The wild creativity of Marvel Comics was an incredibly influential force on the diverse aspects of hip-hop culture. One particular hip-hop artist who was profoundly affected by a youth spent reading comics was Darryl McDaniels, better known as DMC of the legendary rap group Run-DMC.
DMC’s love of comics continues to this day, mainly through his publishing venture Darryl Makes Comics. The line of self-published graphic novels allows the hip-hop pioneer, his business partner Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez and a host of fellow comic creators both established and new, have created their own superhero universe.
That universe opened the door for DMC and Miranda-Rodriguez to fulfill a lifelong dream: penning a story for Marvel Comics. The duo’s tale, starring Ben Grimm & Groot, and featuring art by Nelson DeCastro, is available now in “Guardians of Infinity” #3.
CBR News: As lifelong Marvel Comics fans, I imagine it was pretty amazing to get the opportunity to tell your first Marvel story. What made you choose Ben Grimm and Groot?
Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez: We were sitting in Axel Alonso’s office, pitching our ideas for stuff we wanted to write, and Axel invites [Marvel editor] Nick Lowe into the office and says, “Nick, tell them about ‘Guardians of Infinity.'” And Nick was cool. He was like, “It’s a throwback to books like ‘Marvel Team-Up’ and ‘Marvel Two-In-One.’ It’s an opportunity to pair all these heroes together.” Then he goes and lists all the characters associated with the “Guardians of Infinity” title and says, “Maybe you guys could pick like two characters and pair them up.”
Darryl was very cool. He just stares off into space. Then his eyes just pop open and he goes “Grimm and Groot!”
DMC: We had just got done talking about how good the character representation and presentation in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie was, and we were talking about how cool Groot was. Prior to that week, we were talking about how fake the Fantastic Four movies have been. We were like, “Why can’t they get that right?”
It seemed like nobody really knew how cool Benjamin Grimm was. He’s a combination of your favorite uncle, your homeboy in your classroom, and the head linebacker on the football team. He reminds us a lot of the overconfident rapper. So when Axel asked us who we wanted to do, I just shouted out, “Grimm and Groot!”
All Groot says is, “I am Groot,” but he’s the coolest thing. Groot has a lot of swag, and so does Ben Grimm. You’ve got to get into Groot to see the swag, and it’s so powerful. He doesn’t have to say anything. So after I shouted out, “Grimm and Groot,” Edgardo just looked at me and said, “Yo! That’ll be ill!” Because they’re two off the wall characters.
Miranda-Rodriguez: We continued talking, and by the time I got back to my office in Brooklyn, I got an e-mail from Darryl. He had come up with the first draft of our story. Grimm and Groot are off on an adventure, and they’re arguing with each other the whole time. Then they crash land on a planet, some galactic calamity ensues and they’ve got to save the day.
That was the story, and what I loved about it was the fact that I could see the Thing and Groot going at it. Then I thought, what if instead crashing on some other planet, they land on Earth? What I love about the Thing is, he’s one of Marvel’s most authentically New York characters. His vernacular is so New York.
Peter Parker grew up in Queens, and you have Steve Rogers who grew up in Brooklyn. Those are two everyman heroes, but because Steve Rogers is coming from a different era of Brooklyn, he’s not going to have the same vernacular as somebody from like Bushwick. When you read Ben Grimm, though, he still sounds like anyone in New York City right now. [Laughs]
It was fun to pair these two guys together, and I thought, what if they land in the Lower East Side? We played around with that idea with Nick, and he was fantastic. He gave us a lot of guidance. We came up with a much bigger story, and he helped us really focus it into a more succinct, fun story.
The thing I love about bringing them to the Lower East Side is that to this day, in 2016, it’s such an incredibly diverse neighborhood; culturally, racially, and ethnically. It’s an amazingly diverse community, and it’s one of the few neighborhoods in New York City that still harkens back to its early days of bringing in immigrants.
I said, “Yo D, I want the Thing to take off his Guardians of the Galaxy uniform and put on some Run DMC apparel.” To me, that was like a blatant Easter egg. Because when everybody heard that we were going to do a Marvel comic, they immediately thought that our DMC character was going to do a team-up with Iron Man or Spider-Man. We were like, “No, no. We’re not in the story at all,” but we are. You know what I mean? [Laughs]
The story really does feel like a love letter to New York City.
DMC: Yeah! The whole thing is a celebration of New York City — the New York City that we lived in, that everybody knows about, but also that New York City that was always presented in an excellent way in the original Marvel Comic books, way back in the day. We wanted it to be a celebration of the visuals that we lived in and saw in our comic books, and to represent how impactful that New York City culture is. When you read the story, there’s a lot of culture in there.
