NYCC ’17: The Black Mask Panel & All The Comics That Almost Never Happened

by Hannah Means Shannon

The Black Mask Panel at New York Comic Con on Sunday morning brought out Black Mask creators Alexis Ziritt, Tyler Boss, Kwanza Osajyefo, Amancay Nahuelpan, Zac Thompson, Eric Zawadzki, and publisher Matteo Pizzolo.

Black Mask is celebrating four years of publishing, working with different kinds of stories than other publishers are putting out there, Pizzolo said. There was a pretty strong theme running through the panel, in the shared stories creators told, of the fact that other publishers turned down many of these now ground-breaking comics over and over again. Black Mask was the only publisher who would pick up these challenging works.

Alexis Ziritt described Space Riders as influenced by “heavy metal music and crazy shit”. He said the comic was rejected by many other publishers before it was picked up by Black Mask, and now it’s very popular. It’s been an “awesome ride”, he said.

Talking about Occupy Comics, Black Mask’s first publication, Pizzolo said that several creators with the publisher got involved in that anthology, and have since gone on to create series. When working with Steve Niles on that book, Niles said, “If V for Vendetta were created today, there would be no publisher for it”. And that idea led them to launch Black Mask Studios.

Amancay Nahuelpan was one of the creators who worked on Occupy, and has gone on to Clandestino, and now Calexit. The anthology “opened doors” to Black Mask for him.

Kwanza Osajyefo spoke about the series he wrote, Black, and was a fan of Black Mask before pitching the series, and realized that it was the right publisher for the series that other publishers might not be interested in.

Zac Thompson, talking about The Dregs , said it was based on the extremes of gentrification, but cannibalization of the homeless population in Vancouver, BC, and “Black Mask is the only publisher crazy enough to fucking publish this shit”, he laughed. He also said that the story was pitched to other publishers and they weren’t at all interested in such unusual subject matter but Black Mask “made it happen”.

Tyler Boss said that he had a similar experience working with Matthew Rosenberg on 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank, that it was rejected from many publishers because the ending was too challenging. And publishers asked them to change the ending, really changing the direction of the book, but Black Mask had no qualms about publishing it the way they wanted it to be.

Boss asked Pizzolo about how the public reacted when Calexit was announced. He said he hadn’t been expecting the “level of reaction” that he got to it, though he knew it was kicking the “hornet’s nest”. It wound up on Breitbart with a lot of pushback, and their website got hacked in reaction to it.

Talking about how any comic will upset or annoy someone, Ziritt said that people seem not to realize that Space Riders is “Latinos in space”. He said that he and Fabian Rangel Jr. felt like comics are “too safe” in the way they are made. Even sci-fi comics always have a “blond, white dude” as a the lead. Because of their backgrounds, they use elements from both Venezuela and Mexico.

Asked if the feedback they get on stories influences them in any particular direction, Kwanza Osajyefo said he’d go back and refine the story of Black endlessly if he could, but that’s down to wanting to make it the best story possible rather than about reacting to public ideas.

Pizzolo said “You can’t chase the stories”, but a lot of their stories end up being part of the zeitgeist, in both good and bad ways. Kwanza Osajyefo said he doesn’t want to be this relevant since the story originated 10 years ago and once published, was even more true of police behavior.

Amancay Nahuelpan said there are so many “remarkable images” in the news these days, with protestors running from police, swat teams in massive armor, etc that end up fueling the comics. They get “stuck in your mind” and you try to make things “as real as possible” on books like Calexit. Clandestino is based on the 1970’s politics of Chile, so there were very realistic elements there too.

Asked about working on The Dregs, Eric Zawadski said that he went to downtown Vancouver and took “thousands of pictures” of Hastings Street, which is an area with lots of homeless people. They didn’t like having their pictures taken, thinking he was a “narc or something”. They feel “exploited”, so the idea of making a comic about them isn’t appealing to them.

In Calexit, everything takes place in LA, and Nahuelpan was there for a couple of weeks taking  “visual reference”, but it was also about the feeling and atmosphere that he really needed to absorb in order to create the art. You really need to “experience the place”, he said.

Boss said that he was working on the art for 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank for a long time, and he was influenced by feedback from readers because in total it’s been a four year process on that series. He read a lot of “critical response” and took what he wanted from that.

Asked about the “unexpected” when doing their first creator-owned book, Kwanza Osajyefo said it was just very surprising to get any reaction. On the Kickstarter, he couldn’t believe that the comic got funded in 3 days, and then he had to get the project together in response to it, which was “challenging”.

Ziritt said he thought that Space Riders made “no sense” and that no one would read it. They were surprised Black Mask sent them a hundred copies of the first issue to sell at Emerald City Comic Con, and were skeptical, but sold it all in one day. Pizzolo said after the first issue came out, he got calls from retailers saying it was causing lines at shops, and was immediately in the top lists of sci-fi that week.

He threw some books in his truck, and drove to all the comic shops in LA bringing them boxes of books as quickly as he could, and all the shops were the same. It was very much in demand. They said, “We don’t really know what happened here”, with people lining up for the comic.

Regarding The Dregs, Eric Zawadski said it’s also been surprising to have the perception of an important comic within the comic industry, and peers coming up and congratulating them.  Zac Thompson said it’s been “super life affirming” to have these positive reactions. He has really become enamored of people in comics and being part of the community.

Pizzolo said that he feels a responsibility to do in comics what other media forms cannot, and the fact that comics can “do anything” creates interesting relationships. There is “backmatter” in comics like Calexit that talks about inspirational communities, for instance, and building a Superpac. In The Dregs, the backmatter included photography of homeless people from a friend of theirs, and it helped give a “human face” to the problems in the comic.