According to moderator and Milestone Media co-founder Michael Davis, Friday’s Black Panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego started perfectly in accordance with tradition: two minutes late. Also per tradition, it opened boisterously as Davis made Mitt Romney jokes and joked that the microphones weren’t working “because I’m Black.”
After a brief credits sequence that announced “White People Welcome,” the panel’s producer, Tatiana EL-Khouri introduced the guests: E. Van Lowe (executive producer of “The Cosby Show” and noted YA writer), Missi Geppi (daughter of Diamond Comics Distributors’ founder Steve Geppi and president of Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore), Steve McKeever (Hidden Beach Recordings founder), Denys Cowan (Milestone co-founder, “The Question”), Jamie Kennedy (“Malibu’s Most Wanted,” “The Cleveland Show”), and NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal. Also joining the panel was Alexander Storm, writer of O’Neal’s “Clean Ops” and “Hoop Fighters” comics for New Kingdom Entertainment.
One last bit of housekeeping was Davis’ repeating of the Black Panel’s One Rule. Out of respect for the talent and accomplishments of the people on the panel, Davis usually has a No Speeches rule for audience questions. In other words, keep the discussion focused on picking the brains of the panelists, not making your own observations. This year, he said, would be a bit different. “This year, talk… as long… as you… want. You can bring baby pictures up, we’ll put them on the monitor. If there’s a girl you used to date and you want to get in touch with, we will call her for you! You can talk as long as you want. And after you’re done… you will be shot. That’s how we roll up in this bitch.”
Since it’s Comic-Con, of course the panel had a sponsor and Davis was proud to announce that it was Mitt Romney — or rather, the “Daybreak” web series from AT&T, produced by “Heroes'” Tim Kring and starring Ryan McPartlin from “Chuck.” With that out of the way, Davis began taking questions as well as asking some of his own.
An audience member asked if any of the panelists had regrets about projects that they’d been unable to participate in. Kennedy answered that he’d passed up having limo sex with Heather Graham in “Boogie Nights” in order to play a gay hustler in As Good As It Gets. Shaq quipped, “‘Kazaam 2.'”
The very next question was a request to get a photo taken with Shaq, so Davis enforced his No Speeches rule by pulling out a toy gun to the delight and applause of the entire room. That became as much a running gag as Mitt Romney as the hour progressed.
Also in response to an audience question, Shaq and Strong announced that “Hoop Fighters” would be published early next year and would begin as a 4-issue miniseries, but could continue if interest is there.
Responding to a Twitter question about why there aren’t more black artists and themes in mainstream comics, Cowan explained that there are some very prominent black artists, but that overall not enough has changed in the last 20 years. One of the biggest contributors to the problem is that there’s a lack of awareness for the opportunities that exist for blacks and other minorities in comics.
McKeever shared how the music industry is similar and how it’s possible to strategize and try to figure out how to infiltrate popular culture with black creators and ideas, but that ultimately it’s the culture that either accepts or rejects that strategy. “Culture,” he said, quoting Oprah Winfrey, “eats strategy for lunch.”
Someone asked if Michael Jordan might be a possible guest for next year’s panel, which led Davis to clarify that Shaq’s presence wasn’t because he was an NBA star, but because he’s a worldwide phenomenon who’s making comics. His coming to comics and the audience he’ll bring with him, Davis said, “is the biggest thing in African American comics since Milestone.”
Davis had to clarify something else after someone tweeted that this was the most non-black Black Panel ever (apparently a comment on Kennedy and Geppi’s participation, both of whom are white). Davis repeated something he said at the beginning of the discussion, that black culture is youth culture. It’s the dominant culture in the world and includes people who aren’t black. Thanks to movies like “Malibu’s Most Wanted,” Jamie Kennedy has been vetted and has influence in the black community. Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore is hosting a gallery show (curated by Davis) called “Milestones: African Americans in Comics, Pop Culture and Beyond.” “There’s nobody on this panel that doesn’t have street cred in the African American community,” Davis said. “Next year, when I get Vanilla Ice up here… then we will have a problem.”
Davis had to pull the gun out a few more times as audience members requested career help and celebrity endorsements, but he restrained himself for a couple of worthy causes like educational programs for urban kids. Shaq even requested that one stand-up comedian give a couple of minutes of his act, which got plenty of laughs from the audience.
After the panel steered back on track, a fan asked Shaq and Kennedy who their favorite comics and/or characters are. Shaq explained his love for Steel (citing poor special effects as the movie version’s major problem) and Superman in general. He has over 1,000 Superman comics and told a story about almost buying a fake #1 (it wasn’t clear if that was “Superman” or “Action Comics”) and had to get his money back. At that point Davis asked Steve Geppi to stand up in the audience so that Shaq could meet him. Davis explained that Geppi had several of the issues that Shaq was looking for.
