A Writer With Writers: On Creating Black Superheroes, Shaping Culture, and (Re)Claiming Monsters Part II
As always, Part One of my blog, “A Writer With Writers: On Creating Black Superheroes, Shaping Culture, and (Re)Claiming Monsters” is available on the Maryland Humanities website.
I. The Beginning
One of my favorite childhood activities was reading (very slowly) the Sunday comics. Since I have always had a love affair with reading, my mother decided, early on, that I would be the last child to have the page. I have three siblings and they would always quickly read their favorite comic strip and then pass the paper on to the next person. As a pastor’s daughter, we went to church early every Sunday morning and I could barely sit through the morning prayer and the scripture reading and my father’s sermon because of how excited I was about reading the comics and entering into the lives of the characters once more. I get home and go and sit in my reading corner, coloring, until my mother bought me the page. When it was my turn to get the paper, my mother (who knew that this was an important moment) would walk over to me and quietly announce that the paper had arrived. I would take it and lay it out in front of me and spend the rest of the afternoon, reading and rereading every single strip. These characters were my friends and I was delighted to read about how much their lives had changed since we last talked. I loved the humor, the seriousness, and the playful way that the cartoonist would use the strip to talk about politics, life, childhood, teenage angst, friendship, and sorrow. When I did not understand a strip, I would take it to my father and he would read it and we would sit and talk about what we thought that the comics artist (or cartoonist, or writer) was trying to say. My father believed that the mark of a talented comics artist was that they had the ability to pull you into the strip, giving you just enough information where you can began to draw conclusions, to write the next frame, to finish the story for yourself. He would encourage me to write my own ending and then check the paper the following Sunday to see if the writer agreed. I would sometimes create my own strips but since I could not draw, I would simply write the words and imagine the pictures. This love of comic strips naturally developed into a love for comic books by the time I reached high school. It was a guilty pleasure and in between studying for chemistry or writing a history paper, I would read about Superman (though I challenged this idea of an alien being the most humane person on earth) or Spiderman (though I could not believe that a radioactivity spider could really change a person’s dna) or Batman (though I could not get over the fact that he was just a rich man with a bunch of really cool toys). There were many days when I was frustrated looking and hoping for a comic book character that looked like me. Where are the black heroes, I would often ask my father. He said that our heroes were real and I should look to the life of Dr. King or Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks or Malcolm X as an example of what sacrifice and goodness and humanity looked like when it was real rather than imagined.
I agreed with him until I arrived at The Lincoln University for undergraduate school and received a copy of Brotherman from my advisor, Guy A. Sims. This was an amazing moment for a bright-eyed girl who loved superheroes to finally receive a comic book with a black superhero. I remember how Dr. Sims would talk about how he and his brother, Dawud Anyabwile, had created Brotherman because they wanted to see black superheroes alive and active on the page. I believe that there are moments in your life when you encounter something or someone who has the ability to shift the direction in which your life is going. When I received that comic book and I began to read it (very slowly), I knew then that I wanted to dedicate my life (and at 18 years old, I did not know what that would look like) to making sure that the stories and the lives of people that looked like me were always included and shared with bright eyed boys and girls who loved the stories and want (and need) to see someone who look like them included on the page. This month, I was delighted to sit down with my former college advisor, Dr. Guy A. Sims, and talk about his work as a writer, a comics artist, and a graphic novelist and his latest project (with his brother) doing adapting Walter Dean Meyer’s book Monster into a graphic novelist.
II. #Comicbooks as a Tool of Cultural Commentary
Why did you decide to be involved in this project?
When the project was brought to my attention, I wasn’t sure of how to even begin to approach it. I knew there were some fundamental differences between writing a comic book and a graphic novel, so it required a little story structural research on my part. I read a couple of popular graphic novels and thought about how I would present the material. Secondly, I was not familiar with the book Monster. I read the book about four or five times, seeking to understand the story, the characters, but most importantly, what Walter Dean Myers was trying to convey. After developing my comfort level, I was excited to get started, even though I was still very nervous. After submitting my first couple of pages to Mr. Myers and the representatives at Harper-Collins and receiving very positive responses, I knew I had what it took to do this.
Which writers inspire you?
My all time favorite writer, the one who inspired me to want to attempt to be a writer, is Richard Wright. My father introduced him to me when I was in sixth grade. I started with Black Boy, moved to The Long Dream, and then Native Son. After that, I was introduced to many African American authors whose styles and themes continued to intrigue me. People like Baldwin, Hansberry, Cullen, McKay, and others. Like many young writers, I tried to emulate their styles until I felt comfortable with my way of storytelling. Today, I am still influenced by writers. Contemporary writers that I look to for inspiration are people like Bebe Moore Campbell, E. Lynn Harris, and Octavia Butler.
