Bryan Edward Hill is one of the most talented and versatile writers in comics today. He’s written Batman to Witchblade and is about to take on the most infamous Wakandan of them all, Killmonger in the character’s first ever solo book run for Marvel. Check out our interview with Bryan as he discusses everything from almost becoming an FBI Agent to his mission to change the perceptions of what a writer of color can do in comics.
What got you into creating comics and graphic novels?
I don’t exactly know honestly, I think it goes back to the price points if these things. They were cheaper when I was growing up so when you’re a a grocery store and you see a cool picture of Spider-man or Batman and you ask your parents if you could grab it and they’d let you and that’s how it started for me. I think the unfortunate thing with where the pricing is now it’s hard to make comics an impulse purchase because it’s kinda expensive so I think it’s hard for new readers to get onboard because you could just buy them with whatever change you had leftover after you bought a slurpee.
Do you think that has had an effect on getting people of color into comics?
I think it has a lot to do with where comics are. In order to buy a comic book now you have to go into a comic book store, and I like comic book stores a lot but there isn’t always a comic book store close to people so if there’s no store in your neighborhood then you have to make an appointment to go out and get comics but if you’ve never read comics before you don’t really know what to make an appointment to go out and get. So where does it start? Once someone is into a hobby they’re into the hobby but the key is having the initial accessibility there so that people can just, on a whim, go out there and grab some things. Unless you are already into the medium I think you might just avoid it all or not even be aware of it.
And it’s just different now. When I was growing up you didn’t have video games that had graphics equivalent to films with well written narratives. If you wanted to get a superhero experience you kinda had two choice. Maybe there’d be a movie…maybe but probably not. Or you might have a cartoon. Then after that it was basically comic books. Now you can get a 50 hr Batman experience for 60 bucks so a lot of that energy is probably being re-routed to gaming and the films because you can watch the movies on Netflix and play the games at home so you don’t really need to go into a store so I think we have to figure out a way to get people one, aware of comics and their existence and two, interested in the medium.
Do you think the publishers are aware of those issues on the comic book side or is it shifting more towards TV, film, and video games instead of the comics purposely or is the industry just struggling to figure it all out?
I’d imagine that people do think about it, it would be weird if they didn’t but what they’re doing? I don’t really know. I haven’t had a lot of business discussions with publishers, I tend to stay out of that when I’m writing but I’m sure those conversations are happening about how to expand the readership.
My one concern is that when people like me fadeaway, is there another generation beneath me thats reading comics that will continue on the tradition? What I would suggest would be looking at Manga and other popular reading materials out there especially what young people are engaging with. Manga gives you a lot value, a lot of pages for the price point. I think there are many things to consider, it’s a loop of moving parts most likely but I figure that’s their floor, their business. I’m creative, I’ll let them do what they’re gonna do but occasionally I do muse to myself about about what could be done or what I could possibly do.
And how did you get into the business?
When I was growing up I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. There was a little bit of time when I thought I wanted to be an FBI Agent and that sounded like an adventure of a lifetime so I was preparing myself to do that but why mother didn’t want me to do that because it would require me to have a gun and in her wisdom she realized that “well if you have a gun then you’re more likely to be around other people who have guns and then you’re more likely to get shot so don’t do that.”
I didn’t want a traditional job because i knew I wasn’t built for that (laughs). So I always liked fiction, I always liked writing, I found peace in libraries, I spent a lot of time reading books and doing a little creative writing on my own so I thought maybe just maybe I cold be writer and that’s where the notion started. Then around my senior year in high school I really fell in love with film making as a potential career and back then there were few black directors. You had Spike Lee, John Singleton, Kasi Lemons but it wasn’t an assumption that it was possible for a black person to be a director…but I didn’t care (laughs). I was like, well I’ll figure that out. And then I went to film school at NYU. And from there I met comic book artists in New York and organically bumped into a bunch of people and eventually got an opportunity.
But comics was a pretty closed system to me for a while. I still remember going to the shows and comic book pros not being especially nice so it did take a little bit of time. But that’s the way my personality is, I tend to not let a thing go when I want a thing so its just not in my nature to let adversity stop me from doing something. So I just kept at it and eventually you get better as you get more attention to your work and things lined up. But I’m still screenwriting and TV writing, I’m in pre-porduction on a film thing I wanna do so I do a lot of different things. If I would’ve waited for comics to warm up to me I would’ve starved to death (laughs) so I had to do other things.
You’ve written Batman and Witchblade among other things so you’ve been able to successfully avoid being typecast as far as what you can write. Do you think most other writers of color in the industry are still facing that same problem and how did you break away from that?
