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A View From The Cheap Seats:
Posro Komics and the Black Comics Experience By Rich Watson
Over the past quarter century or so, there has been a slow but steady increase of African-American comics creators, doing work that transcends race and genre, and getting recognized for it. From Milestone Comics’ Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan to King’s Ho Che Anderson to The Boondocks’ Aaron McGruder and Mama’s Boyz’ Jerry Craft and many more, these creators have brought new voices and new experiences to the mix and helped paint a more accurate portrayal of the medium as a whole. New Jersey’s Posro Komics has played a key part of this revitalization, not only contributing entertaining and enlightening material, but heightening the awareness of black creators in the media spotlight.
Posro (a diminutive for “positive Negro”) is the brainchild of Ivy Leaguer Roland Laird, a software engineer from Brown University and a comics fan from childhood, with a passion for writing. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he attended the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where among his teachers included future Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt, of Angela’s Ashes fame. Looking back, Laird recalls McCourt as a mercurial yet helpful teacher, a bit of a class warrior, whose true ambition was to forge a writing career. “He would read some of his short stories to us in class,” says Laird. “He was interesting because, being from Ireland, he had a different take on just about everything. He thought we were all pampered kids, didn’t know anything about the world, or what have you. So he would counsel us from that perspective. He was very encouraging to me because I remember I wrote one story about our high school football team. In my junior year, we were winless, so I wrote a story called ‘Losing Builds Character.’ And based on that, he kept me after class and said, ‘You should really think about becoming a writer.’”
Laird continued to write, struggling to find a distinct voice even as he became exposed to new concepts about literature and race. “When I was in college, I did a lot of writing, and I read this book… [where] one of the things they always talked about was how black literature never achieved the same level of majesty, for lack of a better word, as music. And my thought was, well, maybe it’s because there’s not enough of a collaborative effort in writing as there is in music. I don’t think it’s true in terms of the content, but in terms of the identification. Black writing maybe doesn’t have – this is gonna be controversial – is not as easily identifiable as the subject matter. So maybe somebody like Frank Yerby, who was a black author for years, but he never wrote about black themes. You never knew he was a black man writing unless you saw him. And there was nothing in his prose that identified it – there were no indicators he was a black man. But that’s not a bad thing. I was trying to toy with what would the aesthetic be – how would I write in a way that’s ‘black’ without using the stereotypical language.” Comics in particular presented the challenge he looked for. “The whole notion of collaboration is what appealed to me about comic books more than just straight prose writing, ‘cause I write a lot of straight prose all the time.”
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In 1989 he and partner Willie Brown began Posro as a T-shirt company with an eye towards raising enough money to do comics. A year later they would be joined by Baruch College student Taneshia Nash. She came from a media background, having already co-produced and hosted a cable television rap music program. She handled the marketing end of things with Posro and played a major role in fashioning the group’s public identity. “The way that Roland approached building the company was that it was about giving people their first opportunity,” she says. “[For] everybody, it was their first professional job. I was in college at the time, so it was my first professional job, doing what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. A good number of the artists were from [what] I guess you would call inner-city – Brooklyn, East Orange… That’s really kinda what separated us… we were much more business-like. Did that make us wildly successful? Maybe not, but at least we approached it from a business perspective.”
The Posro braintrust began developing ideas for comics. They wanted a book with a hip-hop theme, as well as a newspaper strip idea, and scoured New Jersey colleges advertising for artists. In April 1991 they hired Elihu Bey, a student who found out about Posro after his cartooning teacher informed another student about their job offer. He beat his classmate to the punch and called Laird, selling him on his talent and ambition. Together, they came up with a character called MC Squared, a Harlem barber who moonlights as a computer hacker, and the Griots, a black family that owns a newspaper. MC Squared: A Man With a Serious Game Plan debuted in June and Posro’s star slowly ascended. They became known for not only their writing, but their creators as well. In October, the Washington Post did an article highlighting the movement in black-themed comics, including Dawud Anyabwile’s Brotherman, which had made a big splash. Posro was included in this article, which afforded Laird the opportunity to size up their work against that of their peers. The hip-hop magazine The Source would also include them in a round-up article, which led to appearances on MTV and the Sunday Today show. “How did we get notoriety? We weren’t a typical superhero comic book,” says Nash in describing their time in the spotlight. “We were more of a slice-of-life book.”
