Growing up, I spent many Saturday mornings with my eyes glued to cartoons on the television screen. Superheroes, whether it was Batman, Superman or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, have always been a part of my life in some small way or another. Though I moved on from these iconic characters to fantasy epics like “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings”, superheroes have once again returned to the forefront of popular culture. For me, it was Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy and the revival of the Marvel and DC Comic franchises in the past few years that grabbed my attention. Unfortunately, as with most programming that comes out of Hollywood, these “new age” superheroes have failed to represent people of color. However, with Chadwick Boseman being cast as Black Panther, and with the franchise being helmed by critically acclaimed director Ryan Coogler, this has begun to change that conversation. Big changes are also happening on a slightly smaller scale.
Markus Prime is an LA based illustrator who has been drawing since he could hold a crayon. His new 100-page sketchbook “B.R.U.H.: Black Renditions of Universal Heroes/Heroines” is a collection of his gender and race swaps of popular superheroes and anime characters. Shadow and Act had the opportunity to chat with Prime about his work, the inspiration behind “B.R.U.H”, and his thoughts on representation in the comic world today.
Aramide Tinubu: In the preface of “B.R.U.H”, you said that superheroes were your first love. What drew you to them and why did they resonate with you so much as a child?
Markus Prime: I don’t know what initially made me fall in love with superheroes, but the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were probably the first superheroes of any form that I gravitated towards; and Spiderman as well. Those were the first two. Those particular characters are very normal, if that makes sense. It was almost like you could embody them yourself. They both come from situations that a lot of us come from. Even though they’re turtles, for example, they come from struggles, they live in sewers, they have to fight for food, and they are very aware of the world around them. Spiderman was the same. He’s just a kid going to school and trying to get by, and then a series of events changes his life. I feel like that probably is what made me fall in love with the idea of superheroes.
AT: After taking a look at the book, I was so enthralled because all of the superheroes in it are actually Black women. In the book’s preface you really talked about why you chose to pay homage to Black women and our struggles in particular. Could you talk to me about why Black women are your superheroes?
MP: It’s been a journey and it still is. I like to tell people that I’m learning more and more about the struggles of Black women historically and even currently. I have a lot of friends and family who are Black women. As a man growing up, there are so many things that you don’t have to care about. It’s just not on our radar. We have our own situations going on, and it’s easy, in a world that is dominated by men, to just not acknowledge the problems of women. It’s not even something that you’re told you should care about.
AT: I just really want to pause right now and say that I am so excited to hear a Black man saying this, because there is this constant struggle between the sexes. I feel like Black women are always standing up for Black men, and it’s not necessarily reciprocated all the time. So this is just so fantastic to hear you say.
MP: What you just said is so important. Black women have been standing by Black men since the beginning, and a lot Black women have been cast in the shadow. You can think of so many Black men historically, and their female counterparts were taking part in the struggle as much as they were. Even as a man socially interacting with women, I have to unlearn a lot of things. There are things that men just assume are OK, and I’m realizing that it’s not OK. Having friends who have been able to educate me about things I say, or how I approach women. It’s been a journey, and that’s the reason I’ve chosen Black women as my focal point. I could have easily just made the heroes all Black men and the message probably still would have gotten across from a racial standpoint. But, I think it’s bigger than Black people. I felt compelled to say, “Hey, look at the people who are really taking the most for us.” Of course, Black men are going through struggles, and we have our situations, but it’s always going to be twice as hard for Black women. That might seem biased, or maybe it’s my own opinion, but that’s how I feel so that why I chose to do the book like I did. I even got a little bit of heat from choosing the title, “Black Renditions of Universal Heroes”. Some people wanted to know why I didn’t use the term heroines. But, why is it genderized? Isn’t it obvious that she’s a hero? Whether it’s Wonder Woman lifting the car up or Superman lifting the car up, I’m still happy my life is being saved. That’s the direction I was going for with the book.
AT: If women were more represented in the superhero world, do you think that would affect sexism and misogyny as a whole in our society?
MP: I believe so. I believe there would be a drastic push because the superhero industry, cartoons, animation, manga- anime and all of that are huge in the entertainment world. I am a man, so I can only do so much as an artist representing Black women. I cannot speak for her. There are things that I’m never going to know how to say because I’m not a woman. So, it’s not just having more women represented in the superhero and animation industry, it’s having more female creators. For example, “Steven Universe”, that’s a woman’s creation. That’s why I think that has the impact that it has on young girls and women, because they know a woman is behind it. So, she can say things and do things that I can never do. I feel like if there were more women behind a lot of these things in the first place, I don’t think a lot of them would have been like they are. They might have been better, because the perspectives would have been different.