Shaq also expressed a love for the X-Men before Kennedy talked about the original “Watchmen” miniseries and how much he related to its real people with real problems.
Another audience member asked about the formation of Milestone, since Cowan was “instrumental” in its formation. “Instrumental?” Davis objected. “He created it! That’s like saying that God was ‘instrumental’ in trees!”
Cowan told the story of how he came up with the idea at Comic-Con in 1991 while wondering about why there weren’t more comics with black characters and themes. He realized that if it were going to get done, it would be up to him and his peers to do it, so he called Davis.
After hearing the idea, Davis thought it was good, but would be a better idea if Dwayne McDuffie was involved. Once Cowan and Davis contacted him, it was McDuffie who expanded Milestone’s focus to representing not just blacks, but all of the under-represented regardless of race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Cowan pitched the idea to Paul Levitz at DC Comics on a Friday afternoon and it was approved by Monday morning.
Next, a suburban black woman asked why there weren’t more comics and characters who represented her experience as opposed to urban or Hip Hop culture. Davis fielded that question by suggesting that she write her own comics to represent her experiences. The attendee tried to duck the suggestion by saying that she couldn’t write, but Davis kept her on the hook, saying that anyone can learn to write and that her articulation of a common, but difficult-to-describe problem showed that she’s ahead of the curve. Van Lowe agreed by telling her that she’s the only one who can write her experiences.
Cowan offered writer Felicia Henderson’s “Awkward Black Girl” as a potential answer to what the attendee was looking for. Stuff is out there, he said, but you have to search it out, because it’s not getting promoted.
The next question was related as an attendee asked what needs to happen to have more women in the industry. Geppi took that one, saying that more women need to step up in order for a permanent change to take hold.
The panel then took a pause to preview Shaq’s comics, with attendees receiving free previews to take with them, and Davis asked how the comic came to be. Strong explained that New Kingdom was looking for new content and Shaq’s company, Coal Black was willing to let New Kingdom use their experience in the industry to do their thing without interference.
Geppi then got to talk a bit about the “Milestones” exhibit, explaining that it’s not just about comics, but also includes movies, film, TV, and all aspects of pop culture. She wants the show to offer all kinds stories about African American creators and offered Kevin Clash’s experience with Elmo as one example.
McKeever also talked about Hidden Beach and how it’s similar to Milestone Media in its desire to represent people who otherwise don’t have a voice in the industry he serves.
The next question was from a gentleman in a suit who said he was pitching an idea to executives later that day. He wondered what Davis looks for in a pitch. Though Davis pitches more projects than he receives, he advised that ideas are cheap and everyone has them. What executives are looking for are ideas that can get made and earn money. With that in mind, he also said not to worry about pitching a business plan along with the creative pitch. Studios have entire departments devoted to the business end, so while it’s good to know the business part, don’t try to tell executives how to do their jobs.
Asked about a potential comeback for Shaq’s music career, the former NBA center respond that nobody wants that and he’s done with music.
Davis asked about Kennedy’s upcoming projects and Kennedy explained that his production company is trying to get a TV series made from Van Lowe’s YA novels. He also joked that he wants to do “Malibu’s Most Wanted 2” with Shaq.
The next question was directed at the entire panel about their favorite super heroes of color. Kennedy exclaimed, “There are black super heroes?” Icon and Static were popular choices amongst the panelists with Blade and Black Panther also getting shout-outs. Geppi picked Nick Fury, but was challenged by Davis that as a child of the ’60s, the real Nick Fury for him is a white guy. For his part, Davis picked Barack Obama. Cowan chose Hardware.
When asked where the black comics are currently, Cowan said that now is the time and readers should look for major announcements in the coming months. Davis noted that what Shaq is doing with New Kingdom is laying the foundation.
An actress hoping to adapt her web series into comics asked how to make comics financially viable. Davis explained that the industry is littered with the corpses of celebrity comics that failed because the celebrity didn’t partner with people already in the industry who knew the business. He cited Shaq’s relationship with New Kingdom as an example of a celebrity going about it in the right way.
The final question of the panel was from a man who asked about how much thought the panel gives to creating content to appeal to a specific demographic. McKeever and Cowan wrapped up the discussion with similar advice. “Do what you love,” Cowan said. “And everything will flow from that. If you start trying to create something to get a certain audience or appeal to the lowest common denominator, I think you lose. If you do what’s true to your heart, people will find the universal in that.”
Stay tuned to CBR News for more news and coverage from Comic-Con International 2012.