Thursday, September 1, 2016

To Tell The TROOF, Part 1: On a Mission

PEOPLE OFTEN WANT to know when I realized I wanted to draw as my vocation. That came very early on, when I was about five years old. My father had introduced me to comic books, and he was a talented artist himself. He did all kinds of things, but none of them fully professionally. He could draw, he could sculpt, he was good at woodworking, and he was adept at photography. (The latter is the reason why our family albums are so full.) He also introduced me to my first comic books. That may have been just to keep me occupied, or he may have wanted to share something he loved with his son; regardless, comics fascinated me from the outset and that never went away.

Knowing that my father could draw so well, I would pick out my favorite pictures from within the various comics he’d buy – the comics ranged across genres too, and included everything from superheroes to cowboys to Archie comics to monsters to Richie Rich – and ask him to redraw them for me. He would, and to my eyes they looked just like the ones in the books. I’d toddle off for a while, satisfied with his latest handiwork, then I’d find another one and come back and ask him to do it again. This went on for a good while, and one day he turned things around on me and told me to try drawing the chosen picture myself. This had never occurred to me as an option, and to this day I don’t know if my father had grown weary of the incessant requests or not. Regardless, I was so happy with my end result that, while I would occasionally seek his approval of my own handiwork, I never asked him to do another drawing for me.

I also knew, with the absolute certainty of a five-year old, this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to make comic-books. I didn’t know anything beyond that about the actual work involved, where you went, how you trained, what you earned, etc., but I knew I’d be making comic books one day. In a sense, even though I didn’t know it at the time, I had already started making comic books.

This would be a very long journey, and the destination was uncharted, but my compass was pointing true north.

*     *     *     *     *

I'VE TOUCHED UPON my upbringing in previous posts here and elsewhere, and the one word that most succinctly describes what my family experienced through the years is instability. A deep dive into the various components of that descriptor is still forthcoming. The people close to me already know all too well why I choose that word to describe our family’s history. For now, let’s just say it’s apt - instability - and for years and years it framed my world as completely as a comic-book panel. That said, comic books themselves forged one of the more lasting emotional and intellectual strongholds that I could have ever hoped to take shelter in. It might be a stretch to say that the characters populating my comic books saved my life, but it’s an absolute certainty that Superman and all of his descendants saved my sanity.

So, what does one do when they are young and impressionable and they’ve formed an attachment to who or that which rescues them day after day? In my case, I ended up absorbing the lexicon of comic books and set upon a quest to become one of the people behind the scenes making them one day. There was no one around to guide me back then, so I just had to figure it out on my own. Fortunately, a lot of the initial answers to those early questions could be found in the comic books themselves.

If you looked at the credits on nearly every story published there was a list of creators, so you could see who did what. There was always a writer, there was a penciller, there was an inker/embellisher, there was a letterer, there was a colorist, and there was an editor. There were editorial columns and features, like the Bullpen Bulletins and Stan's Soapbox at MARVEL Comics, and The Daily Planet and Ask the Answer Man at DC Comics. Names became familiar over time, and you'd see them crossing over titles, and sometimes even across companies. Reading the letters pages and the responses to readers' questions (and we obsessives read every square millimeter of our comics), you'd discover even more about who did what and why. Personalities emerged, roles were defined, and interpersonal backstories were discovered. If one read enough comics, you would learn who masterminded the creation of these characters and, if you were dedicated enough, eventually you'd see the path toward embarking on a career of your own.

Art: John Romita, Sr.
When I was around 8 or 9, I came across Stan Lee's Origins of Marvel Comics and Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, and both of those books were full of hyperbole-filled prose about the creative genesis of their most popular characters straight from The Man himself. Later, while I was in my early teens, DC's main editorial column became Meanwhile... which was primarily written by their executive editor Dick Giordano. I found this to be especially intriguing, as he tended to offer very specific information on how to enter into the profession of making comics, and he'd even have guest-columnists from time to time who would give further insight into the business. Giordano wrote an entry wherein he described his typical workday, starting with getting up before sunrise to ink a page of comics before catching the train in to New York City to work at the DC offices. There was a specific routine to his days, and it became apparent that the key to a career in comics for most creators was discipline.

