The push for diversity in comics is by no means a new endeavor. Writers and artists have been chronicling the lives of protagonists from a variety of backgrounds for decades both in and outside of the comics mainstream. Among them stands cartoonist Ivan Velez, Jr., who has been one such advocate for LGBT characters during his almost 30 years in the business.
Velez first made a name for himself in the late '80s with the comics series "Tales of the Closet", as well as his contributions to "Gay Comix." On the strength of this work, a few years later, the late Dwayne McDuffie asked Velez to join Milestone as a writer. While with the publisher, Velez wrote "Blood Syndicate" and also enjoyed a run as writer for "Static." Velez also wrote Marvel's "Ghost Rider" for a few years and now works as a teaching artist at the Bronx Museum of the Arts and elsewhere.
This year, Velez was awarded a Creative Capital award for "The Ballad of Wham Kabam!" The series of comics will tell an epic tale covering centuries in the Americas, looking at superheroics, race, power and history. In many ways, the project represents the culmination of his work in the comics industry. CBR News spoke with Velez about this project, which will trace centuries of multicultural heroes in the Americas, and his many years working in the comics industry.
CBR News: Based on what we've seen so far of "The Ballad of Wham Kabam!," it seems to be the distillation of a lot of what you've been doing in comics over the years.
Ivan Velez, Jr.: It is, kind of. It makes me feel like this illustrates my whole career. I get to use characters I've been thinking about and sketching for years -- some even from high school -- all this stuff that I've learned and refined over the years from working at Milestone, about how characters can interact and relate. I used the Milestone Bible's format as the model for mine. Creative Capital is this big, legendary grant that people apply for but never really get. Thousands of artists try out for it every year and they take about 42. This was my first shot and I figured, well, I'm not going to get it but it's good to put on paper what I want to do and I put it out there. And, lo and behold, I got it.
Where did the inspiration for "The Ballad of Wham Kabam!" come from?
I wanted to do a book for Milestone about the history of people of color in America using superhero tropes. If you are a superhero of color in Marvel or DC -- well, there's one or two. I decided, well, they couldn't be in the spotlight and so I had these characters around in the Civil War and the Depression and the Civil Rights era and Vietnam. What would be their experiences going through all that? What would being a superhero of color in the time of the Civil War or Jim Crow feel like? I started thinking about how to pull these ideas together into one cohesive narrative. I even started thinking about Atlantis and other popular yet public domain tales. You know we are told over and over that Atlantis is a beautiful castle under the sea, but what if it were like any other country in the world, full of turmoil and bloody history and a surge of immigration to America.
Most importantly, I started doing research about the Caribbean and it made me realize that everything in present day, America started in the Caribbean when Columbus and the Europeans stumbled onto foreign soil. I started researching this period and, talk about a black hole of depression. [laughs] Columbus was this guy who made these conscious decisions to get rid of those people. There are tribes in Cuba who, when they heard the Europeans were coming, committed suicide. It's this thing no one ever talks about. I decided that the first book is going to be about this character that develops these powers out of desperation and her bloodline are the characters that follow.
I presented the bible at the retreat and people loved it. Now I know what I'm going to do for the next ten years. [Laughs] Creative Capital helps you figure out how to get it done, but this is what I'm working on now. I hope it works. At this point I know that I'm out of the mainstream and I'm not going to get back in there. I don't have any kids of my own, but this feels like my child.
And your plan is to start coming out with the first book next year.
I'm writing the books and refining the character sketches now, so if I finish one book next year I'll be lucky. I think Creative Capital will give me support for about three years, including money for printing, so if I can sit down and I plan to draw two of the books and maybe give a third one to an artist I trust but I have to make sure to get the right contracts to make sure we'll both be protected. My goal is to finish at least the first one, but hopefully two of them by next year. Take my time, get it inked right. The style is a little bit different. I'm trying to be a little more realistic in my drawing. Trying to be correct in portraying people and time periods. And I hate backgrounds so much, but I like drawing fauna and flora so that'll help.
How did you first get into comics?
I was always into comics when I was a child. You could escape [from] the world in them. The sixties in the South Bronx was a little rough. It used to be very heavily working class with a lot of factories. We moved in as the factories were closing down and all the white folks were leaving and then a kind of weird violence started to infect the neighborhood. It made me very aware of my surroundings and how different I was from everybody else. Comics were perfect to escape into back then.
Was 1987's "Tales of the Closet" your first professional work?
I got out of college and couldn't find work -- because, stupidly, I was an art major. My grandfather was sort of right when he said art was for rich kids. After a while I started working with the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth, which is now the Hetrick-Martin Institute. Back then it was the first of its kind, and the first to recognize that teenagers have a sexuality and that gay teenagers and transgender teenagers and lesbian teenagers needed advocacy and guidance. I pitched the comic to them, sort of like a how-to-be-gay guide for teens, but also like an Archie-style comic. It became something darker. This was the time of the multicultural initiative, and the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and I decided to be really frank about the issues discussed.
This was the mid-eighties and we had this multicultural initiative in the schools. Some people hated the fact that gays were included in this initiative and were really fighting it. The book went to all the high schools and taught thousands. At the same time I created comics and posters and other educational materials. That led to me working with Milestone in the early nineties.
How did you make the jump to Milestone?
