Comics

Out of the Shadows: The Brandon Easton Exclusive

Julian Chambliss

Creative force Brandon Easton talks with Julian Chambliss about his newest documentary, the state of comics today, and the questions nobody ever asks.

In light of recent considerations of the science fiction landscape, reflecting on the complex intersection between the real and imagined world in contemporary culture is worthwhile endeavor. The possibilities in speculative fiction challenge barriers formed by legacy and nurtured by practice. The cultural assumptions born from practice feed expectations, which in turn become the basis of action and reaction. Unable to see bodies of color outside prescribed spaces, we don’t question their absence. Indeed, efforts at inclusion can be jarring. Because of innate resistance, it is perhaps no surprise that popular entertainment has been and continues to be a space that offers narratives that question societal expectations and challenge the legitimacy assumed around established identity, power, and community relationships. Whether Jules Verne’s cutting edge stories, which synthesized grounding breaking research in geography, technology and science or Mary Shelley’s imaginative conjecture about contemporary biological research, the creative realm gives voice to the hopes and fears associated with a changing world. In the early twentieth century the assumptions expressed in speculative fiction easily replicated common social and racial prejudice. The center of the future world was invariable Eurocentric, white, male, and heteronormative. Classic characters, many being repurposed for our contemporary superhero cinematic moment play on these expectations.

In the modern context, postwar global transformations realigned the geopolitical landscape and heighten the reality of diversity defining our future. With new economic powers in Africa and Asia re-shaping global commerce and culture, immigration transforming Europe and a majority minority reality in the United States by 2050, the future will be as diverse as it is fantastic.

It is within the milieu that contemporary arguments over the lack of black characters in comics become a window on broader issues. A pop culture correlation to the W.E.B. Dubois versus Booker T. Washington schism over African-American uplift, the contemporary call for African-Americans to create the creative products that realize the diverse vision they want to see is compelling on multiple levels. Yet, much like we have simplified the Dubois/Washington dialogue to facilitate an antagonistic framing, the process of achieving a diverse creative landscape contemporary science fiction is no easy task. Some voices (and there are many) calling for racial diversity hope to leverage the possibility of public outrage against the potential loss of revenue/prestige/ virtue. Other voices take a different approach. If the dominant system will not provide the visions they want, they will create the change they want to see. Neither path is easy, but in the realm of "create the world you want to see" Brandon Easton has emerged as a clear and consistent voice.

Easton's personal and professional biography reads like a classic Horatio Alger story. Born and raised in Baltimore, Easton graduated from Ithaca College and earned an MFA from Boston University’s Screenwriting program. A writer with comics and animation credits under his belt, he started his career in 2002 writing Arkanium and Transformers: Armada for Dreamwave Production. During a career lag he sustained himself by teaching in the New York Public School system. Easton made the decision relocate to Los Angeles to jumpstart his career. Near the heart of the entertainment industry, Easton pushed to complete a graphic novel project that became Shadowlaw. Described by one reviewer as offering "a grocery list for all things loved and embraced by different parts of geek culture," Easton had to persevere through artistic delays to complete the project while juggling the search for new creative opportunities. His efforts paid off handsomely with the publication of Shadowlaw in 2011 and writing for Cartoon Network’s Thundercats reboot in 2012. Easton has continued to rack up writing credits with contributions to the new Armarauders series and freelance contributions to New Paradigm Studios’ Watson and Holmes series. Perhaps more significantly, Easton has emerged a prolific creative voice for Lion Forge Comics. LFC’s stated goal of "acquiring and development content and character franchises" in the comic medium and distributing them over multiple platforms place the company (and Easton) at the center of an evolving digital comic landscape.

All of these things would be enough to keep most people busy, but Easton embarked on an ambitious documentary project focused on African-American creators in speculative fiction. Easton produced, wrote, filmed, and directed the documentary. The project’s description, not surprisingly, points to ambitious goals. The official verbiage makes it clear Easton was to "…explore(s) the thoughts, goals and inspirations of a new generation of Black creators in graphic novels, television, cinema, literature and digital media." Speaking to broad aspirations and hoping to inspire, Brave New Souls’ goals and its potential impact place Easton at the nexus contemporary dialogues. I reached out to him to delve deeper and learn more.

Creative Journeys

In some ways, your signature creative project is the graphic novel Shadowlaw (Arcana Comics). Shadowlaw sits in a luminal space drawing on myriad pop culture influences. Were you trying to challenge expectations with that work or simply being true to yourself?

The impetus for Shadowlaw was based on my desire to get to the next level in my writing career. In winter 2004, I’d hit a brick wall in terms of industry connections and advancement. I couldn’t get anyone to take a look at my work from Dreamwave and I was told by many of my colleagues that the best way to get the attention of publishers was to create an original graphic novel series and then pray that the sales would be high enough to make an impact in the marketplace.

Shadowlaw was based on a failed screenplay that I wrote while an undergrad. I wanted to combine the elements of Blade Runner and The Lost Boys into something that had never been seen before in comics or cinema. That was a creative challenge because of the ambitious nature of the premise and the fact that I had a lot going on in my life back then. I was a full-time teacher in New York City; a career that required a staggering amount of time as I learned that a teacher’s responsibilities extended beyond the classroom.

How did Shadowlaw educate you on the reality of being a creative professional?

It was a very, very, very painful and exhaustive process. The fundamental lesson I learned was that the more money you have when you begin, the easier things will be in the long run. Not to say that well-financed projects don’t have road bumps, but when you’re struggling to meet an artist’s page-rate and they start drifting away from your series on an emotional and mental level, it is next to impossible to get them back to being excited and engaged.

I went through eight different art teams over the course of six years to get Shadowlaw completed. A few of them were hardcore flakes who didn’t want to do the work, however the rest of them were good guys who just needed to get paid a decent rate. I didn’t have the money to pay them what they deserved and like clockwork they stopped drawing pages.

I realized that asking an artist to complete an entire graphic novel with the promise of pay IF the book sold well would be like working at Wal-Mart and having your boss say that you will get paid only if the store does well during the Christmas rush. It is unreasonable to expect anyone to perform a labor-intensive gig that lasts months at a time to do it for free with no guarantee of compensation.

In contrast to Shadowlaw, you have written comics and animation properties (Transformers and Thundercats) that you have loved since childhood. What is the greatest challenge writing those projects?

The challenge in working in animation (especially with action-adventure series) is reconciling the corporate influence on content. Most of the animated series out there are developed alongside ancillary products like toys, backpacks, bed sheets, etc.

When you’re in a story meeting and you pitch ideas that get shuffled to the side because they aren’t congruent with toy manufacturing, that’s when you realize what product integration truly means. Understand that this isn’t a complaint, but an expansion of your comprehension of how the business operates. It was a very necessary wake-up call as I made the shift from being a fan to a professional creator.

One of the reasons why there’s so much whining and complaining from the geek community in regards to story content is because the fans are very ignorant about the process of how advertising-based commercial entertainment is generated. I truly wish that more people out there would learn how the material is put together so they can understand why studios don’t change the material based on their whims.

You are active on social media and produce two podcasts, Writing for Rookies and The Two Brandons on a regular basis. You are also a consistent voice in forums and on message boards talking about the business in show business. Now, Brave New Souls is a documentary produced, shot, and edited by you spotlighting black creative talent. What will "success" mean to you in this project?

What I want is for these creators to get more attention. Success would mean that genre fans listen to what these folks have to say and then go out and purchase their work -- or at the very least -- do some research on who these people are and what they’ve created.

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