Soon they turned their focus from the national spotlight to the local one. “We had started out with the big Washington Post article,” says Nash, “but then the main reason I wanted to create The Griots was because we wanted to get some publicity. We said, ‘We did a couple of these national things, [but] we really need to look at our backyard!’ I looked at the landscape of where Roland was living at the time [Edison, NJ]. There were, like, four newspapers that serviced that area. And so we tried doing local press. We got articles in every single local newspaper. We spent the weekend putting together press kits – putting comic books in, putting press releases in, our bios, the publicity pictures – and sent them out… I learned really quickly that it wasn’t about who was the best. It was about who got the best publicity, in terms of promoting what we were doing.”
Posro self-syndicated The Griots, placing special attention to the 300 weekly black newspapers nationwide as well as the major syndicates. “We tried to find out what the economics that were involved in terms of syndicating [were],” says Nash. “So we found out that most newspapers, whether they’re black or not, literally just paid like $35 a week per strip per paper… Even with King Syndicate, for $35 you can get a couple of strips. We did research at the time. That’s why a lot of comic strip people, depending on the number of papers that you’re in, you might only make $15,000 a year. So we priced ourselves higher than that – a whole $750 per week! We were only offering one strip a week.” In February 1993, the strip debuted as part of a six-strip package that Posro offered to the papers. Approximately 40-50 papers accepted. “At one point when it was high, it was multi-millions of readers across the country,” says Nash, “but then when we pared it down to the people who were actually paying their bills on time, on a regular basis, it was about twenty papers. And it was over a million in readership, definitely… We were in a number of papers, and at one point, because we were promoting to all of these papers across the country, we actually remembered the people who rejected us as much as the people who purchased us!”
The Posro studio was professionally run, but loose and full of camaraderie at the same time. “Obviously, [the artists] had to be a little better than adequate,” says Laird. “And their attitude was just as important to me. I wanted people that were willing to work hard. They were gonna get paid, but not making the money you’d make pencilling for DC. Also versatility. If you were a penciller, you couldn’t do just pencils. You had to be willing to ink your stuff, letter your stuff.” Weekend marathon inking sessions were not unusual. Laird describes one involving a young artist named Malcolm who camped out at Laird’s Edison place from his home in Brooklyn, as a means to finish in relative quiet. “He came out, and then a couple of artists [who] lived in Jersey, I had them come down. I had a refrigerator full of food, got pizza, got this, got that, said ‘Guys, this is all yours, I gotta run out,’ so I was gone for a couple of hours. I come back and these guys are just cutting up. My place looks like a college dorm, but it was a lot of fun.”
“We really tried to make it not just about Roland; it was about the group of us,” says Nash. “So we took group photos, and that was also sort of different in a way that the other independents, black or white, were exposing themselves… We really wanted to promote ourselves as an organization. In terms of our exposure, we were featured on MTV, on the Today Show, in a number of different places, but we always made sure that it was all of us.”
During this time Laird and Nash fell in love, and in November 1993 they got married. But only four months later, tragedy struck when a gas pipe explosion destroyed their home. “We lost all of the books that had come in,” says Nash, “I lost all my business contacts, we lost all these meticulous records that the interns and myself put together on the business side, as well as all the creator stuff that Roland and the rest of the artists were doing. It was a major setback emotionally as well; we had just got married and all that.”
“When that happened, the last thing on my mind was publishing,” says Laird. “It was more like, ‘How do we get back on out feet?’ For me, if I were to add it up creatively, it was probably a two-year hiatus from me aggressively pursuing anything… Had our roots been a little deeper, because we were still a fledgling, it wouldn’t have been as a major a setback. People would have continued to call us.”
Laird and Nash retrenched and worked at rebuilding Posro, until a major new opportunity arose. They received a pitch for a graphic novel by Heidi von Schreiner, an agent who worked at a book packaging company at the time. Her idea was for a comprehensive illustrated history of African-Americans. Laird and Nash liked it, and in April 1995 they submitted a book proposal which made the rounds to about ten different publishers, seven of which participated in an auction for the rights to publish it. They went with W.W. Norton, even though theirs was the second-highest bid, because they offered to do a hardcover version. Laird aspired to have the New York Times review it, and at the time, the newspaper did not review paperbacks. In November, writing began on what would be called Still I Rise: A Cartoon History of African-Americans. An intense amount of research was undertaken in which they recruited historians to fact-check the narrative.
