Z2 Comics Jarrett Williams, (HYPER FORCE NEO) insightful essay on the vital importance of Black lead characters in all-ages comics.
A New Orleans native, Jarrett grew up watching his family work tirelessly to get out of the Magnolia projects, which inspired his own formidable work ethic. At 31, Jarrett is soon to have three creator-owned series: HYPER FORCE NEO, SUPER PRO K.O.!, and KNUCKLE UP. A mix of all the things Jarrett loved as a kid himself — manga, video games, cartoons, and TNMT — Jarrett’s style is loud and colorful. Jarrett Williams explains-
“In Hyper Force Neo, you’re looking at my interpretation of the future, and the dynamics I imagine being commonplace in high schools in 20XX. Things like girls and boys playing on the same football team, not separate teams. Robots being fully ingrained in all parts of society and being looked at as equals. Kids being able to fully express their individuality in personality and fashion and it being embraced by their peers. I think that’s all pretty cool for a kids comic to explore.”
It’s no secret that there is a lack of diversity and representation of non white male protagonists in all forms of media, particularly in children’s literature. All-ages comics fall squarely into kids lit.
Educators, advocates and experts agree on the correlation between relatable heroes to a child’s self esteem and self worth. In the five thirty eight article “The World Of Children’s Books Is Still Very White“, children’s advocates talk about the potential of kid lit to serve as both “windows” and “mirrors” — windows into life experiences of others and mirrors that reflect and affirm kids’ life experiences.
When whole groups of people appear as stereotypes or not at all, ALL children lose out. Zetta Elliott, author and advocate, and Christopher Myers, an author, illustrator, and recent addition to the We Need Diverse Books advisory board, have each made the case that these are matters of life and death. Elliott used that phrase in a 2009 open letter to the publishing industry. In a 2013 essay in The Horn Book, a children’s literature magazine, Myers wrote: “The plethora of threatening images of young black people has real-life effects. But if people can see us as young dreamers, boys with hopes and doubts and playfulness … perhaps they will feel less inclined to kill us.”
Jarrett’s powerful personal essay below shines light on his motivation to create Black main characters that reflect the young readers he hopes to entertain and inspire.-
I grew up to a middle class family in New Orleans, Louisiana. When I was a kid, my interests were geared towards the geek-friendly: comics, video games, chess, NASA….I could go on and on. I was pretty bad at sports but took lots of comfort face-deep in a book. My family was supportive and figured as long I was inside, I was out of trouble. It was rare to see characters that looked like me in most things. I remember my mom buying a book called “Fairy Tales Around the World” which featured stories about Anansi the Spider, an African folklore story. Cartoons and video games usually featured white or anthropomorphic-type characters. And as a minority, I learned to find traits to admire in heroes that were usually Caucasian. That’s really the only choice many young minorities are faced with when reading more mainstream stories. You learn early on to be able to identify with characters that are visibly different from you and that sort of sticks with you for life. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can feel a bit hopeless when you desire to identify with someone like you in a mainstream outlet.
In my new comic, Hyper Force Neo, Dean Masters is a cool kid figuring out the 9th grade—something almost all of us have experienced. I wrote the story and had to recall on some of my own junior-high experiences for the better and worse. Dean’s nature is bubbly, inquisitive, and caring. He works really hard and has some difficulty juggling student life, sports, clubs, etc. He also just so happens to be black. His hair may be platinum colored and his clothing is a lot more trendier than most, but he’s as black as me. I’m really proud of that. It’s really important for kids to see that a kid can look like them and be the hero a leader. That’s really important for minorities to witness because (historically) we’ve been underrepresented when it comes to media portrayals—especially in comics. We’re usually the sidekick or a fun supporting character but never the focus or able to lead a group.
When I began character designs for Hyper Force Neo, I envisioned Dean as a little happy-go-lucky black kid and all of my early sketches reflect this. However, in another story I’ve written, Super Pro K.O., the main character there (Joe Somiano) is an Italian kid trying to become a popular, pro wrestler. I’ve sometimes been asked by readers of that series, “Why isn’t Joe black?”. At first, I was a little taken aback by that question. I’d respond that I don’t really think about race when developing a story, I just go with how I’ve always imagined the character in my mind. I shouldn’t be limited to just being able to write black characters, right? But then I realized what readers were really saying to me was, “We need you to write something that we can also see ourselves in.” And since I was that kid who longed to see characters with more melanin in their skin represented in various media, I can understand where those readers are coming from.
There was one newspaper strip I fondly remember in my youth, Curtis by Ray Billingsley. Curtis looked a lot like me and wore a backwards, baseball cap and got into various antics with his younger brother, parents and various classmates. It was my favorite comic, not just because it featured some great pacing and storytelling, but because it was one of the few times I remember seeing a black kid lead the story. Sure, Peanuts had Franklin and there was usually a black kid from time to time in other comics, but Curtis wasn’t the supporting star—he was the lead. And he appeared in the newspaper every day, and still does.
In a way, being a minority gives you an extra set of lenses though with you’re able to view the world from multiple vantage points. It can be kind of like a game—instantly spotting the other ethnic group in the room and sending a quick nod their way as a sign of solidarity. You’re regularly singled out as the odd person out (of the majority), and it becomes sort of second nature to deal with questions regarding your uniqueness. Then you have those awkward cases of being asked to provide a collective opinion on behalf of your entire race, whether in response to a question, social issue, or something completely irrelevant.
I remember having to explain to some college classmates why people couldn’t just get out of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrine. I had to explain the economic hardships at play and how my grandmother never even drove a car but bused and walked to work her whole life. I had friends who had entire families and friends that only ever lived in New Orleans so where do they go to? Having to explain the lackadaisical government response time and poor media coverage that painted minorities in a criminal light. I remember attempting to discuss the post-traumatic stress of having families literally pulled apart and sent to various sides of the US. It was a lengthy conversation that went over a few heads. I remember feeling that it was insensitive on their part to ask me about this since my family was dislocated at the time of the conversation while I was in graduate school. However, I also felt the responsibility to educate and inform them about the realities of a situation they clearly had difficulty understanding. I use this example just to highlight the weight most minorities have to carry entering into conversations. It can be exhausting and frustrating having to speak on behalf of an entire group, but all of my ethnic friends have similar stories.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve taken the general stance that I should create the types I stories I think are underrepresented in the American comic scene. I do feel that I have a social responsibility to do so. I also thinks this makes me more proactive about solving the “lack-of-diversity” issue prominent versus just complaining about it. It’s a huge problem in the entertainment industry as a whole, not just the comic industry. For that reason, you’ll see characters of all shades, creeds, and lifestyles represented in my comics. I take pride in the fact that I now have an all-ages comic in Hyper Force Neo that has a cast as rich as the world I’ve gown up in. It really speaks highly of Z2 Comics for being supportive of this but it also highlights the direction our entire industry is moving towards—an even more inclusive space for all types of stories and characters.
If one kid picks up Hyper Force Neo, and smiles upon seeing a character that looks like them, I think I’ve done an ok job for now. I think there’s a lot more left for me to imprint upon this comic space and I have a lot of stories left to tell. In my ideal world, I hope readers connect more with my comics unaware of how diverse the cast truly is because it just felt natural and unforced. That’s important to me because the world I live in is pretty rich and colorful—and comics, now more than ever, should reflect that truth.
I look forward to reviewing HYPER FORCE NEO before its release on April 20th and I applaud Jarrett’s efforts to harness his considerable talent and authentic voice to entertain, inform and inspire!
Art Credit – Jarret Williams