Tuesday, August 23, 2011

For The People: An Interview with Artist and Illustrator Dawud Anyabwile, Co-Creator of ‘Brother Man: Dictator of Discipline’

Throughout the 1960’s, the civil rights and black power movements reshaped the American consciousness.  Marvel Comics took note of the social changes afoot, and in response they created characters such as The Black Panther, Luke Cage, Blade, and Falcon.  Those characters took their cues from Blaxploitation in addition to other social phenomena of the day.  Black Panther and Luke Cage especially resonated with black readers of all ages.  Still, something vital was missing.  As timely as those characters were, they were still informed by a largely white perspective.  They didn’t truly speak for the Black community.

In 1990, an independent comic by the name of ‘Brother Man: Dictator of Discipline’ burst onto the scene.  Creators Dawud Anyabwile and Guy A. Sims had created a fantasy world that teemed with life and energy.  At its center stood a socially conscious hero who had no special powers save for his intellect and a strong sense of community.  ‘Brother Man’ managed to do brisk business with no corporate backing.  20 years later, ‘Brother Man’ is still going strong as Dawud and Guy prepare to bring him into the modern age.  I recently spoke with Dawud about some of the ideas that drive ‘Brother Man,’ as well what his future plans are for the character.  He is one artist who definitely has a socially conscious agenda, and uses his creation too further it by any means necessary.  God bless him.   

Scott Tre: What were some of the main inspirations behind Brother Man: Dictator of Discipline?

Dawud Anyabwile: Actually that goes back some years.  Brother Man kind of encompassed a lot of different components.  I’d say my experiences and my life, number one.   There are a lot of things that have to do with family, resurrection of our communities, keeping our communities tight.  A lot of that came from there.

Antonio Valor aka Brother Man: Dictator of Discipline.

I would also say Hip-Hop contributed to it.  I was heavily influenced in my formative years in high school.  I started high school in ‘79.  So around that time I got into DJ’ing and stuff with my friends in school.  So that whole aspect of the graffiti writing and stuff in Philly inspired a lot of my work. 
I was also into science fiction.  I used to write animated films when I was like 13 and 14 with my brother.  We used to build armatures and a lot of little miniature sets and things at the house.  I was also into the mythological component of science fiction and action/adventure and had my collection of comic books when I was younger.  

So to me I look at Brother Man as not necessarily coming from one vein, one source.  It was actually a myriad of experiences from a lot of different genres.  

Scott Tre: What do you think made Brother Man so different from other Black superheroes that came before him such as Luke Cage, Blade, and The Falcon?

Dawud Anyabwile: First of all, I think every property that you mentioned served its purpose.  Growing up I had Black Panther and Luke Cage.  They were also an influence on me when I was younger.  I think when we came out with Brother Man, one of the components that I think was really inspirational to a lot of people - and this is first hand because we were dealing directly with the public, so a lot of people would give us their testimonies right on the spot from the early 90’s on up - was that number one it wasn’t so much just the story, it was the fact that we owned and operated what we did.  We produced what we did.  All the characters that you mentioned, they were published by Marvel Comics.  Nothing against Marvel Comics, I was a big fan of Marvel Comics coming up and I still check out Marvel films.  But there’s still something great about when you have your own, when you produce something that comes from you and it’s a reflection of your community and the people around you.  A lot of people said when they read Brother Man they saw their uncles, their aunts, their brothers, their sisters.  A lot of people said they didn’t feel that when they read Luke Cage and things like that.  

Also, in a lot of books the black characters, a lot of times they kind of exist in a vacuum in terms of who their family is—and who makes up their community.  It’s not really built on many layers of who they are as individuals.  The focus may just be on the action, and that’s what sells it.  What we wanted to do with Brother Man was not focus so much on the action but on relationships of people.  A lot of people say what they liked about Brother Man was that it felt like a soap opera if I could use that word, because you wondered what happened with these side characters.  Was this person going to get with this person?  A lot of things that people deal with in their social circle, they saw it in Brother Man.  On top of that, we interspersed that with action and adventure.  So that was one of things that my brother Guy and I consciously thought about when we were working on the stories, was sewing in that slice of life that we experienced coming up and weaving that into an action book.  A lot of fans appreciated that and they picked up on that.  

