Fight the Power: Hip Hop and Comics

I know it’s a bit belated, but as John Ottinger has just pointed out, February is Black History Month, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a minute to give a shout-out to my favorite panel of last weekend’s Comic Con, the seemingly under-promoted Comics and Hip Hop panel (which was listed on the web but missing from the official program). The topic represents one of those areas of intense pop cultural crossover where the connections appear relatively simplistic and obvious, but are rarely explored in any meaningful way—in other words, unlike many of this year’s panels, it was an opportunity to engage with new insights and information, instead of a rehash of the usual opinions and already-familiar anecdotes.

Moderator Matt Powell effectively kicked things off by simply asking the participants to talk about their experiences growing up with comic books, beginning with Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, who pounced on the opportunity to show off a little of his devastating mic control and his awesomely geeky roots. As a kid growing up in Queens, McDaniels was a quiet, shy, straight-A Catholic school boy who loved superhero comics, and especially the Marvel universe; he got to know his future partner Reverend Run through swapping comics, and paid for his first turntables by selling off parts of his collection. The preference for Marvel turned out to be a point of consensus for the panel, for the obvious reason those titles were set in New York City (as opposed to fictional places like Gotham or Metropolis), thus instantly appealing to kids growing up in Queens (like panelists DMC and artist Kyle Baker), the Bronx (DJ Johnny “Juice” Rosado), and Long Island (Chuck D of Public Enemy, accompanied by S1W member James Bomb).

Both DMC and Chuck D described the integration of comics into hip hop as a natural progression, pointing out that funk bands like Earth, Wind and Fire and Parliament Funkadelic were part of a tradition in which band members invented spectacular personas and characters, often in costume, which was picked up and built upon by the originators of rap: the Cold Crush Brothers, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and other hip hop trailblazers.

Even without having to compete with the funk scene, young hip hop artists seemed to be drawn to the concept of an alter ego as well as to the high level of intelligence conventionally ascribed to their comic book heroes. As Juice noted, all of the major characters had smarts: Peter Parker, Mister Fantastic, Tony Stark…the Marvel universe made it seem cool to be a brainiac, to be creative, to go to school and care about education—to own your geekdom, basically. As DMC put it, “I was a nerd—but I was PROUD of it!” (to which Juice responded, “And, man, you made those glasses cool!”).

While the idea of creating an alter ego, a brash, fearless persona through which to express oneself appealed to these up-and-coming rappers, at the same time it was impossible to overlook the fact that the Silver Age pantheon of superheroes was whiter than bleached Wonder Bread. The multicultural appeal of popular real-life idols such as Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, and Sonny Chiba didn’t filter onto the page until later decades, inspiring artists like Kyle Baker not only to create new characters to reflect the experience of minorities, but to actually revisit and revise existing characters and mythos, as Baker did when he was offered the chance to create Isaiah Bradley, “the Black Captain America.”

And as traditional comic artists like Bill Sienkiewicz crossed over into drawing hip hop album covers (for rappers EPMD and the RZA), so did Baker and his contemporaries capitalize and expand upon the possibilities of the comic book form, pushing the creative envelope and providing commentary (and satire) on historical and political events in series like Baker’s Nat Turner and his 2004 collaboration with Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin, the graphic novel Birth of a Nation.

Finally, some intriguing parallels were drawn by the panel in discussing the rise of Gangsta Rap within the the context of the trend in superhero comics of the Eighties and Nineties toward darker, more morally ambiguous characterization. Chuck D lamented the fact that a certain cynicism had set in within the hip hop community as rappers began to realize that it could be more profitable to play along with negative media stereotypes than it was to maintain a positive message. In essence, the rise of Gangsta Rap and the violent East Coast/West Coast rivalry which fueled it coincided almost exactly with harder, grittier, more villain-driven comics, as if Frank Miller and Dr. Dre were somehow working off the same script.

Things now seem to be coming full-circle, with the rappers collaborating on their own comic books as a new way to reach out to audiences, including those who are too young to remember the Old School days. Throughout their careers, hip hop pioneers like Public Enemy and Run DMC have sought to engage their audience with provocative social commentary, candor, and wit. Chuck D and DMC hope to continue to do so through their collaborations with Adam Wallenta, extending a positive message to a new generation of impressionable minds, and reminding fans of both hip hop and comics that, as always, with great power comes great responsibility.


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