When the first Star Wars movie came out, there wasn’t a black character in sight. Great movie, but gee whiz guys (this being a family newspaper and all). Some of us who grew up on the darker side of the street, but who loved all things scifi and fantasy, couldn’t help but wonder if a message wasn’t being sent that, well, you know, maybe the future wasn’t meant for us. At least not that future which existed in a galaxy far, far away.
Comic books, which preceded Star Wars by a good generation or so, in many ways gave birth to the visual sci/fi fantasy genre. Kids across the country – and even around the world – read about the adventures of Superman, Spiderman, the Hulk, Fantastic Four, and so many others with more dedication and attention than they ever would commit to whatever classroom homework they had been assigned for the next day. These were superhuman characters with amazing powers and abilities that lit white-hot bonfires inside the imaginations of many a young mind.
But once again, as with that first Star Wars movie, there was rarely if ever a black face to be seen in all those pages and pages of action and adventure. Which was sort of odd since there were so many other colors and blatant exhibitions of ‘otherness’ on full display with major center stage characters such as the green Hulk, or Ben Grimm, the orange, Speedo-wearing rock-like punisher, the Silver Surfer (who was actually silver), and others.
If there was room enough in the comic book galaxy for this much arguably extreme diversity, how hard could it be to stretch that universe a little further and let some brothers and sisters in?
To be fair, there were certainly notable exceptions to the blinding whiteness of the visualized fantasy universe, such as the gorgeous Lieutenant Uhuru on Star Trek, and the occasional appearance of other African Americans on the legendary science fiction TV series. Or the introduction of a noticeable (for that time period) number of African American actors in good (meaning non-Step N’ Fetchit) roles on Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.” There were also eventually some black characters added into the comic book universe as well, such as Black Falcon, Black Lightning, Black Panther, Blade, and Static Shock (note how many times the word ‘black’ is used to identify the character, just in case the reader missed the point that HEY THIS GUY IS BLACK) but the overall absence was hard to miss. At least to those who were absent.
So when Brotherman Comics first hit the scene in 1989, it hit like a meteor from the other side of a universe that had only existed before in the imagination. Because here was a comic book created completely and totally by black guys. Top to bottom.
“When Brotherman came out, we didn’t only have a black hero, we created a black universe, and we own it,” said Guy Sims, one of the co-creators.
These were not characters waiting patiently just out of view of the page, hoping for that moment of inspiration when the white creator would decide it was time to introduce a black character to add some spice. This was a series that had leapfrogged to the front of the line, demanding equal time as a complete black entity, ready to go and ready for prime time.
“The idea of a comic came first. It wasn’t brother man,” said Dawud Anyabwile, the other co-creator. “I had this little character called Brother Man.”
That was in 1989. Between 1989 and 1990, Dawud and Sims worked to conceptualize the book. The first print run was 10,000 books. By the end of 1990 they had sold 40,000 books “and nobody knew about it. This was us coming cold into the market.”
The next year they sold 150,000 books. The year after that they sold close to 500,000 books. So between 1990 and 1994, Anyabwile and Sims managed to sell 750,000 Brotherman comic books. Keep in mind that this was before the internet, and they didn’t have a major distributor or PR firm working magic for them. This was fueled purely by the non-stop energy of three young black men (Anyabwile (illustrator/co-creator), Sims (creator/writer), and colorist Brian McGee, and their families, who believed in what they were doing.
“When Daoud talks about the number of books, this is all us by ourselves,” said Sims. “We were contacting bookstores, barbershops. We were contacting independent bookstores all around the country that would accept our book. Think about getting up to almost a million books when no social media of today existed. If we’d had the technology that exists today…”
“Me and my brother were selling from the back of the truck,” said Anyabwile, adding that they made regular driving runs from Dallas to Oakland, California, Los Angeles, and New York. “Me and my brother Jason were based in Dallas for four years after the book came out.”
“We were hitting outlets that people weren’t even thinking you could get comic books in. We had people from Japan distributing their books. We were written up in the Final Call, Dallas Morning News, and Tokyo.
“What it’s recognized for is spawning a black comic book movement. It’s recognized as the progenitor,” said Anyabwile.
“In our community we had people come up who don’t normally read comic books but they read Brother Man.”
So everything looked like it was poised for takeoff…until Anyabwile’s mother died. More specifically, she died in June 1994, the night of their first comic book show. Two years later, when things really were taking off, his father died. The double blow was a bit too much, and the team was forced to shutter the operation for a bit. A very long bit.
“Brother Man was the result of our families working together, so when a family member dies…” said Anyabwile.
But the dream never died out. And now it is a little more than two decades later and Brother Man, the comic book credited with launching other well-known comics such as Boondocks, and perhaps even the black comic book movement, and which had even received a strong live endorsement from late night talk show host Arsenio Hall, who at the time was one of the hottest acts on TV, is stepping back into the arena. The first of a three-book series picking up where the story left off will be debuting in mid-January, 2016, after a more than 20-year absence. From the promotional material:
“BROTHERMAN: REVELATION Book One is an epic tale that merges fantasy, classic soul, drama and humor into a 100 page full color graphic novel. This book chronicles the origin story of the protagonist Antonio Valor as he evolves from a young teen to becoming a well-respected lawyer and hero in the mythological city called Big City. Without the aid of super powers Antonio dons the role of masked crime fighter BROTHERMAN: DICTATOR OF DISCIPLINE to bring balance to an unjust legal system.”
“We got kicked out of our first comic book convention because folks didn’t want to recognize us as publishers,” said Sims, adding that it didn’t even matter in the big picture. “”There was resistance, but it came from the places you figured it would come from. … Some people thought it was a fluke, just like they did with hip hop.”
But no longer.
“We have been to bookstores in the suburbs and white kids were lined up out the door for Brotherman. It’s not about race, it’s about people telling a story.”
And what a story…