Old Stuff: Hip-hop comics: hitting new audiences?

November 30, 2005 at 7:27 pm 1 comment

Another old post–a look at comics and hip hop. Originally posted at The Low Road November 30th, 2005.


In my e-mail yesterday, I found a press release from Brandon Schultz, one of the guys behind Blokhedz, an indie comic with a distinct hip-hop vibe. As I haven’t seen it anywhere else yet, I’ll post it in its entirety (if it does go elsewhere, I’ll cut this down to a link):

SCRATCH MAGAZINE REMIXES BLOKHEDZ

Nov 28, 2005

Hip-Hop’s hottest comic book has a new home. Excerpts from the street-adventure comic series “Blokhedz” will be featured in the January/Feb issue of Scratch Magazine. Nas and DJ Premier grace the cover of the issue that will jump off a recurring Blokhedz feature.

Created and illustrated by Mark and Mike Davis, “Blokhedz” first began flying off of shelves in early 2004 before selling out completely in comic book shops throughout the country. Now the best way for new fans to get their Blokhedz fix is through the bi-monthly editions of Scratch.

According to “Blokhedz” writer and producer Brandon Schultz “Our audience is small, but devoted. From Japan to Australia to South Central LA, Street Legends Ink has carved a niche in the comic industry for the hip-hop generation. Linking up with Scratch gives us a chance to grow that audience in a way that stays true to the Blokhedz aesthetic “.

“Honestly, it’s been our desire to work with Jerry Barrow since his editorial days at the Source. He is a visionary and his move to Scratch ensured that the spirit of our collaboration would be authentic. Scratch is the literary ‘Beat Street’ to our animated ‘8mile’” added Blokhedz comic producer Nicole Duncan-Smith.

Published by industry upstart Street Legends Ink, the series has garnered coverage from Reuters, CNN live, The Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times among others. Scratch editor-in-chief Jerry Barrow observes, ”I’ve been a huge fan of Blokhedz since the first issue and I haven’t found a hip-hop comic book that combines great art with a compelling storyline like this, so it was an honor for me to get them down with Scratch”.

Street Legends Ink, a wholly owned subsidiary of ImajiMation Studios Inc, produces the Blokhedz comic series and toys. Street Legends is a licensing company that specializes in products relevant to the global youth culture. To learn more visit www.streetlegendsink.com.

I’ve picked up an issue or two of Scratch. It’s not a bad read, particularly if you’re into the DJing aspect of hip-hop. And Blokhedz is good hip-hop themed comics.

Part of me wants to give the press release some of the same treatment as the Liberality For All piece below, but there’s not as much to dissect. “Blokhedz first began flying off of shelves in early 2004 before selling out completely in comic book shops throughout the country” sounds a bit suspect, but it’s also worth pointing out that most comics shops across the country didn’t stock Blokhedz at all, so that sell-through comment isn’t as great as it sounds.

At the same time, though, I can believe it–not just because I’m a hip-hop head myself, but because hip-hop loves comics. The press release reminded me of this, and reminded me that I wanted to look at comics and hip-hop at some point.

The Parallels of Comics and Hip-Hop

You know how those silly Lincoln vs. Kennedy things get tossed around, like how Lincoln supposedly had a secretary named Kennedy, and Kennedy had one called Lincoln? They’re not entirely based in truth, but they spread because they’re fun–if specious–little things to play with. Here’s one way how it plays with comics and hip-hop and their respective cultures–Stan Lee, Bob Kane and Bill Finger attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. The same school is one of the places where hip hop graffiti was born; in Nelson George’s Hip Hop America, he writes:

After World War II, when the country was putting a squeaky clean face on its history and architecture, contemporary graffiti began its career as a formal civic nuisance, yet it remained a modest urban irritant until a Bronx-inspired explosion in the ’70s allowed graffitists to refine themselves as artists. Early in the decade, a community of graffiti artists began gathering in and around DeWitt Clinton High in the Bronx.”

There are others, too–both industries sprung from the creativity of disenfranchised minorities but the profits were reaped by corporate interests, that hip hop trends and comics publishing trends follow similar patterns, both have taken blows from people trying to use the product to make shock-tactic attacks for personal reasons, guys working their way up from independent labels/publishers to the bigger companies… Make your own, if you feel like–it’s fun. But it should be noted that comics have influenced hip-hop, and vice versa.

Comics In Hip-Hop

When talking comics and hip-hop, the conversation is naturally going to swing to the superhero side of comics publishing–it’s been the driving force in American comic book sales up until very recently. Also, it’s what most non-comics readers think the medium is all about, and that’s ok–it’s not like that level of ignorance doesn’t go both ways. I’ve seen hip-hop threads come up on comics message boards, and they almost always seem to draw out at least one “I can’t stand that ‘gangsta’ shit,” or the “clever” dismissal of the music as “(c)rap.”

