Last Tuesday we published Part 1 of our two part series gleaned from information collected from the Legends of Comics panel at the Urban Action Showcase in New York City. Moderated by comic book publisher Regine Sawyer of Lockett Down Productions, the discussion featured commentary from veteran comic book artists MShindo Kuumba of Advent Comics, Grey Williamson of Carbon Fibre Media and Alitha E. Martinez, creator of Yume and Ever. Though The Shadow League has written numerous articles regarding race and class in the pages of DC and Marvel Comics, we had never heard any artist of African decent speak so candidly regarding their experiences in the industry. We continue that conversation with Mshindo answering the moderator’s question regarding a pivotal moment in his career.
“Career wise, when I did my first 4 x 6 painting, and it was a challenge to an older business partner that I had who had already had his life experience. He came off as an elder guide. He was in the sign craft and I was in the visual medium. So, it was a good artistic marriage where he would do the lettering to the sign craft and I would come behind a do the art. In that particular challenge I grew exponentially in that moment.”
“Anyone who has ever seen my portfolio may have saw a Masai warrior. That’s the painting and I did that overnight,” he explained. “I did not do a grid to interpret the photograph. I just stood back, looked at it and made my placements. I didn’t have any children at the time. I just worked at it overnight. In the morning he walked in the shop and found a completely finished, photo realistic piece. He was in complete shock. For me, as a young man, it showed me how efficient I could be. That grew my income because anyone who walked in the studio, that was the thing that made an impact on them artistically as to who I was. People treated me as if I was a gem in the community. Because I’m a community artist. My focal point wasn’t Marvel and DC. I’m not saying those are bad things, but my focus was the magnitude of the community. We’re a very rich community. We spend billions of dollars with other people. There’s also a need in the community. So the business mind says ‘Okay, if I fulfill a need then I become a millionaire for my people because I’m doing it for others.”
Yume and Ever
The other pivotal moment of which Kuumba spoke had nothing to do with comic books, but his other artistic endeavor.
“The other pivotal moment was working with Wesley Snipes (Omandi Mech 5) on a property that I actually helped to create. That was extremely pivotal because it showed me a lot about the good, and the downside of Hollywood. It’s not a place that I think is very friendly towards us. Not many things are, but they’ve got a thing where…what I try to show people with my art is what images do for the human brain. That’s why hieroglyphs were seen as a divine writing. It is a visual reminder that stimulates the brain in a certain way. It could be malevolent or benevolent. That’s why Disney targets the children. The children influence what the parents do. Even the direction of the dollar. As broad as Disney is, some of what I see come across as a parent, I see a bit malevolent. It teaches more about friendships that it does familial connections, and familial purpose. Unless you’re a king or a queen who gets to win the kingdom. Then, the familiar becomes very important, but it’s still connected to fiat or the gaining of the inheritance. That’s very selfish.”
In part 1 of our coverage of U.A.S. Legend of Comics discussion, Alitha E. Martinez spoke of her plight as a woman of color just trying to make a living doing what she loves. She went into further detail later in the discussion.
“I was thinking about this for a moment here, I put a lot of thought into this. It was the moment I accepted the fact that I was going to remain invisible because there’s a difference between being what I am, being packaged in this body, and doing what I do for a living. I have to be constantly faced with it and it’s never going to go away and it’s never going to get any better. I’m always going to face something because of it. Right here at this show there were people walking up to my booth that were ready to believe that my son drew all the stuff they saw rather than believe I drew them. It’s starts with the packaging,with the work that you’re doing, then they add the packaging and the work you do and figure they can pay you less.”
As was the case during many of the more sobering moments of testimony, the room fell deathly silent.
“They can not only pay you less, but they can pay you under certain rules. They can pay me Net 90. What Net 90 means is they don’t cut your check for 3 months. That’s why I try to work as a freelancer as much as I can because working under contract in this economy means there’s 90 days before they cut your check. Believe me, landlords don’t want to hear that. They get upset. So I was doing Net 90 about two years ago and I was working under contract and I realized ‘You know what? You absolutely have no value. You’re not valued as a human, you’re not valued as a worker. You’re not valued as an entity that needs to eat, that has a right, so why are you doing this? You should be doing something else with your life.’ But, no. This is my life. This is all that I am. This is what I was when I was little, this is what I’ve disciplined myself to do my whole life, this is what I hope to do until the day that I die. I might never win an award, I’m quite certain I’ll be easily forgotten, That’s okay. I came here, I showed my face, which is something I rarely do. I’ve been doing this for 14 years and I still get that ‘When did you start?’ But none of that matters. Every book is the first, every time I come out I was going to be perfectly invisible, and I had to be comfortable with that in order to continue.”
As was the case throughout the discussion, artist Grey Williamson appeared to use the “Columbo” method of the bumbling detective in responding to the moderator as he appeared to feign knowledge or the nature of a question (What are his plans for the future) with his initial demeanor but in answering would remove any doubt as to his experience and sincerity.
“I don’t know. I have a job to do regardless. I’m going to tell stories. I’m a conduit. For me, art is nothing but communication. The stories I tell don’t come from me. I receive them completely whole and I have to figure out what is the significance of this story. I need to figure out what they’re trying to tell me before I can tell it the way that it has been given to me. So, if I’ve been given the ability to draw and I’m being given these stories, I figure that this is my calling. So, the calling isn’t something that I want to do or aspire to do, it’s just who I am. That’s my path. I don’t aspire to be bigger than that. I don’t aspire to be famous, I don’t aspire to get any more respect than I earn.”
Sobering, eye-opening and heartbreaking are but a smattering of the descriptive terms this writer can think of regarding the plight of these three sensational artists regarding their experiences as people of African descent working in the comic book industry. This writer was impressed with the humility and sense of sacrifice and growth that permeated each person’s testimony. You got the feeling they were steeled in the belief that their trials would make it easier for those coming up behind them.
"I hope to fulfill my retirement plan of dying at my desk like Jack ‘King’ Kirby. That’s how I gotta go. Do not go gentle into that goodnight," said Martinez.
"None of what we do, we do by ourselves. If you want to be in this business and be good, you need help. Every single icon in the business had other people around who the fed off us. Nobody becomes good by themselves. I remember having a conversation with King Kirby and he spoke about drawing specific characters, Captain American specifically,” said Williamson. “It was an eye-opening thing that this man who was the father of modern day comics, was looking at my drawings and talking about the sensitivity he was trying to put on Captain America’s face and where he got it from. He mentioned other artists he knew at the time. These people who helped rebuild the comic book industry in the 60s passed around work. If one guy couldn’t do it, he passed it on to the next guy, if that guy couldn’t meet the deadline he passed it on to a third guy. Even guys we would think as the second-tier of comic book legends, they all knew each other.”
“There was no community for me. There was no where I could go where we could share work with each other. As a result, Alitha is forced into the position she has been forced into to feed her family. This is a shame as good as she is. At one time I reached out to Alitha had a studio in Midtown Manhattan, and the people I was working with at the time did not want to do this. So I know what she’s saying is real. She’s in a package that’s not popular, not even to her own people who should be embracing her. I remember having a fight in my studio over the nonsense. In my own studio. We are no longer in the same position. There’s only a few of us out here. But now, comic books as we know them are practically dead, the print comic book. With the web you have instant transmission and it’s not regulated. So, if you can maintain yourself, hold on for a minute and continue to produce and get yourself on the web you can be at the foundation of a whole new era in our industry just like in the 1960s when I started reading comics.”