Welcome back to Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants.
Today’s interview is with someone who is no stranger to the world outside of comics, but is still a new voice within the comics industry. Reginald Hudlin came to fame as a writer and director of such projects as the “House Party” series, “Boomerang,” and the “Bernie Mac Show.” As we will learn, Hudlin has another job that may help to shape some of the future of how comics are perceived. Mostly, we in the comics industry know him for his run on Marvel’s “Black Panther,” which has taken our world by storm (pardon the pun).
CBR News: Okay, would you mind introducing yourself to our audience? Give us a little background information.
Reginald Hudlin: I’m the President of Entertainment for BET. Black Entertainment Television is the largest black media company in the world. As President of Entertainment, I’m responsible for all of its programming, including news, music, sports, specials, movies, home entertainment, etc. I just started an animation division for the company.
Before that, I wrote, directed and produced motion pictures and television. My early films such as “House Party” and “Boomerand” helped launch the modern black film movement. Most recently I was a director on “The Bernie Mac Show” and directed the pilot of “Everybody Hates Chris.” I am currently an executive producer of “The Boondocks.”
As for comics, I started writing comics over a year ago. I relaunched “The Black Panther” for Marvel, which led to me writing a year of “Marvel Knights Spider-Man” for Marvel. I also co-wrote a graphic novel called “Birth of a Nation,” a political satire set in my home town of East St. Louis.
CBR News: As you point out, you’re a relative newcomer to the world of comics. How’d you break into the industry? And who helped you along the way?
RH: Paul Power, a storyboard artist I was working with, introduced me to Neal Adams, who introduced me to Joe Quesada, who introduced me to [Marvel Editor] Axel Alonso. Several impassioned conversations later, I’m writing for Marvel.
Most of what I know about comics comes from lessons taught to me by Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Kyle Baker and Christopher Priest — all of whom are friends — who have patiently answered my endless questions about the inner workings of the business.
RH: I’m having a great time. Marvel has been very supportive of me creatively and they have made great marketing efforts to expand the comic book market. I’m very lucky.
CBR News: And, not to sound disrespectful, but, that’s it?
RH: What can I say? Black Panther beat up Captain America. Cage and Black Panther hung out at a nightclub. Now T’Challa is about to marry Ororo. Those are just a few moments, but they amazed so many people – including myself. As for working with people, Axel Alonso is just fantastic. Joe has been super supportive. Other writers, like Mark Millar and Dwayne McDuffie, have been great cheerleaders. My first six issues are in hardback. I’ve worked with John Romita Jr, David Yardin, Scot Eaton, Klaus Janson, Dean White, and all those amazing cover artists. Oh, and I wrote a year of Spider Man. That is a pretty great experience in comics by any account.
CBR News: Fair enough. Do you think that the name cache you’ve brought in from outside of the comics industry was key to your entrée into comics? And what do you believe that says about “home grown” talents from within the comics industry, such as the many creators you mentioned who largely work in other arenas?
RH: There’s no doubt that my marketability helped a lot. But “Black Panther” didn’t go from a mini-series to an ongoing until they read my first six issues. At the end of the day you have to deliver a book that works.
Like any other industry, there are trends and perceptions of hotness that may have nothing to do with anyone’s talent. So, a lot of talented comic book writers may fall out of vogue. Given the speed you have to turn out pages in the comic world to earn a living, talented folks in comics should [try to] write [movies]. But many comic book writers feel uncomfortable approaching Hollywood. I don’t know why. It’s not like it’s any more crazy than comics. And there are more buyers paying better rates.
CBR News: With creators like yourself and Eric Jerome Dickey working for Marvel, do you see that initiative of dealing with black creators from other media continuing? Do you think of it as a way the comics industry could grow its potential audience share amongst blacks and other communities?
RH: It’s clear that Marvel is very serious about reaching out to new audiences. DC tried it a decade or so ago with Milestone, from which came “Static Shock,” which was a huge ratings success on Kid’s WB and now on Cartoon Network. But there still hasn’t been the comic book equivalent of “Rappers Delight,” which totally changed the music business. Until that happens, I think there will not be significant change.
CBR News: Picking up on the idea of name cache again, and the growing trend of bringing in outside writers to work in comics, would you suggest to any aspiring writers to get their chops in other places, build name recognition, and then approach the Big Two for work?
RH: That’s certainly what I did. Go be a big success in another medium to work for a whole lot less.
Frankly, people coming in from other mediums is good for any art form. New ideas keep it fresh.
The most important thing is to learn how to write well in any medium!
