Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted by Sean Z. and Allen Thomas.
There is no way to process 2020, or American history, without discussing Black lives, Black experiences, and Black narratives. Through COVID and burgeoning summer protests against police murder of Black people, there has been a necessity to put Blackness at the center of the American consciousness. While these things are an ever-running current, so is the understanding that art, including comics, has held a vital role in coping with a pandemic — and Blackness should also be centered there.
Sanford Greene and Frederick Jones are accomplished Black creators in comics. Jones runs the diversity-focused Saturday AM brand, while Greene is an Eisner Award-winning artist, known for his work with Marvel and DC, as well as his creator-owned series Bitter Root with David Walker. They spoke to Comicosity about their experiences of being Black in the comics industry.
Greene and Jones were members of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, which they both say helped to shape their careers. Phi Beta Sigma is one of the Divine Nine, the Black fraternities and sororities under the National Pan-Hellenic Council. Phi Beta Sigma helped Jones and Greene find camaraderie with other Black creators and professionals during college.
“It really is a long history, when it comes to our fraternities and just the connections to the Black community,” Greene said, while explaining what drew him to join Phi Beta Sigma. “There’s a certain religious connotation to it to some to some degree. That really impacts the Black community, especially coming from an educational or academic standpoint.”
Jones commented that his great Uncle, Maynard Jones, was a member of Gamma Gamma, one of the older chapters of Phi Beta Sigma. “That legacy hung over me a little bit,” he said. “As Sanford said, the idea of doing something for your community is so strong in the Black Greek community.” While Jones said he isn’t very religious, he noted the community focus is also commonly seen in Black churches. “It’s this idea of community uplifting, particularly within the Black community. I think that’s something very specific to Black Greek organizations, and it’s something really strong within it.”
When asked if they first got into comics and nerd culture through their fraternities, Jones laughed. “Definitely not. You’re born a nerd.”
Greene agreed, and commented that while there is a “oneness” that the Greek organizations can provide, they’re very individualized. Diversity is part of the draw. Greene said, “You have everything from a Vice President to comic book creator.” And that’s why he believes there’s an increased focus on Black Greek organizations and the work they do now, after Vice President Kamala Harris — a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, another Divine Nine organization — referenced Black fraternities and sororities in her acceptance speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention
Greene and Jones said there’s a belief that most people who join Black Greek organizations are not in creative fields. Still, the work done by Black creatives is just as important. Jones explained, people “assume [Black Greeks] do law, or some sort of politics or some sort of business. But [Black creatives] are literally affecting the way people view culture and representation for the next generation — these young people who grew up reading Bitter Root, Power Man and Iron Fist, will see the work of Sanford Greene and be inspired for things in the future.”
Developing diverse media is critical for both men. Jones said he was first exposed to comics by his brother in the ‘70s, through Power Man and Iron Fist and Ghost Rider and Shang Chi, but he didn’t become truly interested in the medium until his school librarian brought in issues of Shonen Jump. He said Shonen Jump in the ‘80s was “mind blowing,” when all he had experienced previously was Marvel Comics. “I had never seen anything like it, and that carried with me throughout my high school years.”
Jones said his later push to develop a publication focused on diverse manga was heavily influenced by his time in Phi Beta Sigma. His experience at the fraternity cemented the concept that there is no universal Blackness, and Black people are not a monolith — there are many different and valuable ways of existing across, within, and throughout the African diaspora. Connections creators weave through their personal, professional, and creative histories are similar to the multifaceted ways of being in the diaspora.
However, the idea of diversity within the Black experience was at odds with the media Jones was exposed to growing up. As he explained, “In the ‘80s, a Black character talked like this and he was a big strong guy and that was pretty much it. He couldn’t be allowed to have a range of emotions. He was never the handsome one, never the sly one, and if witty, it was a slick kind of witty, kind of a pimp type. That was your choice for heroism and identity. If you were a middle-class Black kid like me, who was into geeky stuff, you saw no connection to any of those characters.”
Phi Beta Sigma challenged that view for Jones by giving him a chance “to see all this Black excellence, people who are just doing so many types of things… There are so many stories to tell about Blackness.” He noted a similar shift in media, from Ta Nehisi Coates’ work with Black Panther to Greene’s work with Bitter Root.
The fraternity also provided Jones with an opportunity to see Blackness from other regions. “If you’re a Black kid from a predominately Black city, like Detroit or Atlanta, your view of Blackness is going to be very walled off, because it’s just what you’ve seen in that area,” he said, but the college setting allows people to interact with others from all over the world.
Being able to incorporate multiple perspectives is vital to telling inclusive stories, and geographic diversity is one of things Jones is trying to pursue with Saturday AM. He explained the publication recruited four creators from Africa (Nigeria, Niger, South Africa and Senegal), and said he had one of the most extraordinary experiences of his life working with these creators and learning about just some of the various components of the African diaspora.
