Black Mask Studios Is Dragging the Comic Book Medium Into the Politically Aware Era
Collage images courtesy Black Mask Studios

Black Mask Studios Is Dragging the Comic Book Medium Into the Politically Aware Era

The release of Marvel/Disney's Black Panther was met with, besides gargantuan box office numbers, mass rejoicing. "At last," screamed the masses. "A powerful black superhero in the leading role (unlike Falcon or War Machine) on the big screen (unlike Luke Cage or DC's Black Lightning) — this is something that we can get behind."

To a great extent, and to Marvel's credit, the masses were right. Black Panther is indeed a very good movie, and the character is a bona fide badass. But — and not to be the turd in the punchbowl here — what the hell took so long? Because we are way behind schedule. Some might point to the likes of Spawn, Steel or the Blade franchise — but they're missing the point. For the record, the first was a bad movie based on a cool indie comic character, the second was a terrible movie based on a DC lower-league character, and the third — well, Blade is an awesome character and the first movie (at least) was also great.

But Spawn and Blade are anti-heroes — shadowy characters that blur the line between good and bad. The movies were not for kids. Black Panther is arguably the first quality superhero movie about a real role model with an African-American in the leading role. Meanwhile, other minorities are scrambling for the limited amount of space on the screen or in the pages of comic books. We shouldn't have had to wait until 2017's Wonder Woman for a quality comic book movie with a female in the lead role (Tank Girl is a notable exception; Barb Wire is not). It makes news if a comic book character (such as Iceman) is revealed to be gay, Thor is a female or Ms. Marvel is Muslim. It shouldn't.

We need more. And for now, it appears that the "Big Two" of Marvel and DC are only going to throw breadcrumbs. That's why the indie publishing houses have to lead the way — to shine lights where others aren't. And that is exactly what Black Mask Studios is doing.

Black Mask was founded by Matteo Pizzolo, as well as comic book writer Steve Niles and Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz, in 2012. Niles is known for titles as celebrated as 30 Days of Night and Batman: Gotham County Line. Pizzolo had been running an indie film production-distribution company from the age of 20, having already made an indie film called Threat, before starting Occupy Comics around the time that Occupy Wall Street was kicking off.

"I was heading to New York Comic-Con, and I mentioned to some of my comic creator friends that we should do something at NYCC to bring attention to the cool protest going on downtown," Pizzolo says. "A bunch of them were into it, and we started putting it together, but before NYCC started there was the pepper spraying at Occupy and the whole thing became a media circus. It didn't need us to draw attention to it anymore. But everyone who came together to spread the word at NYCC still wanted to help, and it seemed that even though there was plenty of attention on Occupy Wall Street, lots of people had questions about why these folks were camping out on Wall Street, so we thought a comic anthology could be a cool and unique way to talk about that."

That's exactly what Pizzolo did. A Kickstarter campaign raised funds for blankets, space heaters and other necessities for the Occupy protesters, and talented writers and artists including Art Spiegelman, Molly Crabapple, David Lloyd and Alan Moore joined in.

"When it was done, a lot of the creators wanted it to be available in comic shops, so we started talking to comic publishers about distributing it," Pizzolo says. "They pretty much all wanted it — by that time the project was getting attention all over the place and had a crazy roster of creators — but in our conversations it just became clear to us that the publishers didn't really get it. They didn't get the politics of the whole thing or why it was a charity, and if they did get it, they were scared of the politics. I was working with Steve Niles on it at the time and he said something that really crystallized the situation: 'If V for Vendetta were created today, there would be no publisher for it.'"

Gurewitz was a backer of the Occupy Kickstarter, and it was his idea to self-distribute Occupy Comics. As a longtime fan of Bad Religion and Epitaph Records (Gurewitz's label), Pizzolo was psyched that the musician wanted to be involved. The pair discussed the fact that comic books have a rich history of telling subversive stories with a message, but there was a hole in the market. They arrived at the conclusion that, if they were going to build a pipeline for Occupy Comics, there would be real value in making it available to other progressive voices who couldn't find a home elsewhere. So they formed Black Mask.

