CCI: The Black Panel

Saturday morning programming at Comic-Con International kicked off with the popular "Black Panel," an annual event hosted once more by the hysterical Michael Davis. This year's panel featured a diverse array of talent whose credits spanned numerous mediums including comics, film, television and music. Joining David on the stage were rapper/actor Ludacris; action star Michael Jai White; comedian/actor Kel Mitchell; writer Stacey McClain; rapper Prodigal Sunn; writer/director/producer Reggie Hudlin; writer Jimmy Diggs; and legendary comics creator Denys Cowan.

Anticipation for the panel grew as fans assembled outside the meeting room. The line wrapped around the hallway and had to be tripled up to accommodate all those hoping to gain entry. Attendees weren't admitted in until just after 10:00AM, as the panelists were assembling a bit late, a tradition that moderator Michael David joked about. Fans and photographers pressed to the front of the room to snap photos of the panelists and a fan in a superbly crafted Black Panther costume. Davis finally had to urge the excited crowd to take a seat so that the panel could get going, declaring that next year the Black Panel was going to need a bigger room.

The crowd got settled quickly and Davis's Director of Special Projects Tatiana cued up a short intro video. The clip read in bold letters "www.michaledavisworld.com Presents..." before flashing to "High School Musical 4," which then morphed to read "High School Musical 40 oz." This drew a roar of laughter from the audience, the first of many during the raucous panel. The names of the scheduled panelists followed set to "This Is How We Do It" by Montell Jordan.

Davis boisterously welcomed the crowd and immediately launched into a joke. "Yesterday, I was in my house, minding my business and the cops came in. I didn't go to Harvard... I went to Yale!" he laughed, in reference to the recent highly publicized and dubious arrest of Henry Louis Gates, an African-American professor at Harvard. This kept the crowd laughing as Davis built up enthusiasm and energy for the panel. He called out, "Are you guys ready?" several times and the crowd responded accordingly with cheers.

"You don't see this kind of stuff on the Marvel Panel" Davis joked. "It's like 'Spider-Man, next year, is going to take a real difficult turn in his life" he added, in a serious and earnest voice.

The crowded responded with laughter. After wrestling with some technical difficulties, Davis then said they were going to start with something they'd never done before and introduced "the next hip hop sensation" Asia Lee, Queen of Cali. Music pumped into the room and Asia Lee performed live, adding to the excitement and flavor of the panel.

Davis then introduced the panelists. He called Denys Cowan "my very best friend in the whole wide world, the only man I'd take a bullet for... in the leg" with an appropriate round of chuckles from the audience. He moved on to Jimmy Diggs saying that he had "written more 'Star Trek' episodes than any other person on the planet", followed by Reggie Hudlin and writer Stacey McClain who told him, "You better have a sistah on the panel!"

After quickly introducing the remainder of the panel, Davis welcomed a surprise addition to the panel, Nichelle Nichols star of the original "Star Trek" television series. Nichols was welcomed by a heartfelt round of applause and standing ovation.

David laid out the format for the panel, noting that each panelist would give a quick overview of their upcoming projects, after which they'd take questions for the remainder of the time. He noted that at Comic-Con "panels are usually about selling you something, the Black Panel is about empowerment." He continued by pointing out another distinction: "Ludacris' bodyguard has three guns... and she has a phaser!" referring to the original Uhura.

Denys Cowan began the discussion by sharing some details about his new project at Marvel Comics with Reggie Hudlin, a four-part limited series called "Flags of Our Fathers" which will explore the first interactions between Captain America and the World War II-era Black Panther. "Basically, it's Black Panther versus Captain America," he said.

At this point, the fan dressed as T'Challa stood up and Davis joked, "Since you here, I guess we know who won." Cowan pointed out another fan seated behind the Panther dressed as Batman and the fan dressed as Black Panther turned and challenged him to take it outside. As Cowan commented on the upcoming series, fans were treated to a look at the penciled, inked and full-color version of his cover art for the series' first issue.

Next up was Nichelle Nichols, who discussed her upcoming series of webisodes called "Cabonauts," which she described as a "science fiction musical comedy" about an intergalactic cab company owned by her character. She shared that when she first received the script by writer Hayden Black, her initial response was, "I'm not doing a webisode!" but when she finally read the script it was so hysterical she said, "Whoever wrote this is stark raving mad and I want to work with him!" The series will feature her trials as she manages the cab company with iconic TV and film personalities appearing as passengers and breaking out in song and dance.