Greene and Jones both described recruiting for their fraternity as preparation for seeking talent for their various professional projects. As Jones explained, “The talent pool is always limited… you’re looking at this great group of young Black people coming in as freshman and sophomores. You know what? You’re not the only ones looking at them.”
Jones explained that sense of competing for the best is everywhere – “Marvel competes with DC. Viz competes with Kodansha. ComiXology’s competing with Webtoon and so many other groups, so [college] is a microcosm of so much of how the business world operates.”
Throughout our interview, it’s clear Jones and Greene have a strong connection with each other. Greene said making connections through Phi Beta Sigma has continued through his work in the comics industry. The Divine Nine, in particular, provide a foundation for meaningful bonds even through unexpected interactions.
Greene shared that when he met with a screenplay writer for a project, the screenwriter saw Greene’s Phi Beta Sigma hat, and asked “Oh, what chapter?” While he wasn’t part of the fraternity, he understood what it was. And that provides another connection, in the same way Greene and this screenwriter discussed their favorite comics growing up. Greene explained both the fraternity connection and their shared nerddom “allowed the business side to be even more seamless.”
Greene went on, “’The geeks shall inherit the Earth.’ I think that’s a true statement, because it’s all these different facets you find on every level, whether you’re a CEO at a company or you run a comic book shop. You will find common ground with a lot of people in those different aspects. It bridges a lot of different viewpoints and backgrounds and interests, because of that one foundational thing, that love for geek culture.”
Regarding how comics create intra-community development among people, and especially among Black folks, Jones said it’s important to represent the diversity of the Black experience in entertainment as a whole. He said, “We all know it’s entertainment that begins to shift the popular perspective of people who traditionally would have a negative view about something,” and cited how the TV show 24, with Dennis Haysbert, made the idea of a Black president less foreign to many Americans, well before former President Barack Obama was elected.
“I think it’s imperative for the work that Sanford I do, so that we can teach our young people in our community that no, your Blackness is not defined by how you talk, how you dress. It’s defined by what you’re doing, positively, that can uplift the people around you. That is the marker of what it means to be a positive Black experience,” Jones said. “You can do that and be someone who’s not a rapper, and not an athlete. You can do that and be someone who’s an artist, be someone who’s a social or community organizer, but we have to show that. We have to give people those viewpoints. If we don’t, then the perspective gets limited as to what Blackness is.”
Greene agreed, and noted that he once saw Jones give an interview on diversity in comics and spotted the Phi Beta Sigma shield in the background. He said he felt euphoric when he saw that shield, because there was that shared connection to someone else in the comics industry. There are many people in fraternities and sororities that are huge geeks, Greene explained, but it’s possible to show them that you can go beyond just appreciating geek culture and actually make it a career.
Jones’ mention of intersecting identities for Black folks, particularly those in the LGBTQ community, and Greene’s discussion of what it means to find others with shared interests are both pivotal aspects of everyone’s reality. Everyone deserves to be seen, fully and wholly, and to be in the company of people who are similar to them and who care about their peers. It’s important for creative industries to honor these realities, to give voice, power, and space so creators may be heard through their own stories.
Greene is teaching a masterclass at his alma mater, Benedict College, consisting of a dozen Black creators, including comics artists, animators, storyboard designers, and more. He said half of the guest lecturers are Black women, and he was intentional about that. “There’s a lot of people that are still in this space of not really, truly seeing this representation the way it needs to be,” he said. He also highlighted the work of Afua Richardson, Ashley Woods, and Asiah Fulmore, three Black women in comics.
Jones mentioned that manga and anime, despite becoming so much more mainstream, still has quite a ways to go in including diverse creators and characters. Before Saturday AM, it was difficult to reference or name Black manga creators. Now, Black men are more prominent in that space, but Jones and his team are striving to hire more Black creators of marginalized genders, as well.
Jones noted that in order to move beyond diversity-by-way-of-lip-service, hiring professionals need to look at the uncomfortable parts of history and craft a new framework for bringing people in.
He said that while hiring practices and overall diversity in comics and entertainment have improved, there’s still more work to be done. “The answer is always yes. It’s gotten better. It’s always yes,” he said. “The problem with that is — as I think so many young people know all too well — it’s a question of, is that good enough? How much has it improved? It’s not the fact that it got better. We’re not getting hung anymore from trees. So it’s better, but we’re still being denied jobs. We’re still not occupying high level positions in organizations. We still have a third of the wealth of the average white family. So how much better has it gotten? That’s the fundamental question. … And the challenge is: How do we continue to demonstrate that we need to fight for more representation, not just on the page, but behind the scenes?”
Jones went on to explain that comics and manga need to demand real change, because “without the demand, you will not see people taking the effort to improve.” He also noted that diversity goes beyond characters themselves. “Diversity means you actively look for more diversity in your hiring,” he said, and diverse voices can’t all come from the same background. Furthermore, diversity in sales and marketing can lead to discovering new audiences. Jones noted, “Perhaps [comics and manga] could be sold in barbershops. … That kind of thinking outside the box is necessary.”