Duke Denim

Not only that, but a large amount of books we distributed ourselves by going directly to the public, from east coast to west coast, driving it right to different communities via the Black Expo trade show and street events like the Brooklyn street fair and Odunde on South street in Philly.  We were directly selling the books to the public so we were bypassing the comic book industry.  When doing that we were picking up a lot of independent distributors who would get them from there and on to the streets and barbershops.  They were making businesses from our business, which was something that was actually showing a lot of people how you could bypass this comic book industry.  But we were also penetrating the comic book industry because we distributed through comic book distributors and comic book stores as well.  So we were actually creating new venues and showing a lot of the Black independents how to get their books out because a lot of them were having those issues dealing with the comic publishers, feeling like they’re not getting a lot of sales, or some of them felt blocked from some of these industries.  We came into the market by going through the black bookstores, as opposed to some of the comic books stores.  Although we did do comic bookstores and we sold a lot in comic bookstores, I think a lot of that was assisted by us not relying on one entity.  

So I think there were a lot of things that people related to with Brother Man outside of those mainstream comics that resonated with them as individuals.  They felt empowered by this book.  A lot of individual artists felt like they used to copy out of Marvel and DC a lot, and they say when they saw Brother Man it made them look to their own neighborhood and create stories as opposed to look in the pages of Marvel and try to recreate what’s already been done.  

Scott Tre: Back when you started publishing Brother Man, the trend in superhero comics tended towards everything being grim and gritty and ultra-serious.  You guys seemed to go against that trend.  Brother Man had a lot of humor and didn’t contain any graphic violence or profanity.  What made you decide to go in that direction with the book?  

Dawud Anyabwile:  I wouldn’t say that was like a conscious decision to go against what any of these other authors and creators was doing.  Actually, during that time I wasn’t collecting (comic) books.  I stopped collecting comics when I was in elementary school.  I didn’t even know that that was a trend that was out there.  When we came out with our book, it was solely an extension of when we as a family have always been doing.

B.L.O.C.K and the Twin Terrors.

My brother guy and I, in 1984, published the first book on Kwanzaa for children called The Kwanzaa Kids Learn the Seven Principals.  It was like an independently published book.  It kind of had a lot of the same nuances that Brother Man had, but it was many years earlier.  It was my brother writing and me drawing.  At the time it was my father’s business called Black Family Rituals, and the book was about teaching children the seven principles of Kwanzaa  in a way that they would understand.  We used local adventures that kids in the community would get into and help them to understand these principles.   So when you come up in that line of grooming and that line of understanding, it kind of creates a direction and a destiny for you to follow.  

In my formative years during the 80’s I used to do custom airbrushing at the Gallery mall in Philly and I used to have an airbrush shop in North Philly and East Orange New Jersey.  During those times I always had a connection to the community, just drawing people on shirts and drawing characters and caricatures on shirts.  I saw how it just made people, from the toughest thug to a college student or a little kid in elementary school, everybody kind of felt good when they came in our shop and saw that they could get themselves on a shirt.  I saw it as a way to unify.  The arts were unifying people who came in our store. They didn’t know each other but they would all walk out talking to each other and feeling good.  I felt like Brother Man was a collective of all that energy in a 24 page comic book.  

The comic book wasn’t actually created to be a part of a comic book industry, it was originally created to promote our airbrush shop.  Once we came out with the comic we decided to stop doing airbrush shirts and just focus on comics and Brother Man just went on to do what it did years later.  It wasn’t a fluke.    We knew it was going to all these things in the interim.  We knew it was going to be impactful because of our own history ; my knowing a lot of other artists and knowing what we wanted to see and the fact that a lot of these things were lacking.   I knew putting together Brother Man would fill that void at the same time I was doing it, so I knew it was going to be a multifaceted book that would cover a lot of ground when it came out.  I’m hoping I stuck to that topic. 

Scott Tre: How has Brother Man evolved throughout the years as a story, as a character, and as a universe?

Dawud Anyabwile: When Brother Man first started, like you said before, it had a lot of humor in it.  When we first started, we kind of came off the top of our heads and said “hey, let’s do a comic book about this hero.”  It began as a parody of comic books.  We never thought of the hero as a jokester, and we never thought of it as a satire magazine.  We just looked at it as an over the top universe that we knew we were creating.  By issue number three is when the story started to evolve.  We started creating neighborhoods in the city.  We started differentiating the neighborhoods in Big City so it’s no longer just a generic name for the city.  It started having a history; we started creating the characters that created the city.  Big City is named after Lyncean Big, who was the founder of the city.
We started developing more of the character traits, like Antonio Valor who is Brother Man.  We started getting more into his history, the history of the characters.  So within the 11 issue run of Brother Man you can see from issue number one to issue number 11 how it started to become more refined in terms of the city he lived in and the universe.  