Laird and Nash recruited their friend and protégé Elihu Bey to illustrate. “Because Norton never did a comic before, they spent a lot of time on the manuscript first,” says Nash, “and there was no real way to get the work to Eli to start on until the very last minute… He did that whole book in four months – pencilling, inking and lettering… Plus, we had two readers we had to try to satisfy in terms of the comments that came in from the scholars, and it really came to the point where we had to put our foot down and say yo, he’s gotta start doing the art! I mean, can you at least close out the beginning of the thing so he can start on the art? It was written like a comic book script, and that was also something they didn’t get.”
Laird and Nash were determined to bring a new perspective to the history of blacks in America and not simply retread old ground. “The beginning portion, when we’re still dealing with slavery times,” says Laird, “is probably one of the few depictions where we talk about the black and white indentured servants and how there was some level of camaraderie at some point, prior to Bacon’s Rebellion [in 1676]. I won’t say it’s unique, because obviously I read this somewhere, but to actually bring that to light, I don’t think that had ever been brought to light that fully. And that was all documented, it wasn’t me taking artistic license. So us putting that there – [if there’s] anybody that’s for, I guess it’s for progressive white persons who’ll look at it and say wow, this is really interesting. We were basically taught [that] we were brought here in 1619 as slaves, and slavery began in 1619, [but] there’s reason to believe that that’s not exactly how it went down. They came over as indentured servants also.” These “workshop slaves” were hired out based on their skills, and earned enough money to eventually buy their freedom. “Nobody really talks about it that much, and I really wish I could’ve elaborated on that more because that was something that was sort of near and dear to my heart, being able to – I can’t say discovered that – but actually give it a title.”
Norton’s editorial staff loved Still I Rise, but according to Laird and Nash, the sales department had problems marketing it. According to Nash, Norton’s public relations director quit and was replaced by an assistant’s assistant who was inexperienced and didn’t drum up book reviews effectively. Plus, she alleges that Norton had them put a photograph of the three creators on the back because a retailer didn’t believe black people created it. When the book debuted in November 1997, it received very positive reviews, including an A-minus from Entertainment Weekly. Laird, Nash and Bey did successful signings, including one at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble that set a sales record for that location at the time. However, Norton released both the hardcover and paperback simultaneously, a highly unusual move for a major publisher, since the latter traditionally follows the former after a certain time period.
“Clearly, somebody lost their nerve,” says Laird. “Because we went from being the hot thing – ‘We’re gonna promote the hell out of you, we’re gonna sell books out’ – to, ‘Okay, we’re gonna release the paperback and the hardcover at the same time…’ It was like [they said], ‘Get it off my hands.’”
“All the stuff that we got for Still I Rise, we got on our own,” says Nash. “And we got it on the low because they didn’t want us doing anything. I mean, an A-minus in Entertainment Weekly? ‘They don’t give out reviews,’ is what I’m told, and they did nothing to capitalize on that. We were on the Today Show when we were doing our independent comic. How come we weren’t on the Today Show with Still I Rise? Especially when you consider that we had two major scholars do our scholarly review – we had Charles Johnson, who’s a National Book Award winner, do our foreword – so many angles they could’ve used to pitch it, that me, as a neophyte publicist, years before, was able to grow. They just did not bring the same level as that.” Last year the book was taken out of print. (E-mails to W.W. Norton’s publicity department went unanswered.)
Still, the impact Still I Rise has had has been immense. Although the New York Times never did review it, it was a Book of the Month selection. The University of Colorado has integrated it in their undergraduate curriculum. An Amazon.com reviewer from the Virgin Islands has used it to teach at-risk kids about black history. And young people have taken to it. “One of my friend’s wife is a teacher,” says Nash, “and she went to substitute teach one day, and she said, ‘I had the kids at quiet time, and one of the kids pulled out the book to read,’ and I was like, ‘You’re joking, Shanna,’ and she’s like no! So we’re finding all these people who are finding the book on their own, on the shelf. Some of them, we might get e-mails from; one or two of them we saw posted on Amazon, like, little reviews, and I’m like, if they had just put it out there!”