Discipline is hard to forge in an environment of instability, but I had enough inertia to propel me through the shifting landscapes of multiple homes, schools, and parental custodians, all the while keeping that end goal in sight. At every age and stage, wherever I was, and whoever I was surrounded by, my identity was apparent to all: I was an artist who drew really well, and I was going to grow up and make comic books.

Which reminds me of a story. I know that I was telling you a story already, but let me tell you this one now before I forget. It's apropos, and it centers on one of the few overtly discouraging figures who momentarily stood on my creative path.

My mother, sisters, and I had to go in to a family court hearing once, and it was an especially serious affair. I was twelve or thirteen at the time, and we'd been to many others by this point; some were just to check on our status, while others could make an impact on our home life for years to come. You could feel in the air how this one was important. The status of our custody again hung in the balance and, one by one, the judge had us kids brought into his chamber to get a sense of our individual perspectives on what was going on. Knowing that something like this was probably coming, I had brought along some of my artwork for him to see. I wanted him to know that I was an artist and that I had a plan.

He looked at my drawings from across his desk as I explained that I was going to make comic-books for a living, and that I understood the path to being a professional. I might have even started submitting artwork to the publishers already -- that's entirely possible. I suppose I expected him to be impressed with my precociousness and maturity, as adults often were. Instead, a quizzical look crossed the judge's face, and his brow furrowed. He handed me my drawings back and asked me a question:

"You have so many options...This is what you want to do with your talent?"

And I knew immediately that I didn't have an ally in the room. Sure enough, our unstable landscape shifted before we went home. The judge's verdict on my chosen career was disheartening, but it was also a wake-up call as to how comics were perceived in the outside world. Even throughout the tumult, my world had been so insular I'd never really conceived that comics could be regarded as a lesser thing one should not aspire to create. Likewise, it was unfathomable that the landscape of comics was just as malleable and shifting. I had no idea what would lay waiting for me on the other side once I eventually arrived. Still, I remained undeterred and the heroes kept me focused, and they kept me disciplined and I never stopped drawing. Honestly, there were very few times while growing up that I ever doubted I'd one day be making comics as my career.  But there were pinpricks of awareness of that outside perception of comics, and how my relationship to them might change.

*     *     *     *     *

WITH HINDSIGHT COMES the awareness of how those early experiences all fit neatly into my current relationship with this medium. Some moments challenged what I'd previously thought, some made me realize I possessed a very narrow understanding of the elements involved. Some lessons took me years to learn, and there was a lot I had to unlearn too. There's a lot to be said for having the full-on-trusting blind faith of a child to motivate you into action (and in my case, Action Comics!), but ultimately it's better to have your eyes opened by the lightning of illumination.

Art: George Perez
One day in early 1982, I had some copies of various recently purchased comics strewn across my aunt's dining room table. It was a mish-mash of things, as usual, and there were issues of House of Mystery and the newly launched G.I.Joe, among others. One of my older cousins sat and asked me to hand him an issue. "That one," he said, "the one with the brother on the cover."

It was Tales of The New Teen Titans, Number 1, featuring the (at that time) brand new superhero Cyborg. Now, my cousin's request wasn't unusual at all, but in that moment something dawned on me. You see, it had never even occurred to me that most superheroes were White. Not exclusively, but predominantly, for sure. I had always just figured they could be whatever you wanted them to be, whatever race or gender or species. That's how I approached creating them too. Superman was the first character I'd ever really been exposed to and I loved him passionately. I'd also owned some of the first issues of Black Lightning by then which reinforced the idea that superheroes could be anything. But in this moment *POP!* it was understood how, in the bigger scheme, it did matter. All Black superheroes didn't have to be defined by the word "Black" or associated words (Black Panther, Black Goliath, Black Racer, Black Talon, Bronze Tiger, Brother Voodoo, Power-Man) as their go-to descriptors. They could all the other characters, and it mattered to potential readers.

