
Terrence Sage chopped it up with David Brothers, Image Comics Branding Manager, for BlackComicsMonth. As always, David dropped jewels from anime, rap and where he would like to see comics in the next five years. If you ever have a chance to make it to a panel where David’s moderating or on said panel – do it! Prepare to have your mind blown.
Terrence Sage: Thanks for sitting down with me man! Now, to the general public you’re known as David Brothers…what’s the origin story behind adopting that name for your social media?
David Brothers: It’s actually my government name, no adoption necessary! I made a decision when I first started writing professionally to use my real name. I use my real name or some spin on it pretty much everywhere that’s public online in one way or the other, even on PlayStation. My site, 4thletter!, stands for D in David, like The 18th Letter stood for the R in Rakim. It was important to me to write under my own name, if only because it would remind me to always own my words and make sure that anything I put out is something I should be proud to have my name on.
TS: How long have you been in the world that is the comic industry? As a fan and as critic?
DB: I started reading as a young kid, young enough that comics helped me a lot with becoming a voracious reader. I was mostly a superhero kid, but I got my hands on some Frank Miller’s Sin City and Ronin at some point, and that sorta caused a sea change in the kinds of genres I stayed interested into adulthood. I aged out of it by my early teens, on account of moving around a lot and running out of good books, and came back to it in college.
As far as a critic goes, I started writing about comics in early January 2005, founded 4thletter! a few months later, relaunched 4thletter! with my friend Gavin Jasper in tow later that year, and then it was off at the races. We closed it in November 2014, on account of it’s better to go out on your own terms than to limp to a finish after everyone’s left the party. In between, though, I got paid to write about comics by ComicsAlliance, The Atlantic, Publishers Weekly, and even Marvel’s website once when they needed somebody to write about black history. My stuff got syndicated to CBR and Kotaku and a few other places, which was kinda cool at the time. In hindsight, I would’ve rather had a check, but contracts is contracts and if you don’t read ’em, things don’t always go your way.
TS: From your time starting out as a comic book critic what have you noticed about the Comic Industry itself as far as change? I started my journey in 2009 with Blackest Night and it’s been a wash of reboots, events, and #1’s.
DB: That’s just the cycle we’re in, though. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with an event or #1, and every industry has a certain level of throwing things at a wall to see what sticks. Some of that stuff has been really good, some of it has been really bad, and most of it has just been a thing that exists to appeal to one person or another. I try to let that stuff pass me by, especially as I’ve increasingly moved away from cape comics. I can’t control it, and it’s not really in my lane, so I let it be what it’s gonna be. The most important change hasn’t been who runs whichever company or what person is temporarily wearing another character’s clothes. For me, the most important change has been in how everyone views the fanbase.
Ever since I started going to cons, I’ve seen families from a wide variety of ethnic groups showing up and checking out books, in addition to the various video games and movies. It sorta puts the lie to the long-held idea that comics were or should be for white nerds strictly. We’ve been here; we just weren’t well-represented and deprived of a voice. I think that recognition is significant.
A lot of people say “Representation Matters,” usually as a way to praise characters of color on the page. But more than that, representation matters behind the page, too. A lot of people are very skilled at depicting other cultures or groups they’re not a part of, and I like a lot of those stories. But when Reggie Hudlin and Scot Eaton showed that Luke Cage kept a clipping of Black Panther’s exploits on his wall, that was the most real Cage had ever been to me as a black man. It was as real as Sheek Louch kicking rhymes to a poster until he swore Biggie moved, as Memphis Bleek putting a poster of a Porsche on his wall to show himself where he was going.
Character diversity is cool, but creator diversity is the total package, and I think as more and more people of different types continue to be interested in comics, the more opportunities everyone will have to get a scene that hits them right in the heart from someone who knows how it really feels.
TS: David F. Walker and Brian Michael Bendis have had moments like that for me with Cyborg and Spider-Man respectively, have you observed the landscape as far as comic books getting turned into Television Shows?
DB: I haven’t, really. I’m not too into Big Two superhero comics any more, and most of what I like about comic book characters have more to do with how they’re drawn on the page rather than liking Spider-Man for being Spider-Man, so I don’t really catch the movies or TV shows unless a group of friends are gonna mob up to go see them.
I’m curious about the Preacher show, because Ennis and Dillon are Kirby & Lee quality creators and maybe if that’s a hit we’ll get the Hitman TV show we all deserve. My friends tell me that The Flash is leaning heavy into the deep superheroic concepts and whatnot, and that’s cool, too. But really, a comic’s a comic and a TV show’s a TV show to me.
What I like to see in both mediums are things I can’t get from any other, whether it’s the way Fargo utilizes lowkey horror in a basic crime tale to great effect and Bokeem Woodbine absolutely killing it, or the Battle Angel Alita-inspired action scenes and absolutely ridiculous landscapes in Makoto Yukimura’s viking comic Vinland Saga. Translating one to the other is great if the creators get paid, but it’s not really my bag right now.
TS: It’s funny you bring up manga titles actually, I’ve noticed on your Twitter you were discussing projects like Naruto and wondered what your history with manga is like?
