Black Mask Studios is a publisher I've been keeping up with since it was founded back in 2012 by Matt Pizzolo, Steve Niles and Brett Gurewitz as a space for transgressive comics to find an audience.

Occupy Comics was their first title and since then works as diverse as Toe Tag Riot, Ballistic, 12 Reasons to Die, Pirouette, Liberator, Godkiller and Space Riders have carved out a real niche in the market. Even Michael Moreci and Grant Morrison are joining the fun with Transference and the upcoming Sinatoro, alongside co-founder Niles' new sci-fi horror The Disciples.

 

Amancay Nahuelpan

 

August 5th sees the release of Young Terrorists #1 by Pizzolo and Amancay Nahuelpan, as a bumper size graphic novella released simultaneously in comic and book stores. I've poked folks towards it before --- explosive political sci-fi thriller is right up my geographical location to say the least.

When Marvel dropped news of their hip hop variants this week, the recent discussions on race in comics grew even larger. But it turns out, Marvel aren't the only publishers who thought to combine hip hop with their output, as Matt Pizzolo told me.

 

Nahuelpan, after 'By All Means Necessary', by Boogie Down Productions

 

ComicsAlliance: Black Mask typically don't advertise their variants, but with the Marvel announcement there are going to be more questions than usual over the hip hop variant choice for Young Terrorists. How did the idea of paying homage to hip hop albums come about, and what connection does it have to Young Terrorists as a work itself?

Matt Pizzolo: Lately, we’ve been doing sets of variant covers to support the retailers who back our books and creators. Since we sell digitally and in our online store, we go out of our way to show support for brick and mortar shops. We sell the variants at break-even cost just to give something cool and unique for the community to go out and support their local shops rather than just buying it online or downloading it.

We started doing theme variants that connect to the sensibility of the books recently. We Can Never Go Home’s hardcore punk homages, Transference’s historical political events references, Toe Tag Riot’s political music homages, Godkiller’s indie film homages, etc.

For Young Terrorists, it just made sense that the inspiration behind art expressing that level of rage and street politics was hardcore hip hop. It’s on the page, too. The book opens with a Nas quote from N.Y. State Of Mind, which is basically where the initial kernel of the idea to homage hip hop covers came from. But the book is rooted in that sensibility. It’s funny, when I was first developing Young Terrorists I actually talked to Ice-T’s manager about possibly working with him to include a character from one of his songs as a member of the Young Terrorists team.

Ultimately it didn’t work out, but the hip hop sensibility is authentic to the story and source material. I grew up in NY, I was on the streets, I slept on subway benches underneath Biggie posters, I love these records and they’re part of who I am. A lot of writing this comic is me remembering where I come from and what I think matters, so I also wanted to pay tribute to the artists that influenced me and made me feel there is a place for rage in art.

 

After 'Ready to Die', by The Notorious B.I.G.

 

CA: Obviously the reaction to the Marvel announcement of hip hop variants has been mixed to say the least, in a month where lack of black voices --- both on and behind the page --- has been met largely with silence from the large comic publishers and commentators (eg Strange Fruit as dissected by J. A. Micheline). How did you feel seeing the Marvel ones unveiled?

MP: It’s complicated because I assume a lot of the editors and creators at Marvel probably grew up on hip hop, so I don’t think it was intentionally callous. And obviously initially I was just bummed that they released theirs first, but as I went through the images I became kinda more rattled by the lack of care that seems to have gone into some of the choices.

The only albums we share in common are ODB and Biggie, and those were among the ones I was most concerned about doing since both ODB and Biggie died tragically. It really had to make sense for me to be willing to do those homages. I get the cleverness of Ant Man on Biggie and Howard The Duck on ODB, but it really felt cavalier and unsettling. They’re mocked up on DeviantArt and Tumblr every day, but it’s different to see major motion picture characters kind’ve mimicking those poses. It’s not so much the homage, it’s the context.

With our Ready To Die homage, there’s a statement in portraying those characters as babies with a rocket launcher. At the very least there was a reason to it. It’s a nod obviously, but it’s not simply a gag. If there wasn’t a message there we wouldn’t have done it.