Unsubstantiated observation–it sometimes seems like a lot of comic book fans on message boards are also fans of heavy metal music. It’s not for me, and I’m not quite sure what the correlation is. However, flipping through my satellite radio, I came across two songs by a band called Vampire Mooose (no, I have no idea why there’s an extra “o” in “Mooose”) that had comics-centric titles–“Adamantium Elbow” and “Spider-Man vs. Venom.” I’m not sure if that’s something seen across heavy metal music, but it’s something one finds when listening to hip-hop.

Superhero references have been a part of hip-hop since the first hit rap single, “Rapper’s Delight” (which, contrary to what sometimes gets written in mainstream press articles about hip-hop, isn’t the first rap single–that’d be the Fatback Band’s “King Tim III (Personality Jock)”). The Beastie Boys, Dr. Dre, Eminem, LL Cool J, the Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, the Alkaholics, DMX and others have all worked in comic book references in their music.

The big one, though, is The Last Emperor. His “Secret Wars” is as much of a fanboy wank as a “who would win–Hulk or Thor” conversation. The songs kick off with “What if I had the power to gather, all of my favorite emcees / With the illest comic book characters, and they became arch enemies?” The outcome is unsurprising–the home team advantage gives the rappers the edge in all the battles, but it’s done quite lovingly. You can read the lyrics to both versions of “Secret Wars” at OHHLA.com (Part One and Part Two).

It might be tempting for comic book fans that aren’t feeling hip-hop to say, “yeah, but superheroes permeate western pop culture–the references may just reflect that.” In some cases, sure–hell, ask anyone on the street about comics, and they’re likely to drop some superhero knowledge whether or not their invested in superhero fandom. However, some artists have explicitly expressed the way comics influence their work. In an interview at Eye.net last year, Mindbender, an underground MC, mentioned how superhero comics informed his work:

While Mindbender messes with minds, the producers he chose to collaborate with aren’t afraid to play with beats and sounds that are foreign to the average hip-hop head’s ears. “Weapon X,” with its deep bass and evocative Middle Eastern vibe, epitomizes this approach.

Mindbender calls the track a hip-hop comic-book story where “I’m half MC and half the character Wolverine from X-Men. I’m such big comic-book fan and I have this wild imagination so I said, ‘What if one of the X-Men was into hip-hop?’ So, I pretended I was bringing justice and doing rap at the same time.”

Bringing justice to a scene filled with — to quote a line from the track “Raindrops” — “too many bad rappers and not enough clever songwriters”?

“Yes, exactly! Thank you very much for catching that line. I’m happy the lyrics are somewhat relevant since the album was written in 2002. You know, people are always saying, ‘Screw this mainstream crap. It’s so boring and stereotypical and damaging.’ I’m just saying, ‘Here’s something totally original.'”

It’s not just in the songs themselves. Much as Superman is Clark Kent’s larger-than-life alter ego, hip-hop artists have been known to put forth personas as well. Sometimes, they names they choose come straight from superhero comics. Big Punisher took his nom de guerre from Punisher comics. Jean Grae is not only one worth mentioning, but one worth checking out if you’ve never heard her work. As Neilalien pointed out a few months ago, there’s an independent rapper out of California called Akword Strange, inspired by Dr. Strange. The Wu-Tang Clan have enough aliases to fill they’re own Avengers charter, some of them comics-related–Ghostface Killa’s been Tony Starks and Ironman, Method Man’s gone by Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze, and the RZA had his own superhero persona, Bobby Digital, who had a Stan Lee Media online venture (or was in talks to be). Tom Spurgeon’s excellent Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book highlights a meeting between Lee and the RZA that shows how comics influenced the RZA:

The RZA was a big fan. “I got my shit from you,” he told Lee, citing his practice of tagging every Wu-Tang release with the line “RZA Presents.”

The RZA rapped some of his Marvel-inspired lyrics: “Microphone gets cast to the floor. Shape-shifting. Heavy as the hammer of Thor.”

Lee clapped his hands. “Oh, that’s great! I like that! Hey, you’re going to help me with the stories.”

And, of course, there’s MF Doom. Comic book fans seem to love MF Doom (well, at least the ones that love hip-hop too), perhaps because of how much comics play into the Doom persona, as well as the other geek nods (like the new Dangerdoom album).