There are City busses, the park, the Latino Community and Benjamin Grimm walking through the Hood. Whether you’re a rapper, a DJ, a graffiti artist, a journalist, or people like Keith Haring or Basquiat, when you walked through the Hood, people loved you. It’s like, “Keep doing what you’re doing!” So people have got love for Benjamin Grimm because he represents them. In his daily crime fighting and bad guy, evil doer-crushing adventures, he didn’t let who he is and where he came from be forgotten just because he’s this bad-ass superhero.
I thought it was especially interesting to tell a New York City tale in a book like “Guardians of Infinity” since a sci-fi story staple is the intergalactic melting pot city, full of all these different alien cultures living side by side. And what is New York if not a real world example of that?
Miranda-Rodriguez: Yeah. [Laughs] That’s really true, man. You want to write sci-fi? Live in New York City for a while, especially the Lower East Side. Any spot in New York City is probably going to be as diverse as the Cantina in the “Star Wars” universe.
DMC: It’s funny that you say that, because everybody in New York is an alien from another planet! The beautiful thing about that, artistically and creatively, is, when we come together, beautiful things happen. That comes off in the back and forth between Grimm and Groot. When you read the story, it feels like Grimm isn’t feeling Groot, but he really loves Groot.
Miranda-Rodriguez: We had so much fun with this story. Darryl came up with a really short story, and I was like, “Okay I wanted to find one of the corniest villains I can think of.” I asked Nick, “What’s going on with Plant Man?” He was like, “Nothing much is going on with him, but he has a new look.” So I did some research, and we found the original Plant Man look he used to wear was a trench coat with a green fedora.
One of the things I love about classic Marvel is when villains monologue. I don’t think there’s enough monologuing any more. [Laughs] So I was like, “I’ve got to give this villain an opportunity to monologue.” That was honestly one of the most fun things to write. My background before writing comics, and even before directing my art studio — I used to be an activist and community organizer. I did a lot of social justice and environmental work, and a lot of that seeped into the Plant Man’s monologue. He talks about open spaces and green spaces. It sounds crazy coming from a villain, but there’s actually some validity to that.
Right, some of the best Marvel villains are the ones that have valid arguments, like Magneto.
Miranda-Rodriguez: Exactly! So I wanted a corny villain, but then I realized there was nothing really corny about him. He represents something. I think what a lot of people don’t know about New York City is that the Lower East Side is historic for its gardens. There are so many amazing gardens, but with the advent of so much development, a lot of open spaces are disappearing. Thank goodness a lot of open spaces in the Lower East side are landmarks and preserved by the city of New York’s Parks Department. To me, it made sense to put Plant Man in the Lower East Side.
When we decided on Plant Man, I said to D, “Oh, my God! He has to take control of Groot!” That totally made sense. This is where Darryl’s original idea of having Thing and Groot go at it kind of made sense.
So here we have Groot and Thing going at it, because Plant Man is manipulating Groot like a marionette. Then it occurred to me, how are we going to break them up? And one of the things I love about New York City is New Yorkers.
DMC: When you close this issue, we want you to think something good about the communities you live in. Because it’s not just Grimm and Groot. You see the love of this lady who comes out while the fighting is going on, and the things that she says. There’s goodness inside of all of us, no matter how scary our communities in the Hood seem to be. There’s always a force within the Hood that will overcome anything that tries to hold us down. Whether that’s Grimm and Groot, or hip-hop, or your family, that energy and power that comes with the battle of evil and good is something that we wanted to capture the same way it’s been captured in those Marvel comic books for decades.
Miranda-Rodriguez: It felt like this was an opportunity to write a story where New Yorkers were actual heroes, themselves. And that’s when I came up with the character of Abuela Estela, the grandmother. I thought, she is going to be the hero. She doesn’t have a cape, and she doesn’t have any powers, but she’s an everywoman.
I’m Puerto Rican, and in Manhattan, there’s the Loisaida Fest, this amazing festival that celebrates Puerto Rican culture. So the question was, how do I organically throw that in there without it being so heavy? It was fun, because all these pieces started falling together.
One of the things I remember as a child in Puerto Rico was the Ceiba Tree. That’s actually real. There’s actually a real tree in the center of Ponce Puerto Rico that is over 500 years old. The Ceiba is this really beautiful, bizarre looking, incredibly tall tree. They can sometimes grow to be over 200 feet tall. They have these incredibly gnarly roots that sometimes look like arms and legs at the bottom. They kind of pop out of the Earth. And to me — that’s Groot! [Laughs]
So I thought hey, “Here’s a grandmother. She sees this tree, and she automatically sees Groot.” I was doing this research, and I realized that everywhere from Puerto Rico, to South America, Central America, and even West Africa, many people have these mythological beliefs about these gigantic Ceiba trees. Many believe that these trees contain the spirits of their ancestors. It’s this beautiful opportunity to kind of connect Latin America mythology and beliefs to Groot, this incredible character.