The ethos of the house is to uncover previously undiscovered voices — artists and writers — who have something to say that might not jell neatly with the image of the bigger companies, for whatever reason. Pizzolo goes so far as to say that, if another publisher would publish a title, it probably isn't right for Black Mask. Pizzolo asks comic book creators to fill out a questionnaire in order to get a feel for what they're about — how personal their story is to them.

"It's just a different approach than listening to concepts over and over," he says. "We're not investing in concepts, we're investing in people, so you have to suss out who these people are and what they want to do. And it's actually kind of a lot of work to fill out the questionnaire, and that alone is a bit of a winnowing process, because you have to really want to submit to Black Mask to go through the bother of doing it. But it also enables us to get a sense of the core ideas within the work, what it's really about, besides the basic stuff like genre and plot. And it's been pretty effective. We get tons and tons of submissions and we're a boutique shop — we have no interest in competing in terms of volume, so unfortunately we can't pick up all that many books. But the questionnaire has given us some of our most exciting books. Kim & Kim, for example, came in through the submission form."

Ah yes, Kim & Kim. Created by Magdalene "Mags" Visaggio, the book tells the tale of a pair of interdimensional bounty hunters who happen to be queer. The inspiration, Visaggio says, came from Starbucks.

"I was in line at a Starbucks waiting for my drink, and there were two teenagers hanging out in front of me who were both named Kim and I thought that was a fun title," she says. "I reverse engineered it from there. I wrote the book around the idea of having two heroines with the same name who would be very good friends. I thought through a bunch of different things. What would these people be doing? I landed on interdimensional bounty-hunting. Everything else popped in fairly quickly in terms of what the book was going to be. There wasn't a key moment of inspiration. The whole thing with Kim & Kim is it's nothing but me throwing shit against the wall. I call it 'trash gumbo.' All the shit that I love, in four issues."

Visaggio is keen to point out that, while the title characters identify as queer, neither Kim nor Kim is actually gay. More importantly, the book isn't about their queerness.

"I guess it's the thing everyone

 wants to focus on," she says. "It's a trans main character written by a trans person, and that's really rare in comics. I understand that and I've definitely ridden that wave. But the book isn't about transness or queerness as such. It's always been about these two people who are both queer, and their super-fucked-up lives. But the book's about two 20-something best friends doing their best to establish themselves as grown-ups and utterly failing. It's a book about failure."

The fact that the book features a trans main character (Kim Quatro, for the record) but that her transness isn't the focus of the book is all-important. When that is revealed in the story, it's done without drama. The characters are all previously aware, and it's mentioned in a matter-of-fact manner during a very natural conversation. That's what makes the book so vital.

"That got a lot of attention, how I handled that scene," Visaggio says. "Part of it for me, is I just want to normalize queerness. I want queer characters who are just living queer lives but whose lives are not defined solely by their queerness. I don't have any stories in the works where the spotlight is on queerness. The closest is another Black Mask book later this year [Sex, Death, Revolution], which is the most overtly trans thing I've ever written. Even then, the book's really about universal themes of getting older, dealing with not being the person you thought you were going to be and stuff like that."

Black Mask Studios Is Dragging the Comic Book Medium Into the Politically Aware Era
Courtesy Black Mask Studios

Another Black Mask title that has been making waves for all the right reasons is Black, which asks the intriguing question, what if only black people had superpowers? The book was created by Kwanza Osajyefo and Tim Smith 3 and was inspired by Osajyefo's experiences working in comic books but not seeing many staff members who were people of color, LGBTQ or women. It is, he says, a very male-dominated industry, and that lack of diversity is reflected heavily in the stories that are being told.

"It became very clear to me that the reason I wasn't seeing myself and characters of color in comic books is because there were very few in the business," he says. "I was a fan of things like the Avengers, the X-Men and stuff like that, and all superhero books have these characters who are outsiders on some level. The difference being, particularly with the X-Men, they can take these costumes off and move about through normal society. Nobody's going to give them any guff. With stories like that attempting to be analogies or parables for discrimination, it just fell flat to me. It literally made me think, what if only black people had superpowers? That's the tagline for Black. Once that sentence emerged in my mind, it was sort of like an explosion."