The lovely Melody Rich, one of the many supporting characters of Brother Man: Dictator of Discipline.

Now where we are with Brother Man, bringing it back after 15 years, we had a lot of time to really process and direct the story to make it what we always really wanted it to be.  When the story came out, it was never meant to be “This is Philadelphia, this is New York City, we knew it was an over the top mythological universe, and maybe some people may not have gotten it at the time because we don’t see ourselves like that.  A lot of times we see a story about a city and a black person and we automatically assume its New York, Chicago, or L.A. in the story.  This (Brother Man) never was that.  It was always a mythological place with its own laws and rules.  Now we want to really refine that where people will see they have gadgets, their technology is different, their laws are different, even their language is different.  That’s something that has been evolved which we are working on now the all new graphic novel.  That’s the book we’re working on now.  We’re also working on the screenplay for the film, which is a lot more in-depth than the original series.  It parallels the original series, but it’s more epic and descriptive.             

Scott Tre: What can we expect from the upcoming graphic novel Brother Man: Revelations?

Dawud Anyabwele: There’s a lot to look forward to in that book.  In terms of a production schedule, we can’t guarantee when it’s going to be out.  We’ve been working on it for a while, however there are a lot of components to doing this book and a lot of our concentration has now shifted to the feature film.  We may come back to the graphic novel because now we are now using the graphic novel as the storyboards for the film.  What a lot of fans can see, we’ve been focusing on the origin of Brother Man, telling the backstory of Brother Man.  We deal more with the emotion, and a lot of things that a lot of us deal with on a regular basis, but many of times we don’t see ourselves in film dealing with families.  Not even just dealing with our day to day family issues, but weaving that into an action/adventure, mythological, surreal universe.  

Artwork from the upcoming Brother Man: Revelations

So that’s what Brother Man: Revelations touches on.  Now we are seeing the story of Antonio Valor growing up as a young boy and going through the losses in his life and the things that challenged him and made him want to give up, but how he maintained his integrity.  He realizes his greatness inside, whereas a lot us, we get beat down by a lot of things happening in life and we give up.  I’m not saying everything is that easy where we shouldn’t give up, but sometimes it’s too much for us.  We give in.  Brother Man: Revelations is about how this one character realizes that he can’t give in, that a lot of people in his life depend on him regardless of if he thinks about it or not.  People look up to us.  They make it in life because their best friend made it and that gave them the drive to make it. 

Eventually we have to come to the revelation within us that our lives are important.  The fact is that I have to do better, I have to be this beacon if I want things to change.  If I’m waiting on somebody else to change things it’s just going to stay like this.  That’s what the book represents, but it’s done in a way where it’s a whole new twist on action and adventure and it’s not your typical superhero story.   We don’t feel as though it’s our mode to try to compete with Marvel and DC the way that they have their high powered super heroes.  We’re not coming from that angle.  We weren’t thinking about Marvel and DC when we created Brother Man.  We were thinking about our background and our community and what we would like to see.  The type of fantasy that we would like to create based on our reality.

Scott Tre: How does being a native of Philadelphia affect your art style?

Dawud Anyabwile: The neighborhood I grew up in was a quiet area, the Mount Airy section of Philly.  That’s the northwest section, which is a huge section of the city.  It’s composed of Mount Airy, Germantown, West Oak Lane.  You have a lot of varieties of neighborhoods.  One day you could be walking in the woods with your shoes off in the creek, and then you can go down a couple of blocks and there’ll be graffiti on the walls, Trolley cars, and basically you’re in “the hood.”  The whole vibration of Philly to me, when I think about it, is it kind of had like its own unique style.  The graffiti was unique.  Even to this day it has its own unique graffiti style, its own unique talk; the way the people talk there is its own style.  There were a lot of independent black soda companies, potato chip companies like Rap snacks and Chumpy Chips.  Philly was that type of city. There were a lot of things that originated in Philly in regards to Hip-Hop and graffiti and stuff like that, and I think a lot of times that Philly doesn’t get the credit for it.  But I recognized it, being in the midst of it and seeing it coming up from North Philly to south Philly to Southwest.  I was kind of all over the place.  I had a lot of friends all over the city.  We vibed a lot, and that inspired my work from being in a variety of different places in close proximity.  The neighborhoods changed by block.

