Rayon Morris posing in front of a mural in his home.

Evolving the Caribbean Superhero

Rasta Comics founder Rayon Morris wants to infuse authentic Caribbean culture into the comic book landscape.

Rasta Comics creator Rayon Morris makes it a goal to release at least one comic book per month. Yet, his publication’s reach does not stop in BC. He also ships a stock of several hundred copies to his motherland of Jamaica. The shipment arrives at his hometown of Tangle River — a small, mountainous village southwest of Montego Bay. His sister receives the books, where she sells them at a wooden stand by her house. As far as Morris knows, this stand is the only comic book outlet in Tangle River.

“In a poor place, you don’t have money to buy comic books,” explains Morris. “When you wake up, the first thing you think of is not to go out and buy a comic.” Morris’ writing specializes in Jamaican and African-themed fantasy. This allows him to be an envoy for his people, where he gets to introduce them to superhero narratives. He delights in picturing children back home reading his work and going to school sporting Rasta Comics hoodies. It only makes him more eager to develop the Jamaican presence in the comic book scene.

Morris asserts that Jamaican folklore translates splendidly into graphic novels. For his stories, he uses Jamaican voodoo and obeah to mythologize his settings. “I want to take these kinds of stories and bring them to life here [in Canada]. Kids in Jamaica know about [the stories] to this day, but nobody ever did comics or movies about it.”

Caribbean and African representation in the comic book world is sparse. According to Morris, this goes especially for giant publishers like Marvel and DC. Caribbean characters lose authenticity as they become ornamental to these Eurocentric narratives. And to Morris, it does his culture a disservice. “They look at Jamaican people as if the only thing we could do is run and do reggae music.” Marvel and DC, in his opinion, tend to short-serve black characters such as Luke Cage. This is especially in comparison to their top-tier heroes. “Superman looks cool, Spiderman looks cool, and you have that one black character that looks like garbage. Those are things that made me feel like I’ve got to pump this [type of Caribbean content] out.”

Rayon Morris has been a resident of Canada since the early 1990s. To this day, he wields his Jamaican identity with pride. Speaking with a crisp Jamaican dialect, he is animated both in his language and his words. He infects those around him with the enthusiasm and liveliness known of his culture. This charm worked on his creative partner and artistic director, Basel Abdoullah. Hailing from Syria, Abdoullah is also an expat to BC.

The duo met circa 2015 when Abdoullah was working as a freelancer. He agreed to undertake the artwork for Rasta Comics. In accepting the job, he was immediately taken to the lore of the source material. From voodoo-based mythology to authentically-Caribbean characterizations, his art bonded to Morris’ imagination.

“It’s amazing,” Abdoullah says of Rasta Comics’ content. “The culture — everything about it. I always tell Rayon that I wish that I met him before [earlier in Morris’ career], so I could’ve worked with him on his [previous] works, too.” They collaborate on one of Rasta Comics’ most staple series, Black Starr Lion. The series follows a Jamaican ex-soldier in Vancouver who is haunted by his supernatural past.

Alongside the mythology, Abdoullah was also drawn to Morris’ backstory. He recalls, “We would always talk about the stuff that happens in his neighbourhood back home, and I tell him that it should be in the next Black Starr Lion.”

“I know the realness of [Morris’] stories,” says Abdoullah. Morris often draws inspiration from his memories of Jamaica. In his concepts, Morris combines his real-life experiences with Caribbean and African lore. He boasts an extensive knowledge of his culture’s most notorious fables and myths. Yet, he makes it a point to underscore these fantasy elements with humane themes. The topic of bullying in schools, for example, is an issue that the duo are eager to explore. “In the next few books, we’re trying to shed a light on this topic,” says Abdoullah. “It’s not always fun stuff and fighting, it’s also real stories.”

Another creative routine for Morris is recording memos of his experiences. He likes to put his smartphone on record as he ventures around the city. As he witnesses what transpires around him, he would dictate what he sees to his voice recorder. He says that his recordings are especially reliable whenever he gets writer’s block.

After Morris conceptualizes an idea, he and Abdoullah meet at a Vancouver Blenz Coffee branch at Nelson and Granville. They engage in many back-and-forth discussions to polish Morris’ ideas. They would also consult each other through phone calls that tend to veer into late nights. Creative clashes are inevitable, but Morris remains thankful for Abdoullah’s engagement. He admits that he still wrestles with the steep learning curve of comic book publishing.

“I’m still learning more about it, but I came a long way from just scratching on paper,” says Morris. Getting Rasta Comics off the ground entailed comprehensive research on his part. He learned all about the publishing process, finding distributors, and even binding books.

Morris gets blunt about the bleak realities of comic publishing. The greatest challenge for Rasta Comics has been the barriers to entry. Here, he advises aspiring comic book creatives to get ready to play games with retailers. Having a portfolio that specializes in Jamaican culture made it especially difficult. The challenge lies in persuading distributors to even give his content the time of day. “[The distributors] didn’t really care to look at a book or not. They just want three-grand right up front. Pay me three-grand, and we’ll get you distribution.” Morris recalls that once readers give his work a chance, his books garner a positive response. Yet most are hard-pressed to give it a chance in the first place. “They look at it and go, ‘oh, it’s black guy stuff, I ain’t taking it’ and they’re gone.”

Morris finds solace in the impact he made on his former hometown of Tangle River. His old village is still economically-disadvantaged, but he is willing to help all he can. He continues to work on introducing his people to comic books, especially as a dynamic way to tell stories of their land. “That’s one thing my book is good for: making them use their imagination instead of always being stuck in reality.”

Nonetheless, Rasta Comics has been Morris’ passion project for almost two decades. He runs a tight ship of five staff members who operate in his Delta home. Rasta Comics is a self-publishing company built from the ground-up. It continues to be an uphill battle. Yet, his creative instruments are still armed with plenty of Caribbean-inspired content to tell. He will not stop combatting the industry’s racial prejudices. In order to do this, he and Abdoullah cannot further emphasize how important it is to focus on one’s craft. Morris advises marginalized writers to trust in themselves to tell their own story. He recalls what his father once told him: “You can read other people’s books, or you could make books that other people read.”

Rasta Comics is hiring artists! Please send a resume and portfolio to mighty_dred@hotmail.com


Originally published at www.linkbcit.ca on January 8, 2019.