HIP-HOP & COMICS: PANELS & BARS
I think a lot about the conversation between comics and hip-hop. They’re two art forms I love, but I can’t help but feel disappointed at how one-sided the relationship between the two is. Hip-hop loves comics, adores it even. Cannibal Ox constantly reference Caped Crusaders and Web Slingers in their lyrics, MF DOOM’s entire aesthetic is owed to Marvel, Ghostface Killah’s debut solo album is called Ironman and uses Tony Starks as alias. East Coast rap takes a particular shine to the medium, which makes sense considering New York City is the birthplace of both hip-hop and Marvel Comics.
But comics doesn’t love hip-hop. Rappers are usually represented as lame jokes, stereotypical gangstas that yell “Wazzup!” and wear cartoonishly baggy pants. You know the jokes; you’ve no doubt seen them before. I suppose this can be chalked up to the comic writers lacking an sense of understanding or awareness of the medium — I can’t exactly picture someone like Mark Waid or Geoff Johns listening to Public Enemy regularly — but you’d think they’d attempt to avoid weak parody that even MAD magazine would roll its eyes at. It’s always a big dumb joke, and it’s disappointing.
COMICS RULE EVERYTHING AROUND ME
On a cosmetic level, the two mediums share a lot of similarities–more so than any other music genre. Stage names operate a lot like their caped personas; O’Shea Jackson is to Ice Cube what Bruce Banner is to the Hulk. There’s the visible group aesthetics: RUN-D.M.C and N.W.A. rock matching uniforms like the Fantastic Four. And there’s the division of solo books and team books; the Wu-Tang Clan work as a group or as individuals just like the Avengers or the X-Men. Both art forms are defined by their relationships to urban spaces; Spider-Man swings through the skyline of NYC while GZA hustles on the street. There are clearly defined heroes and villains, team-ups and rivalries, legacy and mythology.
They both also fall victim to the common criticism that they’re low-culture or just plain garbage. Throw a stone on the Internet, and you’ll hit someone spouting off the direly boring criticism that comics aren’t real art/literature and that rap lacks musical merit or talent.
As much as comics distance itself from hip-hop, there are crossovers between the two. Rapper KRS-One and artist Kyle Baker put out a one-shot called Break the Chains through Marvel in the mid-nineties, a companion comic was released alongside Ghostface Killah’s album Twelve Reasons to Die, and MF Grimm wrote his autobiography to be a graphic novel. There was even a mini-series about the Wu-Tang Clan at one point called Nine Rings of Wu-Tang. Comic artists Denys Cowan, Chris Bachalo and Bill Sienkiewicz have created album art for various members of the Wu-Tang Clan. The secret origin of RUN-D.M.C’s Darryl McDaniels is that he sold his comic collection so he could buy turntables and mixers. McDaniel’s even writes comics now under the moniker Darryl Makes Comics.
And it’s not like there haven’t been shout outs to rappers in comics either — artist Ramon Villalobos regularly draws characters rocking Yeezy sneakers. Marvel published a one-shot in 2009 where the Punisher teamed up with Eminem. I shit you not, there’s an actual Amazing Spider-Man cover that features the Kingpin presenting a contract to Cash Money Record’s Birdman. Examples are there, but I struggle to rattle them off with the same level of ease when talking about references in rap lyrics. Cartoonist Ed Piskor is currently documenting the history of the entire genre in his award winning series Hip Hop Family Tree.
DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE
In 2015, Marvel announced a series of variant covers inspired by iconic hip-hop album jackets. It’s gimmicky as hell, sure, but it was a big moment for this conversation between the two mediums. Marvel was finally returning rap’s affection. Which would have been great, if not for the fact that, at the time, Marvel had no black writers or artists working on their books. Of the artists announced to be working on the initial run of covers, only one was black.
When asked about the use of iconic imagery from a black art form despite having no black creators working on books, Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort replied with the overwhelmingly smug, “What does one have to do with the other, really?”
It’s that tone-deaf response that showed that Marvel still didn’t get it. In his must-read response to Breevort, critic David Brothers noted that, “You can’t celebrate and profit off something without also including the group that you’re profiting off the back of.” For all the hype that they were finally giving props to a medium that loves them so much, they failed to grasp that using the iconic imagery of a definitively black art form as a variant cover gimmick, despite employing no black creators, is cultural appropriation.
In response to this, Marvel has gone out of its way to hire more black creators, including the incredible Ta-Nehisi Coates along with Roxane Gay and Nilah Magruder, who are the first ever women of colour to write for them. It’s a poor reflection on Marvel that it’s taken this long to have a WoC in a creative role, but they’re making an effort with diversity and that counts something.
THE CAGE CONNECTION
Netflix’s Luke Cage is an unashamedly black show, both on screen and behind the scenes. While I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about it, and inevitably rank it against the other Netflix series, one thing that’s obvious is that the connection between hip-hop and comics is strong here. It kind of has to; both comics and rap are naturally tied to the heart of New York City. Show creator Cheo Hodari Coker is a former hip-hop journalist, and his passion for the medium and the influence it’s had on him definitely shows.
The series’ episode titles are taken from Gang Starr track names, a portrait of Biggie Smalls sits on the wall of Cottonmouth’s office, and there are cameos by industry veterans D-Nice and Fab Five Freddy. Never in a million years would I ever think I’d see a Marvel superhero busting goons while blasting “Bring the Ruckus,” through their headphones, but that’s a thing now. The show is also soundtracked by A Tribe Called Quests’ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, with the latter currently producing Ghostface Killah’s trilogy of Punisher-esque, vigilante-revenge albums Twelve Reasons to Die.
But the standout, by far, occurs in the penultimate episode of the series when Luke Cage saves rapper Method Man from a hold-up. It’s important to clarify this isn’t someone playing Method Man or Meth portraying a fictional rapper, he’s playing himself. Meth’s appreciation runs deep; he used to perform under the stage name Johnny Blaze, the secret identity of the original Ghost Rider. After foiling the robbery, Cage and Meth immediately fanboy over one another (“‘P.L.O Style’ was my joint back in the day!”). It’s this moment that comics finally show rap the respect it’s been so dearly waiting for. Two icons trading their hoodies as a mutual sign of reverence. There’s no tone-deaf gimmicks or no lame parody, just pure admiration.