By: Steven Christian
Black Heroes Matter is a phrase that has been circulating more and more over the past year especially on Twitter and in the convention scene. Not to be confused with the Black Lives Matter movement, Black Heroes Matter’s main objective is to increase minority representation in pop culture. Minorities are tired of their stories being told from the white males’ points of view, especially those that get more stereotypical the darker the character’s skin. We want breadth and depth to our melanin-rich characters and we’re demanding that not only the characters but also the creators behind them are diverse.
There's no denying that the Black community is making waves in music and sports, but when it comes to film, photography, animation and illustration, there is a vast lack of representation. Kids are growing up wanting to be Drake and Lebron James, but I can count on one hand the number of people I know who want to be like Reginald Hudlin, Spike Lee or George Lucas. This is why Black Heroes Matter is so important. When people see themselves represented in the media they consume, they are more receptive to the idea that they can do and be anything. However, these characters won’t just magically appear. If we want change to happen we have to create them ourselves.
Breaking into the creative industry isn’t easy, and although I have had some success, I am definitely an exception. As a visual artist, my background is pretty nontraditional, or stereotypical for a black person depending on how you look at it. I grew up playing sports. Yes, I was one of those kids running around with my Bulls jersey on. As I grew older, my eyes shifted to football, and before I knew it, I was modeling my skills after Nnamdi Asomugha. Football was life until I had two football-related injuries when I was playing at the University of Hawaii. It was then that I had to reassess my aspirations because football clearly was not going to last forever.
I was always a big cartoon and comic book fan, so I delved deeper into the culture of creating and telling visual stories. I would be lying if I said that I was able to jump right into the creation process from the get-go. To be honest, it was really difficult because I didn't know anyone that was an artist, and there were very few people I could model after who looked like me. It became very apparent that there weren't as many examples of success that I was used to seeing when I was playing sports. The only two people I knew ofwere Aaron McGruder and Dwayne McDuffie. I'm a big Boondocks and Static Shock fan so I figured I could recreate their work in my own style.
I began to slowly work my way up the ranks in the industry through my work and unique style. My body of work – which I create under the name Iltopia – revolves around children of color who dress up in their favorite superhero costumes. Think of your favorite melanin-deficient character with fuller lips, darker skin, and wider noses. I did this to show kids that they have the power to recreate their heroes in their own image even if they can’t identify with the images they see on screen. The overwhelmingly positive reception to my work has granted me the opportunity to exhibit at conventions where I've met people that have a similar mission. Interestingly enough, their experiences parallel mine in many ways as they build resumes in the creative industry as Black creators.
Markus Prime is a "prime" example. He was my convention buddy at the Rose City Comic Convention in Portland, Oregon this past September. Markus is an illustrator/cartoonist who aims to normalize people of color in comics and cartoons. Next time you see a black girl in a Naruto costume rocking Bantu knots, thank Markus. Markus got into art at a very young age. "I have always done it as a hobby," he explains. "Growing up, it just naturally came to me to draw this character as a black dude. You know… throw some elements that I identify with into those characters." Similar to how I got into the art scene, Markus saw a lack of representation in his favorite media. Instead of complaining about it, he decided to take action and fill the void. Markus describes his motivation as "not trying to be a trendsetter, but more like trying to take responsibility for my complaints."
He hasn't been alone in the journey, though. He attributes his success to the online communities that have supported him since the beginning. Markus says, "The Internet and social media really played a major factor in getting my message out there." Over the past six years, he has continued to share his work and generate a following of over 168K on Instagram. He has established himself as a prominent figure in the indie creative space and wants to continue inspiring others like him. He explains, "If black kids can see that their imagination counts too, they can aspire to be artists, animators, engineers, and different creators."
Anthony Piper is another one of my convention buddies. We exhibited together at WonderCon at the LA Convention Center back in March. You may know him as the creator of the increasingly popular webcomic, "Trill League." Think of it as "The Boondocks" meets "Justice League." Yes, that does exist, and it’s more amazing than you could ever imagine.
Growing up as an only child in a single-parent household, Anthony describes being "surrounded by all these new things like Nintendo, Darkwing Duck, Batman, etc." He explains how he "didn't really look up to anybody" for creative inspiration, but was "kind of mold[ed] with the stimulus [he] was given” from TV and pop culture. As he began to pursue a career in the arts, he ran into the problem of not knowing how to make a living doing what he wanted to do. “It’s not something that you can just fill out an application for – like applying for a job at Walmart,” he jokes. Like many of us, you get to a point where you don’t know where to go with the work you do, and you can’t turn to anyone for guidance because you are in foreign territory. “It’s just one of those things where as a kid you think you can do anything in the world. Your possibilities are infinite,” he remembers. “As you get older, [they] kind of get smaller and smaller, and [you] see the limitations."
Like Markus, Anthony attributes much of his success and the direction his career is going to the Internet:
“I don't think it's unique to the arts. The Internet changed everything. People are able to share their experiences. They are able to amass an audience just because of those unique experiences. I think things are starting to become more niche in a sense. You don't have to have this broad net to cast. Back in the day in the 80s, it was just, “okay we need a black character.” So they thought they could get all the black geek readers, but now because things are so individualistic, we all gravitate towards certain groups [and you can create content for those groups specifically].”
Anthony thinks that the freedom and flexibility creators have now is great especially for the black community. He puts it like this, "If you are waiting for somebody to give you the opportunity, you are waiting for them to make up their mind that this is something that they want to do." It ultimately ends up in the hands of people who might white-wash the original idea as a consequence of making the idea authentic and profitable at the same time.
It is important for people of color to put their voices out there because we all have unique experiences, and we are the ones growing up in these situations that aren't necessarily mainstream or talked about much in the media. The majority of Americans get their lessons in diversity from the media, not from life experiences. If we as creators don't show the world that our heroes and role models matter, then they won't be taken seriously or publicized.
After talking to Anthony, Markus, and many others at conventions, the general consensus is that seeing real examples of people that look like you in an industry makes it easy to follow in their footsteps. Promoting and supporting people like Anthony and Markus for the great work they do in comics and creative culture will encourage future generations to follow their footsteps. As we have seen over the years with #OscarsSoWhite and the perpetual white-washing in Hollywood, waiting for heroes of color to magically appear isn't a reality. It is important that we take the initiative to put our unique stories out there, and inspire others to create opportunities that conquer stereotypes. I set out on this journey to take ownership of what I want to see reflected in the media and also in my everyday life. Black Heroes Matter because if we don’t take the initiative we will continue to see generation after generation trying to be "Like Mike" when they could be like Ryan Coogler. I urge you all to Create and Conquer!
Check out more of Steven's work here or @iltopia on Instagram.
Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @stuckonaneyelnd