Jimmy Diggs shared that he is trying to transition from TV writing to films and just sold his first motion picture option. He described it as "a gothic horror western" about the Biblical character Cain in the old west. Also coming soon from Diggs is a novel called "The Seven Deadly Sins of Star Trek" from Simon & Schuster featuring "seven stories about seven villains told from the perspective of the villain. Each of the villains represents one of the seven deadly sins of man."

Reggie Hudlin talked about his pride in introducing the female Black Panther this year, noting that some fans were disappointed and wondering what would become of the male Panther. "This isn't a zero sum game, we can have it all," said Hudlin.

He also pointed out this though he and Cowan have worked together in other medium, "Flags of Our Fathers" is their first comics project together. Hudlin revealed that the series would also feature classic Marvel characters from the World War II era including Nick Fury and his Howling Commandoes, the Red Skull, and even Adolf Hitler himself.

Hudlin praised Cowan's art before moving on to the Black Panther animated series which features voice talent by Djimon Hounsou, Kerry Washington and Alfre Woodard. He introduced two clips from the series, the first showing European colonialists and their first crude attempts to conquer Wakanda and the ease with which the Black Panther and his people drove them away. The second, lengthier clip showed Captain America parachuting into Wakanda during WWII and his brief and decisive battle against the Black Panther, which ended in his clear defeat. Both clips were adapted directly from the initial issues of Hudlin's run on the "Black Panther" with artist John Romita, Jr. The animation for the series is based directly on Romita's artwork and captured his unique style while maintaining a decidedly comic book feel.

Prodigal Sunn explained how he sought out a deeper knowledge of comics as a medium and how his experiences at conventions over the past three years have taught him a lot about the industry's inner workings. His comic book "Chronicles of the Sunn" will be out soon.

Television writer Stacey McClain said her friendship with Michael Davis while working together inspired her to write her first comic series, "Sistaah Friend," about a modern black female superhero. The camaraderie between Davis and McClain was obvious as they bantered around the story of how Davis first convinced McClain to attend Comic-Con. She was overwhelmed by the experience but noted the lack of black superheroines. She noted later in the panel that when you're there, there's a desire to see yourself represented and reflected in these heroes. When she brought it up with Davis he told her repeatedly, "You gotta create your own!"

The result is "Sistaah Friend," which follows the adventures of a black heroine whose power is to "be friends with everyone". She also has a magic purse from which she can pull anything. McClain added that the concept is designed, in part, to dispel "the myth that sistahs can't get along with nobody." Sistaah Friend's sidekick is Diva Chick, based on McClain's cousin. The characters all show different aspects of black women in an empowering way. A live action version is also being produced.

Kel Mitchell discussed his own black superheroine series "Alien Samurai," about a girl who discovers that she's related to aliens who are also samurais. Asia Lee is features in the book. Mitchell also promoted his webisodes on www.thebrashbrothers.com such as "Ron Howard Must Die" and "Gerry in a Bottle," and shared some hilarious clips from the site.

The next clip was from Michael Jai White's upcoming action comedy "Black Dynamite," a blaxploitation spoof coming out October 16 from Sony Pictures. Michael Jai White noted that he first attended Comic-Con while promoting "Spawn" and that it's really grown. He's currently filming "Why Did I Get Married? Part II" in the Bahamas. He also announced that a "Black Dynamite" cartoon series is in the works with Carl Jones ("Boondocks") for release on a major network that will be announced soon. Host Michael Davis feigned being hurt that White didn't talk with him about animating "Black Dynamite" and continued to joke with White about this for the remainder of the panel.

Ludacris opened by saying that he didn't know the true meaning of what it meant to be a fan until he attended Comic-Con last year. He called the comics elite "inspiring" before mentioning his new film "The Gamer," due out September 4.

The panel then took questions from fans, who hit on a broad range of topics from how to get a foot in the door in the entertainment industry to the future of hip hop to the public rivalry between Ludacris and TV pundit Bill O'Reilly. Ludacris graciously noted that some good came of the conflict with O'Reilly after they met at a White House event. They ended things by doing some work together on charities they are involved with. Another fan asked Ludacris if there might be a sequel to his film "RockNRolla" with director Guy Ritchie. "Hopefully we can make that happen." The performer encouraged fans to speak up if that's what they'd like to see.

