In the Comics with a Message panel at Emerald City Comic Con, panelists included Black Mask Studios publisher and writer Matteo Pizzolo, comics writer Matthew Rosenberg, comics writer Lonnie Nadler (The Dregs), comics writer Vita Ayala (Amanda Waller, Our Work Fills the Pews), comics artist Khary Randolph, and comics writer David Walker (Luke Cage, Shaft, Iron Fist).
Pizzolo said that not everyone who creates comics does feel that their work bears a message, and asked the panelists what makes them feel that their comics have a specific message.
Walker said that if he sets out to write a comic with a message, he might be defeating his main purpose of writing an entertaining comic. People generally don’t like to be preached to, and neither does he. He pulls out to get the big the picture if things get too preachy.
Ayala feels that there’s always something you can say to connect to people, and there are things that will connect both to the people and to her in her work. She wants it to be a meaningful conversation.
Rosenberg feels that comics and all art has to come from “a really personal place” and anything you like artistically and consume, that’s probably coming from someplace personal even if you don’t know that. He tries to make his work personal, including his sense of humor and the things he cares about in the world, as well as the things that bother him. By default that will be socially and politically conscious for him. A lot of people care about things and a lot of that will end up on the page.
Khary Randolph joined the panel (Mosaic, Black) and said that Black is “super not subtle” and it’s very different from his other work. He’s into more subtle ways of putting his books forward, he said. If he sees a script with no people of color, he’ll add them to the crowd. If he’s asked to create a new character, he avoids default and asks, can they be Asian, can they be a woman etc. Doing the covers for Black, Randolph said the covers all have a “one word point of view” like “freedom, slavery, or persecution”. They have a back and forth about the subject until they come up with a solution. One recent one that portrays a guy behind bars was based on the idea “prison system”.
Pizzolo observed that most of the panelists collaborate and asked how they reconcile a personal point of view with that. Nadler said that can differ from script to art, but you have to be headed toward the same goal and the message of the book on a collaboration. Walker said he tries to really communicate with the artist. You’re not writing the script for the reader, but for the artist. He’ll add to scripts a request to make characters and crowds more diverse and less sexualized sometimes. He asks “what’s the worst case scenario?” and tries to avoid that by being clear. If the artist doesn’t understand the message clearly, then it won’t come through to the reader, either, he said.
Ayala said she’ll talk about the tone she wants to get across in a particular issue or with a particular character. She’ll discuss the feelings of characters and why. The more she does that up front, the more interesting expressions of her initial ideas come through.
Pizzolo mentioned that once there was an Occupy Comics panel, regarding a book that was published about 5 years ago, an anthology with unique points of view. One of the contributors, V for Vendetta’s David Lloyd, was speaking in the panel, and was quite intense. Not all of his ideas were shared by everyone on the book, since there were 75 people involved, but that’s part of the collaboration process for each person to bring their own point of view.
Asked about his work on Nighthawk, Walker said that Marvel wanted something that pushed the envelope, but then later wanted to dial it back. They published something close to what Walker was going for, he said. When asked to change things, he’d rework it actually pushing further but in a more subtle way in the hope they wouldn’t notice before it went to print.
Once the issue came out where a cop gets killed, based on the logic that a community needs saving from cops, his twitter feed was filled with death threats. His goal is to write books that are required reading and that those same books are being burned and banned. Commenting on that made him reconsider his previous statement that he doesn’t have a specific message in his comics, he laughed.
Ayala said that what she wants to do with a character and why is something she presents up front when working with the Big Two and she hasn’t had a lot of pushback. Some stories appeal to them more than others, but she is always clear about what she wants.Walker said he does get a lot of pushback. He’s had to explain things to editors who clearly don’t understand the world of a given comic, and occasionally he’ll “straight up lie” about what the meaning behind things are to make progress.
Coming up, Black Mask Studios has a book called Calexit, which originally was far-fetched, and now is probably going to happen, so things can change like that in terms of relevance, Pizzolo observed, and asked the panelists if they’d experienced a change in that way.
Rosenberg said that regarding working on Rocket Raccoon, the comic evolved into an allegory about refugees, persecution, and people not fitting in. He was seeing the footage of Syrian refugees, and it was too much to take. To do a goofy raccoon book is one thing, but the book is about taking care of people. It was about “be nice to each other”. Now it has an even wider message, but it was written about Obama’s stance on refugees, not actually Trump’s, which he sees as disturbingly similar.
Turning our back on parts of the world because the people look different has been a problem for all the presidents, and America is selective in who it cares about, Rosenberg said. The book may feel overtly about Trump, but the book was pitched when Rosenberg thought Hillary was going to win the election. He assumes that if people are reading the book in future years, they’ll see it as relevant to President Kardashian or whoever is in the role then, he said.
Rosenberg also commented that the collaboration involved the editor, too, and the publisher, and he tries to take that into account, whether on creator-owned books at Black Mask or with the Big Two. They are going to put their spin on it, but it’s “all of our books and it’s my job to make everyone on the book happy in the same way that I hope it’s everyone else’s job to make me happy”, he said. Nadler agreed that everyone wants the best product possible, even if people butt heads on things occasionally, and that’s part of the conversation.
Working on a book about homeless people in Vancouver, BC, The Dregs, Nadler said that they didn’t want a savant who happens to live on the streets, the way many stories in films present a homeless character. Instead they went and did research talking to people in BC who are homeless. If you aren’t trying to represent their lives as accurately as possible, what’s the point in doing it, he asked?
Pizzolo said that interestingly, there are a lot of people in Hollywood right now who are wanting to tell more political stories, but there’s not a lot of experience in doing so in Hollywood because it works with the lowest common denominator and isn’t geared toward having a message. Comics, however, are better able to do that.
Rosenberg said that because there are fewer readers of comics than watchers of films, comics don’t have to do the broad sweep. Trying to sell to smaller numbers of people enables comics to be doing more vital, more personal work, because they don’t have to appeal to a grandfather in Des Moines or a six-year-old in Brooklyn, he said.
Randolph said it’s also easier because there are fewer people working on a project and they can all agree more easily on what to present. You can have a much stronger voice in the art you create because there are fewer cooks in the kitchen, Randolph said. Black was originally on Kickstarter, and Randolph said that did enable him to take more risks with it, because you can find your readership directly.
Rosenberg added that even in a big company like Marvel, there are very conservative people on some books, but he can still enjoy reading them because he’s an adult and can handle encountering different ideas. He wants his own ideas to stand up alongside other ideas and let readers have a marketplace and that will determine what wins the debate. Asking how much we can “punch back” at things we don’t agree with isn’t quite the right approach, but hopefully publishers will present lots of points of view and will let people “say things” in their work, too.