Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Taking another short break from the ongoing Street Team series of interviews, it is my distinct pleasure to present this interview with Brandon Easton, longtime BSH Herotalk regular and writer and creator of Shadowlaw as well a writer for the new ThunderCats cartoon on Cartoon Network! If you have ever had any interaction with Brandon you are already aware of his keen insight and should know what to expect here- I promise you will not be disappointed one bit!
1) For people who may not be familiar with you, could you please give us a quick introduction for yourself and for Shadowlaw?
I was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland; solid working-class background, part of the last generation of folks able to survive on lower-middle-class money and have a decent life. Like many other places, Baltimore was decimated by the drug explosion of the mid-to-late eighties and much of my life was defined by that event. The world that people watched on The Wire (HBO series) WAS the Baltimore I grew up in. I’ve seen and lost more things in one year than most people have seen and lost in their entire lives. As a result, I had to earn a college degree and two master’s degrees with no familial assistance. I only bring this stuff up because I grow tired of the fetishization of urban doom that I see within our community. You have grown Black men and women who grew up in decent nuclear families with upper-middle-class money who behave like they came from the gutter. They wear an emperor’s robe consisting of manufactured atrocity. When people meet me, they assume I’m like Carlton from the Fresh Prince, but little do they know that they couldn’t last thirty seconds in the world I come from.
Much of my upbringing informs the way I deal with people and how I view the popular arts. I used movies, TV, animation and comics as an escape from a lot of dark stuff I dealt with. It stays with you in ways you can’t readily imagine. So with that said, Shadowlaw deals with a very dark reality where political turmoil and massive political conspiracies run amuck; the general concept revolves around a disgraced soldier named Rictor Caesaro who ends up in a concentration camp that turns out to be a vampire feeding center. But what Rictor discovers about the camp leads to a huge revelation about the global establishment and his ultimate role in their plans.
2) Shadowlaw seems to touch on some heavier themes concerning government and religion than one might expect from a "typical" giant mecha sci-fi comic and seems to have some direct parallels to certain periods in history where our own reality's Catholic Church essentially ruled a number of kingdoms and empires. Could you give us some background on that particular aspect of the story? What, if anything, are you trying to say about the mixing of religion and government within a society?
Okay, I’ll answer this in two parts: 1) I was raised Roman Catholic and was a part of the heavy Black Catholic culture that exists in the Middle Atlantic states (that few people seem to be aware of). I also taught History and Economics for a few years in NYC Public Schools and I know that the Catholic Church has been behind some of the worst events in recorded history. I also know that the Catholic Church in America was a major force in the Civil Rights Movement as well as the nuclear weapons disarmament protests of the seventies and eighties so there’s a great deal of conflict within me regarding my religious background. For example, I am very supportive of the totally ignored liberal wing of the Catholic Church but I absolutely abhor the Vatican and our current Pope. And as far as the priest abuse issue, those guys deserve a lot more than jail time, but the reality in my life is that I never, ever, not once witnessed or was the victim of sexual molestation or inappropriate behavior on the part of a priest. And it ain’t just Catholic priests who were guilty of that crime, plenty of Protestants, Jews and other denominations also have their share of misdeeds involving children but much of that has been covered up.
Now, anyone that pays attention to the social history of the Western World can tell you how much of an influence the Catholic Church had on the European exploration and defilement of Latin America and parts of the United States. Hell, it wouldn’t be Latin America without the Catholic Church’s involvement during that era. So the idea that the Catholic Church could once again grow into a viable socio-political force isn’t far-fetched. And because the Catholic tradition and ritual mass is so bizarre to many people, it makes it easy to cast them as a villain. Although, it would be a huge mistake to consider the Catholic government the “bad guys” in this story. I won’t say much more, but once people read the story, they’ll understand what I mean by that.
And 2) my view on government and religion is that they need to be separate. Nowhere in the history of mankind has there been a mix of statehood and non-secular notions where things have been fair and equal. You could make the same argument about capitalism or communism as well, but at least those are based on pragmatic concepts of give and take, or have and have-not. When religion is the core concept, you can justify just about anything in “god’s name.” Religion can be used to keep a population obtuse. I’m not saying there aren’t brilliant or highly intelligent people who are deeply religious, but for some reason, whenever I meet someone who’s a devout follower of a faith, they seem to lack primary knowledge of history, science, secular literature, math or art. This isn’t always the case, as I know many major intellects that are religious, but unfortunately, that’s been my general experience. Especially in the American South.
3) You've been very candid about some of your difficulties finding dependable creators to collaborate with who are as serious as you are with the business of making comics. Why do you think this has been the case and what advice (if any) would you give to other writers out there who may be facing those same obstacles?
