The Black Age of Comics 101: A Brief History by a Founder

Turtel Onli M.A.A.T.

“Indie today: Black Age forever!”  This is the tenant of creation behind the superheroes in today’s niche of African-American culture in comics. Throughout my career, I have created positive super-powered characters that tap into humanity’s innate attraction to exaggeration, the supernatural, and pseudo-theological or contemporary mythology.  The idea of powerful defending values for the weak is an old story that lends itself well to being retold. I find the super-powered character as hero vs. villain a great vehicle for this.  Then comes the artistic and illustrative challenge of visualizing the story in a narrative that works well enough to carry the concepts.

The Black Age of Comics is an outgrowth from the industry; first there was the Golden Age, which was followed by the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, etc.  But now the material is urban, Black, African.  Whichever way you want to put it, branches of today’s Indie comics have ended up in the Black Age, since “Black” is a sub-category of indie as well.  I coined the term, “The Black Age” to set a place and tone for the movement.

Black culture is a young and provocative cultural force, especially within the Chicago Arts community, although it is only several decades old under that identity.  So much of what makes American society unique and independent from Europe, Asia, or even Africa is the cultural aspects that came out of the enslaved Africans who, after being totally stripped of their Africanisms, created a culture that in the 1960s decided to, by way of cultural revolution, to call itself “BLACK”.  Of course this cultural force is not limited to DNA or being born from the descendants of former slaves; it is a lifestyle.  Moving on to comic relations, it is important for the creation of Black super heroes to add voice and presence, as well as a style in marketing in an attempt to address real and predominant issues in the contemporary urban scene.   We have seen moral examples this for decades.  Cultures aside, when a youth or adult reads Batman or Superman they learn that crime does not pay; the hero will ultimately get you.

The Black Age branch really started to collect a following in 1981 when I published “NOG: The Protector of the Pyramids” as a character in a Black Universe.   It was done with a symbolic red, black and green cover, those being the colors of the Black Liberation.  Black culture, the Black community, and non-Blacks who have interest in the Black community often see the autonomy of the Black Age (its characters and creators) as being a force that promotes literacy, ethical values, and true diversity.  Could you imagine growing up in a world where the validity of Superman would be under debate due to his being White?  The inversion of that notion is an echo that questions one’s own values.  Besides, why should the mainstream blue chip characters and creators have all the fun when there is so much fire and funk to throw down?

My interest in Black comics was spurned at a very young age.  I was raised in Hyde Park and was a teen during the counter-cultural and Black Cultural revolutions.  From this I founded a guild of young artists to focus on our making the transition from students to professionals. In the early 1970s I was a major market illustrator, which was with mainstream companies. Many of my clients were surprised that a Black man had created the types of works that they were buying.  Some would ask if Blacks read.  Others would say a “Black concept” was not really artistic.  Many would be reluctant to hire me saying they did not cater to a Black market.  Being raised by a property owner, I was taught that the best response to these reactions was to create a thing of my own.  In order to change, I would have to be the force that established opportunities.  I wanted to help other folks get past their limitations.  I knew the American comic book industry was growing rapidly and was one of several areas of interest for me. With success, the world’s first Black Age of Comics Convention was held at the South Side Community Art Center in 1991, in the Bronzeville area of Chicago.

Above all, it is a community-based practice; this type of material provides recreational reading for youth that would otherwise be reluctant to learn.  We always hear about urban youth having low reading scores, which is an urban public school trend, but rarely do we think about supplying them with material that would appeal to them.  After all, these are comics; readers are driven to collect, and keep collecting.  Most folks want to compare new characters to their older, more established counterpart.

An issue that the comics of the Black Age have been facing is that audiences are mistakenly interpreting Black characteristics as being stereotypical, that is, from a cultural standpoint. This impulse is strong; we have to deal with it just like any other group deals with the impression that comic books are not “real” art or even literature. It boils down to this: when a character is unique or distinct enough, folks will claim it is not commercial.  But just like creating a dance track, there is a lot of room for innovation beyond the limits of the mainstream approach.

It is not so much a question of race so much as culture, and lifestyle.  Some of the “Blackest” folks I know and love are White, Asian, and Latino. The Black Age movement is about everybody and has the power to liberate the mainstream industry in the same manner that Black music, (the Blues, Jazz, Rock, Funk, or Hip Hop), liberated the mainstream music scene.  Using music as a generalized metaphor for our practice, the comic industry is at about the same level that the Black music industry was at in the early 20th century.  Why is your comic book collection not as Black as your music collection? Founded in Chicago, there are now four annual Black Age Comic Conventions around the nation: Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Detroit.

You can check out www.dablackage.blogspot.com, www.cuip.net/~tonli/wit2002, and www.onlistudios.com for more info.  Indie today: Black Age forever!!!!