Omnium Gatherum #55
By Vincent S. Moore
Day 2 at Wonder Con, part 2: 20 Years of Hip Hop in Comic Books Panel
I decided to continue my adventures in panel attending with a triple header on Saturday, Day 2 of Wonder Con.
First up was the Hip Hop and Comics Panel, which was to celebrate twenty years of the mixing of the two art forms. Of course this was the first I had heard of such a thing. Then again I have been told by my friends that I’m very ignorant of a number of cultural artifacts.
So I made my way to the panel room, only to find that what I thought was supposed to start at 11:30 am had somehow started some time before my arrival at 11:25. I’m still not sure what to think of this turn of events. In the back of my mind was my review of the Black Panel 2009. I worried about writing another cutting take on a bad mixture of black culture and the comics medium that I love. I worried as I sat down.
I shouldn’t have worried. This panel wasn’t anything like that one.
But I did have my doubts. And, as this column will point out, there were moments where hip hop and reality diverged.
As I moved towards my seat, the moderator Age Scott –- creator of Won and Phil and Super Hood — flagged me down to hand me a copy of his latest book Super Hood as well as one for the con staff member at the back of the room. Making my deliver, I found my seat. On the projector screen there played what I learned as pieces of a documentary by panelist Mike Hampton –- creator of Captain Asshole and Hot Zombie Chicks — on his adventures in hip hop and producing comics. The documentary featured footage from a previous Wonder Con, I couldn’t tell which one and I didn’t attempt to ask.
The documentary clips ended and Age Scott started the formal part of the panel.
I looked around the room to see what sort of crowd had shown up. It was a small but mixed crowd sat in the medium sized conference room. The panel attendees ranged from hip hop heads to punkers, from geeks to girls.
Age Scott said he wanted to do this panel to recognize the mix of hip hop and comics.
With that, Mr. Scott introduced the main participant at the panel Mike Hampton. Mr. Hampton, according to Age Scott, started with hip hop music and drifted into producing comics. Hampton spoke up to say that his current books aren’t as hip hop as they used to be, but he still uses the do-it-yourself flavor of hip hop in making his comics.
Keith Knight, creator and cartoonist of The K Chronicles and Knight Life, arrived late to the panel, as befit one of the aspects of hip hop and this panel.
This arrival allowed Age Scott to ask for a moment of silence for the passing of comics great Dick Giordano. However, with the relentless thrum of the hip hop music playing over the sound system, I found it hard to feel the moment completely.
After this, Age Scott gave a brief history of the term hip hop and how in the time since it was coined, the influence of the music and culture has spread around the world and back again, changing the face of popular culture forever. As he put it, who knew that hip hop would still be around 30 years later.
Mr. Scott continued, saying that hip hop is an attitude, particularly one of doing it oneself and working in what he called The Dungeon (not being familiar, I took this to mean one’s basement or any creative space one forges) where one creates the work before the money comes. He added that everyone potentially is hip hop if they are doing it for themselves.
With this, Scott turned to Mike Hampton to ask how does he keep going?
Mr. Hampton stated that he has a 9 to 5 job and keeps working until his comics can pay their own way and support him. He mentioned that he started out doing cartoons for Hood magazine, a hip hop version of Mad. Now his current work features zombies.
Age Scott interjected at this point by saying he and Hampton sell their books everywhere they can. Then he asked the question, can hip hop and its attitudes go hand in hand with comics creating?
Keith Knight tackled this question, saying that it is possible. He used his past with performing music in a band as an example. According to Knight, everything he learned about music could be applied to comics. He continued by saying what happened to the music industry 10 years ago with the rise of music sharing programs and the impact of the internet on music is what is happening to comics today. Knight mentioned a recent interview with a television station where he said it is easier now to get into comics. From there he pointed out that he’s been doing The K Chronicles for 18 years and he has learned and is learning from old timers and the youngbloods at the same time. Knight’s final point was that over time the major publishers have come along, interested in his work and he’s had to learn to balance between being a true independent and working with the majors.
Age Scott interjected again at this point to note that Knight hasn’t completely broken out into mainstream success and notoriety yet, the same for Mike Hampton, but such success is coming along and it depends on what one considers success. Then Mr. Scott gave big props to the spirit of hip hop innovation and opened up the floor to questions.
The first questioner asked if it was possible for hip hop comics to have the same impact as more serious hip hop songs have done.
Keith Knight pointed out “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was the first serious hip hop song, which is similar to the impact he has when he does a serious topic in his usually funny strip. He talked about the recent controversy one of his strips caused when he used a lynching joke as a way of pointing out the hypocrisy that occurs when some whites accuse blacks and other minorities of using the race card in some circumstances. Knight added that the great thing about the web is the immediate feedback he gets.
Age Scott interjected to offer big props to The Boondocks. Then he turned the topic of working out the ethics of hip hop and comics. He asked the panel what it takes to do their work.
Mr. Scott spoke for himself by saying his TV has to be gone.
Mr. Knight said he needs an editor to help keep him on track. He currently does a daily strip and 2 weekly strips. He added he would get fined if and when a daily is late, standard industry practice. Mainly, his approach involves breaking the task of producing strips down into manageable chunks. Knight figures that everyone can do a gag a day, which is what is needed to create a daily comic. He continued to say that the better any comics creator does it betters everyone’s situation. That’s why Knight goes to see even the crappy comics book movies so Hollywood won’t stop making films based on comics.
Mr. Hampton said having a day job can make one uninspired if one lets it. He finds working with other artists inspires him. So does going to comics conventions.
Age Scott interjected to say what these creators are doing is the new wave of comics. Then he attempted to open up for more questions. But he had to say that he is afraid to lose his spot in comics, his position, and that’s why he keeps going. To him, the panel itself was big in terms of receiving love from the people who run Wonder Con.
The next question was how does one bring hip hop comics to the masses, the mainstream?
Age Scott pointed out the influence of hip hop on culture as a whole is here already.
The questioner followed up by wondering when will there be more black culture and hip hop in mainstream comics, like Superman.
Age Scott interjected to say hip hop is not merely black culture, that it is urban culture and transcends race. He then mentioned his own book Super Hood. The basic premise of the title is what if one gains super powers but without all of the typical trappings and resources associated with superheroes. Scott mentioned both the X-Men and Kick-Ass, because even in Kick-Ass the kids have access to some resources. The characters in his book don’t and have to make do with what they have. Very hip hop influenced indeed.
Keith Knight said he is disappointed every time black characters show up in superhero comics, because the stereotypical characterizations show it is old white guys going their usual thing. What he would like to see from the Big Two is more black cartoonists doing anthologies like Strange Tales and Girl Comics; to bring the vision of the independent black creators to the heroes they grew up with. Then Knight returned to Scott’s earlier point about none of the panelists being where they want to be in comics, saying they may not be where they want to be but that simmering below the surface may be the best place to be. That it is better than being on top and then falling. Knight concluded by using They Might Be Giants as an example of what he meant. That the band has a huge following amongst adults and children alike even though they are not well known in the mainstream. That kind of solid and profitable success is where Knight would like to be.
The next question wondered what was the difference between being independent and working for a corporation.
Again, Keith Knight tackled this one by saying he currently balances between doing a syndicated daily and doing two alternative weekly strips. He is freer with the alternative strips but he likes the challenge of being clean and not blue in his daily. For example, he recently did a parody sequence of the infamous Danish Muslim cartoons featuring Kevin Smith that saw print the week of Wonder Con, the punchline being the person who would bring in the severed drawing hand of Knight would win entry into paradise and 72 virgins by earning a ticket to Comic-Con International. Knight tries to slip in hip hop references into his work, to produce laughs and knowing nods from the rap cognoscenti. He said he can work both ways, independent and corporate. For example, he recently signed a 2 book deal with a big publisher the proceeds of which has helped him to make a living in this economy but he still hustles. To Knight, it is important for independent cartoonists to think beyond the comics conventions, to find their niche and exploit it. Like going after arts grants. Knight has done so in the past and he wants to do a comic on financial literacy. The idea for him is to think outside the comics bin.
For Mike Hampton, there is a price to be paid for working with the major companies. That there is a curse for being on a major label. Being independent means no censorship.
Age Scott interjected saying there are no limits in being independent. Then he gave props to his colorist and tech guy Jesse who is a painter and has been working with Scott for 10 years on comics.
With that, a few more hip hop trivia questions were asked and answered, with free comics being handed out for correct answers.
Some final words were said and the panel ended early.