AT: I agree. I think you can see that most recently with Ava DuVernay’s “Selma”, She really looked at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a man, instead of just this untouchable historical figure we know from textbooks. Her perspective was just so different.
MP: Exactly, that’s really what the core of the “B.R.U.H.” is saying; this is just getting the conversation started. That’s why I chose the specific characters that I chose, because they are some of the most historically impactful cartoons, period. “Dragon Ball Z” for example, is easily one of the most popular animes of all time. If these were people of color, imagine the impact that this would have had on the world. All of the cartoons I chose are traditionally white or Japanese characters. That’s not necessarily a problem, but the reason why they are all white is because the people that are making them are white. They are identifying with those characters. If we had more creators of color in the industry, we would create things that we would identify with, and we would have more diversity.
AT: The thing I find so astounding is this unwillingness to relate to people of color. There has been much pushback, even with YA franchises like “The Hunger Games” where characters races are never explicitly stated. Even in the new “Harry Potter” stage play, a Black woman is playing one of the main characters, and there has been a huge uproar. You’ve stated that you want to, “create what makes you happy”. Why does the representation of Black women make you happy?
MP: I think the man reason is that it brings reality to the situation. Some white people are not willing to even understand why representation is so important to people of color, because it doesn’t matter to them. They don’t have to care. If you’re a white person in America and you’re born here, there is nowhere you can turn where you won’t see yourself represented in some way. So, that struggle never mattered to them whether they want to acknowledge that or not. For me, I get excited to see more people of color simply because we exist. In America, our impact clearly is there, we’ve impacted everything in pop culture —everything, since the birth of this country. So, it’s baffling to me why it’s so difficult for us to get some kind of play, especially in the age of the Internet when there really is no excuse. I see movies like “God’s of Egypt” coming out, and it just pisses me off.
S&A: Oh yes, and it was the second one! It was like, “Didn’t we have this conversation about the first film?!”
MP: They’re laughing in our faces at this point. However, there are film like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, even though for me [Finn] wasn’t as pivotal as I felt like he could have been, it was still important that he was main part of the film. There have been Black men in “Star Wars” films in the past, but to see a Black man with a lightsaber, you could just see the impact that it has on all of these little kids who were so excited to buy his action figures. People just don’t seem to understand that. Representation is huge. It boosts confidence, and that makes kids approach life differently. It makes me extremely happy that my kids will be in a world where they are going to see a lot more of themselves as the message continues to get across.
S&A: Can we talk about your use of the wide variety of skin-tones, body types, and hair textures of Black women in your book? Why was that important to you?
MP: I always tell people that the Internet is the greatest and worst thing that has ever been invented. One, you can learn a lot of things, and two you can see the true state of your people. You see people’s true feelings and what they think; you can see people at their worst. When I started this journey to bring Black women to the forefront of mainstream animation art, I was drawing things repetitively to get my name out. I was drawing a “generic” woman; she was symbolic with the Afro and the brown skin. I was noticing that people were saying, “What about me? Why aren’t you drawing me?” It had a double impact. On the positive side, it encouraged me to look into more body types and skin-tones and hairstyles to learn about Black women. On the other side, no matter how much variety I added, there was always somebody who was unsatisfied. So it got very difficult, because I do care about people’s opinions to a degree. What makes people care about my works is the fact that they see themselves in it. Therefore, when I say I support Black women, I mean I support all Black women. I’m not just saying only my dark skin sisters, or that you have to be built a certain way. There is a particular group picture in the book that has six or seven characters. One thing I did with that picture is that I drew them so that any person of color could look at them and find some aspect of themselves.
AT: Well to wrap things up I just wanted to know if you had anything thoughts about Marvel’s upcoming “Black Panther” and Ryan Coogler sitting in the director’s chair for the film? Would it be different if say Ava DuVernay took on the project?
MP: I do feel really good about Coogler stepping in as director, but I feel like it would have been a different project if Ms. DuVernay was taking the reigns. It would have been good either way, but it would have been really interesting to see a woman’s perspective on it. Number one, I feel like this is the time for Black women in the industry. We’ve had a lot of success with great shows in the past few years, so it’s proven already. If DuVernay would have had the film, she would have approached it in an entirely different way, so I am a little sad it didn’t work out like that. But, the fact that she was even considered still gives me hope, because now we get to see what other projects will be put in front of her that she will take.
AT: Well thank you so much Markus, this was a wonderful conversation. I’m so thrilled to share your art with our readers and to encourage people to pick up a copy of BRUH which on sale Friday April 1.
“B.R.U.H.: Black Renditions of Universal Heroes” is available now. Fans can purchase the book digitally/paperback via Amazon here. You can also find more of Markus Prime’s work on his website, http://mlnnprime.com/, his Instagram markusprimelives, or tweet him @markuspr1m3.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami