Earlier this week Marvel Comics gave readers a sneak peek into their next variant covers, stylized homages to a specific genre that have included movie nods in the past. This year’s focus is on hip-hop, notably classic album covers from the 1990s by A Tribe Called Quest, The Wu-Tang Clan and more. Given the long established relationship between hip-hop culture and comic books, it inspired quite a bit of coverage, especially coming on the heels of Sandiego Comic Con. While the initial response was generally of awe and excitement, there were definitely dissenting voices calling out the 76-year-old comic book company for practicing cultural appropriation. “Black Dynamite”/”The Boondocks” animator LeSean Thomas tweeted:
“Saw some Marvel Hip Hop album covers & thought “Dope!” Then remembered Marvels relationship w/our culture has always been 1-way. #Profits”
Others chimed in that the variants were nothing new and only highlighted Marvel’s perceived resistance to hiring people of color, despite repurposing their ideas.
But as is the case with most issues where race, culture and art converge, the reality is more complicated than a 140 character missive can capture. In an attempt to further the dialogue, WatchLOUD.com reached out to Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, Editor-In-Chief and co-owner of Darryl Makes Comics, LLC, the company creating and publishing the DMC graphic novel with the legendary Darryl McDaniels of RUN DMC. The native New Yorker and self-identified “B-Boy Geek” has been immersed in both hip-hop and comic culture for 20 years and brought an interesting perspective to the debate.
WatchLOUD.com: What was your background before getting involved in comics and what is your take on this hip-hop in comics debate?
Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez: I was an activist and I used to actually teach hip-hop at a high school here in Brooklyn. I used to bring artists by like Roc Raida (RIP) and Q-Tip who moderated a conversation on racial tolerance. The Rock Steady Crew taught b-boy classes. Tony Touch and PF Cuttin would DJ the high school parties and I’ve always been a comic book head. Riggs Morales and I worked on Marvelous Color in 2009 so I’ve always held this unique footing in the comic book geek world and the b-boy world. Riggs calls us B-Boy Geeks. It’s a conversation I’ve been having with (Marvel E-I-C) Axel Alonso for years. I met him back around 2000. We’re the generation in the 30s and 40s where our pop culture references were hip-hop. Even back then Axel told me Kool Keith was his favorite MC and when he said that I knew this guy was for real. He’s not naming stuff in the top 40. So I introduced him to people like Bobbito Garcia and when I did my first show, Marvel’s Santerians, my friend Walter T. Mudu was managing Pete Rock at the time and Pete came with a stack of comics, because he wanted to get Joe Quesada to autograph them.
Axel fanned out pulling out his iPhone to show him Mecca and the Soul Brother was on it, etc. It’s a different era. When I grew up reading Amazing Spider-man they were constantly referencing Elvis Costello and obscure bands that I was not familiar with. I know Elvis Costello by name but I could NOT recite one album title or lyric. And when I talked to Axel about it he said that is the era of music they grew up on. And when I worked with (Marvel legend) Sal Buscema, who did the cover for DMC #1, dude is like almost 80, he was like ‘yo I don’t know who RUN-DMC is, I grew up listening to Elvis Presley.’ It was a completely different cultural reference. Now you have these artists, writers and editors at Marvel in their 30’s and 40’s, I meet them at Comic Con and they get open when they meet me and DMC. They grew up listening to his music. One of those is Jason Aaron, who is doing the on-going series Star Wars. He’s a dope ass writer and this dude is some tall, bald, bearded…he looks like Action Bronson and he fanned out [meeting DMC]. So when you see these album covers being homaged, it’s coming full circle. How many of us grew up with hip-hop artists and crews emulating comic books? The whole concept of the tag comes from comic books. You became a character on stage. That all came from comics. Of course cats are gonna get upset and I see it…Some people might say “it’s cultural appropriation”—and it is. “It’s big business selling comic books.” Of course it is. We live in a capitalist country, of course people are gonna make stuff to sell. They’re not giving away comics, it’s a business. There are a lot of consumers that buy comics that look like me and you and it’s nice every now and then when they do stuff like this, but is it more than that? I’m a Wednesday dude. I buy comic books. Even though I make comics now I still buy them and variants are just a one-off and they become collectible. My favorite is the Spider-Man with Midnight Marauders. I love Spider-Man and ATCQ and that album specifically. I almost made it onto that album because Tip and I were talking about what the skits were going to be instead of the automated android voice for that. It’s just a tip of the hat and in the next couple of months there will be another variant…
That’s part of why some people are concerned. This feels very disposable and you don’t see this interest being reflected in the hiring and staffing at Marvel for the long term…
I’ve been on a couple of panels at conventions myself and this is the biggest year where racial and gender diversity in comics is the hot trending topic. A woman named @MizCaramelVixen started the #BlackComicsMonth and it went viral and special edition NYC picked it up as a panel. She tweeted to Brian Michael Bendis and asked him to be on the panel and he responded. He’s one of the most prolific writers in Marvel Comics right now but he’s also the father of a young Black kid. A lot of people don’t know that. They just see bald white guy. He’s a parent and a father. That’s why he created a Miles Morales. He didn’t do it to appease the masses. He did it to appease his son. I’m working with DMC on the second graphic novel and we’re creating a new character and I did it for my son. I’m a 45-year-old Puerto Rican living in NYC with a mildly autistic son who loves comic books and I’m appealing to my son. And by appealing to him I appeal to a larger demographic. Last spring DC comics did a whole variant of movie posters. They’re owned by Warner Brothers so you had Superman reinterpreted as “Superfly” and Dick Grayson as “Enter The Dragon.” Nobody got bent out of shape. Hip-hop is our culture but right now it’s pop music. It’s a genre of american pop culture.
