Kerry James Marshall discusses his comic book series “Rythm Mastr,” which places black superheroes within the pages of comics—a place that had previously only been occupied by white characters.
ART21: Let’s talk a bit about the things in your studio right now. What are these comic book drawings here?
MARSHALL: Well, what I’m doing right now is redoing a project I did for the Carnegie International this year, which was to develop a comic strip in newspaper form that I could use for a particular installation at the Carnegie Treasure Room. It was a place that had a set of vitrines that I wanted to block out with newspaper, but I wanted to block them out with a newspaper comic that I developed myself. And so, what I’m doing is kind of reverting back to my childhood, I guess.
The stage I’m at right now is doing a color separation with markers, because when I printed the piece the first time, the color and the black line were all in the same drawing. When the image was scanned to be converted into a plate, the fact that the various separations of color were stacked on top of each other ended up producing a halo around a lot of the black, which made it seem a little out of focus. So, what I’m doing now is a color separation, so that the color can be scanned by itself and then the black line can be scanned by itself.
ART21: Did you set out with a goal when you started working on this comic strip?
MARSHALL: Part of the reason I started was because I saw that black kids are interested in comics and superheroes just like everybody else. But the market has somehow never been able to sustain a set of black super heroes in a way that could capture the imagination, not just of the black populations but also of the general population as a whole. Now, when I was growing up, reading Marvel comics—The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Thor, The Mighty Hulk, Spiderman—all of those characters were amazing characters to me.
But there weren’t any black characters in the pantheon of superheroes until the Black Panther entered the scene in The Fantastic Four, Issue 52, in 1965. Since then, there have been black superheroes as parts of teams of superheroes in Marvel comics, and in some other comics, but there hadn’t been many independent black superheroes who had a comic of their own that could sustain itself for a long time. And not until the last five, six, seven years have there been a lot of attempts at trying to develop a series of black superhero characters that could capture the imaginations of young people. But almost all of them have failed to a degree.
And so, part of the reason I started this project was to address that as an issue. I thought what I would do with this project would be to take a form that is, in some ways, already undervalued in America, take a subject that’s underrepresented, and try to develop a comic strip with a set of characters that had cultural significance but also allowed for a kind of imaginative play and inspiration. What I hit on, as a subject, was this idea that for black people, the set of superheroes we come to know anything about have a lot to do with West African religious gods, in a sense.
There’s a pantheon of gods in the Yoruba tradition that is known as the Seven African Powers, and those African powers are represented in African sculpture symbolically. And so, what I saw was that, when you go to the museum, especially when you go through the African art wing of a museum, you’ll see representations of these things, and they exist historically for a lot of people. But the tradition from which they come doesn’t have the same kind of currency that the tradition of Greek mythological heroes has, although there are parallels between those two traditions. So, when we go to the museum to see African art, those heroes or those symbolic representations of the heroes seem pretty inert. We talk about them as statues that are from cultural practices that are either dead or obsolete.
And so, I thought what I would do would be to take those African sculptures, those African heroes, and reanimate them, in a sense, and make them into the superheroes, but not conventional superheroes that are overdeveloped with musculature. I selected a very specific set of African sculptures that had certain attributes that could easily be translated into superhero powers. I’m trying to find a way to make our knowledge of African history, our knowledge of mythology, and our love of fantasy and superheroes and things like that all come together in a vital and exciting way—by connecting it to a story that is meaningful, historically and culturally, and that says something about the way in which we can carry these traditions into the future, so that they don’t have to dissipate and die.
ART21: Is beauty important to you?
MARSHALL: I wouldn’t say that I never think about beauty as an aesthetic issue. But I certainly think it’s a much more complicated issue than it’s imagined to be. I think, sometimes, when people think of beauty, they think of prettiness as a sign of beauty, but it’s a lot more complicated and a lot deeper than that. The way I see beauty is: as a state of being for a thing that has a kind of fascination about it, or as a thing that presents a certain kind of fascination to you as a viewer. It’s certainly something that’s captivating; it’s something’s that’s compelling. Beauty is a phenomenological experience, and a basic component of it is intrigue. I don’t think that simply because I am an artist, or because anybody is an artist, that people ought to give their attention to the things that we’ve made. In some ways, we have to earn our audience’s attention, and one of the ways we earn our audience’s attention is to make things that are phenomenologically fascinating.
ART21: Explain the term phenomenological.
MARSHALL: When I say phenomenological, I mean a thing has a certain existential authority. What I think is that a thing is what it is. And it is interesting simply because it is, first, meaning that it has a certain presence; we accept its existence as a fact, and it is interesting just because it is. Not because it has a particular meaning, that it’s significant to us in any particular way, but simply that it is.
It’s like a rock, in a sense. Rocks just are. Some rocks are more interesting to look at than other rocks. They all can tell a story, but we don’t examine the stories that all rocks tell. Only certain rocks hold a kind of fascination that compels us to want to investigate further what it is about their nature that’s so interesting. And it’s that compelling component, that fascinating component, this other thing that we are engaged by, that I acquaint with something being beautiful. It’s not that a smooth rock is more beautiful than a jagged rock. The jagged rock might be much more complicated, maybe more complex. That complexity, I think, is what makes that rock somehow more attractive to us to investigate. And that’s what I mean by phenomenological, in a sense.
I mean, when the moon comes up in the evening and it’s full, it’s an amazing thing. And that’s a phenomena that we don’t have to explain; we just recognize it for what it is. It has a certain authority and a certain presence, just because it is. When there’s a tornado, we may be terrified by it, but it’s fascinating nonetheless because it is what it is, not because we know anything about it per se, but because we respond to what it is. That’s what I mean by a phenomenological existence.
So, when artists make things, I think we attempt to make things that have the same kind of authority, or the same kind of presence, as things like the moon, like the sun, like a tornado, like a rock—where you see it, and you know it. There are interesting things about it. And the more you penetrate it and probe into it, the more things it reveals to you or allows you to understand or allows you to make connections to other things. So, that’s what I think we try to do, as artists. These are the means, the kinds of devices or ways the artist has of gaining an audience’s attention.
I was going to say two things, two quotes from people that have been really meaningful to me. One is from Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 and another is a statement from Roland Barthes about inviting people to take the semiotic challenge—meaning to find out what a thing is about, or what a thing really means. Ray Bradbury’s book has a phrase that says: “I hate a Roman named Status Quo . . . Stuff your eyes with wonder . . . live each day as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds.” And Barthes says, that in embarking on the semiotic challenge, the first moment in a semiotic challenge is the moment of amazement—that moment when you encounter a thing that is simply dazzling and fascinating to you, and that fascinating component compels you to want to know more about it. So, when I make work as an artist, I am essentially trying to make work that affects people that way.
This goes back to what we were talking about with that scrapbook in kindergarten. I was simply amazed by all the things I saw in that book. Partly amazed that they could have been made by somebody, but partly amazed simply because they were there. You know, you see a picture of a giraffe next to a picture of a locomotive—that’s an amazing juxtaposition of things. And so, what I try to do with my work is create that same sense of amazement, that same sense of wonder, that same sense of authority, that same kind of presence—so that things seem at once familiar and indecipherable, at the same time. And that familiarity and indecipherability can be called beauty.
This interview was originally published on PBS.org in September 2003 and was republished on Art21.org in November 2011.