Before I get into that, I will go to the bottom line first: you’ve got to pay people. Period.
Now with that said (laughs) we can get into some deeper stuff. My issue is this: if you meet a writer and they tell you that they don’t have money to pay you but they are willing to offer partial ownership or a 50/50 split on any property you create together, and you agree to those terms, then you should finish the damn project. Especially if there’s been a contract exchange on good faith.
Some folks believe that I have “issues” with comic book illustrators and the truth is that I don’t. What I have an issue with are people whose egos are bigger than their talents and/or bigger than their ability to finish what they start. There’s a whole generation of comic book artists out there who truly believe that they will work on X-men or Justice League in a month or two if they just draw enough splash pages or pin-ups. And while the potential exists for an artist to jump into the big leagues faster than a writer, if you look at history, most of the “superstar” artists worked for years to master their craft and didn’t disrespect their peers along the way. If you talk to a few established illustrators, they would agree that many of their peers or rather, guys aspiring to be their peers, have a strange way of looking at how the industry operates. There’s a major gulf between what they think is reality and how things actually work. I’m not saying that an artist should allow themselves to be exploited or manipulated. There are just as many scumbag amateur writers out there who want to get good art for next to nothing.
But when you’re struggling as a writer to get your name out there, you will meet a slew of artists whose personalities consist of a combustible mixture of arrogance, stupidity, cynicism and immaturity. Those were the kind of guys I met between 1999 and 2006 when I was getting my career started. Maybe that’s a comic book industry thing, but lord knows, I have grown so tired of dealing with folks like that.
And to be clear, many of my friends in this business are artists. I know a bunch of people who are on point in terms of attitude: LeSean Thomas, Rob Stull, Ashley Woods and Dan Norton come to mind and there are about twenty other names that slip my mind now – so it’s not about a “writer vs. artist” beef. However, as a writer, the only folks who have ever screwed me over have been illustrators. I’m sure there are illustrators out there who would say the same about writers. So it’s a matter of experiences and perceptions.
My advice for writers is this: either offer 50% of the property, pay the artist a fair wage, or both. Unless the artist is personally invested in a project (and sometimes that doesn’t matter) you can’t expect someone to draw twenty-two to ninety-six pages of artwork on the condition that things might work out. There are simply too many variables to consider like whether or not you will self-publish? If you don’t self-publish, then who will you try to sign with in terms of a publisher/distributor? If you find a publisher, then what kind of deal will you get? Will you sign over certain rights for the sake of getting distribution? And if so, what does that do to the deal you’ve made with your artist? And what if you never find a publisher, are you really ready for the uphill climb through the mountain of quicksand that represents the world of self-publishing?
Comics are fun, but can be the vocational equivalent to shooting heroin. There are too many negative side-effects for the sake of a short-term thrill. Writers need to protect themselves on so many levels.
Once again, much of this can be remedied if you just pay people up front. Period.
4) You recently commented that, "the comic book industry needs a Civil Rights movement..." Could you expand on that idea a bit? What, in your opinion, would a Civil Rights Movement for the comic book industry entail and what do you think black people and other minorities need to do to actually make that happen?
Yes and I believe that quite a few people misinterpreted me when I said it. Let me put it like this: while I can’t speak for a lot of people in my generation (the latchkey crew of the 1980s), I can say that it appears like many of us loved comic books to death while growing up. I loved the Marvel Universe and liked a few of the DC Universe core characters. I can remember getting excited every Wednesday on new release day (it used to be Fridays when I was very young). Literally my heart-rate would go up, I would sweat bullets and it would feel like I was going in for my first kiss every time I entered a comic book store. In Baltimore (a predominantly Black city), the comic book store was packed with a virtual rainbow of ethnic groups all there for the same thing. It was beautiful. I can’t think of another word for that experience. Just… beautiful.
Little did I know that there were all kinds of racist shenanigans going on behind the scenes at the major companies (and much of this is based on stories I’ve heard firsthand from Black creators who worked in the business for the last twenty or thirty years). Little Black, White, Asian, Native American and Latino kids were going crazy over work that was created by some stone cold racists. In a way, that’s pure tragedy.
But that’s the past and it ain’t coming back and there’s nothing we can do about that. However, in the late-1990s I can remember when almost every other book released by the DC Comics “adult/alternative” imprint Vertigo had some variation of the word “nigger” in their comic books. Between Garth Ennis’ Preacher series and Brian Azzarello’s work on Hellblazer and 100 Bullets, it seemed like there was a competition to see how many ways they would work the word “nigger” into their scripts- like they were trying to win the Quentin Tarantino Black Dialogue Award or something.
