Ferguson and our Fiction

Frustration and anger are usually the first responses, when we see things we don't like in the stories we purchase or the world we live in.

A few months ago, frustrated with how the police officers of Ferguson, MO were physically abusing protesters in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, seeing the frustration of friends, associates, and people I didn't know on social media, I felt compelled to write the column "Real Life Proves Why Luke Cage Endures." It was about the Black male superhero Luke Cage from Marvel Comics, his bulletproof skin, and what he potentially represented. A power fantasy rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, a time when powerful Black men were shot to death.

During Thanksgiving week, Michael Brown's story reached its next stage when the grand jury on the case decided there was not sufficient probable cause to find his killer, police officer Darren Wilson, guilty in any way whatsoever for his actions.

The frustration and anger resurfaced, in my community of friends and associates, many of whom made statements and engaged in long discussions on social media.

I felt it as well, the anger, even though I tried to avoid it.

Shock came first, but emotions are contagious. They're catalyzed through social osmosis. The more I saw my friends express their anger, the more I became in touch with my own.

Anger, more than many other emotions, has the frightening power to change state. Starting out as ethereal as gas, then becoming fluid as you focus and examine it more, and hardening until it becomes something like a solid inside you, in your heart.

What does one do with the anger that comes from injustice? How do you utilize that emotion? The same way you use a bomb, which is to say you direct it at something to cause an explosion?

Or do you turn it into an energy source, like a battery, providing the power through which to take another kind of action?

I thought about this as I continued scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and noticed the two sides of my life as parallel streams. The real world and the geek world. Even though various people I know were connected to both, somehow the two feeds did not converge.

This isn't something the comic book blogosphere usually touches. Oh sure, you'll read articles about the comic book community's reaction to the tragic death of a well-known actor, but not murder (to my knowledge)... and certainly not something like the Michael Brown case.

Because that's just intrusive on this safe, fiction-ruled realm of ours, a realm in which death is usually reversible and any gravitas connected to its portrayal is lacking in weight upon arrival.

Dwayne McDuffie, the deceased Co-Founder of the Black-owned comic book and entertainment company Milestone Media, Inc., discussed in a video interview his astute observation that when people complain about the presence of too many people of color in superhero comic books, they're really complaining about real life and their problem(s) with the world.

The world with too many people of color in it.

The people who wanted an all-Caucasian Justice League of America probably also wanted an all-Caucasian neighborhood, state, and planet.

I thought about this as I went through my work day, and the subject of the grand jury's decision on the Michael Brown shooting did not come up once. No one mentioned it to me, and I didn't overhear any conversations about it. In a physical environment with people from a variety of cultures, this social injustice was not on the radar, but the Internet was exploding with comments on the subject from people of different demographics.

The absence of the discussion from my place of work was not what really sent my frustration and anger back up the scale, though.

It was an article I read online the same day, from a reputable financial publication, in which a high-ranking comic book company was profiled and hailed as promoting diversity for women and minorities. Representatives of said company spoke to the growing number of female characters and employees connected to their publication stable, and barely to the increased number of minority characters in their books.

Meanwhile, said company has, to my knowledge, one Black writer and no Black caretakers of any corners of their fictional universe of intellectual properties. Even with that, said company is better at their present standing with the hiring of Black writers than their equally well-known competitor.

So on the day a viral, explosive, worldwide conversation is happening on the Internet about a terrible injustice against the Black community, I read an article about a company with great power publicized as being impressive in its progressiveness, although I know it most certainly has more work to do to earn that claim.

That's when the two ingredients of the fluid bomb combined, just as the two worlds I operate in combined in my online view, and I went internally Hulk.

There is no comparison in scale whatsoever between the two worlds, the violent landscape of our prejudice-fueled nation and the superhero/supervillain-filled universes of high-powered comic book companies, but what this confluence of stories did was remind me of The Fact.

This is the reality of our nation. Assault on a people. Near-total exclusion of same people from certain creative opportunities.

Knowing this, there are three potential actions:






The path of request, or asking, may work, but not likely. The 21st Century is too harsh and ruthless for that approach.

Revolting can be effective, but just like the resistance to that approach on the part of authorities against protesters around the world, the system will punish people for choosing that tactic.

So the best choice, the one with the greatest chance for success, is to rethink one's life, career plans, short-term and long-term trajectories.

Five Black men responded to the lack of characters of color and executives of color in the comic book industry by creating Milestone Media, Inc. and engaging in an alliance with DC Comics, owned by Warner Bros. This move has resulted in a library of published comic books, an award-winning animated series, and an upcoming live-action superhero show on the Wild West of digital platform-originated entertainment.

A comic book artist named Jim Lee and a handful of his artist colleagues responded to a lack of profit-sharing from their employer, Marvel Comics, by creating their own company, Image Comics. A home for creator-owned stories, Image now publishes the monthly stories of the cultural phenomenon called "The Walking Dead." Additionally, Jim was able to leverage his success in stages over a decade and a half, resulting in his appointment as the Co-Publisher of DC Comics.

America is not going to change its colors any time soon, and the same goes for the titans of the American comic book industry.

So those of us who are angry would do well to move on to the rethinking, or use the former to fuel the latter, in order to effect real change in our world... and our beloved industries of stories.

To put it in Avengers-speak: The Hulk is a fugitive. Iron Man is an influencer.

You choose.

Joseph Phillip Illidge has been a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and politics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World's forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel "Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books," and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.

Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment (www.verge.tv), a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series "Thief of Thieves" by "The Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman, and video game developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for transmedia development. Live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.

His latest project is "The Ren," a 200-page graphic novel about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war and spotlighting the relationship between art and the underworld. "The Ren" will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.

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