People from a certain generation will remember where they were when JFK or Martin Luther King Jr died, and I remember where I was when I heard Biggie died and when Tupac died and when Eazy-E died and ODB died. And I was just an idiot white kid, but I don’t think it’s necessarily about who you are I think it’s about respecting the legacy.

 

After 'Straight Outta Compton', by N.W.A.

 

CA: I guess the crux is, we’ve just had SDCC and a lot of the comic announcements and panels were very white, still predominantly male, and with a definite leaning towards appropriation of black culture with little input from black voices. I know Black Mask put out 12 Reasons to Die from Ghostface Killah and RZA, but is diversity behind the scenes something you are aware of as co-founder of Black Mask?

MP: We’re mainly about supporting voices that challenge the status quo, so that can lead to a diversity of demographics as well as psychographics and any number of permutations, but it’s difficult to specifically put together a roster that looks as diverse as the readership does. It’s weird how difficult that is. It sucks how difficult that is.

And, while I recognize there’s a role for us in combating institutionalized bro-ness, as a small boutique I think the niche we fill is offering a place willing to, or designed to, support bold, provocative, confrontational voices wherever they may come from. And I’m hoping... look I know people write to be published and they write to be paid, so if there’s no publisher out there to do a politically provocative book then people will naturally self-censor, and I hope that by doing what we do it encourages even just one person to not self-censor and tell that story no one else is telling in comics.

That said, when the #comicsforward meme happened, I got real upset that I didn’t think our roster was diverse enough. And it’s not. But I looked at our roster at the time and found that 60% of our creators are not cis/white/straight/male. 60% is not as many as I want it to be and it’s even frustrating that the numbers force me to frame it as “NOT cis/white/straight/male” so we’re definitely still a ways off, but I think our numbers are probably more progressive than most if not all the major publishers. And certainly our content is. But I think it’s also relevant that this wasn’t done as a mandate, it just happened organically by focusing on supporting compelling voices regardless of where they come from.

 

After 'Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...', by Raekwon

 

CA: I’m white, so I’m looking at these Marvel covers and Young Terrorists covers side by side fully aware I am far from the best judge here especially given what happening contextually --- though it’s noticeable that the cast of Young Terrorists are a lot less white than your usual superhero roster for sure --- but what steps did you take to try and avoid appropriation?

MP: Yeah for what it’s worth the characters of Young Terrorists are ethnically diverse --- the core team is a black man, a Chinese young woman, a Guatemalan young man, and a white woman who’s the heiress to an oppressive power structure and knows she has to reject and combat that --- but I realize I’m a white man writing this stuff and my collaborator/cover artist, Amancay Nahuelpan, he’s Chilean but he grew up in Vancouver and we can’t hide behind the characters... although I do think those characters are partly what makes the hardcore hip hop homages feel thematically genuine to the story.

It’s hard to A/B these covers and assign “who’s more appropriating” or whatever, and certainly I’m not the one to judge that anyway, but obviously we’re both appropriating. All we can do is try and be creative while showing respect to those who came before us and who inspired our work.

I think it’s all about respecting the cultural legacy, at least I hope that’s what it’s all about because that’s really the best most of us can do. I don’t want to make this about me, but I can only speak from my own point of view. When I was 20 I was living out of a backpack in Alphabet City back when it was still called that and I wrote a screenplay about race/class/gender tensions I felt rising in two cultures I felt very much a part of: hardcore punk and underground hip hop.

And we wound up making the film ourselves on borrowed equipment, everybody in their teens and early 20s basically walking out of punk and hip hop shows onto the streets and learning how to make an indie film by doing it. When your team is literally living the lives you’re writing about, that’s when you find out if you created the whole thing with the proper respect.

And I got some things wrong, but everyone knew it was coming from a place of respect so there was never any anger. Everyone there was coming from a different culture/race/class/lifestyle/orientation etc and it was at times challenging but ultimately we were all able to collaborate and work together toward a shared goal. And I think the experience was really important to most if not all the people who were part of it. And my takeaway that informed my choices here is that it’s about respect.

So I try to be respectful when homaging these works. What would I have done differently had I been working on the Marvel covers? I dunno, I think it’s pretty obvious the Iron Man one should’ve been a Ghostface homage, but maybe that’s just me.

 

Check Out Marvel's Take on Hip-Hop Covers: