Polarizing personality Michael Davis moderated a panel on the roles of people of African descent in comics, peopled with an eclectic and laugh-filled panel of names and notables. Featured on the panel were musician Method Man, poet Faith Cheltenham, animation and comics legend Dwayne McDuffie, filmmaker Rusty Cundieff, Marvel’s John Dokes and representing BET were VP of Anmation (and Milestone Comics co-founder) Denys Cowan and entertainment president Reginald Hudlin.
Before it started, a Comic-Con staffer told Davis, “I’m gonna end this on time, I don’t care when it starts.” At 9:51 AM, only Davis and Hudlin were on hand for the 10 o’clock panel. He then turned the lights on and off multiple times, which was odd. People started filling in the room with gusto at about 9:55, with the level of handshakes and chatter rising accordingly. Familiar faces greeted one another as they found their way to seats.
Far from being an all-Black affair (although it did seem predominantly that way), there were faces of every ethnicity represented, including an interracial couple smooching in the second row.
John Dokes showed up at 10:04, and an iMovie presentation started about then. With humor and historical images shown, it had a soundtrack including “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” and “Stronger” by Kanye West. Davis exhorted the crowd to stand with great enthusiasm and only slightly missed audio cues. “I had it all planned out, we were gonna have the crowd stompin …”
“I’m so impressed, I walked in, people were waiting,” Davis joked. “They weren’t on time, they were early! For the Black Panel!”
“Hi, I’m Dwayne McDuffie,” Method Man joked, before social networking expert Faith Cheltenham introduced her self, one of the members of Suns of Man spoke as working with Davis, as well as Dokes, Cowan and Hudlin.
McDuffie had a conflict because he’s the show runner on “Ben 10.” “I knew that Rusty would be late, because he’s Rusty,” Davis said. “Every year at the Black panel, I make the point … every year we used to have a panel called Blacks in Comics, and people complained complained complained. I said ‘Let’s be positive.’ But this year, whatever you wanna talk about, no matter how good it makes me look, it’s all on the table. This is the most important moment in the history of African Americans since the ‘Black Panther’ announcement from BET. Anything goes, be respectful of the fact there are kids here.” His phone rang, and even he said, “That’s ghetto…”
“We had another presentation … what’s up Captain America?” Davis said to a Black man dressed like Captain America. “It’s 10:11 …”
“I was waiting on the Falcon …” the fan responded.
The panel was open for questions immediately, starting with a Milestone question, wondering why BET never picked up the show (forgetting that BET is owned by Viacom and at the time Hudlin and Cowan didn’t work there).
“I can answer part of it,” Cowan said. “None of the characters were intended for a niche market. Milestone is for everybody. I have to pause at the first part of your question. As far as future plans, keep your eyes open, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“Leave hopeful,” Hudlin said. “The success of ‘Black Panther’ will make room for more Black superheroes on television.”
Davis reminisced on the origins of the company and its inclusiveness in terms of content and fandom.
“I got a comic book coming out,” Method Man said. “I’ve been reading since I was six years old, since I didn’t have a TV. Wait, what was the question? I’m working on a few more kids. David Atchison helped with the writing part … no, he did the writing part.”
“The Method Man comic book is done by an excellent artist, Sanford Greene,” Cowan said. ” I was reading it and I was thrilled.”
A fan asked about a controversial cartoon BET released virally called “Read A Book,” and Hudlin considered it a perfect satire of hip hop. “The most shocking thing you could say in hip hop is ‘read a book.’ Crazy talk! For me it was about a parody of the current state of hip hop. This song would never get heard unless we make a video for it. We previewed it here at Comic-Con, and somebody boot legged it, and it was on YouTube. People commented saying ‘this is the sort of stuff BET should be doing!’ Which was funny, because … we did it.” He claimed the controversy came from people who didn’t appreciate satire and the intelligence of youth.
Another cell phone rang, and Davis called out an audience member for looking around like it wasn’t their phone.
The guy in the Isaiah Bradley costume asked if BET will take on this one as well. “It really is up to everybody in this audience,” Hudlin said. “If we can make this a successful series. It begins one step at a time.”
Davis expressed love for the guy, and they then shared a comical hug.
“They don’t have this kind of fun at the Marvel panel!” Davis said to Dokes. “They don’t let John on the Marvel panel …”
Another BET question came up, and Davis asked, “You know there is a BET panel right after this, right?”
“Yeah, I read,” the fan responded to riotous laughter.