I can’t help but to think that if someone was there who was a responsible-minded Black person or a responsible-minded human being that maybe a question would have been raised about the necessity of the repeated use of the slur. It was to the point of absurdity at times. Meanwhile, while the word “nigger” was being tossed about like volleyball, Wolverine issue #131 was immediately recalled and destroyed by retailers and Marvel Comics because the anti-Semitic term “kike” had been mistakenly printed in the comic. It was the damndest thing I’d ever seen: Marvel was scrambling around apologizing left and right, retailers were tossing books in the trash can and sitting in the middle of those stores were at least three books that had the word “nigger” all over the place.
If the NAACP had paid attention to the Vertigo imprint during that time, there would have been a tidal wave of controversy. Obviously, comics are so far beneath their radar that it didn’t register, but if you remember, the NAACP, Jesse Jackson and other Black leaders were calling for a boycott of Hollywood and taking them to task for the blatantly racist hiring practices in the industry. Now, I am not a fan of government intervention in private business and personal decision-making of the citizenry, but if the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - http://www.eeoc.gov/) were to take a look at the (lack of) diversity numbers in the comic book industry they would be appalled.
How many Black writers are there at Marvel and DC? I can think of one at Marvel and maybe two at DC Comics. Maybe. Aren’t these two subsidiaries of larger publicly-traded entertainment megaliths? Marvel is owned by Disney who is known to be big on diversity in the industry and DC is owned by Time/Warner who once had a Black man (Richard Parsons) in charge of their entire company. It would stand to reason that there should be some kind of oversight about hiring practices somewhere in this business. I’m not asking for quotas or mandates, but at least some kind of way to ensure that everyone gets a fair shake at an interview or a pitch. You can’t hire a new coach in pro baseball, basketball or football without at least interviewing a person of color. There’s a reason for that.
I’m not saying that these companies “owe” us anything or that we should count on them to “represent” our culture. I believe that we’ve given Marvel and DC millions of dollars over the years and its time that they woke up to the reality of the America that exists instead of the America that they wish it was. I don’t know what kind of protest we could do other than not buy their books and let them know that we’re not buying them until we see some more qualified people of color behind the scenes working on the editorial direction of a few major titles.
To quote many people I know, there’s no reason Dwayne McDuffie shouldn’t have been a top-flight editor or the Chief Creative Officer of Marvel or DC Comics. But now there are a lot of talented brothers and sisters in the business who could write circles around some of the folks with steady gigs out there. From where I sit, that’s a felony.
All we can really do is continue to create good, high-selling material and make our names known.
5) Could you tell us a bit about your experience writing on the new ThunderCats show?
It was an amazing experience. More than the writing itself, I learned about the business side of television, specifically television animation. In the past, I was relentlessly critical of any animated series that dealt with a character that I held dear. If the show did something I considered to be “wrong” I would go ballistic and freak out and complain about it for months or years at a time. Then when you get to sit in on meetings and start to pitch ideas for an episode, I learned that there are at least ten different things to consider for every decision you make and when you commit to an idea or concept, you’ve got to be sure that all your bases are covered or else you have to go back to the drawing board.
To coin a phrase, it was like I got hit by a bolt of lightning. I broke out of my naïve speculation and assumptions of professionalism and realized that I was barely out of the gate. It was like when Obi-Wan told Luke he “took his first step into a bold new world.” It flipped my perception off its axis. Then at that moment, I began to learn. Actually learn something new. We like to think of ourselves as open to new ideas, but few of us really are open to anything. We usually go through life looking for people or things that validate our narrow perspectives on reality. Its why truly progressive-thinking or critical-minded people live lives of solitude and bitterness- it’s difficult to find those willing to accept that they know next to nothing.
ThunderCats changed my life, personally and professionally.
Thank you for your time Brandon, it's been a pleasure. Do you have any final thoughts you would like to leave our readers?
Believe in yourself. Always. It sounds trite and clichéd, but it also has the virtue of being true. If you want to be a writer, artist, singer, dancer, painter, doctor, lawyer, bus driver, mortician, whatever, just believe you can do it. It all starts with your ability to conceive of yourself as a professional. But first it’s a good idea to realize how much you need to learn in order to put yourself on the path to your dreams. Also, learn to be compassionate and respect other people’s feelings. You never know how your kindness will be repaid later on, just like you have no idea how your callousness will come back to you in the future. Peace and blessings.
William Satterwhite is the creator of the superhero webcomic Stealth and a freelance designer, internet consultant and illustrator living in Douglasville, Ga. His professional website can be found at www.williamsatterwhite.info. You can follow William on Facebook at http://facebook.com/williamsatterwhite or Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/w_satterwhite.
Posted by William Satterwhite at 9:55 AM