So we have this story that gave us an opportunity to get sucked into these characters in a very fun, real way. And, I don’t want to spoil anything, but we may have come up with a way to expand Groot’s vocabulary. [Laughs]
New York has been a huge part of Marvel Comics since the beginning. Do you think that real world locale is part of the reason why Marvel Comics have so much resonance in the world of hip-hop?
DMC: Yep, 100 percent. Now don’t get me wrong; DC was cool. Batman, Superman and all the Justice League were cool, but Gotham and Metropolis were fictional. The thing that pulled kids in was, you open up a Marvel Comic book, and the superheroes are really in New York. You’re seeing the Lower East Side. You’re seeing Hell’s Kitchen. You’re seeing Times Square.
For me the beauty in that is this: I was a little kid who couldn’t leave the block, and I was told, “When you see that street light come on, you have your ass in this house!” When you come into the house at that early time of the day, you have to figure out things to do. Marvel Comics was my whole existence, and the coolest thing about Marvel Comics was that the superheroes were really in New York. It showed me real places that I had heard about and really existed that I didn’t have permission to go to yet.
When we first drove across the 59th Street Bridge, it was the first time I saw the Roosevelt Island tram in real life. So I’m in the backseat, and I start hyperventilating, and my mother is going crazy. “Oh, my God! What’s with him? Pull over!” My dad was like, “Son, what the hell is wrong with you, boy?” I couldn’t speak. I was sweating, hyperventilating and going into convulsions. They were like, “What’s wrong with you?” My mother was shaking me, and then I said, “Oh, my God! It does exist!” Because the first place I had seen the tram was in Spider-Man.
For me, to be a kid and see, “Oh, my God! It’s real!” That was the power of Marvel Comics. And as kids, our total existence was Marvel comic books. That was New York City. The world that we lived in for real was also the world that was in these comic books. So it made that Marvel Universe real to us.
So that was the really empowering and captivating effect of Marvel Comics, and then if you want to figure out the relationship to hip-hop– first it was comic books and then hip-hop was created! So it was the break dancers, the DJs, the MCs, and the graffiti writers who were using the same colors and characters that were in our comic books. hip-hop brought the comic book world to life.
So we were living in this age of hip-hop, but we were still going back to the comic books because the comic books were giving us our creative catalysts. Your personality as an emcee was your alter ego. When you look at a work of art graffiti on the side of a train there was always things there like a Spider-Man or Captain America’s shield.
So everything that comic books instilled into us young New Yorkers was a creative initiation into using those visuals and literary themes about story telling and identity in the world of hip-hop.
Nelson DeCastro brought your story to life, and to me it felt like he really captured the heart and humanity of the tale you guys were telling.
Miranda-Rodriguez: Nelson is amazing! His attention of detail is one thing, but what he was also able to convey with his drawing was, this issue is a throwback. We’re older cats. We grew up on Marvel in the ’70s and ’80s, and this issue looks like it was pencilled by John Buscema and inked by Joe Sinnott. We’re not talking about Kirby Thing; we’re talking about John Buscema Thing, Rich Buckler’s Thing. We’re talking about that whole era between the ’70s and ’80s, and it totally has that really nostalgic flavor to it.
Edgardo, I understand you also got to have some fun with artist Juan Doe, creating the issue’s variant cover?
Miranda-Rodriguez: Oh, my gosh! That was fantastic! Juan Doe also worked with us on our second graphic novel. He did an amazing job on two chapters in the book. We have known each other for years. He’s similar to me. He’s a Latino who grew up in New York City. We also come from a background of loving and enjoying hip-hop culture via graffiti, via music, via the dance and everything.
So here we are with an opportunity to work for Marvel, and it was like, “Oh, my gosh! I’m going to be able to art direct a variant cover.” Then I remember the cover from “Fantastic Four” #112, the Thing versus Hulk issue, which is one of Darryl’s all-time favorite comics. I’m like,”Oh snap! This is it!” So the Thing will still be the Thing, but instead of the Hulk we’ll put in Groot. So we’re going to recreate this cover, but then I said, “We’re also going to dress the Thing up as DMC; give him the fedora with the fat, gold chain and the sneakers, and the leather jacket and slacks.”
In the late ’70s and early ’80s a lot of parties were promoted via flyers. This predates desktop publishing, so these were hand-designed flyers, and I pulled together an incredible collection of them. Then I pulled a couple of Muhammad Ali and some other old school boxing posters. I gave all of that Juan and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to take the classic poses from ‘Fantastic Four’ #112, these old school hip-hop flyers, and stylize it as an old school boxing poster.” We put all those elements together, and bam!
That was just fun. Working with Juan is always an amazing opportunity, and seeing this all come together was a dream. I thought, “Oh, my God! I need this on a t-shirt! I need this framed! I have to put this up in my studio!”