Recent years have seen comic books influence all corners of pop culture, from television to movies. What few people may realize, though, is how closely geek culture has been connected with hip-hop since the genre's emergence in the '70s and '80s. At the "Boom! Bap! Pow! Hip-Hop & Comics! 2014" panel at New York Comic Con, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels was ostensibly there to promote "DMC #1", the first graphic novel released by his Darryl Makes Comics label, but what actually transpired was a spirited discussion about what comics have meant to hip-hop as a whole and to the panelist in particular.
Joining McDaniels for the panel, moderated by AllHipHop's Chuck Creekmur, were DMC Comics' Editor-in-Chief Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, Senior Editor Riggs Morales, producer Young Guru, rapper/producer/Geekmodeonline's Kwame and rapper Q-Unique of Arsonists.
Creekmur said he was most surprised to see Guru on the panel, as the world-class record producer didn't strike him as a comic fan. Guru said he was turned on to the hobby by his father, who was a major collector. He got serious about comics during his middle and high school years, attributing it to the fact that he was coming of age at the same time as the industry. "It was less about just action all the time, and you really got to some good stories. The first time I read 'Akira,' I knew I didn't understand it -- but as I grew up and started becoming more mature, I got it."
On the 1985 track "King of Rock", McDaniels has the line "I'm DMC, I can draw," a statement the rapper said was a declaration of his long-held love for comics. While attending Catholic school, McDaniels experienced bullying at the hands of public school students on his walk home from classes. Comics were not only his refuge but a way for him to further his educational aspirations. "The reason why I was a straight-A, honor roll, seven-stars-on-the-forehead student is because of this: I would learn about history, World War II, in school, but I would come home and Captain America would take me there. I would learn about biology and science in school, but I would make it home and Iron Man, and the Vision and Electro -- they would take me there."
Before McDaniels was a rapper, he was a comic fan. The reason he launched the DMC line, he said, "isn't because I'm another rapper who, [just] because he got a hit record, is trying to mess it up with other genres. 'Cause rappers nowadays are punk. They have a hit record and they think they can do everything -- stay in your lane." The crowd laughed and applauded, just as they applauded when he stated, "Comic books are the foundation of my existence."
Q-Unique related to Guru's story about his father, as his own dad would strictly make him care for and organize his books. Comics became such a part of his DNA that years later he would make his Arsonists group come out on stage wearing different superhero emblems, and even named his latest release "Marvels Team Up" with a cover depicting the album's contributors as the Hulk, the Thing, Wolverine, Punisher and Dr. Strange. "I was geeking yesterday, I was chilling with ['Uncanny X-Men' writer Chris] Claremont. I was just like, 'Oh man, it's you! It's Claremont!'"
Rodriguez said the groundwork for the DMC line of comics started eight years ago at Brooklyn's Hip-Hop Theater Festival. He was wearing a screen printed Spider-Man shirt that drew the eyes of somebody nearby. "Eventually, I was like, 'Hey, what's up man? My name's Edgardo.' And he goes, 'Yo, my bad man. That t-shirt is dope. My name is Riggs.'" A friendship grounded on sci-fi and comics built from there, which led to Rodriguez and Riggs Morales co-curating a comic art exhibition. The event was attended by both heads of the hip-hop and comic communities, making it the first time the two worlds had so tangibly collided. "You had people like Pete Rock show up with a stack of comic books because he wanted to get them autographed. You had Axel Alonso from Marvel, the Editor-in-Chief, geeking out, pulling out his iPhone and coming up to me like, 'Yo, I got the 'Mecca and the Soul Brother' record on my phone right here!'"
Later down the line, Riggs had Rodriguez at his office for lunch and dropped him into a surprise meeting with McDaniels. They spent three hours discussing their fandom before Rodriguez finally asked, "If you were gonna start your own publishing company, what would you call it?"
"Uh, DMC!" McDaniels quoted his own answer. "Darryl Makes Comics!"
A few months passed and McDaniels decided to launch DMC -- and he said he couldn't do it without Rodriguez and Riggs. "If you want someone to make your comic book," Rodriguez said, "don't wait for someone to make your comic book." McDaniels said they came at the books from a point of integrity, and they wanted the books to be treated like they were coming from the Big Two publishers, Marvel and DC.
Creekmur said Kwame was one of the first artists to wear their fandom on their sleeve by incorporating comic visuals into his own work. The rapper said it was entirely intentional, relating it to the idea of Batman being an idea and not just a man. He assimilated that concept into his identity as a hip-hop artist. "If you saw polka-dots, for example, you knew Kwame wasn't about me," said Kwame. "It was about what those symbols represented. And those symbols represented a different take in hip-hop, an intellectual standpoint, more of a naturalist standpoint." He added that something like 99.9% of his songs feature a reference or quote from a comic.
