Ronald Wimberly is an accomplished cartoonist with some impressive credits to his name. He’s designed graphic novels and other projects for DC/Vertigo Comics, Marvel Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Nike, and The New Yorker Magazine. His recent works include Prince of Cats, and Black History in its Own Words, both published by Image Comics, and more recently, he raised over $30,000 on Kickstarter for a new project focusing on black representation in science fiction and culture. We had the chance to catch up with Ron and ask him about his work.
For those who don’t know, who are you and what do you do?
I’m Ronald Wimberly and I’m a cartoonist/designer.
In 2015, you did a fantastic comics essay called Lighten Up about an editor who wanted you to change the skin color of Wolverine’s X-girlfriend. (Yes, we do see what you did there!) Have you found that the landscape of working in comics has changed since you did that essay?
If by “landscape” you mean, are there more black editors at DC Comics or Marvel, I really can’t say. I haven’t done any work for Marvel since that comic went viral. I maintain a professional relationship with a few people at DC, but I haven’t worked for them either. Though I did reach out a couple times and I pester Mark Doyle on occasion.
Since I wrote that comic, Marvel has hired high profile black writers (Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates) for books that primarily feature black characters. Considering the writers’ experience in comics, the value of the spectacle for the brand, the ethnicity of the characters in the books, and the political nature of concurrent editorial moves at Marvel, I’d have to say that the hiring of such high-profile, liberal black writers was more about making the Marvel brand more appealing to the portion of their demographic that may find their far-right material distasteful, than about any sort of attempt to dismantle racism as it manifests in their corporate structure. Either way, they’ve hedged their bets. But I heard their new editor-in-chief is Japanese, though, so who knows?!
I thought that Lighten Up may get readers to think about race as a construct and how it informs our choices in life, even choices that could be see as innocuous aesthetic choices, but I’m not sure it did that.
In general…of course, things change. Outside of corporate comics, we’re still doing dope work that is organically diverse. Off the top of my head, you’ve got Shannon White, Bianca Xunise, Richie Pope, Fred Carusco; on the publishing end you’ve got Magnetic Press doing good work, Spike Trotman’s Iron Circus, Czap Books, Koyama Press.
For those still checking for superheroes, you got Lion Forge with Joe Illidge at the helm, working hard to produce dope comics and a healthy work/creative environment for writers and artists on that wave.
I imagine that the smaller presses will continue to develop great artists of all walks, and that Marvel and DC will occasionally pilfer an artist or two that needs a little cash. My prediction is that Marvel and DC will continue to be the place for writers who don’t draw, high-profile/prestige writers from outside the medium who garner some brand equity, and the artists who love the brand and/or need good and steady checks.
Where I’m from, there’s an old adage I hear women say: it goes something like, “you gotta teach people how to treat you.” I think in comics, we gotta teach people how to treat us. For myself and others that are students of the form, makers, and who are engaged in critical thought about aesthetics, we need to start to give others in the community and readership the tools to appreciate the medium. That goes from the page to editorial. I believe that if people start to dig the sophisticated language of the medium, a lot of this—pardon my French—fuckshit will start to dissolve away. And that’s partially what LAAB is all about. It’s a dialogue about formal art practice, aesthetics, “racecraft,” utopias—all with comics at the center of the discussion.
You recently crowdsourced over $30,000 for LAAB, a literary magazine focusing on black representation in science fiction. Can you tell us more about it?
I lied. It’s not about “black representation in science fiction,” but I was told to simplify to sell it. The problem with simplification is that it can completely change the nature of what something is…like carbohydrates.
Sidebar: Sometimes consumer capitalism can be directly at odds with my artistic process. Part of making a thing is working through a question; consumer capitalism wants to sell the answer. It needs a product to sell. Artists are asked to sell a byproduct of the act of art. And for me, often that act is a question, so selling that poses a unique problem.
I wanted to make a themed, periodical art comics magazine. The first issue would acknowledge the lens of the editor/curator, me. So the first issue, zero, would interrogate this. I didn’t even want to include “black” in the description. I didn’t want to, frankly, acknowledge the white gaze. I wanted to keep it loose. I wanted to work through blackness as something manufactured or enacted upon me and how that connects me to others. I wanted to explore how blackness is internalized. I wanted to explore how others have acknowledged and explored that, and the rich traditions of myth and stories that comes out of that exploration. I also wanted to explore how making comics has informed my identity and my particular lens on the process. The pop utopian visions of comics.
How was your experience running this kind of a campaign through Kickstarter? Do you prefer crowdfunding over other methods of raising funds for projects?
I think this would be a question Josh O’Neill or Maelle Doliveaux could better answer. My life feels like me pulling off an endless string of scams so I can keep making stuff. As long as I get away with it, I’m happy.
Then I just gotta find a fence; don’t ask me about diamond.
I think I prefer just getting a lump of money and getting to go off and do my thing. Crowdsourcing could be great in some ways, really connecting with an audience, but I’m not sure it’s the best way for me. I don’t like the performative aspect of crowdfunding, videos and stuff. I don’t like this sort of selling off of oneself piecemeal to consumers. The auction.
I don’t know how it works for things that people don’t know that they want yet, or things that they may find they need.
You could have gone a few different ways with this project; what made you choose the newspaper format, as opposed to a standard trade paperback size comic or as a series of zines?
I am just chasing a sensual experience. Paper is a great technology. And when it fills up your visual space, it’s really something. You can smell paper. You can hear paper. Light can shine through newsprint. Paper is DRM-free. You can make planes out of paper. You can wrap a fish! It’s really special and should be cherished. For me and my art practice, a newspaper is like linen canvas and Old Holland paint.
What is the role of print in the future of comics? Do you see yourself doing more projects like this?
I really can’t say. I’m hoping the kids really pick up the tablets and that they become cheap, widely available, sustainable and upcyclable. A lot of books really don’t need to be printed; it just seems like so much waste. Paper should be precious. I don’t need to have every book on paper. Maybe bamboo is the answer. Paper is such a large part of my life. I almost feel guilty enough about it to stop drawing on paper.
I have more questions I’d like to tease out in subsequent issues of LAAB, for sure.
How can people keep up with you and follow your work?
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