In 1990, a small independent comic book called Brotherman was released at NYC Black Expo. No one had seen anything like it, and quickly the small initial pressing became one of the biggest independent comic successes in history. The team of brothers — Dawud, Guy, and Jason — built a distribution network that eschewed comic shops for black bookstores and barbershops. It is considered the cornerstone of the African-American superhero movement. Then, in the middle of a convention in 1994, the family pulled their booth and stopped talking to anyone.
Last year, co-creator Dawud Anyabwile announced that a new graphic novel was in the works, and took to Indiegogo to find financing to publish three new volumes that comprise an entire Brotherman arc from origin story to triumphant victory. Why were there 20 years between issues of the comic and what is bringing back hero Antonio Valor in 2016? We sat down with Dawud Anyabwile to find out.
Tell me about unleashing a black superhero independent comic on an unsuspecting world in 1990.
When we first did the book, no one knew who we were. We didn’t have social networking. It just comes out, with no expectations. There was less a concern about what people wanted versus what we wanted to make. We started the book at the end of 1989 with the sole purpose of having something different at Black Expo USA, which was mainly an event to connect African-American businesses to their customers. No one had a comic book at a show like that, so we knew we’d stand out.
So when my brothers and I sat down to do it, one of them handled productions, and then my brother Guy became the head writer. I had the concept in a sketchbook. I had an idea; a theme. The kind of thing that just lives in your head and in a notebook. And then we brainstormed and it evolved into this big thing. We did a test print for Black Expo, where we thought maybe if we sold a few thousand at two bucks each we’d do okay. By the end of the year, we were at 40k books sold. Reprinting issues and selling out issues before they released.
So with that kind of success, why is there this huge gap between issues? Where did Brotherman go?
In 1994, we did issue 10, and that was an apex year. We never fell off to the public. That was the highest we’d ever been — 750k sales, on pace for one million. People were coming to tradeshows looking for Brotherman, more than in comic shops. When issue 10 hit, that was the day our mother died while we were at a tradeshow in New York. This was a family business so we broke down. We left and no one knew where to find us. We didn’t talk to anyone about it.
A year passes. Big City Comics in Philadelphia was a shop we opened, where I was teaching kids to draw and issue 11 was ready to come out and that’s when my dad died. So we shut that down too. Issue 11 sat in a box for a year. Even the kids we were teaching in art class didn’t know where we went. We would take it really hard and just disappear.
I ended up in New York working on a Pink Panther CD-Rom game, always thinking Brotherman would come back in a year or so. Issue 11, I printed out of pocket from my studio jobs. I got into my animation experience, now with the intent of animating Brotherman. I was improving my skills while working on shows like The Wild Thornberrys and Rugrats. Then I left Hollywood for Atlanta to focus on my own things while punching the clock at Turner. From issue 11 to now is 19 years. My son is 19 years old because he was born right when my dad died. With a family and bank accounts and brothers that want to do their own things, it just became impossible to focus on the project.
How long have you been working on this relaunch?
I had movie options in those in-between years with some celebrities who wanted to make Brotherman real. There were some things happening without me having to do something. Even people at the studios were coming out to me at Wild Thornberrys that they were secret Brotherman fans. “Everybody loves Brotherman, why aren’t you doing this?” they’d ask. In the early days we were just “sell, sell” and never thought about who we were selling to. Lauryn Hill told me she was a fan in high school, and you never think about that level of impact. Because now it seems like nostalgia.
Earlier this year we decided to go the crowdfunding route, because the actual story is that we’ve been working on this the 90s. We thought we’d just do issue 12. Then when we got into movie studio work where we really expanded the ideas, and now we have our own story we could draw instead of shooting the movie. We hit that idea in the early 2000s. We took that idea and built it into something bigger. We’re at about 300 pages of story on the new project. Brian McGee has been doing the coloring, and I met him when he was doing Harvey Birdman and Ben 10 and making storyboards for the Fast and Furious franchise. He’d always been a Brotherman fan and insisted we bring it back, so it became a lunch break thing where I’d bring in music and sketches and everything I’d been holding in, and he started pulling this vision out of me.
We settled on this sort of dream-state coloring and in 2009 we did a Brotherman art show and announced the graphic novel would come out in 2010. My older brother [Michael] died right after the announcement. I had no idea when we’d get this done. Then Turner did some layoffs and I finally was at home, and realized I could just wake up everyday and work on Brotherman. We didn’t know the scope or what this could becoming, but we redrew everything and remembered we’d have to pay to print it. So we turned to IndieGogo. Some people plan those things, and admittedly, we didn’t. We just put it out there and said “we’ll either get supported or we won’t.” We declared we’d get it out in the fall of this year and while we’re late on that, I’m getting the first pressing of one-thousand books tomorrow. We finally did it.
Not to be indelicate, but is there a Brotherman curse? People have been demanding that you get these new comics out, but every time you plan a release something devastating has happened in your personal life.
I think it depends on how people see it. When I look at things spiritually, each time one of those deaths happened I felt more empowered. “You gotta keep this going, this is a family legacy.” That’s the last thing brother ever said to me. I had these conversations and even when I wanted to quit, or shut down when these things happened, I always had to come back. We don’t look at the things that are handed to us when people pass. It’s a half empty, half full thing. Over the years I’ve come to understand how their passing strengthened me as a dad and a man and an artist. I know my parents so well I know what they would say. So especially after my brother died, I realized this is part of a cycle. We disappeared and that made Brotherman larger than life for a lot of people, and the “negative” things in my life are what made that happened. The fact that they happened created something great, and my duty is to take that greatness to the next level.
What is 2016 looking like for the project?
I’m ready to push again. I’m unorthodox but I always have a very clear vision on what I’m doing. We have a structure to our operation now, including a West Coast event: Black Comix Arts Festival 2016 selected Brotherman as the face of the event. It’s going to be on busses all over the Bay Area. My brother will be at the Black Comic convention on MLK Day which is our big release date. We’re doing the same work we did in 1990 and having to rebuild the same grassroots systems. We get them in bookstores and record stores and barbershops. I think it’ll just be on a different level now. Because back then, people didn’t know who Brotherman was. But they do now, and you’ll see how much better this is now after 20 years of experience. I’m a professional now but I still understand the street-level aspect to keep away from the cleanliness that the industry requires. We’re doing something epic.