What does being a writer mean to you?
Being a writer means the ability to shape culture. This is not an egoistic statement but that to be able to take a statement, position, theme, or concept and deliver it into a format that’s intellectually digestible is pretty powerful. In fact, my father told me always to believe in what I wrote because people who read your writing will believe you. Being a writer is also liberating. It is an outlet for feelings. Whether I’m down or happy, confused, or angry, whatever, I can find a way to express it…and in that process, analyze what is going on inside. Then, if I share it with someone, they may find the same internal resolution needed.
What book do you wish you could have written?
I don’t think in terms of what book had I wished I had written, rather there are some stories I would love to re-tell from my experience and perspectives. The truth is, there are no new stories in the world. The human experience is so similar across the globe. That’s what makes stories great. You don’t have to be from the same culture or country to understand human conflict, pain, joy, etc. One day I’ll tell my version of the film, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
You refer to yourself as a scholar/writer – can you explain what this means to you?
Being a scholar writer means my writing, the poems, prose, fiction, etc., are informed by my academic research. My writing focuses on intimate relations between groups of people. I read a lot of non-fiction and academic books on social interaction, conflict theory, and history, and group dynamics. They form the foundation for how I approach stories.
What writing advice do you have for other aspiring authors?
I have several pieces of advice. 1. Be your first cheerleader. That is, celebrate when you complete a project, write a passage, develop a concept. 2. A bad idea is an idea whose time may not be right or needs a tweak or just needs a whole makeover. Save them; it may not be right for you at the moment, but you never know…one day. 3. When it is ready for the world, give it to the world. Sometimes writers ask for lots of opinions and that’s what you’ll get…diverse opinions. When that happens, many writers never finish. Complete your work and then let it go. Someone’s gonna love it, and someone’s gonna hate it. 4. Read writers outside of your genre, listen to music you are not familiar with, go to art shows you don’t understand, and go to places unfamiliar. All of this and more will feed your creativity. 5. Most of all, write whenever you can. Think of all the time spent in front of the TV that could have been used for your creativity. 6. Last, carry a small notepad and pencil with you for when you’re hit with inspirations thunderbolt.
Tell us about the cover/s and how it/they came about?
When working with my brother Dawud Anyabwile (the best artist there is), I convey to him my ideas or a simple concept. I don’t go into a lot of detail, but if there is something specific I need, I will make sure he understands. Covers and other graphic art components are products of good communication. All collaborative projects require solid communication.
Fifty years from now, how would you like your work to be taught/explained and/or built upon?
I understand that my works, in the future, will not belong to me. My intentions and perspectives will fall away to be interpreted by the new readers…and that’s okay. I did that to William Shakespeare. I read his works and applied them to my life and understandings. That will happen to those who read my works. In fact, it happens now. I have had people write to me or contact me and tell me what they thought my writings were about and what meanings they held. Of course, it may not have been my intentions, but I’m happy to know they connected with it in their own way. That’s what writing and art are all about.
What would you like to add?
I want to encourage people to know that we all have a story to tell. I often hear people say they can’t make up stories (or poems or whatever). Truth is, we tell stories every day when relating our experiences. We tell stories when our significant others or children make us mad when we find money in the street when we fall in or out of love. Stories are in us…just don’t be afraid to set them free.
Why did you decide to write/release comic books? -What is your next project?
The comic books began as a marketing tool for my brother’s airbrush business and then it turned into the opportunity to step into the comic book world. While I had never written a comic book before that time, I knew it was something I could learn to do…and I did.
I have a number of projects on the horizon. I have the fifth installment of the Duke Denim detective series to complete this summer, my brother and I are working on the second edition of the Brotherman Graphic Novel, Revelation, and I am laying out the foundation for my next novel, which looks at the Virginia Tech shootings. There are also a couple of others that are in the works…I stay busy.
About the Writer: Guy A. Sims, Ed.D., is the Assistant to the President for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the Title IX Coordinator at Bluefield State College. He is the principle writer for the Brotherman series and is also the author of The Cold Hard Cases of Duke Denim and the critically acclaimed novel, Living Just A Little. Guy has recently written the adaptation for MONSTER: The Graphic Novel by Walter Dean Myers, which is published by Harper Collins Publishing.
Linkedin: Dr. Guy A.Sims
Blog: I is the Future
About the Interviewer: Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D. is Associate Professor, Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland and the Founding Executive Director at The Emilie Frances Davis Center for Education, Research, and Culture. Her new anthology, RaceBrave, was published in March 2016.