Monday, April 15, 2013

From the "Victory Lap - The End of the Big Project" File...


Since this is my blog you’re used to me running off at the mouth in this space here that I’ve carved out for my thoughts and updates and news on my projects. But this time I’m turning it over to Sean E. Ali. He’s the extraordinarily talented cover designer for Pro Se Press and the genius behind so many of their covers that readers and fans of Pro Se have salivated over. He also did the artwork and designed the cover for “Dillon And The Pirates of Xonira.” He’s wonderful at his job and his latest project is yet another important milestone in his career.

But it’s also important to Sean in a very personal way and I thought it was only fitting that he be allowed space here to express how important this project is to him. He originally posted it on his Facebook page but it’s so heartfelt and so touching I felt compelled to re-post it here along with the front and back cover of BLACK PULP so that it will hopefully be seen by a wider audience and not lost in an avalanche of FB posts that come after it.

And I think I’ve spoken quite enough. Mr. Ali, the floor is yours…






Now that it's done, I can talk about the latest project I've done for Pro Se, BLACK PULP.

In advance this is more of an op ed thing that's just for me. You're not obligated to read it.

To give you the highlights BLACK PULP is a volume of fiction being published by Pro Se Press which features stories with an African American focus and features stories by : Joe R. Lansdale, Gary Phillips, Charles R. Saunders, Derrick Ferguson, D. Alan Lewis, Christopher Chambers, Mel Odom, Kimberly Richardson, Ron Fortier, Michael A. Gonzales, Gar Anthony Haywood, Tommy Hancock and features an introduction by WALTER MOSLEY!

Yeah "Devil In A Blue Dress - Denzel was in the movie version" Walter Mosley…

Which made this the biggest damn deal name wise this side of Barry Reese's Rook as our first major licensed property. So that's the short version, you want to slog through the longer part below, think of it as the unofficial afterword for BLACK PULP from my point of view…

Here endth the disclaimer.

Some time ago, long before the vast majority of us were born, the public entertained itself with cheaply produced fiction magazines called pulps, that pretty much took them from the Great Depression and the prospect of a second World War into hidden civilizations, steamy underworlds where masked vigilantes dealt out two-fisted justice and literally hundreds of other variations on genres that explored fantastic situations populated by extraordinary people.

It was an amazing time in popular culture. Literally, people were on the verge of the first real wave of mass produced popular media. It was entertainment and escape packaged behind luridly illustrated covers that beckoned to its potential audience with a promise of a story that you'd lose yourself in and, while it wouldn't solve your immediate problems, you'd be satisfied knowing that your heroes came through for you and made their corner of the fictional universe safe for all until your next visit. The best part? You had heroes who were usually from the people, they were special, but for the most part, they were just like you...

Or at least that's how it was for the vast majority of the population.

In most of the minority communities, the representation of race in those early days of the 1930s, 40s and into the 1950s was less than flattering. Given the times and the publisher, African Americans, or (for the sake of accuracy) let's go with the more diplomatic terminology of the day using either Negros or Colored People, found themselves represented in most media of the day as slow witted or under educated clowns and buffoons - caricatures which were holdovers from the old minstrel shows where bugged out eyes, incredibly huge lips and flaring nostrils were pretty much the standard and actually kinder than the bone through the nose, grass skirt wearing variation or the stooped over monkey/ape variant (that still enjoys a certain amount of favor among some classes of the ignorant, bigots and racists today). The surge of graphic entertainment with the emergence of comic books in general and superheroes in particular turned those stereotypes into standard fare for readers, projecting perhaps some of the views of the creators involved as well as reflecting society's view of race at that time.

The one major possible exception may have been in the pages of a particular pulp that clamored for attention on the newsstands.

One of the best examples of diversity from that time in pulp fiction was an organization called Justice, Incorporated. The group was fronted by a swashbuckling adventurer in the form of Richard Benson, known to the public-at-large as the Avenger. He formed a group of like minded individuals in a war against crime which included a Negro couple, Josh and Rosabelle Newton, who were both accomplished academics with college degrees (from Tuskegee Institute, now University) who actually used the stereotypes of their race to infiltrate the underworld and relay information and assistance to their chief as the story needed them. If Benson hadn't shown up in their lives, they probably would've continued on with their lives after their initial appearance in "The Sky Walker", but thankfully someone in the editing department didn't have an issue with the Newtons coming on board as a part of the team. 

Justice, Incorporated was unique even among the pulp hero set, with the possible exception of Diamondstone the Magician who had a Negro sidekick, in giving these two not only equal status, but one that ran counter to the current perception of race at that time. The Shadow had a guy in the ranks of his agents, and while Doc Savage didn't have a Negro cast member, he was generally respectful of the ones he encountered along the way. Josh and Rosabelle were about as close as I got to an African American version of Nick and Nora Charles in detective fiction, or Jonathan and Jennifer Hart from TV's Hart to Hart.

Which is around where I came in.

As a kid I literally went on safari every weekend in used book stores. In downtown Oakland near 14th and Harrison there was this huge used bookstore, which has long since gone away (to this day one of the biggest losses from my childhood), where I had my first encounter with the like of Conan, Doc Savage, The Shadow and The Avenger and Justice, Inc. All of these heroes were caught in a distilled reprinted form and repackaged as paperbacks. I would fill my weekends with these guys who were an extension of the comics I read then and the old time radio shows that I would encounter in the near future and had a fondness for the Avenger in particular because of the diversity of the group and the respect they showed one another despite their different backgrounds.