Guru complimented Kwame for being "of it," relating how the rapper noticed Guru's "Star Trek" fandom and brought him five figures the next time they were in studio together. Kwame segued into the story of how Guru convinced Jay-Z to name his 2006 comeback album "Kingdom Come" after the classic Mark Waid and Alex Ross mini-series. Jay apparently wasn't very impressed at first as Kwame and Guru were geeking out over the story. "And we were like, 'No man, you're like Superman," said Kwame, "and you gotta convince these new cats to come back and rhyme!'" Jay took some convincing, but both Guru and Kwame clearly saw the connection between Superman's arc and the hip-hop heavyweight's own return. Guru explained how the story of Superman leaving the younger heroes without guidance in "Kingdom Come" was a mirror for Jay's role in the rap game. Eventually, he got through to Jay-Z, who not only named the album after the series, but referenced Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man in the title track.
The panel shifted gears when the panelists' were asked to name their favorite superheroes. Kwame pointed to DC's Captain Marvel, now known as Shazam, calling him "the perfect superhero; he's a boy who wants to be more than what he is... Having a badass talking tiger doesn't hurt."
McDaniels said he favored the Hulk: "Like sometimes I'm too soft, but you don't want to get me mad." He credited his whole delivery and presentation to comics. "Hip-hop was just me pretending to be superheroes." When Run-D.M.C. hit the studio for the first time, McDaniels felt like he was in a comic book. He would relate beats to superheroes, like the Hulk for "Rock the House" (which features the line "we crash through walls") and Spider-Man for "Hit It Run" (where "devastating mic controller" was influenced by the adjective and name combination of "Amazing Spider-Man").
Q-Unique said he relates to Spider-Man because he's an independent artist who gets credit for being "real hip-hop," but he's still broke at the end of the day. Riggs pointed to Wolverine and Guru agreed, but not just because he's "the cleanup guy." Guru likes Logan because of the character's growth over the years from a broken and wild character to a fatherly role after Cyclops withdrew in the aftermath of Jean Grey's death. Despite this, Guru said Batman was his favorite because of how plausible he is. "He has more testicular fortitude than anyone else."
While Rodriguez said Spider-Man is he favorite, his position as E-i-C of DMC has changed his perspective. He now sees White Tiger as one of the most significant characters ever. For him, having a Puerto Rican hero created by a Puerto Rican writer was a big deal. "What Miles Morales is today, White Tiger was that back in the 70s," he said.
This led to a discussion about diversity in comics, with Rodriguez saying the big name heroes have had years of development and that Marvel and DC changing characters' races is an often unsuccessful way of catching up to modern times. For every Miles Morales, he said, there's an AraÃ±a or a rebooted Blue Beetle. "When we set out to make Darryl Makes Comics, we didn't say, 'Well, we need to make a black superhero;' we said, 'We need to make a dope-ass comic.'"
Kwame presented his "dipped in chocolate theory", which explains things like Sam Wilson taking over as Captain America. He says that while diversifying the landscape is a good thing, "This is a creative industry; why can't you just create a dope character of color?" He referenced the drama around Michael B. Jordan's casting as Johnny Storm and a woman becoming Thor. "Instead of making Thor a female, pull in Sif and build her up even more, or pull in Falcon and build him up."
Q-Unique mentioned the confusion caused when Marvel changed Nick Fury's race in their Earth-616 line, and the idea that Fury or Miles Morales could have been created as separate heroes instead of taking over established roles. "I guess they look at it as, Spider-Man works, put him on a lunch box."
Riggs turned the discussion towards movies, pointing out that the modern run of comic films really began with a black character -- Blade -- which brought murmurs of agreement from the crowd. He also called out Marvel for not having a Black Panther film yet. Riggs said Panther is an A-lister who demands respect from fellow characters, can go toe-to-toe with Captain America and is one of the best tacticians in comics. "It's very important that a character like this gets brought to the forefront because we need to see that as a new standard," said Riggs.
Part of the problem with the industry dealing with the issue of race is, as Guru put it, the zeitgeist of how America views comics. He related it to the perception of Anime in Japan, where there are clear distinctions between comics for kids and those for adults. That separation doesn't exist here, he said. "When you do a comic book movie, it has to be geared towards children. And that's not always the case. There are incredible subject matters that can be dealt with in the form if we made that difference."
Rappers aren't necessarily the first people you picture when you think of comic devotees, but the panelists spoke with the excitement and passion of hardcore fans. The stars on the dais were just more proof that geeks are everywhere, and that the bonds between hip-hop and comics are stronger than ever.