'MPLS Sound' Interview: Joe Illidge On Black Comics Past, Present, And Future
Feb 27, 2021
Interview by Troy-Jeffrey Allen
We're at the final days of Black History Month. But February's passing does not mean there isn't more work to be done. More Black voices to be heard. More Black creative minds for you to discover. Like Joe Illidge.
Illidge's background in comics stretches back to the '90s at DC Comics. There he functioned as a writer-editor. First at Milestone (on titles like Static Shock) and later on the Bat-Family of titles (Batman, Batgirl, Batman Beyond, etc.). He's worn similar hats at several major publishers (most recently Heavy Metal Magazine) and, in December of 2020, he felt the need to reflect. From that meditation, Joe produced “Black Lives and the Moral Imperative Superhero Publishers,” an analysis of several top publishers and their efforts towards equity and diversity.
For Black History Month, PREVIEWSworld reached out to Joe for his extended thoughts on the current efforts of the industry, to find out more about his Access Guide to the Black Comic Book Community, and his upcoming Prince tribute comic book, MPLS Sound.
Troy: You’ve seen a lot of come and go over the years, Joe. So I have to ask…is this latest diversity push by the industry different from past attempts or more of the same?
Joe Illidge: This latest push for diversity in the comic book industry is different than the others because quite frankly, it was catalyzed by the inhumane killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th of 2020. That incident set off a firestorm of protests and activist actions, compelling businesses to take a stand against institutional racism and its manifestations. Part of taking that stand was a pivot towards more inclusive hiring actions. Two of the influential companies that pivoted were Disney and Warner Media, the parent companies of Marvel Comics and DC Comics, respectively. Through trickle-down effect, in addition to the wherewithal of the leadership of both publishers, DC Comics and Marvel Comics steered their businesses toward a greater support of Black creators, stories of Black life, and the Black characters in their vast libraries.
Other publishers either followed suit or acted in the same timeline as DC and Marvel, leading to 2021 in which a good number of the Top 10 comic book publishers in the Direct Market have collectively made a substantive turn toward greater inclusion.
Previous to this, what do you feel was the last time the industry had a major diversity push?
The last time the industry had a major diversity push before this one was when Lion Forge remade themselves and started taking the second half of the last decade by storm. A company of considerable financial means with a diverse staff comprised of people of color and mostly women created a mammoth lineup of books comprised of different imprints, including the “Catalyst Prime” superhero imprint I shepherded as a spiritual successor to Milestone Media, Inc.
So, let’s talk about the report you did back in December. The “Black Lives and the Moral Imperative Superhero Publishers” piece you wrote for Medium, what prompted it in the first place?
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, three superhero comic book publishers made public statements from June 1st to June 2nd in support of Black lives and against systemic racism. Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and Valiant Entertainment.
Years ago, I watched an interview with journalist Maria Shriver, in which she said a problem with America’s news media is that it wasn’t self-referential. It tended to look forward, but never back to note progress made on promises made.
The comic book industry is like that in various ways, so it made perfect sense for someone to construct the report card on companies standing in the front of the industry, making promises and statements as the result of a horrifying act that brought this nation’s innate racial prejudices into frightening focus.
Instead of waiting for someone else to take the initiative to create that report card, I decided to do it.
We all know in the core of our hearts that the comic book industry has a unique beauty and brilliance like no other, and one way for the industry to reach its highest ethical potential is through self-examination, ownership of problems, and activation of solutions for true, lasting change.
Will this be an annual thing?
I’m watching this beloved industry five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, Troy. This is an ongoing series, not a one-shot, miniseries, or special event.
One thing that stuck out to me is your statement about showing the industry that “Black writers are equal to their white peers.” Can you talk a little more about that?
The default perception in society, and the comic book industry by extension, is that White writers are capable of writing authentically and well on the totality of human experience on Planet Earth, without biases, prejudices, or weaknesses.
The default perception of Black writers is that we have lesser writing acumen and are only capable of writing about life through a specific prism of experience.
A line a former supervisor told me: “I don’t want Black writers, I want good writers.” This means that if the goal is to bring in Black writers, that’s pandering. It suggests that bringing in Black writers is not automatically bringing in good writers, because the two ideas “obviously” do not automatically coexist.
These prejudicial viewpoints must be eradicated within our industry, at every level, and part of that involves paying Black writers rates commensurate with their talent, not race-based pay.
I've seen you talk a lot about that on social media...
The institutional prejudices of the comic book industry trickle down to page rates and overall pay scales. Imagine if we took the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag initiative started by L.L. McKinney and applied that to the American comic book industry.
I bet the results would be interesting.
You talk a bit about Marvel Voices and Future State in your report. Have you been reading those particular books?
I have “Marvel Voices: Legacy” and it’s on the top of my reading pile. I have purchased and read a number of the DC Comics “Future State” books.
What are your thoughts on Future State?
It’s definitely an ambitious endeavor that has brought a fascinating mix of creators together to have fun in one of the most imaginative sandboxes in our culture. The design sense and trade dress of the line are really eye-catching and suggest an innovative mode of thought. I hope that feeling of courageous bravado and stepping outside of aesthetic comfort zones continues into their prime continuity line of books post-Future State.