Bill Sienkiewicz is an amazing freaking artist, when I first met him at ComicCon I was on some cool shit and checked out his vibe and I said “I’m looking at possibly working with you” and Bill fanned out on me. He showed me the covers he did with EPMD and Bobby Digital and he said he’s had respect for hip-hop—an old white dude, not a man of color—but he’s been in and out of hip-hop since the ‘80s. He did EPMD’s second album cover and he recently did one for T.I. He’s an artist that has his hands in both worlds, hip-hop and comic books. But nobody gets bent out of shape about that. At the end of the day it’s Marvel doing what they do best, which is sell comic books.
If you’ve seen our graphic novel we did the same thing ourselves. The back of our graphic novel has a pinup section where we reinterpreted DMC as The Hulk and Daredevil, etc. I do see both sides of it, but it’s a business. This appeals to two demographics, people in their 40s who grew up on this music and this new generation of kids who like ’90s hip-hop. Look at Dope. ’90s hip-hop has become what classic rock has become when I was growing up. It’s 2015 and kids are listening to stuff from the 90s. That’s 20 years ago. These HS kids weren’t born.
I’m an activist and last night I was at the opening of the Young Lords exhibition at the Bronx Museum and that blew me away. Most of my mentors are Young Lords and I know how to compartmentalize what activism and social work is and what comic books and business is. As much as people love hip-hop as a culture, when Marvel did these covers they weren’t re-doing a graffiti mural by Lee (Quinones). They’re not interpreting Crazy Legs as a b-boy, they are doing albums that went gold and platinum and made people rich. The real question is what do Q-Tip and 50 Cent think of them…
Or the artists who created the original album covers…
I’m personal friends with Danny Hastings and he art directed the Wu-Tang’s Enter The 36 Chambers cover on the fly. He was supposed to do this photo shoot with the whole Wu-Tang and they didn’t all show up. So he came up with the idea of putting white panty hose over their faces. He sent his production assistant to the bodega, they bought a whole bunch of panty hose, put them on Clan members faces and even on some of Danny’s production assistants. This was on some last minute because he had to shoot it in one day for Loud Records. And it became one of the best covers of all time. The fact that they are giving it an homage I think that’s dope. Art is constantly inspired by other art. The amount of times the RUN DMC logo has been reinterpreted, my goodness. From T-Shirts now to Mos Def back then. That’s my opinion. I know when to strike up a conversation around protest and when it’s business. Right now I’m more concerned about the $73 Billion deficit that Puerto Rico is in than Marvel variants. In fact, I thought it would’ve been nice if they did a RUN DMC cover. Where’s Raising Hell? [Laughs]
To that lack of diversity point in the comic book world, are there steps being taken by Marvel and DC to address that, in your opinion?
Marvel and DC are very white male dominant even though the Chief Creative Officer at Marvel is Latino they are still dealing with the status quo, which is white male dominant. Every so often they spark some opportunity to make some diverse stuff. One of their most successful titles last year was Ms Marvel, Kamala Khan. My wife loved that and she isn’t even into superhero comics. She likes reading “Saga”, which is an amazing book put out by image with two protagonists of color written by Brian K Vaughn and Fiona Staples. But people like the established heroes. I think Kwame said it best back when we did a panel at ComicCon, there seems to be a dipped in chocolate approach to creating characters. What people don’t realize is that Marvel makes billions of dollars at the box office, not selling comics. Movies don’t sell comics, comics sell comics. Most books sell in the 10s of thousands of units. What Marvel and DC are trying to do is introduce creators of color like David Walker, who is doing the Cyborg on-going series, or the sister who is editing Ms. Marvel, Sana Amanat, who is a woman color. They have to appeal to growing demographics and numbers are showing women are buying more comics, we need to create more women-centric characters. That’s why in the last 15 years how many #1s of Spiderman have come out trying to reboot it and get new readers? They’re trying to sell comics to new people. They want to expand the reader base. Are they trying? Yeah. Can they do more? I don’t know, I’m not in those meetings. I know what I’m doing. We started our publishing company and we’re very small. I have my background as an activist but I didn’t say ‘We need a Black superhero’ I said let’s create a comic book. But now that we have the comic I have been active in where our [new] characters are coming from. I grew up in a very multicultural and diverse NYC so that reflects the universe we created for DMC comic books. And we’re only a few years old. Marvel is 75 years old. Marvel and DC canon predates the Civil Rights era, both having been founded in the 1930s respectively. The Voting Rights act passed in 1965 then one year later Stan Lee introduced the Black Panther, that was revolutionary. But the next black hero wouldn’t come out until 1972 with Luke Cage, then Storm in 1975.
So in 2015 social media has people articulating their voices more. More people are blogging about diversity and tweeting about it because there is a forum for it. There is an open dialogue and this is the best kind of market research companies can get. A Facebook post is one of the best focus groups you can get and you don’t have to spend any money on that. So they see there is some buzz on something and think lets make some books for that audience. It’s healthy that they acknowledge it but could there be more? Hell yeah! But don’t expect that only from them, it should come from our own small, indie publishers. And you and I both know that most of these independent publishers run by people of color don’t get supported by our own. I’m wearing a marvel T-shirt right now! You don’t see people wearing Brotherman T-shirts. “Black Dynamite” was dope but it did’t do well in the ratings, so it got dropped.
You can Tweet Edgardo at @MrEdgardoNYC