Howard Cruse is very cool and very smart and very wise guy. We met at a show put together by Jennifer Camper at the Gay Center; [it was] my first show ever. I was so happy to meet these like-minded and eccentric people. Howard invited me to help him at a comic book convention... my first one. He had a table, and so I sat next to him and I had my little comics and he had his comics. It was a really crowded convention... and I remember it clearly because there seemed to be this invisible force-field around us [laughs]. No one would come near us. Every once in a while, a couple of people would come and looked at the comic. I remember Tom Brevoort took one of the comics and liked it and then [Milestone's] Dwayne McDuffie took one with him, and after about an hour, he returned and started chatting with us. I came back a second year with Howard and Dwayne McDuffie looked for me. I wasn't quite sure who he was, only that he was kinda big and nerdy and serious, and seemed to have some pull with the Marvel folk. He said, "I want to talk to you." Afterwards I realized that this was a big deal -- that 'the' Dwayne McDuffie came and talked to me.
He started talking about Milestone and that he would love for me to try out for the team book. I was so surprised that someone would even talk to me at all, the offer was like, 'wow'. He took me to meet the other partners and writers. He said that he liked the way I wrote and that I showed I could handle a lot of characters. I did a little bit of work on the second version of the Milestone bible, mostly on the "Blood Syndicate" stuff. I gave origins, backgrounds and names to everybody. I corrected some social and political aspects. Before I got there, there were only black people. The only Latino character they had was Icon's maid. I talked to them and said if you want Blood Syndicate to be multicultural you've got to realize it's not just black folks. I made Fade and Flashback dark skinned Dominicans so we could talk about black and Latino at the same time. I had South Americans in there, Asians, Koreans, Chinese, Caribbeans. I think it made for a better book, having different personalities and backgrounds and accents. I also thought it was important to have a Latino character who didn't speak English and not have them translate it to mirror how people experience others who speak other languages and aren't understood. That's one big thing I'm proud of.
"Blood Syndicate" really stood out for that. Just thinking about the comic now, the characters are very vivid.
Yeah I love the characters. There's not much of a plot. They would go rob crack houses and take the money. I think I only had maybe two villains in the entire run. [Laughs] I'm so proud of what I did there. I wish I could have done more or that it ended better because it ended pretty badly. They changed editors and it was not a good situation. Sometimes when the editor doesn't like the talent, they make sure that the talent is unhappy and that was the situation we were in. It kinda killed it. But that's that.
You also took on "Static," which starred a character that still has legions of fans today.
I did "Static" for a year after Bob Washington left and that was a bad situation for all involved. Bob had been very eccentric, but people loved him. They asked me if I would take the book and I asked Bob's permission. I told him, "Bob, if you get to come back on the book, I'll hold it for you, I'll be the place setter." But it didn't happen. When Bob left Milestone, I think Milestone started mirroring his fall -- because people starting getting really unhappy, feeling uncomfortable. At least I felt uncomfortable and resentful. When they canceled "Blood Syndicate" I had already been complaining about the art and people changing my scripts for no reason. [The new editor] told me they weren't going to give me any more new character agreements. I had created all these characters and I was so proud of them, but they ended up telling me I couldn't create more, that I have too many. I was like, wait, we are a comic book company, right? [Laughs] The relationship between me and Milestone -- or at least that editor, because I still have a lot of love for a lot of the people at Milestone -- was rough.
After Milestone you started working at Marvel and writing "Ghost Rider."
James Felder was the editor and he's a very nice, really interesting guy. He was great and he gave me a feel for Marvel, but I was still troubled by my breakup with Milestone. It was the best relationship ever but then it was over. [Laughs] I was on anti-depressants and I think they may have affected my thinking process. With Milestone I would write full scripts and do sketches, but at Marvel they preferred plots. I was really frustrated with the backend continuity. I didn't really think about continuity with "Blood Syndicate" but with "Ghost Rider," I saw all these inconsistencies in the last run and the fact that one of the storylines never finished. I was trying to tie things up and it was frustrating. We had all these characters who I didn't really like. I think I should have just ignored it and tried to create my own thing, but I was stupid and I thought you've got to respect continuity at Marvel. [laughs]
So the first year was just me trying to tie together these strings. Then I got to the point where I was like, okay, now I can do my own thing and I tried to tell an origin story for Ghost Rider. I had a great artist in Salvador Larroca. A great artist. He was so good I think he got an offer to draw an "X-Men" book and of course he had to take it. I think the only good thing I did at Marvel was this little Venom miniseries ["Venom: Sign of the Boss"], but they let me write a lot. They gave me "Abominations," which was supposed to be a ten-issue miniseries and then after I finished writing the outline, they informed me that it was only three issues. It's fine, but it's a little crowded.
Have you been contacted about Milestone 2.0? Given the way things were when you left, if they asked, would you be interested in writing "Blood Syndicate" or something else for them?
I think Milestone 2.0 features a new set of creators and staff -- and they wouldn't be interested in my services -- especially since my break up with the original team was so unpleasant for all involved. Any characters I created for the team are lost to me, since they conveniently don't seem to have any record of character agreements. That was evident when Aquamaria was in the "Static Shock" cartoon and I was not paid the prorating that was owed. As for the "Blood Syndicate" -- well, I miss them, and if they are recreated, I think they'll go in another direction. I don't own them. I never did. I only helped shape what they became. They had a lot of daddies, but I was sort of their mommy.