“If you come to the BET panel …” Cowan said.
“There will be chicken!” Davis exclaimed.
“I always wanted to do a comic book,” Method Man said. “When the opportunity came up, I just was throwin’ ideas from everything, David Atchison put it all in a tasty stew. How would I like it to further my career? We got my man Reggie Hudlin over there, I’d like it to become a cartoon … or a movie!”
Rusty Cundieff showed up at 10:34 as a fan asked if the NAACP and Black organizations are helping the efforts to make these images and concepts more popular.
“I directed ‘Fear of a Black Hat’ and ‘Chapelle’s Show,’ I don’t have to be on time,” Davis joked.
“I thought it was fear of a Black panel,” Cundieff said.
Davis recounted a story about a Motown animation project called “Monkeybutt …” where the NAACP protested without having the full information. “There’s a lot of illusions about African American companies. I’ll work with anybody who’s professional. I prefer African American companies, because I like Black people. That doesn’t stop me from taking a check from Microsoft.”
“You’ll normally hear about Black political organizations in the negative,” Hudlin said. “Even when we announced ‘Black Panther.’ There’s a culture war in America. There’s a debate about what’s positive and what’s negative. Instead of pulling up and acknowledging that, everyone asks ‘my point is correct, why can’t you acknowledge that?’ Until we can stop do that, we can’t find an elevated level of discourse.”
“I’ve never felt the effect of the NAACP in my hood,” Method Man said. “I never seen them come through and hand out turkeys, that was the drug dealers.”
“I work for Tour.com now, and previously building Sarahferguson.com,” Cheltenham said. She talked about the “Darker Mass” anthology featuring superhero fiction from the likes of Steven Barnes and Walter Mosely.
Davis wondered why we don’t have a DJ at these panels, which led Method Man to beat box before Davis assistant cued up “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan, and he danced off stage for a moment. “You don’t get a DJ at the Marvel panel!”
“I’m a contributor to a large online site of Disney fans,” the next questioner said.
“I’m a big fan of porn,” Davis responded.
The panel was asked about Disney’s “The Princess and The Frog” to complete silence. “I hate to comment on anything I haven’t seen,” Hudlin said.
“Ultimately, we hope it’s really good,” Cowan said. “If it’s really good, it’s good for everybody. It kind of cracks open the door in a big way. More power to Disney, and hopefully it’ll work out. They’ll probably sell a lot of toys.”
“We do need a Black princess,” Hudlin said.
“We have a Black princess — Omorosa!” Davis said.
Dokes said that the Black Panther was going to appear in video games. “He has to elevate in the market, and what BET is doing with Marvel is gonna help do that.”
A fan asked about artists who look less “ethnic” working more than others, which made former “Firestorm” artist artist Jamal Igle on one side of the room want to chime in. “I came on to a book mired in controversy because they took a white character and killed him to replace him with a young Black character from Detroit, who was on his way to college, who made the mistake of making a delivery and got super powers. He’s trying to develop himself as a hero, and I’m getting flack about it for decisions I didn’t even make. I didn’t start the book until issue eight. I think because of what I get and what a lot of people get is because you’re known by your name. Ryan Stelfreeze is not the first name you’d think of as a Black man, but he’s a strong Black man. I’m Jamal Igle, it doesn’t get much Blacker than that.”
“Larry Washington!” Davis said.
Igle continued, “If you’re a Black artist, you’re going to run into obstacles. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means it’s going to be harder.”
“They treat the music now like fast food,” Method Man said. “Ringtone music, artists are dropping every week. The music is suffering, and you can’t just blame the artists. As far as Wu-Tang, I could care less what they play on the radio, and what videos there are, because at my shows, they’re packed saying ‘Wu-Tang, Wu-Tang’ … don’t judge the book by its cover. You might choke on some of that bad food on a plane and be like ‘Lil Wayne just saved my life!'”
Hudlin noted that BET was putting out a DVD on Wu-Tang history later this year.
Do people have to change the race of their characters? “Denys and I walked out of meeting with a big development person who asked if we could make him a white guy?”
“Don’t listen to people like that,” Cowan said. “When I got into comic books, I drew what characters appealed to me, but it wasn’t in order to get a job, I had to draw white characters. I wanted to do Deathlok, I wanted to do Power Man and iron Fist, I wanted to do Black Panther. But I also wanted to do Batman, and did.”