DJs, too, rep comics in their personas. Ian Brill mentioned DJ Green Lantern a while back, but he’s not the only one. Legendary turntablists the X-Ecutioners started out as the X-Men, but had to change their name for legal reasons. Oddly enough, they originally came together to tackle Clark Kent’s Superman DJ Crew, who were a major force in DJ competitions in the late ’80s. Through my satellite radio, I came across DJ Bijal (a.k.a. Wally West). The second pseudonym isn’t a happy coincidence–I talked to DJ Bijal briefly through the Sirius forum, and he confirmed that he’s down with comics.

The hip-hop community is more than just MCs and DJs, though–there’s dancers, graffiti artists, and fashion designers. Mark Ecko, the head of Ecko Unlimited, recounts his early obsession with comics on his blog:

Growing up I always wanted to be a superhero. Forget baseball player or fireman, or for that one weird kid in my kindergarten class who ate glue and picked his nose, garbage man. No, I wanted to be larger than life. So when nobody was around I’d haul out my secret uniform from under my bed – a pair of my father’s tighty-whities, an Underdog t-shirt and a towel for a cape. Then I’d sneak down into the basement to fight crime where, for some reason, the washing machine set to spin cycle seemed to facilitate the flying process.

While Ecko says he later turned in his comics-tracing when graffiti artists became his real-life superheroes, comics influenced his company’s style–I’ve seen Ecko apparel featuring Spider-Man, the Punisher, Captain America and others.

Hip-Hop In Comics

Battles have been around in hip-hop since its early days. As Cristina Veran points out in her “Breaking It All Down: The Rise and Fall and Rise of the B-Boy Kingdom” article in the Vibe History of Hip Hop, [c]ompetition, of course, is the very essence of every aspect of hip hop culture.” In freestyle competition or dis records, one of the ways to get over is to make the other guy look like an idiot, and there are some disses in some comics that try to do that.

Two came into my mind right away. The first was the Bob Harras dis hidden in Earth X. As Brian Cronin points out in one of his Comic Book Urban Legends posts, Al Milgrom snuck “Harras, ha ha, he’s gone! Good riddance to bad rubbish, he was a nasty S.O.B.” into one of the issues. The second was the character of Funky Flashman, a character Jack Kirby created to mock Stan Lee’s hucksterism and mannerisms.

I asked some fellow nerds about disses that make their way into comics, and they had more examples than I did. There was some comments in Amazing Spider-Man about Time-Warner’s stock dropping because of a “lack of originality in their graphic publishing division” (thanks, Mike!). I was also reminded of Kyle Baker’s commentary on DC’s superhero line in the pages of Plastic Man (which I had read, but forgotten–thanks, Kristen!).

What about the music itself? It’s kind of hard to translate something auditory to a visual medium like comics, but you’ve got to imagine that there is music in the worlds populated by superheroes. I wasn’t a big fan of Waid’s Fantastic Four, but he got one thing letter-perfect in his nine-cent FF story–if the world were filled with superheroes, they’d absolutely get name-dropped in rap songs like celebrities and athletes do. While Ben Grimm sounds dismissive of the phenomenon in the excerpted panel (his “it still ain’t nothin’ but yakkin’ to a beat” is an often-expressed condemnation of rap), clicking on the panel will show the full-page, where he’s obviously into the adulation. Waid might not have gotten the flow right, but he had the right idea.

Some comics artists display hip-hop influences in their work, too. Skottie Young comes to mind; I’ve never read one of his books (I don’t think, at least, but he did a New Warriors thing that I might pick up based on how much I loved the original when I was younger), but the influence is obvious in preview images. The big one is obviously Jim Mahfood. I can’t get enough Mahfood, and if you dig hip-hop and comics, you should grab a copy of Felt: True Tales of Underground Hip Hop, his collaboration with Slug and Murs for their Felt 2 album (admittedly, it makes more sense if you listen to the album and then read the comic, but you don’t have to do it that way).

Can comics (of all types) catch that hip-hop dollar?

Yeah, probably. Part of me hopes it can, at least. Not for purely selfish reasons, either–hip hop elements won’t be enough to get me to buy something. I’d just like to see more diversity in comics publishing. Or, rather, I’d like to see more diversity in how comics get to people. In an interview, The Last Emperor noted some of the problems facing hip-hop today, which sound a lot like some of the criticisms cast by some comic book fans about the industry:

Hip-hop itself or authentic hip-hop, if I can even make such a claim, is very much in tact. It’s diverse. The only thing that I think authentic good hip-hop is not getting is its share of radio airplay and video play for those artists who do traditional hip-hop. I think industrialized rap music, what we see on video shows and hear on radio, lacks versatility and diversity. Most songs on mainstream radio and video shows deal with one of three things. Either they are talking about going to the club, how much material possessions they have, or degrading women. Every song literally deals with those things.