DB: I came to manga way late compared to comics, and only ever had a few volumes as a kid. Stuff like Dark Horse’s Super Manga Blast anthology, random issues of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, and an Italian edition of Hirohiko Araki’s Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure—volume 46, which has a good cover and was entirely in an language I don’t speak. (It was dope, but I didn’t know what Jojo’s was all about until I got the Dreamcast game much later.) (With Naruto specifically, I’d never finished the manga when it was coming out, but I read the epilogue and sequel story in Shonen Jump, so I used this summer to catch up on the series. It was about as uneven as I expected, but when it hit, it really hit. Masashi Kishimoto is a beast at costume design and iterative costume design. When the characters grow up, their new clothes make just as much sense as the clothes of their younger versions. He also does a killer fight scene or three, and has a good eye for using ninja magic in creative ways.)
As an adult, I probably read more manga than American comics, though working in comics means it’s probably pretty balanced in the end. I get different things out of manga than I do in American books. I’m reading Inio Asano’s A Girl on the Shore, Yukimura’s Vinland Saga, Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist and The Legend of Arslan, a host of manga on Crunchyroll’s manga app, and a bunch of stuff from Viz Media—Boys Over Flowers (both 1 and 2), Food Wars, Assassination Classroom, Bleach, all that good stuff. That’s just what comes out regularly or has come out recently. There’s a host of stuff that comes out less often that knocks my socks off, from Takehiko Inoue’s various books to a good half of Vertical Comics’s line-up.
Japanese comics are kinda where I think American comics need to go in order to thrive for the next few decades. We’ve got the superhero thing on lock, so what’s next? What’s going to get people in the door? The diversity of content in manga is nuts, and I think that’s where we’re headed. I ping-pong from romance to violence to a studied meditation on the importance of honing your craft regularly, and that’s something that’s becoming increasingly easy to do in the US. While companies like Fantagraphics or Top Shelf and the indie comix scene more generally have always been putting out good work, we’re reaching a point where more and more people are open to trying Love & Rockets or Smile or Agents of the Realm, and that’s exciting to me.
TS: Are you as adapt in manga as you are with anime? More manga are quickly getting adaptions like Boku no Hero and One Punch Man has been in high regard as far as translating the adventures from the pages to the screen.
DB: Yeah, kinda sorta. I’ve been watching anime longer than I’ve been reading manga—I’m from that Akira/Fist of the North Star/Vampire Hunter D on VHS generation—but I’m a lot pickier lately. I watch stuff like Mr. Osomatsu and Lupin the Third regularly, and kinda pick and choose past that. I don’t watch anime as often as I read comics, but on a lazy Saturday, I’ll watch an episode or two of whatever appeals. I’m not much of a binge-watcher either, so it takes me ages to get through shows compared to about everyone else I know. A lot of adaptations of Shonen stuff are either too faithful or not interesting enough compared to the manga to keep my interest.
I watch an episode of One-Punch Man every week or so and the animation is high quality enough that it keeps me curious, but Bleach, One Piece, World Trigger…all those comics are hype, especially Bleach right now as it skids toward something like a five-year long ending, but I tried and flunked out of all the cartoon versions. Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood I stuck with because the animation was dope, but usually, nine times out of ten, I’d rather just read the comic than watch the cartoon. But the standalone stuff tends to hit me right where I need it.
Anything Sayo Yamamoto works on is worth checking out, and I dug Space Dandy, From The New World, Silver Spoon, gdgd Fairies, DD Fist of the North Star, and Wakakozake. I mostly just want to be wowed, when it comes down to it. Show me something I haven’t seen before or makes me laugh until I cry. I do like a lot of older stuff, too. Champion Joe 2 is pretty much exactly my speed, and Fist of the North Star is often as awful and stupid as the old GI Joe cartoon, but in a way iller setting, so I keep up with it.
TS: How do you feel the genres of manga fair compared to comics? Manga has more defined genres like Shonen and Seinen versus Comics having Superhero and the rest are usually classified as just Indie.
DB: How do you mean, like in terms of appeal or diversity of content or something else?
TS: Yeah, as far as the diversity of the content.
DB: I think manga has a really good spread, and maybe generally has a greater density of esoteric books than we have, but overall the diversity of content isn’t too different from what you can find in the States. It’s just that the amount of attention we give those comics we have here, versus the ones we get from over there, that’s different.
Marvel and DC have so much gravity in our side of the industry that they warp the conversation. You can even kinda see it in your question—there’s superheroes, and then there’s everything else, which is an assumption that’s both true on a certain level, but not a healthy status quo.
Within the category of indie is a variety of genres and publishers, from long lasting independent publishers like Fantagraphics and Image Comics to indie creators like Kat Verhoeven and Meredith Gran to publishing houses like Koyama Press or Iron Circus Comics.
Emily Carroll pairs well with Junji Ito, Katie Skelly’s work is very simpatico with Moyoco Anno, and so on. Comics runs deep. Part of the trouble with treating Marvel and DC as if they were bigger (they are) and badder (they aren’t) than everyone else is that it flattens the conversation.
Matsumoto’s Sunny is about an orphanage and Inoue’s Slam Dunk is about basketball, but Chaykin & Fraction’s Satellite Sam is about the dawn of television, Mildred Louis is doing magical girl comics with Agents of the Realm, Whit Taylor is doing really sharp autobio comics and short stories…
There are dominant publishing houses in Japan, too, but they don’t tend to traffic in just one genre. Shonen, seinen, josei, shoujo, these are almost better termed categories than genres (though this is largely semantics). They describe a target audience more than a style of storytelling, and series sometimes drift from one to the other if they last long enough. But since Marvel and DC were pretty good at one thing, and then pushed that thing above all else, we’ve got a warped view of what comics looks like as an industry.
My guess is that’s part of what made manga catch on here. They were books marketed to a new audience filled with new ideas, rather than similar ideas remixed and reworked, marketed to the same audience. They aren’t fundamentally different from American comics outside of the fact that you read them right to life, but even that’s untrue sometimes.
My hope is that the prevalence of comics online, and the easy access via bookstores and digital books, helps turn the conversation away from Marvel and DC at least enough to show us that we’ve got gold sitting right here in our backyard, which would then hopefully push these major companies into branching out without relying on ancient icons, too.
Superheroes are cool, and if that’s your bag it’s your bag, but there’s so, so much more out there.
TS: Do you think getting the word out on newer, more creative comics outside of the Marvel and DC bubble via social media are catching steam? Twitter Accounts of Publishers talking with fans is a great way to keep them engaged.
DB: Yeah, I think even more than publishers, the new kinda word of mouth we see on Twitter is coming from fans and creators more directly. It’s easy to stay plugged into some stuff because they overwhelm the market, so I think it’s more important than ever to be vocal about the smaller stuff you enjoy.
This month alone, I heard about the Kickstarters for Greg Burnham’s Tuskegee Heirs project and Mildred Louis’s Agents of the Realm via retweet. I saw a link to an interview in the Washington Post about the Kickstarter for Black, the project from Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3, Jamal Igle, Khary Randolph and Sarah Litt. I got as far as Osajyefo talking about how Big Two superheroics lean very Cosby Show in style and temperament and I skipped over to Kickstarter and backed it. I don’t think I even watched the video or read the page, past looking at the reward tiers.
A benefit creators have over publishers is that creators have personalities. A publisher gives you books you like, but a creator gives you a real connection, something you can vibe to. That’s really what keeps me engaged, way more than product does, and I bet that’s true of others, too. Seeing them tweeting about things they’re passionate about, channeling that passion into the work, I think that has real legs. We just have to hold up our end of things and continue tweeting about things we’re digging and pushing these works in front of our friends.
TS: Do you believe casual movie goers are more or less learning and becoming open to the deeper sides to comic books? People are gearing up for Civil War and creating theories for Marvel’s Infinity War in the same breath.
DB: I’d like to hope so, for sure. The more people reading comics, the better off everybody is, right? I remember when Sin City came out and there was a big demand for those trades. I’d like to see how it affects stuff once more independent fare starts getting onto TV and movie screens. I think Preacher will be an interesting test case for this, because it’s provocative in a different way from The Walking Dead, which does gangbusters, to my knowledge. If non-cape fare can consistently do big numbers, I think we’ll see a lot more interest on the comics side, too.
TS: To wrap up, what are some things in the comic book industry you’d like to see changed in the next five years or so?
DB: Here’s three:
1) Fewer superheroes, more of everything else. I’m not saying anyone should be put out of work (“get money” shall be the whole of the law), but it’s silly for one industry to be so dominated by one genre. We have to branch out if we expect to survive, thrive, and be relevant into the future. Superhero comics (and their attendant movies) can’t dominate the conversation like they do, because I honestly believe it’s at the expense of most everything else right now. Even if it drops to 50% capes/50% everything else, we’ll be in much better shape. I’d settle for 60/40, or even 75/25, on my most desperate days, too.
2) More nuance in our conversations. We tend to take disagreement as beef, when sometimes it’s just…disagreement. I want essays about how black characters got people through tough times to sit right next to essays about how black characters written by non-blacks are just pantomimes of lived experience without people expecting us to choose one or the other to back, because they both are true. I want to see conversations about diversity in comics, not just “Soandso wrote a great essay, read it here!” That’s great for when you’re just feeling out the conversation, but we learn more when we have to think about what WEB DuBois and Booker T Washington or Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were saying. There are a number of sides to any argument, but right now, we’re pretty much settling for “the bad side” and “the good side,” with good/bad being decided by which side you fall closer to yourself.
3) Creator diversity in mainstream books. There are a ton of talented creators out there, but only a fraction of them get a look at major publishers. Diversity of characters is great—diversity of creators is better. It’ll result in an industry full of a wide variety of experiences, which will filter down into the books. It will keep any one book or creator from being the Great Black Hope, and it will probably cut down on how many offensive or stupid portrayals of whichever culture or group that we still see today. The push for diversity in comics is fundamentally a demand that comics become honest: our world has never, ever looked like the world we see in mainstream comics, and mainstream comics can only become better by reflecting reality more accurately. Five years is a short timeline, but I’ve got hope.