For the time that the stories were originally written, the Avenger was pretty progressive stuff. In the context of a child growing up in the near post Civil Rights era, it was a good thing to see heroes who looked like me even if they were supporting characters, contributing to the solution of the crisis and serving in a capacity that spoke of their intelligence and their ability to take the limitations tossed upon them based on their race and turn that to an advantage. They basically were a preview of the world to come, in a series that was ahead of its time. So, I went in search of other characters from that time because there had to be a "Negro Pulp Adventurer" series where people who looked like me were actually the lead characters and not just assistants or comedy relief, right?

Wrong.

Okay, maybe more of a "not really".

The closest thing to an African American, Negro pulp magazine at that time was probably more like a version of Reader's Digest called the Negro Digest. Created by John Harold Johnson, founder of the Johnson Publishing Company (who publishes the magazines Ebony and Jet, among others), put together a magazine with a focus on information, opinion editorials, and artistic content relevent to the Negro community but solicited from a diverse number of contributors regardless of race. In fact a column called "If I Were A Negro", where prominent non Negro guest writers were invited to offer opinions and solutions to racial issues of the day led to the magazine's high note with a piece from then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt which doubled the magazine's circulation overnight. But for me as a kid reading adventure fiction it wasn't quite the same thing as locating a "Black Doc Savage". There wasn't a hero to call my own from that era of pulp adventure outside of glorified sidekicks.

Granted, away from pulps, I came up during a time of great fictional Black heroes. A byproduct of the militant era, mixed with a healthy (or unhealthy) dash of Blaxploitation media, I had heroes in my day by the score, Shaft, Luke Cage Power Man, Black Panther, Storm of the X-Men, Cyborg, Green Lantern - John Stewart, and my personal favorite: Black Lightning. I also saw a surge of multiethnic characters that culminated in a whole comic book universe as the one bright shining moment in comics that I called "The Milestone Era".

Milestone, with the late great Dwayne McDuffie leading the charge, walked the walk on the page and behind the scenes. Their characters were bold brilliant and multi-everything. I had Black heroes, Latino heroes, Asian heroes and even some White heroes. It was everything I wanted to see in fiction in graphic form, in the media content I digested, in examples to my nephews and nieces of four color warriors who leapt tall buildings and saved the day and were accepted for the content of their character more than anything else. 

It was also an era that came to an end pretty quickly with the usual excuses of not having the readership or using the fact that a book where a minority lead was the title character just wouldn't sell. Which killed brilliant titles like Icon, Static, Hardware, Xombi, The Shadow Cabinet and the Blood Syndicate in Milestone and books outside of Milestone like Black Lightning or El Diablo (the series about a Latino City Councilman who wears a mask to fight crime but also deals with racial identity, political intrigue and illegal immigration that ran just under a year and a half) at DC or the brilliant, but barely seen in the mainstream, independent series, Brotherman. All of these being series that I recommend highly if you ever decide to go on an excursion to a comics shop and dive into a quarter bin or seek online at sites like Mile High Comics.

"Hey that's great, Ali," you say, "but what does this have to do with this BLACK PULP book?"

The answer is everything and nothing.

BLACK PULP is the fulfillment of personal dreams and goals that I set out to do "as a young designer more years than I want to remember" ago, which was to make a positive contribution at some point to the body of work displayed by creators that created what I playfully refer to as "content of color". In this book are a lot of creators whose work I've admired over the years: Walter Mosley, Ron Fortier, Joe Lansdale, Gary PhillipsCharles Saunders and Derrick Ferguson, and they are in this volume doing pieces that are not necessarily racial in content, but they have African American leads carrying the action and plot of these short stories. They're retroactively giving nine and ten year old me what I had been looking for then:positive examples of people who look like me, making their neck of their fictional worlds a better place by being who they are.



Granted this book is not going to change society at large in any noticeable way, shape or form. We won't read BLACK PULP today and wake up tomorrow joining hands singing "We Are The World", but I'm hoping you'll read it for the stories and enjoy it enough that you won't opposed to a Black Pulp 2 or a volume with an Asian focus, or a Latino focus, or a Female focus, or an LBGT focus, or a volume where all diversity in our culture is the focus, there's such a wide field of themes and subjects to be explored. It's my hope that this book will take you off your beaten track and make you curious about the possibilities we have yet to tap into, the richness of the larger diversity creative individuals can bring to you. 

In a very real way, this diverse group of writers are providing an example of that with characters of color, yes, but they're also characters with content, complexity with compelling stories to tell. The efforts of this group of authors, and the personal weight of being a kid who didn't have those kind of heroes readily available to him, fueled my own efforts in the design of the book to make sure that a person looking for a hero in the mirror would find one.

It's my hope that reading BLACK PULP will make you hungry for heroes that look like you and more importantly that you find the imagination and will to create those heroes if none exist. And that in doing so, you not only give yourself something to look up to, but by sharing that perspective, you contribute to the greater appreciation of our greater diversity by everyone. Yeah it's a little "We Are The World"-ish, but at least it has the virtue of being a sincere hope.

I appreciate what Tommy Hancock has brought to the table here. I'm thrilled that Gary Phillips put the concept together and I'm impressed that such a wonderful array of talent came together in response to it all. And more importantly, I'm lucky to have been a part of bringing it to you. It's on my short list of works I'm really proud of. I hope it shows in the package we've put together.

And a shout out in particular to Derrick Ferguson who was my silent co-pilot on this one. his input during the creative process on this one was invaluable and appreciated.

BLACK PULP is here.  Be sure to check it out.

And more importantly, enjoy it.



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