“You have to have self confidence,” Cheltenham said. “Sometimes that comes across as bitch, and Kimora Lee Simmons said that’s okay. She’s fabulous, so I’m gonna go with that.”
“I’ve had editors and agents try to steer me to look more like Terry Dodson or Adam Hughes, and that’s where I rebelled,” Igle said. “That’s the only way you’re going to survive. You have to follow the voice inside you.”
BadAzzMofo creator David Walker stepped up to the mic to ask about how do people create more buzz and publicity for their work. “What are people going to do to support creators who haven’t made it up there yet?”
“It’s scary how you can never feel like you’ve made it,” Hudlin said. “I feel like I’m struggling every day. I was having come of age career wise in a pre-internet era. Because everyone can have a voice and a blog, it’s harder to make noise. One of the interesting theories is that in this era, brands mean more. Wu-Tang is a fantastic example of people coming together and creating a new brand. It will carry those guys forever. That tipping point is a hell of a thing. All of a sudden, it happens. What was the difference? You didn’t stop.”
“I was talking to some people about this the other night,” Cundiefff said. “There’s so many opportunities. What it’s created is a bunch of content providers, so many content providers in so many distribution bases that to really get known you have to be exemplary and spectacular as an individual. When I did ‘Fear of a Black Hat,’ I was surprised how many people came to see it because there weren’t a lot of Black films. Now, you can make a living just below that middle ground. If you really want to do something to get out there, you have to do something incredible. When you talk about believing in yourself, a lot of people, I wanna say ‘stop believing.’ Try to find a way to honestly assess your ability against the marketplace. It’s just knowing what your skill set is and finding people who help you.”
“It doesn’t help when your friends and family tell you how good you are and you suck,” Davis said.
“I would encourage people to network as hard as you can,” Cheltenham said. “When you do things, you can rise up a little bit quicker.”
“Did you ask if there’s corporate interest in the advancement of Black people?” Hudlin asked a questioner.
“When you put it like that …” the fan said.
“I create an opportunity where there’s an existing infrastructure and tell them how to market it to Black people,” Davis said. “Every deal I’ve made has been with major companies.”
“There’s very few reliable supplies,” Hudlin said. “Are you talented? Can you deliver what you say you’re going to do? Are you timely? Can I sleep and not worry about what you’re going to do? There are some people who want to be good corporate citizens, but they have to be profitable corporations.”
“Not enough credit has been given to Reggie for ‘Black Panther,'” Dokes said of a question about portraying Black struggle. “From a Marvel standpoint, we try to do that in as many places as we can with as many characters as we can. Axel Alonso, Reggie’s editor, does that in as many places as he can. It helps when you come up to editors at the booth and tell us you’re missing elements. They think about that when they get back to the office, so keep bringing up these questions.”
“Everyone here is here to make things better, not worse,” Hudlin said. “A lot of people freaked out when I gave the Black Panther a little sister. I said ‘why not?’ Let’s give him a kick ass little sister. In the future, I showed her as a Black Panther herself. As a corporation, the vast majority of vice presidents in the entertainment are women. The majority of the BET audience is women. We have women in mind because they’re part of our audience.”
Cheltenham said, “I have to give a lot of respect to Michael because I asked him at New York Comic-Con why I’m not on this panel.”
“I’m looking for Asian women,” Davis said. “That was a joke, I love Black women. Stay strong!”
“Arsenio Hall has a show, but it wasn’t as good as Tyra,” Method Man said. “You’ve got Oprah Winfrey, y’all are everywhere. Especially in my house, I don’t run my house at all.”
“We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift,” Hudlin said about the question of funding. “Melvin Van Peebles has a great line, ‘Trouble is opportunity in work clothes.’ We have to use our natural futuristic nature as a culture to figure out where are things going and how can I get there first?”
“Where’s the money?” the fan asked.
“That’s for you to figure out,” Hudlin answered. “It’s always a hustle. There’s no blueprint on how to do things outside of the system. Robert Townsend used credit cards. Creativity isn’t just the product you make, it’s how to make the product.”
Are people working on electronic versions of their work for products like Kindle or iPhones? Dokes said, “You can read Marvel digital comics unlimited,” Dokes said. “This is something I came up with in the digtital media group. It’s a way to get comics out to a larger audience.”
“We have a ‘Three Shadows’ graphic novel on Tour.com,” Cheltenmam said.
The panel ran late and had to end with a discussion of networking, with Hudlin recommending talking to people at this very panel.