The city of Philadelphia

From my perspective, when I think of Big City, I think of Big City as a collective of a lot of different personas.  It’s not just “Big City Comics, or  a hood comic and everybody’s a thug.”  I feel like when I see some films that are made about Black neighborhoods it’s always this one myopic view.  We don’t really see the college student.  We don’t see the person who’s interested in Special Effects.  Where’s the guy who likes DJ’ing?  Where’s the guy who probably don’t like DJ’ing?  “I don’t like Hip-Hop.  I’m Black.  Why I gotta like Hip-Hop?  Cause I’m Black?  I’m into classical music.”  That’s still Big City, because it’s all these different personalities that are thrust into this one metropolitan region.  That’s inspired by the fact that I had so many friends that had so many different aspirations and backgrounds.  That’s not unique to me.  I’m sure you know a lot of people that had a lot of different backgrounds.  In film and in storytelling, we don’t see a lot of that about us, even though it’s out there.  It’s not at the rate we see other nationalities portrayed as a universe of people.  I felt like Philly represented that universe of people when I think of all the types of friends that I had.  So I think of Big City as a distorted or should I say blown out view of how I saw Philly coming up.  It’s this congested place, there was a lot of different types of people with a lot of different types of missions.  A lot of people did vibe together and some people didn’t.

I think the whole graffiti scene when I was in high school played a part.  I was an art major all through high school.  There were a lot of graffiti writers in my school.  That inspires you to have an interest in it.  However I always saw something greater than what it actually was.  Not as a putdown on it because I loved it.  It’s just that the way my mind worked I always saw other universes.  Something greater I could do with graffiti and fine art and science fiction and all that.  

So I guess to sum it all up, I’d say the city was very influential to me and my work.  I traveled a lot.  I wasn’t just always in Philly.  The role that it did play was significant in creating the man that I am.  

Scott Tre: Your art shows the influence of the graffiti scene, but it also shows the influences of MAD Magazine artists like Jack Davis and Mort Drucker.  Which of those factors had the biggest influence on your art?

Dawud Anyabwile: I wouldn’t really say MAD Magazine had a bigger influence because I didn’t collect it like that.  My oldest brother who recently passed away, he had every last MAD Magazine from its first printing to the day that he died, the latest issue came in the mail.  That was kind of ironic.  He was a MAD Magazine fiend.  He was a mechanical engineer, so it’s just like he was sitting around reading comics or not doing anything.  He’s like a mathematical genius.  In his spare time he liked that release of MAD Magazine.  Since they were around the house when I was real young, because he left the house a long time ago to move to the west coast, but I just remember when the books used to be around the house.  I used to flip through them and look at the artwork more so than read it.  I would read it and I’d get it, but I just liked looking at the artwork.  I liked how Mort Drucker especially, and Jack Davis, how their styles were loose and free.

Mad magazine #135 with cover by Jack Davis.

When I was in high school we did a lot of studying of gesture drawings.  It taught us how to look at how people were moving, to catch the line of action. I’m standing at the bus stop and I see somebody standing there and they just have a natural stance.  I’d strip everything down and just capture the natural movement of them standing there, and my art teacher in high school was very big on that.  I realized that’s why I liked MAD Magazine because I think those guys, like Mort Drucker and Jack Davis, they capture a lot of those little nuances that people do that don’t really stand out a whole lot.  They paid attention to details… they captured every detail in a little tea cup or a fly in the tea cup or something like that.  Those little nuances make something that much more interesting to look at, those little details and the gestures.  That’s how MAD Magazine was an influence on me, so when I did my book, I was doing gesture drawings.  I understand why people would equate Brother Man with MAD Magazine.  As I really started getting into Brother Man, I started finding my own style and moving to where I wanted to go.  

I would say that the graffiti was an influence to a point where I always liked it, but I knew I was never a master of it.  I will never front to say “Hey man, I’m the man at doing Wild Styles and the Philly Wickeds and all that stuff.  Top to bottom and all that.  I liked it, but at a certain point I realized “eh…I can only get but this far with it.  So I’ll incorporate that into my artwork.”  But it was never really like “Label me a graffiti writer” because I didn’t master it like that.  It was just one of the components of the many things that I did.  I don’t define myself as a comic book artist because I don’t really consider myself as just that.  I add all these components of what I learned, even animation, to who I am as an artist.  Ultimately I enjoyed painting and illustrating.  So if I was to give myself a label it would be more so as an illustrator.  

