Blokhedz: a New U.S. Comic of Hip-Hop Proportions
By Kester Alleyne-Morris
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Superman can fly, Spiderman can walk on walls, Batman’s got that snazzy belt and The Hulk’s a pretty good redecorator. But none of them can rap.
But Blak, the superhero of a new comic book Blokhedz, can, and his creators are hoping he will become a superhero for black fans of comics in an industry dominated by white heroes.
The book has generated rave reviews in the comics community, which has been captivated by its hero’s novel story —- a black kid, slashed on the hand by a “cursed” knife in a gang attack, gains powers including the ability to make people do his bidding with his rhymes.
"This title is kind of breaking new ground … and showing some amazing chops for relative newcomers," wrote Hannibal Tabu, contributing editor for the review site Underground Online, which reviews comics, games, movies and pop culture.
It’s also caught the attention of the hip hop community, where the likes of impresario Russell Simmons have thrown their marketing and promotional support behind Blokhedz and its creators, twin brothers Mark and Mike Davis.
The Davis twins, along with the father-and-son team of Michael and Brandon Schultz and collaborator Nicole Duncan-Smith, are the key players in Street Legend Ink — the urban Los Angeles-based company behind the comic that is firmly rooted in the hip hop culture.
The book is in many ways a family affair — the Davis twins, 28, met the younger Schultz, 30, and Duncan-Smith, 30, while they were all attending colleges in Atlanta.
Much like hip hop itself, the comic, which debuted last December, mixes tales of inner city struggles with copious doses of fantasy and spirituality.
The book is laced with references to popular culture and comes with a handy slang glossary to explain street words like “dope” — meaning aesthetically pleasing to the eye or ear.
SPREADING A MESSAGE
But there’s a message Blokhedz’s creators are intent on spreading beyond the traditional Black youth culture and media associated with hip.
They’ve worked hard to create a story that will touch everyone by adhering to universal themes of friendship, love, and the fight against evil. Brandon Schultz cites the “very high interest in the book from overseas” as proof the comic will reach a broader audience.
“Hip hop is not limited to a certain race. It’s an aesthetic, a global youth culture and that’s who we want to reach,” he said.
Blokhedz may be one of just a few modern black superheroes, but he is hardly the first. The late journalist Orrin C. Evans founded All-Negro Comics in 1947 and although that imprint never made it to a second issue, it set the stage for modern black comic characters like Milestone Media’s Static and Icon.
Today Icon lives on in back issues sold at comics stores, while the dreadlocked teen Static has a show “Static Shock” on the WB network’s Saturday morning cartoon lineup.
Static’s presence on the WB network might signal a growing acceptance of minority heroes but Dwayne McDuffie, executive producer of Static Shock, thinks that such characters still have a way to go before being truly mainstream.
"The vast majority of comic book characters don’t look like young black people and I think the more people who start producing books (like Blokhedz,) the better," he said.
The new book deals with gritty street life and confronts once-taboo issues like gang violence and drugs.
In it, Blak’s brother is killed by a street thug high on crypt, a fictional crack-marijuana hybrid, prompting the hero to plan a retaliatory shooting.
VIOLENCE AND BEAUTY
Co-creator Mark Davis said that to keep the grittiness out of the comic would not be “true to my art and my character” because the violence interspersed with poetry is a metaphor for the reality of hip-hop life.
"This daily struggle between violence and beauty is quintessential hip hop," added Brandon Schultz.
That struggle is especially apparent on the cover of the second issue, which depicts Blak clutching a gun in one hand and a microphone in the other.
"The gun is in the infected (evil) hand and the mic is in the good hand," said Mark Davis. "It’s the kind of struggle we all deal with daily."
Simmons said Blokhedz is not “a watered down version” of street life, adding that he hopes it, “will sensitize people to the plight of poor people.”
Comic book fans have not been deterred by its unflinching look at inner city life.
Gahl Buslov, manager of Midtown Comics in New York, said the first issue sold out and the second is selling well.
About 8,000 copies of both the first and second issues were printed, with each copy retailing for $2.95. The creators plan to stagger the release of future issues rather than have them issued monthly.
"It’s being well received by young people," he said. "This is the kind of book that stands out from the crowd."
The creators are marketing it in nontraditional ways. They have used Simmons’s Hip Hop Summit Action Network for distribution at their events and are working to place books in barbershops and schools and guidance counselor offices.
"That’s the way it has to be done," said cartoonist and author Kyle Baker. "If you’re marketing to a certain audience, you have to go to that audience."
Baker should know. In 1994, he worked with comic giant Marvel Comics to release “Break the Chain,” a rap-themed comic book and tape set that featured the voice and rhymes of legendary rapper KRS-One.
The comic garnered critical reviews but Baker said sales fizzled because it was sold in comic book stores and not in places where people go to buy hip hop products.