Comic books have struggled with diversity since Famous Funnies was released in the United States in 1933. However, the past few years have finally seen some cracks in the proverbial glass ceiling as black culture has permeated into the mainstream of the comic book universe. From Marvel’s reimagining of classic rap album covers as comic book covers to the success of Black Lightning, Luke Cage and what is expected to be a massive bow at the box office for Black Panther, minorities in comic books are no longer a rarity in 2018.
It’s astounding to consider that it took this long for comic book publishers to recognize the appeal of black characters who are more than just sidekicks and henchmen. But with the buzz for Black Panther and seeing just how much a black character resonated with an audience, the door has been thrust wide open for more black characters who look, talk and act like us to be featured in this medium.
“Representation matters. The lack of representation also matters,” comic book writer Bryan Edward Hill explains to The Root. “Stories ultimately tie back to mythology, and it’s the way we rationalize good and evil. When you’re not represented in stories, especially when you’re not a protagonist or a hero, and you’re confronted with that over and over again, subconsciously you start to question your own agency in the world.”
The significance of black children and adults seeing themselves in comic books has long been undervalued by publishers. But with a diverse crop of black heroes (and anti-heroes) cropping up and finding success, films like Black Panther will hopefully become the norm and no longer outliers that we have to celebrate because we’re unsure we’ll ever see something like them again.
Hill’s ongoing DC Comics series, Michael Cray, is one that will draw its fair share of attention because of the comic’s unique narrative and the fact that it is written by a black man with a black title character and a black artist providing the visual element.
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Michael Cray is a fascinating story in which the title character is an assassin who exists in an alternate version of the DC universe and is tasked with hunting down evil versions of DC heroes, which include Arrow, the Flash and Aquaman.
“The initial concept was pretty broad,” Hill says of the spinoff to DC’s The Wildstorm, by Warren Ellis. “[Ellis] wanted me to tell a story of this guy who is in between masters and found a new organization that wanted him to take out evil versions of DC heroes. I was interested in the idea of not being able to trust your own consciousness and Cray’s background as a guy who has received dogma his entire life. There’s a story of a guy growing in power while simultaneously being a weapon for other people, and how those things come into conflict [is] really interesting.”
Hill drew upon his own personal experiences as well as conversations with family and friends who had a military background to mold the personality of Cray.
“I try to find real-world experience that I can insert into the work,” he says. “I was able to reach out to some people and get some stories about what it was like to hunt human beings for a living. From that research, I was able to paint a portrait that felt authentic to me. Then I layered it with my own life experience.”
As for Hill’s journey to this point, it’s certainly been one that is unique in its own right.
With his father’s untimely death due to cancer when he was 8, Hill desperately needed something to have faith in. After entering a comic book store and coming across a Batman comic that seemed to mirror his emotional weight of losing a parent, the St. Louis native found something to believe in.
“Bruce Wayne was going through everything I was going through, but he was able to take that pain and turn it into something,” Hill recalls. “As a kid, you are looking for your pathways and trying to figure out what is possible and what is impossible. For me, Batman became an instructive mythology on how to deal with grief, anger and all of those emotions.”
With St. Louis admittedly not being a fertile ground for breeding African-American writers, Hill grew up enjoying comics but never really considered a career writing comics until later in life.
“I wanted to go into law enforcement,” Hill reveals. “I thought I was going to be an FBI agent, but my mother said, ‘Nope, you can’t have a gun so pick something else.’ If I couldn’t be an FBI agent, I wanted to tell stories. That led me to writing, and comics were always the most exciting stories you can read. I couldn’t get that experience from any other forum.”
After graduating from New York University film school, Hill worked as a freelance journalist before landing his first comic-writing job with Top Cow Productions in 2010. Since then, he’s worked on a number of comics, including Witchblade, Postal and 7 Days From Hell.
He recognized early on that he was a black writer in a predominantly white space and needed to find a way to balance servicing the needs of readers with introducing characters of color.
“When I started writing, I knew that if you were to platform and agenda the task of writing characters of color and center them in fiction, you would have a very difficult path to be a professional,” he says. “Early on, I would always balance things. There were less opportunities for writers of color and characters of color to be in these stories. This evolution that we’ve had is a great thing. We’re no longer telling a new generation what they can’t do; they are growing up with a more wide-open field of participation.”
Being at the helm of Michael Cray has been yet another balancing act for the 40-year-old. With a history of black characters being trapped in their own blackness, Hill sought to ensure that Cray was a black man with black experiences, but one who was not defined solely by those encounters.
“I know that as a black man, I don’t wake up every day thinking about being black and filter every experience I have through a prism of race,” Hill says. “But there tends to be a trend when you have characters of color that is the only thing they think about the entire time, and every conversation is governed by it. It’s just not realistic. A lot of it is well-intentioned and broadens the conversation, but a lot of it left me cold because it doesn’t feel real to me.”
Rather than force Michael Cray’s blackness into every conversation he has in the comic, Hill made it a point that while his character is black, it isn’t all that the story is about. After all, Michael Cray is about a man who is hunting down a twisted version of the Flash. The psychology behind that alone is worth dissecting, and Hill manages to do that while making sure the reader is never misled into thinking that Michael Cray is anything but a black man.
“We have more dimensions than [just being black],” Hill says while looking toward the future in a post-Black Panther world. “That is the next evolution of characters of color. Allowing them to escape the gravitational pull of the story being about their race. We have other stories to tell. Being black is an element of the story, but we don’t want to make his story only about that.”