While Laird doesn’t follow current industry trends as closely anymore, he has always had strong convictions about how black characters have fared within it, particularly within superhero comics. “The world that the superhero is in dictates how they act, talk, sound. And that sounds kind of vague, but once you do an image of somebody that’s black or white or whatever, there’s gonna be other assumptions that are brought to it… All these comics came out in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, what have you, [and] they weren’t really indicative of the times. They were popular, but there was definitely a whiteout. So I do think it’s reasonable to say, why can’t the chief of police be Asian-American or African-American? It doesn’t have to be an inundation… just different things to open up people’s thoughts on everybody’s humanity; the argument being that if you don’t have black or Asian or Mexican or gay characters, you’re gonna have this WASPy feel that might be relevant because it’s popular, but it’s really not coming in tune with the times.
“That’s the one thing I like about storytelling – how, ultimately, if it resonates with the reader, it’s gonna do well, and if it doesn’t, probably not. To me, Luke Cage was really never that good a character. It was that outfit he had back then; it was a little absurd. He had the yellow shirt, the boots and the bandana; he didn’t really look right. If he really were to be a product of his times, he would’ve been dressed more like Huey Newton; a little more militant looking. And I know he was supposed to be a criminal that was given a serum or whatever and it made him strong, but even then I think Luke Cage is one of those characters that no matter what they do, they’re gonna miss the mark… Luke Cage never felt right to me and will probably never feel right to me.”
Nash came much later into comics, but from her experience with Posro, as well as her media and marketing background, she has formulated her own opinions about how the industry is run today. “Marvel and DC are corporate comic books. So there’s a profit motive behind whatever they’re doing. If they’re saying they’re gonna introduce more gay characters, they must’ve found out that a lotta gay people read some of these books. The whole idea, though, is that if they’re gonna introduce gays, it’s to make another effort to make sure that if you are gonna introduce them, that you try to be sensitive to whatever it is you’re introducing…
“I don’t even think white people think of black people on a regular basis. I don’t think we’re any part of their world, and that’s a problem. That’s something that I really think they need to approach. But I could be – and we’ve all been in this situation – where you’re the only black person in the room, and they still don’t even recognize you as being that black person, and can have all these conversations, but you’re not really ‘black.’ Y’know, ‘We don’t really look at you as a black person.’ Well, why not? And that’s supposed to be a compliment, that they don’t look at you as a black person!”
When Marvel President Bill Jemas recently spoke at the Princeton Library, Laird and Nash had a chance to talk with him about Marvel’s new creative direction, including the Ultimate line and the controversial mini-series Truth: Red, White and Black, both meant to make the Marvel superheroes more relevant for today’s audiences. “It takes a lot to build a character,” says Nash, “and rather than taking the time and investment that it takes to build a new character, what they want to do is spin-off these existing characters as a way to introduce people [to comics]. And that is where I think people are having an issue: you’re gonna take something that has, for years, been an all-ages character, and now make him, in Marvel’s mind, more relevant to today, rather than taking the time to develop and market and get behind something new. That’s really, I think, the problem.”
Truth is built on the premise that the super-soldier serum that created Captain America during World War II was originally tested on black soldiers, a situation similar to the infamous Tuskeegee syphilis experiments of the 1930’s. Laird read the first chapter but was underwhelmed with it. “They might have thought that ‘Wow, Truth is just great, it’s controversial, it shows we have a conscience,’ but… I didn’t see how it related to Tuskeegee in any way. It was just an odd story; it was a little too slow-developing. And I don’t mind things that are slow-developing, but if your hook is this thing, [then] let’s get there quick enough. And if you’re gonna do that, then your characters should at least be interesting. There was nothing about that book that was interesting other than the press I had read on it.”
Today, Posro Komics is now Posro Media LLC, and Laird and Nash have branched out into multimedia projects, including an online marketing program for a Harlem co-op building, developing a website for a documentary about poet Langston Hughes, and taking part in a state-sponsored Black History Month initiative – all within the past year. Their current mission is to take story ideas and develop them in “content bundles” appropriate for books, film, television, and more. From humble beginnings rooted in a love of comics and an appreciation for the medium’s possibilities, they’ve carved out a niche for themselves and expanded outwards in many directions, never losing sight of the craft behind the form.
“The skill of the individual artist is gonna make the work better,” says Laird. “Experience is there, but it’s really about your imagination, what you can visualize and what you can make other people see.”
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Unrelated post-script: By now you've probably heard that Fantagraphics is in dire financial straits. I hope you take a moment to head over to their website and, if you're able, to help them out by buying some of their books. This is a vitally important publisher, one that makes high quality books in a wide array of genres - the kind we need more of.