Another fan asked Reggie Hudlin about the transition from film to comics. Hudlin replied that he loved working in a variety of mediums and that you learn things that are transferable from one area to another. He attributed his ease at breaking into comics to his prior success in films and television and freely admitted that that got the team at Marvel to listen to his pitch for "Black Panther." He went on to explain how his former role as president of BET led to a very unique set of dynamics that facilitated the partnership with Marvel that has led to the development of the "Black Panther" animated series for the network.

A representative from an organization called Blacks in Animation and Digital Effects noted that many African-Americans work behind the scenes in the industry and are often invisible. She asked if the panelists felt that being black was an advantage or not in terms of a career within the industry.

"At the end of the day, people want talented people," Hudlin said. He noted that it's tough to get a job in Hollywood for anyone. But he was encouraging, adding that if you are talented, have a good work ethic and work hard, you can make it happen.

Nichelle Nichols chimed in her agreement, stressing perseverance, a dedicated work ethic and maintaining hope until you get what you want. She then had to leave early and again received a standing ovation.

Michael Davis joked that he has received some hate mail from a fan asking, "Who chooses your blankety-blank booty to be the moderator every year?" His response was simply "That'd be me." He then explained that he's the one who calls up the assembled talent and invites them to be involved, packaging the panel specifically for Comic-Con. The hate mail writer went on to question Davis's credentials, saying that Dwayne McDuffie founded Milestone and hired Davis and Denys Cowan. Davis made it clear that it was Denys who started Milestone Comics and that he was part of it alongside Cowan from the very beginning. He also noted his other accomplishments including a unique school curriculum that uses comics to teach kids. After establishing his reasons for moderating, he noted that the anonymous writer said he'd be attending and that if Davis "didn't act right the writer was gonna whup my ass." Davis then pulled out a toy phaser from "Star Trek" and deadpanned "Phaser on Asshole." He added that people may not like his "buffoonery" as a moderator but that he "gets stuff done." Davis challenged others to try and do it themselves and see who returns their calls.

Questions continued and a fan asked Michael Jai White about other live action comic properties, specifically Luke Cage, Bishop from the X-Men or Black Panther. White admitted that he'd spoken with Marvel but was afraid to even mention it since he hadn't told Davis about it yet. He finished by saying that there may be more developments with Marvel down the line.

Davis took a question from outside the line from Mike Gold of ComicMix.com, an obvious "plant" as it segued into an announcement of a joint project that Michael Davis and Denys Cowan are working on. Cowan explained that ComicMix would host a series called "The Moor" based on "The Moors" TV show. He described it as a "godfather saga" with a film noir feel but didn't want to reveal too many details just yet.

Jimmy Diggs responded to a question about the fame that comes with working in a fan-based industry like films and comics. He described how he was a security guard at a TV studio when he got his unexpected break as a writer. A producer invited him to pitch some story ideas and he had nothing so he read "How to Write for Television" and went to the pitch meeting. When things moved forward but didn't work out, the producer asked how he could make it up to him and he replied, "Who do you know at 'Star Trek?'" Paramount liked his script and he ended up as a writing intern on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." He was forty years old when this happened. Diggs wrote lots of episodes and was shocked at the reception he received at his first "Star Trek" convention. He said that nothing really prepares you for that.

Several in line to ask questions used the opportunity to promote their own works and interests in breaking in to the industry. Finally, the fan dressed as the Black Panther made it to the microphone where he received ample cheers of appreciation. He thanked Hudlin and artist Ken Lashley, who was in the audience, for revitalizing "Black Panther" at Marvel. The costumed fan thanked them for the breadth of development of the Black Panther character as well as the focus on the politics and culture of Wakanda.

Hudlin made several comments about how great Lashley's work is and what an amazing experience it was signing with him, John Romita, Jr. and Denys Cowan -- "three of the most amazing Black Panther artists you can imagine" at the Marvel booth earlier in the con. Hudlin noted that while he's no longer writing "Black Panther" he will continue to consult on it as he moves forward with "Flags of Our Fathers."

A fan calling himself "Flex Hectic" pressed Hudlin about an answer to an online question that's been posed about starting a Black Comic Convention in Los Angeles, noting the popularity of the Black Panel as an indicator of strong interest.

One fan asked Michael Jai White if he could "hook me up with Gabrielle Union," to which Davis replied, "He'll say he will... but he won't!"

The last fan to ask a question encouraged those with money in the room to help produce a remake of "The Last Dragon."

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