You also wrote a piece about the new Future State Batman. How do feel about race-swapping? That is, publishers replacing existing white characters with Black characters. It always is grounds for divisiveness, but it is also typically short-lived…
Race-swapping is arguably insubstantial unless the company utilizing it makes a deep commitment to bring about positive long-lasting change, and the stories coming from such a move are willing to go all the way into the truth of altering the characters in that way.
What about Marvel Voices? What are your thoughts?
The industry should never forget the trailblazing actions of editor Chris Robinson (now Senior Editor of Z2) and producer Angelique Roche in kicking off the imprint, which Marvel has expanded into a notable vertical and horizontal publishing program.
What type of mistakes have you constantly seen publishers stumble into when it comes to better representation?
Taking the smallest possible scale of action towards obvious temporary change, and failing to hire inclusively at the staff level. Dependence on a sole allyship perspective will result in limited change.
Additionally, lack of accountability and consequences for the prejudicial actions of its staff and executive officers.
Out of all the companies you analyzed, who do you feel is leading the pack in terms of diversity inside and outside comics?
DC Comics, without a doubt. A clear example of leadership from within the corporate structure, shown through their creator pool and publishing lineup, physical and digital.
Let’s talk a bit about your “green book.” The “Access Guide to the Black Comic Book Community 2020-2021". What was the idea behind it?
Anyone Comics’ store owner Dimitrios wanted to create a book that would bridge the gap between the national consumer community and the comic book industry, spotlighting the diversified presence of Black creators, businesspersons, and entrepreneurs.
In pitching the book to bring me on board as a partner, Dimitrios referenced the “Negro Motorist Green Book” which helped Black travelers find safe spaces during the Jim Crow era of racial tensions in America. The idea of helping people outside of the comic book industry discover the wide variety of Black people in comics, in spaces that are safe for them, was one I found compelling. The book’s purpose was impossible for me to ignore, especially in this time of heightened, transparent polarization in America and beyond.
I signed up without hesitation, and journalist/designer George Carmona 3rd became the final member of our triumvirate.
And that will be an annual thing, I’m assuming?
Yes. One book per year, released during the first quarter.
And you have a book about Prince coming out from Humanoids? Is MPLS SOUND a love letter to the paisley one?
Yes, the graphic novel “MPLS Sound” from Humanoids is dropping on the world on April 13th, and it’s a love letter to the Minneapolis Sound music movement, as well as a celebration of the tenacity of the artistic spirit. The capacity to fight with your art against the odds, in a world that tells you to sit down and stay in your lane. Prince is both a guest-star and a crucial catalyst within the story.
How did that project come together?
Fabrice Sapolsky of Fair Square Comics was a Senior Editor for Humanoids at the time. Fabrice and I are simpatico on our views of comics, and he’s the biggest authority on Prince I’ve ever met. He brought me on board in 2019 to co-develop and write the script based on the earlier work by author/journalist Hannibal Tabu. Senior Editor Rob Levin and Publisher Mark Waid got us to the finish line. Meredith Laxton’s art took the script to the next level, and Tan Shu’s coloring is beautifully stellar.
“MPLS Sound” is both a romance and a ballad, and we’re all very happy with it!
This is all way too serious. So I’m going to ask you a very nerdy question: If there was a Mt. Rushmore of Black creators, who would be on it?
Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Christopher Priest.
Speaking of Dwayne McDuffie, tell me about your role with the Dwayne McDuffie Award committee.
I’m a judge for the awards. It’s an honor and fulfilling experience, as well as a pleasure being part of a brain trust with other prominent friends and luminaries in the industry.
As of this writing, you haven’t yet announced a winner, but by the time this sees print it will have been announced. Can you tell us a bit more about the winner and why they stood out amongst the finalists?
The winner was “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott.
To be fair, the other top finalists were impressive, so it was a very tough call. Ultimately, “They Called Us Enemy” had the gravitas of being based on the compelling real story of George Takei’s childhood imprisonment in American concentration camps during the Second World War.
One last shout out. What are some of the hottest Black creators in the game right now? In your estimation.
There’s no single right answer to that question because we have so many fiery hot Black creators in the comic book industry now, but to name a few: Afua Richardson, Tim Fielder, Roye Okupe, Jerry Craft, Nikolas Draper-Ivey, and N.K. Jemisin
Thanks for your time, Joe.
You’re welcome, Troy! Any time!
Minneapolis, 1982. Dozens of young bands, playing day and night in bars and clubs across the city, dream of being noticed by the musical genius Prince, revered as a guru and a powerbroker. But when Theresa and her band, Starchild, are offered the opportunity of a lifetime-to be taken in and mentored by their idol-they soon find that there's a dark side to fame and fortune that could turn their dream into a nightmare.
MPLS Sound is the ultimate love letter to the legendary Minneapolis funk-rock sound of the 1980s.
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Troy-Jeffrey Allen is the producer and co-host of PREVIEWSworld Weekly. His comics work includes BAMN, Fight of the Century, the Harvey Award-nominated District Comics, and the Ringo Awards-nominated Magic Bullet.