Scott Tre: As I understand it, the New York style of graffiti was actually born in Philadelphia.  Was there ever a cross pollination between those two scenes?  Did they ever inspire each other?  Or did Philadelphia graffiti artists see the ones in New York as biters?

Dawud Anyabwile: That would be an interview on Cornbread and Top Cat and all of them old schoolers.  I was a little fella back then.  I didn’t know what was going on down that route, during that time.  Retrospectively looking at it, I guess a lot of writers that I knew in Philly went to New York.  I used to go to New York a lot and Jersey.  Most of my family is from Jersey City so that was always my second home growing up.  I noticed the difference in styles early on, the Philly hand styles and the New York script styles and all of that.  I always felt like New York was really very artistic.  New York always made me want to really draw more.  Philly was more like the tagging city.  The tags were big.  One name would take up a whole door, but it’s a tag.  It’s not a piece.  I think the early styles in Philly, and this is from what I look at and the writers that I know, started early with Cornbread and a lot of the early writers.  With New York, because the city is so close and so big, the styles evolved quickly.  It evolved a lot quicker, and because it’s from New York it becomes the voice of the world.  

Legendary Philadelphia graffiti writer Darryl “Cornbread” McCray

I think there’s been a natural affinity between Philly and New York when I was coming up and with what I saw.  A lot of things come out of Philly and get picked up in New York and vice versa.  Even with the music and all that, like with the DJ’ing in Philly, the transformer scratch, DJ Jazzy Jeff.  Philly was known for the DJ’s and New York for the MC’s, even though a lot of the core things came out of New York.  

For me personally, I look at it as it all collectively comes from us.  I can’t really get into what started where and who said what, because I don’t know. I feel like in my zone, I considered it all to be artistic expression.  This is something that’s huge, and this is something that is a collective of who we all are.  I’ll leave the historical aspect to the people who are studying the history.  I would never want to misinterpret and say who started this and who started what because I was in what, first grade?  I was more concerned about what cartoon was coming on during that time.  You know what I mean?  

Scott Tre: Do you have any other upcoming projects that people should look out for?  

Dawud Anyabwile: We’re working on the Brother Man graphic novel.  We’re also working on pitching the Brother Man feature film.  There are a lot of components to doing that as well.  I’ll put that on blast when I’m at that point where I can really shout it out because there are some real aspects to that that can make some major changes in this industry.  It’s something that I’m very careful about because I’ve had a lot of movie deals in front of me over the years and I always had to look at which is the one that’s right for me.  I’ve been a patient person my whole life.  I never feel like I have to sign the first contract placed in front of me.  I’m particular about how my property is going to be done because my property is also a reflection of my people, and I’m concerned about how my people get portrayed, even when it comes to the culture of my people, even when it comes down to urban culture.  I don’t want it to be stereotyped.  I want it to be authentic.  So I’d rather be patient with it and make sure it’s being done right.  Making sure I have the control I need to have over what it is.
We also have the Brother Man Art Experience, The Brother Man Comics Art Exhibition, which has been traveling from city to city.  We have done a couple of presentations here in Atlanta.  It’s also been on display at Virginia Tech and University of Georgia.  I’ve actually been requested to bring it to a variety of other cities and overseas.  We’re still working on taking Brother Man to a lot of other places.  I’m really looking forward to taking it to New York, because that was really the jump off for Brother Man because we introduced it at the Black Expo in New York.  After 20 years of introducing it there it would be great to have the Brother Man art show somewhere on display in Manhattan and then L.A. and out to overseas.  So there are a lot of things that I’m working on now.  I’m just not putting a lot of things on blast until it’s more feasible to have a date on it, so that people will know it’s right around the corner.     

All the back issues of Brother Man, issues 1-11, have been rereleased in trade paperback form.  We have a three volume set, volumes one, two, and three.  They are all available at www.brothermancomics.com.  We also have a website www.youtube.com/brothermancomics where you can see some of the older interviews that we’ve had.  I’ve actually been doing some speed paintings, posting up some random illustrations to build up the following on the speed paintings.  I’m actually about to start a whole new video blog on video paintings and things of that nature.  


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