The story is about a young man named Kareem Jenkins who gets misidentified by the police, shot and killed. Unlike in real life, he comes back to life with superpowers and finds that he's part of a small group of people who have had powers for centuries. He has to decide if he's going to help keep it a secret, or if he's going to be out and proud about who he is and what he can do. Black led to spinoff titles that took the concept in other, equally intriguing directions. One of those is America's Sweetheart, within which it is revealed that the most powerful being in the world is a black woman.

"With America's Sweetheart, I wanted to expand the line," Osajyefo says. "It was about thinking, there are black people who really do believe in America, what it can stand for and what it can be. It intrigued me to think about a young, superpowered black girl who really believes and is intrinsically good herself. She sees the best in people, she wants to be a hero, wants to make people at peace with the idea that there are suddenly superpowered black people. So she puts on the patriotic suit and decides to go out there and become a superhero, and help."

Things don't go well for our hero, though. The social media–driven, cynical world that we live in leads to a backlash that threatens to drag her down.

"To put it into context, there are parts in the book where she saves people, and then it's questioned — why did you save those people versus these other people?" Osajyefo explains. "That's something that you can uniquely say is a black experience. 'You're really going to question why I did this? Save people? Why should it matter whose cat it is? I got it out of the tree.' It's something that I really thought about in terms of giving room to tell the story of a black character, but also with the Obama experience — on paper he was a particularly good president. And yet, for those who were just contrary to him as a person, he's the worst president there's ever been. It's the sort of thing where, I thought if you paralleled that in a superhero, and had someone who's by every measure doing the right thing but still questioned, it would make an intriguing story."

Another Black spinoff, Widows and Orphans, is chillingly prophetic, telling the tale of the children of superpowered people being torn away from their parents and sold on the black market. Considering the children being separated from their parents in the news right now, Osajyefo says it's one of many examples of how he's damned to be relevant.

"This might be news now, but it's been going on," he says. "The same as discrimination, prejudice and racism has been going on — we just have more public mediums now to bring that to the surface or to a larger audience's attention. When I was writing this, I was actually thinking more about the slave trade that's going on still on Northern Africa and the Middle East. In the Sudan, a lot of people are still being captured and put into slavery. I just read an article about children in the Congo being forced to work in coal mines. It's a real tragedy that we live in this modern society where we're inventing self-driving cars, but we can't seem to solve these basic human things like not enslaving children."

Osajyefo believes that, while Marvel's movies have made progress in representing characters of color, there's plenty of work to be done within the pages of the comic books. DC, meanwhile, is some way behind Marvel.

"In terms of bigger media like television and film, where I think you have a little more diversity, you're seeing people far more willing to give up the reins, particularly because they want that success," he says. "If you look at Black Panther, that was Kevin Feige [president of Marvel Studios] stepping out of the wind and saying, 'This is not my wheelhouse. I understand the character and all that stuff, but somebody else needs a different kind of passion for it.' That's not necessarily what we see in publishing. Like I said, I think Marvel's doing a better job of it. DC's still quite tone-deaf in my opinion, and I think a lot of that stems from internal staffing. If you don't have the people sitting in a room, influencing the content, interacting with the higher-ups, then there's a lot of things that I think just aren't in their purview."

Ultimately, Black Mask has proven to be the perfect home for Osajyefo and his titles. He was already a fan of Matt Rosenberg's We Can Never Go Home book, before he knew that it was a Black Mask title. A Kickstarter to find a publisher for Black saw Black Mask come forward, and the creators were sold.

"Just realizing that they had a no-holds-barred, punk-rock ethos, and a lot of books that were telling a story that had much more meaning and purpose to them," Osajyefo says. "That was something I thought was a shared ethos. It became a no-brainer. Despite the branding overlap [Black in Black Mask], it wasn't even a thought. This is where we belong. It's been a great ride, too. They're all about going out there and stirring the pot, and we are, too."

