Comic Art Friday: The brother from another mother

In the nascent days of my Common Elements commission theme — before I had any clue it would take on a life of its own, spawning well over 100 commissions to date — the connections between the featured characters were often simple and rather obvious. (Sometimes they still are.) And yet, even in those early concepts, my subconscious frequently bubbled up a more subtle subtext.

That’s certainly true in Common Elements #3, which I commissioned on New Year’s Day 2005. Artist Jeffrey Moy — probably best known for his work on DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes — served up this pinup-style piece pairing Luke Cage, Power Man with Karen Starr, Power Girl.

Power Girl and Power Man, pencil art by Jeffrey Moy

The superficial common element between Luke and Karen is pretty clear — they both have the word “Power” in their fighting identities. (Cage long ago abandoned the “Power Man” handle — as well as the flashy outfit — and now simply goes by his own name.) The pair, however, share another commonality, in that they represent caricatures of masculinity (Cage with the open shirt displaying his bulging musculature — a shirt which had the unusual knack of getting shredded off his torso in practically every issue) and femininity (artist Wally Wood famously drew Power Girl’s bust increasingly larger over a several-issue run, until an editor finally took notice and ordered him to quit). Granted, most superheroes — male or female — can be viewed as hypersexualized gender stereotypes, but Cage and Power Girl were created with those stereotypes in mind more flagrantly than others.

None of this has anything to do with the reason why this Common Elements piece marks a milestone in my collecting career. It’s important because it’s the first tangible evidence of my friendship with fellow collector Damon Owens.

After all these years, I don’t recall exactly how Damon and I began corresponding. (Damon probably does, and I’m sure he’ll correct any errant reportage that follows.) I think he might have sent me a note about my Bob McLeod Black Panther commission when I posted it to my Comic Art Fans gallery. Whatever the impetus, it became immediately clear that the two of us shared much in common. (There’s that Common Elements thing again.) Our casual correspondence evolved into a virtual friendship (we’ve never met in person; Damon lives in suburban Houston, while I’m in San Francisco) that persists to this day.

Without question, part of the connection between Damon and me is that we are both African American. That may not sound like a big deal to you, but I can tell you from a long lifetime of experience that black folks (and racial minorities of all shades, for that matter) have historically been underrepresented in science fiction and fantasy fandom in general, and in comic book fandom — okay, let’s call it geekdom — in particular. Thankfully, that’s changing — I see a lot more faces from a lot more races at comics conventions these days than I did in the 1970s, when I would often be the only person of color I encountered at a Star Trek or science fiction con. (Not that I encountered myself. You know what I mean.) But there’s still an element of “hey! another one of us!” when I run into someone of my background who’s into comics; someone who understands firsthand some of my frustrations with the mainstream comics industry’s embarrassing and often downright offensive depictions of black characters (or its failure to depict such characters at all), as well as its corresponding ill-treatment of many talented African American comics artists and writers.

Damon also shares my predilection for theme commissions, though he was in the game long before I was. His collection still contains many incredible pieces that, when I look at them, make me want to pitch all of my portfolios into the nearest Dumpster. (I lie down with a cool compress on my forehead until the temptation subsides.) Damon’s signature theme features The Brotherhood, an Avengers- or Justice League-style assemblage of legendary black superheroes from across the comics industry. He’s gotten some of the top talent in comics to draw scenarios starring these characters, and the results inspire in me both awe and envy.

From the beginning of our friendship, Damon has proven an invaluable resource for artist recommendations. It was Damon who tipped me to Jeff Moy’s availability for commissions, resulting in the piece shown above. This would be the first, but hardly the last, time that my interaction with an artist resulted from an introduction by Damon. In fact, as I’ve been composing this post, I’ve received two emails from an artist who’s working on my latest Common Elements addition — an artist to whom I was referred by the redoubtable Mr. Owens.

Last evening, I attended a screening of the documentary film White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books, at the Museum of the African Diaspora here in San Francisco. Following the screening, the filmmaker, Dr. Jonathan Gayles of Georgia State University in Atlanta, joined us via Skype for a discussion about the film and the issues contained therein. While I didn’t agree with every point made in the film — you know me; do I ever agree 100% with anyone about anything? — I found it a fascinating and enlightening (if occasionally frustrating) conversation. I especially appreciated Gayles’s interviews with the late Dwayne McDuffie, a veteran comics writer who is even better remembered as the story editor and producer of the popular Justice League animated series, as well as such figures as comics historian Bill Foster and writer/producer Reginald Hudlin.

Many of the documentary’s participants related accounts that mirrored my own childhood experiences, in which finding superheroes who looked like ourselves proved challenging. Among my most vivid memories as a young comics reader is the day I found the first issue of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire on a supermarket rack in Kokomo, Indiana, and for the first time saw an African American hero on the cover of a comic with his name in the title. I remember equally well the series of early-1970s issues of Jungle Action featuring the Black Panther, and the run of Captain America and the Falcon — the latter being Marvel’s very first African American hero (the Panther, who preceded the Falcon by a few years, was African, but not American) — during that same time period. These comics and characters weren’t perfect — in those days, their adventures were being scripted almost entirely by writers of the Caucasian persuasion, whose attempts at “black” dialogue often sank to ludicrous depths — but they were steps in a fresh new direction. By the late ’70s, Storm was a major character in X-Men, long-running supporting character Bill Foster (no relation to the comics historian) had taken up the mantle of Goliath, and even the ultraconservative DC had introduced John Stewart (a.k.a. “the black Green Lantern”) and Black Lightning. Again, it wasn’t a lot, but it was something.

Diversity remains a problem in comics, not just for black fans, but for Latino and Asian readers as well. The list of prominent non-Caucasian superheroes remains a short one, and the list of such characters that aren’t stereotypical in some way is shorter yet. (One of my favorite recent additions to the superhero pantheon is DC’s Mister Terrific, the rare black comics hero whose race is almost entirely incidental to the nature of his presentation.) And that’s not even considering the depiction of female characters, or gay characters of either gender, in mainstream comics. The industry still has a long way to go toward realistic, genuinely human portrayals of characters who aren’t white males (or, as in the case of Superman, space aliens who conveniently happen to look like Caucasian human males). As a wise person once observed, the wheels of progress grind slowly. But grind they must.

I look forward to the day when all comics readers — people of every ethnicity, gender, background, and orientation — can open a comic book (or view a digital comic, as the future of the industry lies in that direction) and see heroes and heroines with whom they can fully identify, and in whom they can see the materialization of their own fantasy selves. Won’t that be awesome?

After all, our most precious Common Element is our humanity.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Explore posts in the same categories: Comic Art Friday, Getting Racial Up In This Piece, Reminiscing, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

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