CBR News: Have you experienced any struggles on your way into comics, or during your time in the industry thus far?
RH: The reason I did all that stuff in my first couple of paragraphs is because I couldn’t get a job in comics. The movie and television business is full of frustrated wannabe comic book guys. There’s something wrong with a system that rejects that many talented people.
I’d also like to figure out the marketing and distribution problems that stop comics from reaching more potential readers.
CBR News: Given what you consider “something wrong with a system,” could you talk about the camaraderie or lack thereof you’ve found with other Black creators in (and struggling to get in) the comics industry?
RH: It really came home a couple of years ago, when I was out to dinner with several folks in “the business” –writers, producers, directors — all of whom had relatively steady employment in Hollywood, which is not easy. We realized that all of us worked in Hollywood because we could not get a job in comics for a fraction of the salary we were currently getting paid.
Until very, very recently, comics were a very closed industry. That’s the irony of the fanboys who rail against “outsiders” writing comics who feel it’s a plague on the business. The door is cracked open a bit, and they think the world is ending. We are nerds just like they are … well, maybe not just like they are, but you get my meaning.
I get along with everybody. Kyle Baker, Denys Cowan, Dwayne McDuffie, Christopher Priest, old school legends like Ron Wilson … I know them all as friends, we’ve worked together in the past and will do so in the future. There are guys I don’t know, like ChrisCross, but I really want to meet them and work with them.
CBR News: You’ve mentioned the troubles with marketing comics. Could you expand upon that topic and discuss the ways you think the comics industry could grow its audience? With comic book based films seemingly hitting theaters every few months and impact of manga at chain bookstores, America seems to be having a love affair with comics. But, then, why does the industry still struggle?
RH: America is in love with comic characters, which is different from being in love with comics. Some people don’t know that comics are still published, or, if so, they have no idea where to find them. Have you ever seen a well stocked comic book store in a popular mall? Nope, most retailers can’t afford the space. So they are out of the mix.
I’ve asked several times why the publishers don’t do a “Got Comics?” campaign with Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, etc., … but I’ve been told some of them are not willing to work together. This obviously hurts the industry as a whole.
CBR News: What do you think is wrong with the system, and how could it be fixed to include more Black voices?
RH: Well, I think things have changed. At least now, Marvel has embraced the idea that a comic written by Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, or myself could not only be good, but actually sell a few extra copies. That’s a first step.
As for more black voices in comics, I think there will always be a black presence in comics, but it won’t significantly change until the next Milestone Comic Company manifests itself. The system is not designed for meaningful change. That will come from the outside, make a lot of money, and the system for the most part will ignore it.
CBR News: Do you have any advice on marketing comics to blacks and hispanics? Do you think comics companies should publish more heroes of color? Or do you think taking too much of a targeted approach might succeed only in ghettoizing the comics marketplace further, if not upsetting the existing fanbase?
That’s what Stan Lee was all about.
If you’re going to do relevant comics today, you can’t do lily white books. You can’t do book after book where the most interesting thing in the book is how it obsessively reworks and regurgitates comic book history.
Right now, comics are like Broadway musicals. They have this small devoted fanbase that excludes too many people.
So yeah, it’s worth risking the wrath of a few fanboys who don’t support books starring black characters anyway to have a shot at connecting with the huge potential fanbase who would love comics if they met them halfway — in content, in retail accessibility, with a real marketing push.
CBR News: Now, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but BET has made recent moves to add certain people like Denys Cowan to its staff, as well as having published books in the past. Do you see BET itself, with you at the helm creatively, trying to get into the comics business?
RH: Publishing is a tough business. It’s not on the immediate agenda. We are going to focus on animated shows and films, and then consider the right ancillary spin-offs.
CBR News: We’ll all be keeping a close eye on your plans. To close things out, why don’t you tell us about what the future holds for you? What’s next?
RH: Well, “Black Panther” is an ongoing series, and we’ve got a big event coming up with the marriage of Storm and the Black Panther. Besides that, I’m concentrating on my day job of creating product and programming for an entire network, starting a home video and theatrical movie division, which doesn’t leave a lot time for writing other books … even though I have some ideas.
CBR News: Allright, final question. Do you have any words of wisdowm or advice you’re like to pass along to the next generation of creators? Any advice specifically to readers of color?
RH: What I can recommend to anyone, not just black writers, is to write grounded in reality. Even when you’re writing fantasy, ground it in something real.
I would like to thank Reginald Hudlin for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk with us here at CBR.
I’d also like to thank Jonah Weiland and Hannibal Tabu for production assistance.
Please join us next time for Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants.