In 1993, four black comic book creators—Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, Derek T. Dingle, and Dwayne McDuffie—teamed up to address what they saw as the comic book industry's severe lack of minority representation. Together, they founded Milestone Media, a publisher that collaborated with DC Comics to introduce a number of black and brown characters into the "Dakotaverse," a comic book universe that would eventually collide with DC's own.
Though a number of characters like Static Shock and Icon have successfully become a part of the larger comic book cultural canon, Milestone's star faded in the mid-'90s as the comic book market became saturated with new titles and the publisher faced difficulties with being perceived as only putting out books for black people.
"99.9% of comic book companies up to that point had been owned and run by white males," McDuffie explained in an unfinished documentary about Milestone's rise and fall. "So when we came out and announced that we were going to do some comics and it was for black men, it's like 'Oh, ok, it's black comics.'"
For many years, it seemed as if the Dakotaverse was all but finished but, last year, in an interview with The Washington Post, former BET head Reggie Hudlin announced an all-new Milestone project was in the works.
When news of the new Milestone began to pop up on Twitter, New Jersey-based blogger Dean "Tee" Vixen was surprised to see that many people had never heard of the imprint or many of its characters. Frustrated, Vixen set out to shine a light on the black superheroes that she'd grown up loving with a hashtag that blossomed into a website and spawned a movement: #BlackComicsMonth.
Her mission, Vixen explained to me, isn't just to highlight the characters, but to draw more attention to the world of black creators. The following conversation I had with Vixen over the phone a few weeks back has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What was your goal when you decided to launch #BlackComicsMonth?
There were tons of people on Twitter asking about whether black superheroes were a thing. I figured that if they didn’t know about the characters, they probably didn’t know about the creators. So I decided to create a site that highlighted black creators.
As time's went on, I realized that 28 days wasn’t going to be enough. So, I've transitioned into the idea that every month should be black comics month.
If I see creators posting their work, I’ll retweet it, quote it, and always keep the Twitter account moving. Lately, though, I've started doing more panels at conventions like NYC: Special Edition Comic Con and New York Comic Con.
Tell me about your experience with cons.
I never thought that I’d do something like this or that I’d ever organize a panel with standing room only. For the Special Edition of NYCC, we featured writers and artists like Alitha Martinez (Foreign) and Greg Pak (Storm) who talked about their experiences as people of color working within the industry and what it really means when we say that "comics are becoming more diverse."
During another panel, David Walker talked about how diversity isn’t a gimmick—it’s life. Once you walk out of the door, you’re in a world full of diverse people and it’s not just race, it’s gender. Like me, I am a queer, plus-sized women with a disability. I embody diversity.
You've been vocal about how publishers factor into the industry's issues with diversity, but where else do you see room for improvement?
It’s not just in the publishers, it’s a problem with the stores themselves. There are so many creators that I’ve featured on the site that you can’t find on the shelf. If you’re not a big name or associated with a big brand, it can be impossible to get any floorspace.
Princeless is a book [drawn by Mia Goodwin and written] by Jeremy Whitley—a white man married to a black woman. Whitley wanted to create a world where his daughter could see herself in the main character. Their story’s about a princess who’s been sent to a wait for a man, but Princess Adrian's whole thing is like, “I don’t have time.”
The book’s on its third or fourth volume and I can never actually find it in stores.
It's the same with with Nutmeg by James F. Wright (and Jackie Crofts.) Think Mean Girls meets Breaking Bad. It's a great book and you can’t find it anywhere either. It irritates me—I’m not even the person creating the stuff, I can only imagine how the creators themselves feel.
And what about the publishers? Why do you think they're not pushing shops to carry more diverse books?
I’m guessing they don’t want to take that chance to change. It's easy to say that women don’t buy comic books or that people of color don’t buy comic books. We've seen that this isn’t true, but they’re afraid.
I can’t say that nothing's changed considering where we were just five years ago. I mean, you wouldn’t have seen David Walker writing Cyborg five years ago. Now, we’re getting a whole year of Black Panther written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and look at Kamala Khan, she definitely wouldn’t have been around 10 years ago. These are minute baby steps, but it’s happening.
If you’re looking for comics created by POC, you have to remove yourself from the big two [Marvel and DC]. Head onto the internet, Tumblr, go to Image Comics or Dark Horse. You can’t say that there isn’t diversity in comics, you have to look places you might not think.
What would you say to an aspiring artist or writer looking at the comics landscape and wanting to break into the industry?
You can’t sit around and wait for somebody. You can’t sit and wait for a publisher to recognize your work. Do it yourself. If you don’t know how to market or promote—there are people out you can collaborate with to get that job done. You can’t not let that be the reason to be the reason.
You have to hustle. You have to get out there and you have to go to cons. Get on Tumblr, Pinterest, and Twitter. People will find your work if and only if you open your mouth and promote your work.
Dean Vixen is currently tweeting, blogging, and promoting comics written by and featuring people of color. As a part of a special #BlackComicsMonth promotion, her site is currently offering tons of BCM-themed books as free digital downloads.
We highly, highly suggest you head on over and stock up on your back issues.