Black Mask Studios Is Dragging the Comic Book Medium Into the Politically Aware Era
Courtesy Black Mask Studios

Alexis Ziritt, the Venezuelan artist on the frankly beautiful Space Riders book, concurs, saying the people at Black Mask essentially let the creators do "what we want." That level of creative freedom is naturally going to be attractive to writers and artists, but that's the result of the rigorous vetting process Pizzolo talked about. There's a trust that these people want to tell real stories with real meaning. Important work that will rattle cages. Pizzolo doesn't need to micromanage. That said, when he needs to get involved, he does. When he felt that the Kim & Kim title was going to get lost in the immense pile of comic books that are published each month, he wrote letters to retailers in order to get their support championing it.

"I knew it was special, but I also knew comic shops would have no way of knowing that it was special," Pizzolo says. "Even though there's thousands of comic shops, there's just a couple of hundred 'tastemaker' comic shops who really make or break books. If a comic shop clerk is championing a book, it makes all the difference. It was good timing right before Kim & Kim came out because Black Mask had just had a string of hits. So I hand-wrote letters to the top 200 comic shops about why I thought Kim & Kim was special and important, and why I thought they should give it a chance and champion it and share it with their customers. I still hear comic shop owners, buyers and clerks tell me that letter made all the difference in them deciding to give the book a chance. It was just a nudge, though — after me giving a heads-up, it was all about quality."

While Pizzolo has taken to the role of publisher, distributor and marketing guru like a duck to water, it's worth remembering that he came to this as a comic book creator himself. Some of the more popular titles in the Black Mask arsenal are his own. And they're just as incendiary as any of the house's other titles.

Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion and Epitaph Records has a hand in Black Mask Studios as well.
Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion and Epitaph Records has a hand in Black Mask Studios as well.
Courtesy Black Mask Studios

"My books might have big genre concepts but they all come from a personal place," he says. "They have that authentic core in the middle. Calexit is a funny story because people always assume the book is just a reactionary hit piece against Trump becoming president, but I put that book together before the election. It was inspired by two things: In a broad way it was about how toxic the primary season had become, how it seemed like even like-minded people of the same party couldn't agree on anything, and people who weren't like-minded were literally punching each other on TV. But then the personal part was, it was during the peak of the California drought when, if you asked for a glass of water at the diner and didn't finish it, everyone would look at you like you were a monster. And all this was happening at a time where even Democrats were at each other's throats over Bernie or Hillary, or the Republican primary where the candidates themselves were insulting each other so viciously I didn't even feel comfortable letting my kids watch the debates. And that's where Calexit came from."

He has other similarly thought-provoking books, such as Young Terrorists and Billionaire Killers. Pizzolo knows exactly what he wants from a Black Mask comic book, and it's an ethos he carries forward into his regular life. There will be a Black Mask presence at San Diego Comic-Con this year, including panels and signings, but more important, there will be some Calexit-related political organizing going on.

"After the election, we felt that a lot of our readers were feeling more at risk than they had been before the election, so it became really important to us that the comic not wallow in dystopia at a time when people are scared," Pizzolo says. "We didn't want anyone to be more depressed when they put the book down than they were when they picked it up, so we decided to use the back of the book as a place for positive, constructive nonfiction stuff about political organizing and how people can get involved in grassroots politics if they want to. So I started interviewing organizers and activists for the back of the comic, and that developed into me forming a super PAC called Become the Government that I fund with my profits from Calexit, and I've been documenting the process in the back of the comic. It was pretty thrilling that both candidates we covered in the back of the comic just won their primaries. It's an exciting time to be involved. I keep saying local politics is the new punk rock."

At Comic-Con, Calexit will be working with the grassroots organizing group Indivisible: San Diego on a voter registration drive. Pizzolo is also doing a special panel with the Indivisible organizers. He's determined to not only tell important, all-inclusive stories but also to make sure that translates into important, real-world work.

Yeah, this isn't The Avengers.

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