LaRiccia Talks Xeric-Winning "Black Mane"

It'd be rare man who doesn't have the urge to club some fool from time to time. Those of us not in jail rarely do so, but that urge, that conditioned response to deal justice at the end of fist is what Mike LaRiccia's Xeric Grant-winning graphic novel "Black Mane" is all about.

The One Time Press book follows the main character Mike as he's confronted and frustrated by life's many injustices, from the racism thrown his way because of his dark features to the casual misogyny his female friends are subjected to. Mike reacts by turning into the feral, monstrous Black Mane, his Hulk-like alter ego, and kicking the crap out of nasty people.

In his head, anyway. Black Mane remains tucked away in Mike's head, leaving just a man to deal with the things life throws at him and to find a way to make things right. CBR News spoke with Mike LaRiccia about the book, racism, and the social impact of comic books.

"Black Mane" is kind of tricky to describe, what would you say it's about?

"Black Mane" takes the reader into the life of a young man in America dealing with issues of identity, mainly relating to race and gender. Mike, the main character -- who is also a caricature of [myself] -- goes through his day to day witnessing and experiencing instances of hyper masculinity. Often, these experiences trigger Mike's imagination, inspiring a fantasy hitman-like creature called Black Mane who deals with issues of hyper-testosterone culture though extreme, merciless violence.

"Black Mane" deals with a lot of tough themes, like racism, violence and how men are conditioned in society. Why did you want to address them in the book?

Contributing to social change is the reason I continue to work as an artist. It drives the content of my work and gives me a sense of purpose. I had been thinking a lot about masculinity in grad school.   I had less contact with women in school because I was in a long distance relationship and my family was on the East Coast. It was a real growing experience for me in school.

At the time I was making artwork that dealt with social interaction and all of the dynamics whether it be race, gender, age, class, etc. I found that I was painting too broad a picture. I realized that comics offered me a way to deal with issues through a narrative and really focus in on what I wanted to say rather than try to sum everything all up in one piece or in a series. Comics provided unlimited possibilities for me because I understood the language.

With "Black Mane" being such an intimate and often semi-autobiographical work, did you find yourself uncovering things about your own personality?

I came to a point where I just came to terms with the fact I really was concerned with how other people perceived me. And that feeling was directly connected to my own insecurities. I lacked a lot of confidence in life, but just the act of completing the book and being honest about the internal struggles I had, gave me a sense of confidence and accomplishment I never had. Here was a piece of work that said, "This is me, there is no way I can deny that." I became more comfortable with myself after I published the book, I just realized that all of the neurotic experiences and thoughts make up who I am, and there isn't anything wrong with that.  

Was it difficult doing something that came so close to home?  

I feel like I needed to do it, as if I was called to do it. I know that sounds a little hokey but I think that's how artists work. When you get inspiration on that level you really don't have a choice. As I was writing it I didn't feel like I was embarrassing myself, I felt like I was creating something real. I was being honest and I wasn't watering anything down. I believed the reader would see that.

It's like reading works by Joe Matt, this guy is giving you everything. He's giving you things you don't want to know but you can't help reading. Instead of thinking, maybe there's something wrong with this guy, you think, "I am looking at a real human being here. Someone who is organic and not some plastic façade." That is something I try to get across with my work. I try to show humanity.

When you go to a mainstream movie or watch a TV show, everyone is sexy. Everything is clean, their hair never gets ruined. Real people look like crap sometimes, they fart, they get pimples, they slouch, and they're hairy. That's why I was drawn to Sam Kieth's work at a young age. I saw his work in "Marvel Comics Presents." He did a run on "Wolverine" and I remember he drew him with a pot belly and he was intensely hairy. But he was still a hero. I had never seen him depicted like that but it added so much more to his character.

What has the reaction to "Black Mane" been like?

I have really been happy with the reaction to the book. Many people have approached me and said they agreed with my ideas and that it felt good to read something by a like minded individual. I have also had people say they could relate to a lot of the experiences that I depicted. Occasionally I get orders for the book in other countries and that is a real kick. It was reviewed on a Greek comic site and I asked them to send me a translated review.

Is self-publishing different than you might have imagined?

To be honest, when I started I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I knew about comics but I had no clue as to what it took to actually do it all on your on. When I was applying for the Xeric grant, I researched all kinds of options and started to ask around about peoples experiences. I guess what I didn't expect when I first started was how difficult marketing and distribution would be. I also didn't realize how easy it is to network with people in this business. That's one of the biggest elements that I love about self-publishing.

Speaking of the Xeric Grant, what kind of effect did getting it have on the book and your work?

I can only say good things about winning the Grant. It gives you confidence, opportunities, and street credibility. People take notice when you get it. Without it I don't know if I could have made the jump into publishing the way I did. It forces you to do the research and learn about the process.

What advice would you give to people going into self-publishing?  

Research the industry/culture before you get into it. You don't have to print thousands of books to be in comics. Just make sure to do your homework so you can make good decisions. Some of the best comic artists I meet still barely break even financial with their work. I also always tell new publishers to be real with themselves. If you know your work could be better than wait till it's better to publish it. Once it's out there you can't take it back.

Your background is in printmaking, how did that influence the book?

I spent five years of my life as a printmaker in school. I learned a lot about the fundamentals of the printing process. The biggest lesson I took from that experience was to not get attached to the original. When you are a printmaker, there's no such thing as "the original." You make a plate and prints are pulled from the plate. It's not like a drawing or a painting where there's only one.

What's next for you, Mike?

I am currently working on my second book: "The Death of Black Mane and the Feared Self." I hope to finish it by early winter. You can buy a preview of the book on Comixpress. I also illustrated a children's book written by New Jersey author Marty Dauer. It's called "Harvey's Woods: The Royal Adventures." You can buy that on Amazon.com. I have a story in the upcoming "Tales From the Plex 3 Anthology" set for the winter and I am currently gearing up for some more opportunities to work with other artists and make my work visible.

Now discuss this story in CBR's Indie Comics forum.

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