First and foremost, I am an artist. Comics are my medium. With that being said, there have been many artists that I looked up to, admired, envied, and had been intimidated by. In other words, I have learned to be a better comic book creator by observing and studying how they have approached the craft of comics. This is a list of some of my favorite Black comic book artists. If your favorite artist isn’t on this list, make your own.
Part 1 focused on my early influences of the 80s and the 90s before I stepped my toe into this raging ocean called comics. Part 2 is all about the cats whose work pushed me to be a better creator as I began my career in comics.
CHRIS CROSS & KEN LASHLEY
Chris Cross was one of the many artistic bright spots Milestone Media brought to the comic book landscape. Along with fellow alumni Humberto Ramos and John Paul Leon, Chris Cross had to be one of my favorite artists of the mid-90s. From Blood Syndicate to Heroes, his mastery of facial expressions and character “acting” along with his energetic layouts, which are a take on manga through an African-American lens, enhanced every book he worked on. His style makes stories as diverse as Xero to Captain Marvel extremely accessible to audiences from every walk of life.
I first discovered Ken Lashley through one of his first gigs providing illustrations for Alexander Simmons‘ Blackjack: Second Bite of the Cobra. However, I didn’t become a fan of his work until he self-published the WAY too short-lived Legends from his own studio. What a quantum leap! Ken AKA Ledzilla knows what makes for powerful images. His command of structure and anatomy was a goal that, some days, I’m still trying to achieve. His career is similar to one of my other favorite artists Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez in that Ken has done a lot of licensing art for properties like G.I. Joe and Star Wars. He knows the business of being a professional commercial artist and flexes it like a champ. Man, I really need to pick his brain about that the next time I see him at a con…
SANFORD GREENE & THE LOVE BROTHERS
Sanford Greene. The homie. We came up around the same time, meeting at the then Chicago Comic Con (before it became WizardWorld Chicago). Right away, I was a huge fan of his “Hip Hop meets Anime” style. It was super clean, perfect for all-ages titles like The Batman and Legion of Super Heroes. As time went on, his style became looser, grittier and I was along for the ride. This flavor in his work emerged when he worked on the Method Man graphic novel. Since then, Power Man and Iron Fist, the smash hit Bitter Root, An Army of Frogs… Man.
In 2007, Sanford and I were talking about how far we had gotten in our career. We were talking about the evolution of the sketchbook. He was the one that made the metaphor of the sketchbook being the equivalent of a mixtape. That conversation was the beginning of the 4 Pages 16 Bars: A Visual Mixtape anthology series… You can thank Sanford Greene for that as well. I know I do…
When we launched Griot Enterprises in 1999, another company popped up almost at the exact same moment. That company was Gettosake Comics, owned and operated by Jeremy and Robert Love. These brothers were making the work Griot Enterprises wanted to be judged by. Chocolate Thunder was our jam and I loved (pun intended) these brothers’ cartoony style. We at Griot considered Gettosake the friendliest of competition as they made us want to create better comics.
Since then, Gettosake has gone the way of the dodo (which is bullshit because I want more). Of course, you could chalk up Gettosake’s demise to the fact that the Love Brothers have blown up at other labels like Image and Dark Horse thanks to books like Fierce, Number 13 (with David Walker) and the classic Bayou published by DC Comics. Still, I want more Gettosake comic books… Can we make that happen, fellas?
KHARY RANDOLPH & EMILIO LOPEZ
I could have just focused on Khary Randolph in this piece. I mean, he has a helluva resume working on books like We Are Robin, Teen Titans Go!, Starborn and others. I could just go on and on about his combination of Hip Hop aesthetics, animation and manga giving an ill kinetic flavor all its own…
But, when Khary connected with his colorist of choice Emilio Lopez, that’s when the whole thing came together. These two are straight-up the EPMD of comics, banging illustrations, all business. Khary is the MC while Emilio is the DJ. Together, they have created classic joints like Mosaic from Marvel and their current banger, Excellence, written by another brother-in-arms, Brandon Thomas.
JOHN JENNINGS & STACEY ROBINSON
Together, they are Black Kirby, the dynamic duo who brought the synthesis of Afrofuturism and comics to academia. Separately, they are two of the greatest artists I have the privilege to call colleagues and friends.
I first met John Jennings in 2009 when he approached me to have my work featured in the first volume of the seminal art book Black Comix. I was honored to be included in that volume, especially when I saw the pedigree of creatives that were in that book. Sine then, we have collaborated on a number of projects and exhibitions as fellow academics including SOL-CON and The Black Speculative Vision.
John’s work looks like he consults the Loa every time he creates an image. It’s like he has altar to Ogun, offers the rum, chews the roots and gets to work. It truly is Jack Kirby seen through the rough-hewn eyes of a master woodworker. It’s visual southern gothic Vodou with a rich tradition steeped in African spirituality. Just check out The Hole or the adaptations of Kindred and Parable of the Sower (with the blue-eyed soul brother Damian Duffy) to get a taste of some down-home comic book making.
Becoming a member of an exclusive club of Black comic book creators who are also college professors has its privileges. One of those privileges has been becoming friends and working with Stacey Robinson. His style is absolutely rhythmic. It’s visual jazz swirling in the brain merging with your vertebrate and settling deep within your soul. What I love about his work is that even though we make take similar approaches in creating images, his technique and visual language is so unique it’s almost annoying. Plus, we’ve got the whole DJ thing in common so when I look at his work, I know he’s “digging in the crates” to come up with some of the ills work I’ve ever seen. Check out I Am Alfonso Jones to get a taste of my man’s amazing talent.
This dude right here…
It was 1988. I was a junior at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy waiting in line to get my lunch. Here comes this cat, a freshman no less, walking up to me saying: “Yo, I saw you left this drawing in the art room and I decided to finish it. Here you go.”
The audacity! This fool went ahead and drew on my shit! Even more annoying, this fool made my drawing better!
That is how I met Kenjji Jumanne-Marshall.
I can’t condense how much I love his work in just a paragraph or two. Simply put, Kenjji is my litmus test. He is the purest comic book artist I’ve ever met. Kenjji is the best comic book artist you never heard of.
Jim Lee? Nah. Todd McFarlane? Whatever. Rob Liefeld? What the hell have you been smoking?
Kenjji is the Phife Dawg to my Q-Tip, the Big Pooh to my Phonte. He is the cat that pushes me to be the best creator I could possibly be. We thought we were starting a comic book company when creating Griot Enterprises when, in reality, it’s much more than that. Together, we created a standard of excellence that people still measure Black Comix by.
Straight up? Kenjji is family. And no one inspires you to be the best more than family.
So, that was Part Two. Come back for Part Three when I show love to the artists that came after me… And who keep me on my toes.