Additionally, Jones also stressed the need for more creator-owned content, which is a major component of the mission at Saturday AM. Creator-owned content enables authenticity and a sense of ownership for marginalized creators. To that end, Jones moves new initiatives forward only when the right creators can take the helm. For example, his company didn’t start its queer and women focused sub-brand, Saturday Brunch, until it employed creators from the LGBTQ community.
In general, diversity at indie publications is better than at the Big Two. Greene commented there are new series at DC and Marvel that are “all in the name of diversity,” but the people making decisions at these publishers are still mostly white and mostly men. He called it the “I voted for Obama” theory, which is essentially the idea that white professionals in comics consider themselves immune to critiques of diversity because “We’ve got Black characters.”
Jones took a moment then to ask Greene a question: “Three or four years ago, we saw all these headlines about how diversity was driving people away from comics – how Ms. Marvel was going to hurt comic stores. Yet, today, Marvel is committing billions of dollars to introduce people to Kamala Khan and Riri Williams. Don Cheadle is going to be on a TV show. What caused this shift?”
Greene’s answer was simple: “I think they saw Black Panther make a billion dollars… Until comics can show that they can do something like that, it’s going to be what it is.” While happy Black Panther did well, Greene did express frustration that the stakes for Black Panther to do well were so high: “Literally all of Blackness was on the shoulders of that one character, which is sad.”
At the same time, Greene said Black Panther was a sort of celebration for Black kids: “It was my kids’ Roots or Coming to America.” This made him excited for his own work. Black Panther showed there is a clear demand for Blackness in comic stories, and “if we can do 5 percent of [Black Panther], we’ll be doing just as good as the top selling book at Marvel and DC.”
These fans exist. They may not be in comics stores, but they came out to see Black Panther. The challenge is finding them. Jones also noted that successful comics with diverse characters, by diverse creators, are often graphic novels that are sold in bookstores, as well as comic shops. And graphic novel sales have skyrocketed.
Although the numbers prove that diversity sells, which is always a sticking point for businesses, there’s a false narrative in comics that Black people will pick up media with white protagonists, but white people won’t read about Black heroes. As Jones explained, “Regardless of a reader’s specific demographic, if it’s a cool story, they’ll like it.”
“The straight white male perspective is the dominant one in this industry,” Greene added. “They’re still using that system and using that perspective to try to tell diverse stories … which makes it disingenuous.” The problem with disingenuous diversity (or tokenism, as Greene described it: “here’s our gay character, here’s our Asian character”), is that it’s poorly received by the demographic it aims to court, which then feeds the narrative that diverse stories do not work in comics. Greene explained, “Look who’s trying to tell the story. Look who’s trying to sell it.”
The straight white male perspective has become so ubiquitous that even some creators of color have internalized it. Jones commented that one of the Saturday AM creators, a Black man from Nigeria, initially didn’t have any Black characters in his work. When Jones asked why, he responded, “I didn’t want it to seem forced.” As Jones explained, “When we don’t fight for these things, even Black kids — even African Black kids — look at the situation and say, ‘It can’t be right to put this Black character front and center, because people are going to think I’m trying to do this,’ as opposed to the story just being about a Black character.” Yet that same standard is never applied to white characters, especially not in the manga/anime space. Jones added, “When Japanese people write a series like Full Metal Alchemist, what do you think is forced about that? Japan doesn’t have German white kids running around.”
“We have to be real about why representation matters, because Black kids get caught on that same perspective that whiteness is the goal. Whiteness is the standard. That’s what happens when we don’t challenge that and show them that no, manga does not require a spiky haired character with blue eyes and blonde hair, or say, ‘That character can be Black and have an African hairstyle, brown eyes, and a shapely nose, that they could be from Africa and the story could still be interesting,’” Jones said. “We can show that as a reality and not have to apologize for it. I love the way manga flows, but I don’t have to feel weird that the character looks like me, because manga can look like that. And I don’t have to feel weird if the character is Black but doesn’t look like me or doesn’t represent me fully. I can still love a character who’s Black and gay. I could still love a character who’s Black and trans and the hero. I can still love a character who’s a Black woman who’s shapely and not super thin, and still is considered the beautiful person everybody wants to get with. I can respect a black female lead character.”
He continued, “We can have those perspectives. These [stories in Saturday AM] are serious Shonen and manga-style comics for everybody, but the hero is not going to be your standard white or Asian character. The more we do that, the more we change everybody’s views of what content can be. And that’s a positive. It changes their perspective in terms of what they believe is possible. That’s got to be the goal, I think to some degree.”
You can find both Sanford Greene and Frederick Jones on Twitter. The first issue of Greene’s Bitter Root is available for free from Image comics, and you can read the most recent issues of Saturday AM on their website.