There’s probably a market out there for hip-hop comics, but reaching it will be the tough part. The Blokhedz/Scratch deal is a hopeful sign.

It’s good that hip-hop comics are trying alternate methods of distribution–when left to the mainstream US publishers, attempts at catching hip-hop fans in the direct market web have been met with little success. Case in point: Kyle Baker and KRS-One’s Break The Chain comic from Marvel (if you want to read another blogger’s thoughts about Break The Chain, check out this review by Marc Mason). Kyle Baker summed up the problems with Break The Chain in this interview at Ultrazine:

BREAK THE CHAIN was very experimental, a comic book packaged with a read-along hip-hop audiocassette. I don’t think anything like it was done before or since. Whenever I do something new and different, there is no way to predict what will happen. That’s why people keep doing the same old thing. It’s easy to predict how a new Spider-Man book will sell. Marvel had no experience marketing to hip-hop fans. The creators of the project, Marshall Chess, Kris Parker, and I went with Marvel because nobody else wanted to publish us. The only way we got Marvel to go for it was we did it without being paid, and the production costs were out of our pockets. We just wanted to get it made and distributed. They were made, but only 25% of the print run was actually distributed. The rest of the books sat in a warehouse while Marvel tried to find a distributor with record store connections. It never happened. I don’t know what happened to the books and tapes, they were probably destroyed. But a few people got to see it, which is better than nothing.

If you hit Ebay or other dealers, you can find those warehoused copies of Break The Chain–that’s how I got a new copy (and had enough from the auction to send some off to a few friends, like Mason).

Comics publishers haven’t given up on hip-hop because of problems like Break The Chain, though. In an attempt to make comic book fans out of hip-hop fans (or, more likely, to find more ways to cash in on a name), there are comics coming out that star some of the biggest names in hip-hop. It’s not just one publisher trying to hit a new market, either–each comic series or graphic novel is coming from its own publisher:

American Mule Entertainment has seen some press in comics and hip-hop publications after announcing their Public Enemy comic book that features the group as

members of a secret underground organization called the Underground Railroad, while they are touring the world they act as agents of peace and justice and help people whenever they are in need. They don’t have super powers but they still kick major ass. There will be lots of adventure and action as well as social commentary reflecting many of today’s issues.

• As Matt Maxwell pointed out, MTV and Pocket Books are slated to publish graphic novels starring 50 Cent and G-Unit.

• Back in May, ICv2 reported that Stan Lee’s POW! Entertainment was teaming up with Vibe Magazine to produce urban superhero tales to be published in Vibe. While not focusing on an established hip-hop artist, publication in Vibe means those comics will reach more readers than an issue of Infinite Crisis–the circulation figures for Vibe average around 850,000 readers.

I haven’t seen these comics myself. The previews for the Public Enemy comic aren’t much more than a few promotional poster things which are vaguely reminiscent of old, poorly-colored independent superhero comics. My fear is that these comics capitalizing on hip hop brands won’t be very good (and that, if the POW!/Vibe one draws more from the POW! and less from the Vibe, it’ll turn out corny). I’m also left wondering about the quality of Marvel Comics The Heist, a promotional comic included with Fat Joe’s All or Nothing album and other Joint Chief albums in some locations, and how it was received by those who read it.

I think the perfect blend of hip-hop and comics doesn’t come from licensing (though licensing is a big part of the business of hip-hop), but comics that actively embrace the culture–something somewhat more evident in manga and OEL manga than in American comics (I have to wonder how a Amazing Joy Buzzards-esque hip-hop comic would do in the direct market). A while back, Kevin Melrose linked to this article from the Boston Globe when he was still doing Thought Balloons. The article mentions how hip-hop has influenced manga. I have to admit, I haven’t read much hip hop-influenced manga–I read Ahmed Hoke’s @Large (I liked the look of it, but found it lacking overall) and Hiroshi Takahashi’s Worst (which was just OK). I’ve been meaning to try Tokyo Tribes, but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Even though I don’t think @Large works as a comic, it gets the hip-hop vibe right. It’s not as… manufactured?… as other hip-hop elements in comics–it’s got more authenticity than the surface presentation of hip-hop slang that gets tossed into other comics. Diehard superhero enthusiasts get upset when film adaptations of comics get things “wrong,” and hip-hop junkies will bristle when things they feel possessive about get the same treatment.

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Entry filed under: Comics, Hip Hop, The Low Road.

Old stuff: Thinking way too much about superhero comics. Review: DEOGRATIAS

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