By Steven Zimmerman
I’ve attended many a ComicCon all over the country. They are – for the most part – fun and engaging. However, it seemed to me that something was lacking, at least in my opinion: greater diversity.
By this, I mean people of color, as well as people from other countries. Yes, in 1966 Marvel Comics brought the Black Panther and followed with the first African-American superhero, the Falcon, in 1969.
In 1972 Luke Cage, a “hero-for-hire”, was the first black superhero to star in his own series.
Okay, yes, there is also a lot of other mainstream “black” superheroes coming from Marvel and DC. Still, they don’t seem to be as popular as they should. Frankly I think there should be more.
While walking through El Paso ComicCon earlier this year, I overheard a conversation between a vendor and someone looking at his art. The vendor was asked why he was drawing African-American superheroes. His answer was what pushed me to stop and interview him.
“If we don’t represent ourselves,” he said, “who will do it?”
That vendor is Terry Huddleston, an artist with a great style.
Terry’s booth was lined with posters of his own creation, as well as his interpretation of other superheroes. As we spoke, as we attempted to record our conversation, person after person, group after group would stop and admire his work, as well as ask questions and buy his art.
I told him what I had overheard.
“Really the nuance of that is important for us to represent ourselves correctly. Because I mean, there’s a lot of outcry about how we’re misrepresented by other cultures, but at the same time in every culture is guilty of this, we always put our best foot forward, and it’s always, here’s the cream of the crop…the other 99% of the culture don’t get represented at all,” Huddleston shared.
“I kinda noticed that inverse where like, you know, nobody is representing heavyset women in ComicCon and they’re not representing certain types of body types and other aspects. It’s almost like, hey, let’s bring that to ComicCon and see what that does to the pop-culture sphere. And it has really been received very well”
As I was editing the audio of our conversation, and I really invite you to listen to that as well, I began to think about what he said, about who is and isn’t represented at ComicCon and in pop-culture.
Growing up I used to read almost any kind of comic book I could get my hands on Machine Man, X Factor, Super Girl, Captain Marvel, Blue Devil, Sun Devils, JLA Showcase, and so many others. As I listened to Huddleston speak, I began to realize that he was right, there isn’t that much diversity within comic books.
I realized that Huddleston was doing was more than art; he is also an ambassador in a way, helping to remove misconceptions and broaden the horizons of everyone he meets.
“I think I’m obviously just a soldier out of the many people that hope people overcome when it comes to the African American culture, they realize we’re just as diverse as any other culture. We’re not all one thing. We’re not all gangster rap, we’re not all this, you know, some of us are nerds, some of us are introverts, some of us were a lot of different things,” says Terry.
“I think by meeting me and my family as I travel across the country, I’ll actually get feedback, email, saying, hey, you know, it was really nice talking to you. And, some people will come outright and say you’re the first black person I ever talked to cause I’m living in a small town and thank you for coming to my small neck of the woods and exposing me to something different.”
Our conversation then drifted to culture and racism. The latter being a touchy subject in America right now.
“I think sometimes people confuse culture and race all the time,” Terry began on the subject of culture, and race, and how easily we can confuse the two.
“A certain race group might have a certain culture embedded inside of it, but it’s not the whole race. You know, let’s say Muslims for instance, their culture isn’t a terrorist culture. But that’s how we’ve equated it. I use it because that’s the most poignant example I can use,” said Terry.
“Same thing with African Americans. We can relate because we had a Bloods and Crips gang culture. But, it wasn’t our whole entire race that was in the Bloods and Crips. But it got conflated to be as such. And so once again, when that other comes around, it’s like, hey, they’re all gangsters and criminals. It’s like, no, only like a fractional percentage of us of us are, but we get the fly in the soup mix. The whole race group gets tainted in the eyes of whoever the power group is.”
He’s right. I’ll give you an example from my life. When I was last in New York City, I was meeting some friends of mine in Time Square – how cliché is that right.
We meet up and are discussing what we were going to do that evening when suddenly a group of plainclothes NYPD officers come out of nowhere and start dragging my friends one direction and me in another.
The two officers that were talking to me were asking me if I was being mugged, shaken down, or any other number of things that can happen in that city. I kept telling them that we were all friends. We’ve all known each other for twenty plus years. After about ten minutes of this, they recognized one of the people in our group.
The people I was meeting were a couple of comedians, an actor and a hip-hop artist. We all lived in the same building when I lived in NYC. But, or so the officers said, because I was white and dressed in a suit and they were all black and, these are his words, dressed like gangsters and a pimp, it looked as if I was being victimized.
I’ve been all over NYC. I’ve been to Harlem, even lived there for a spell. Would hit up clubs in Brooklyn and parties in the Bronx. Never one, never was I mugged, robbed or pick-pocketed. That’s how NYPD viewed each one of my friends. The problem is systemic. It’s not just confined to New York City.
I’ve seen issues just as the one I’ve described all over: Houston, Los Angles, Vegas, Chicago and Memphis. It’s sad. No, it’s disgusting. Racism is learned in a way that reinforces what is already there.
What do I mean? Terry explained it perfectly.
“Well, it’s hardwired into our primitive DNA. There was a time where “othering” was helpful. I don’t want to get into the scientific reason why that is. But back then, yeah, we lived in small tribes and that other tribe could do stuff to you. You develop this defense mechanism like if we don’t know you if you don’t act like us, dress like us, then we’re going to treat you like you’re dangerous. But now we still have that latent “othering” that we do in our brains…it’s to no good avail. And we create mythologies to justify the feeling, you know? So, I think it’s something that’s kind of going to be with us, but I think we have to be aware of it and mentalize it out of our society.”
Look at the world today, just today. As I write this, it’s Saturday the 27th of April 2019. In California, there was a shooting at a Synagogue. Yesterday a friend of mine, who happens to be a Shi’a Muslim, was berated because of her hajib.
In Houston, this morning, another friend of mine was yelled at because he was wearing a kufi (Islamic headwear). The person walking with him was Jewish – he was yelled at for even thinking of associating with a Muslim.
This needs to end. What Terry Huddleston is doing with his art, with each encounter, is helping to erase the lines of hate, suspicion and the ever-present thought of “they’re all the same anyway.”
During my conversation with Terry, I asked him what final words or thoughts he wanted to leave share everyone. What he said is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard for overcoming negative feelings, fear, or outright racist thoughts towards another group of peoples:
“Basically travel the country, get to know your country and your fellow countrymen more. I think it’ll sooth a lot of the woes in our country today. I also just to add a little point, ex-military that also helped because you got to see literally how culturally diverse our military is. It’s way more diverse than I think even Hollywood or anybody is willing to admit. I mean, people from India are in our military, people from all over the world are in our military fighting for our freedoms, and they have their justice patriotic, if not more than we are. They want a piece of the pie, so to speak. I think that being said, just having myriad experiences and getting out from underneath the rock I grew up under really helped me out. So that’s the last thing I want to say is get out from underneath your rock people and go travel.”
There is also so much more in our conversation that I invite you to take the time out to listen to it above. It’s only about ten minutes, but there is so much you will take away from it.