I should point out that all of those characters, including Cyborg, had been created by White creators, which accounted for the prism through which they refracted the superhero paradigm. Nobody I knew in our community who was into comics disavowed any of these characters either. But when you become aware of the fundamental nature of what you love, it can shift your perspective on maybe how some things need redefining. We're only just now really starting to see what it looks like when mainstream Black characters are handled by Black creators. It's been a journey for our superheroes too, and they're still marching.

Years later, I was on a bus, headed home from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. I was 18 and the youngest person in my class, with an identity that was set in stone. Everyone who knew me knew that Marcel was going to make comic books. I took this art thing super-seriously too, and my perfect attendance record reflected that. This was just destiny. It was going to happen.

Another passenger got on, an older Black man, and upon seeing my large portfolio he asked me about what I did and what my plans were. I told him what everyone knew, very matter-of-factly, and may have shown him some samples. The look he gave me was a total inversion how that judge several years before had looked at me. "You sound like you're on a mission!" he said. In retrospect, he was right. There were a lot of options in front of me, but this is what I wanted to do with my talent. And realizing how impressed this gentleman was...*POP!*...made me realize in turn how this could have an effect on people, specifically, seeing ME making comic books.

One of my instructors at A.I.P. put me in touch with another student who was already a seasoned comic book creating professional. This person had returned to school to get additional training at that time, and even hired other students to occasionally do coloring on his books for him so they'd get experience. An introduction followed and I was invited to his studio where I spent several hours on a hot Sunday afternoon seeing, for the first time with my own eyes, how comics were physically made. I've often said that I learned more that day, and got farther along the path towards making comics in those few hours, than I did in the entirety of my years at A.I.P. and beyond. That's no exaggeration.

Art: Keith Pollard
This artist was White, as was pretty much every comics creator whose work I'd been exposed to at that time...or so I thought. I mention that only in relation to something I learned that day. As he showed me how to wield an ink brush and introduced me to the works of Moebius and answered my questions about lettering, he casually mentioned that he'd once gone to visit an established artist when he was younger, just as I was doing. "Keith Pollard," he said. "He's Black too, you know."

No, I hadn't known, and *POP!* there was that feeling again, that sudden realization of, Oh, I know nothing really. I'd been very aware of Pollard's art. He was very prolific and had drawn for DC and Marvel for years. He'd drawn issues of Spider-Man, and Thor, and Indiana Jones, and Vigilante. That last one I had his complete run of and I loved his work. It was funny then to learn he was Black and I'd never even considered this. That was one of the attractions to working in comics for me while growing up: It didn't matter what you looked like behind the scenes, or what your background was. Anyone could make comics, right?

No, not really. That was as much an exuberant fiction as the characters themselves, and would be discovered later. But this was still noteworthy information. It meant there had been people like me working in comics, and that provided a tangible end goal. Pollard had even been successful enough to prompt this working artist to seek his input when he was still learning, and now there was an indirect link from him to me. Making comics wasn't just an aspiration anymore -- it was absolutely a mission.

But the journey wasn't over by any means, and the mission still needed a purpose.

***To Be Continued!***

You're invited to come experience TO TELL THE TROOF, the first solo gallery exhibition for Pittsburgh visual artist/writer Marcel Lamont (M.L.) Walker. Appearing at Most Wanted Fine Art Gallery in Garfield through the months of August and September 2016, this retrospective of the last few years of his work includes original art produced for The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, The Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Row House Cinema, and the independently-produced comic book HERO CORP., INTERNATIONAL. This installation is in the lower gallery at MWFA, and was made possible by an Artists Opportunity Grant from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

In September, the upper gallery features resident artist-illustrator Genevieve E. T. Barbee-Turner, who works under the banner of The A.P. Collection. Her artwork reflects the diverse communities within Pittsburgh and the blend of old places and new ideas in the city.

Attend the Unblurred Gallery Crawl on Friday, September 2nd and visit all of the galleries along Penn Avenue, including MWFA, for free! There will be other TROOF events throughout September, including a closing reception on Saturday the 24th, and you are welcome to contact MWFA to schedule a private viewing of the installation.

See you there!

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