That was a big goal for me. One of the things I’ve wanted to do is change the perception of what a writer of color can or can’t do, what a writer of color might be interested in because there tends to be these little boxes we’re placed into. Oh, you’re a female character? Let’s hire a woman for that. It’s a Latino character, Let’s get a Latino writer. You got a black character? Hire a black guy . And that tends to put people in little categories and it denies the individual experiences they’ve had.
So what I wanted to do is change all of that and hopefully with the variety of things I do and hopefully they are of good quality I change the perception of what a writer of color is able to accomplish.
Killmonger is interesting because I don’t automatically gravitate towards getting handed the black character. And even with the Batman thing, Black Lighting was part of it so there’s a little bit of an asterisk. “I mean he’s writing Batman but…” There’s a bit of an asterirk there. I was a fan of Batman but…I had some reservations about it going into it honestly because of the asterisk. But I felt like I could still do something of quality despite what people’s assumptions might be. The assumption of tokenism that “oh well he’s only writing Batman because Black Lighting is in it. DC would’t hire him to write a Batman story if it was just Batman and Two-Facce,” So I keep those things in mind.
And with Killmonger I wanted to do something different and original. I didn’t want to just recap what we know about the character. I wanted to illustrate how tragedy operates and how the choices we make can leading us into places and explore him as a person that could have had a different outcome if he had just gotten better influences and made better choices. So it didn’t seem like it was an act of tokenism. It’s not like he was some obscure character and Marvel was like “hey we’ll put Bryan on that and it’ll be fine. We’ll give him any old artist and we’ll get it out there and that’ll be that.” I try to stay away from that kind of work and hopefully make it easier for the next guy who looks like me. That’s the goal. If I can do a variety of things people wouldn’t expect me to do like the Kiss book I’m working on then it might be easier for the next guy who looks like me and maybe there’s less assumptions around that writer and they don’t have to climb the hills I had to climb because I was able to show you can’t predict what someone will be good at just because of what they check on their census form.
Would you ever be interested doing your own thing? Creating characters and comics of your own?
Well yeah I’m working on a few original things too. I can’t really go into too much detail about it but there might be an announcement coming in the fall where I can go into specifics. But yeah I’m certainly working on my own original work. I’m not a person that wakes up thinking about writing other people’s characters. If an opportunity shows up I’m happy to explore it and its always fun if it’s the right creative match but ultimately I’m most interested in creating my own worlds and my own characters. So there’s definitely gonna be more original work from me it’s just wise to have a platform where you’re getting readers that are more familiar with the characters you’re writing then you can carry those readers over to your own original work.
A couple of things I’m working on is a film project I’ll hopefully get behind the camera on next year. We’re doing a short this year related to that film project so that’s cool and I’ve got the TV work I’m still doing and developing my own shows and as far as comics, I definitely have original things I’m building to put out there. Everyone should just go to my Twitter @bryanedwardhill and get the dish (laugh).
Are there any certain character archetypes or overall story themes you find yourself attracted to when creating stories?
I don’t have one theme but I tend to engage redemption a lot in stories. Thats something I think about a lot as a concept. I think that happiness comes from finding purpose so a lot of the stories I tell are about characters looking for some sort of purpose. That’s a bit of a focus but I don’t think I have a hard-and-fast thematic that I’ll always engage, its more like I try and find an interesting way in for myself.
So for Killmonger I was most interested in how he forged the last few bricks of that wall of his philosophy. What were those experiences like? If there’s a moment in his life where he could’ve gone left instead of going right, what’s the story of that last moment that he had before he was on track for Warrior Falls and fighting T’Challa, and that’s why I gravitated to it. But really it all depends on who the character is, where I’m at at the moment and how I’m thinking about things. There’s probably some broad thematics about sacrifice, what’s the purpose of heroism, is evil real in an objective way? That’s something I think about often but I don’t think there’s a Bryan Hill theme yet. But those things kinda evolve as you do more work so you maybe someone smarter than me can look at my work and tell me what it is.
Are there any stories or subject matter you have yet to write about that you would like to or plan on doing in the future?
I’m working on some unannounced things that are more love stories…at least that they have a strong romantic story at the core and that’s relatively new for my work in comics so I’m excited about that. That’s the new thing, it’s an element that hasn’t been in my work previously but in Batman and The Outsiders theres a bit of that in there as well. As you do more things more pats of yourself get illustrated and eventually you touch base on all the common aspects of life. As of right now love stories are particularly interesting to me so I’ve been thinking more about how to integrate them into the genre of fiction.
When you look at the current landscape of the industry as a whole, are you optimistic?
The short answer is yes. I do think that it is, in general, a better environment. But there are still cultural assumptions about ability. And let’s face it, writing is an intellectual profession and people of color often times are regarded as having lesser intellect by other people so we still deal with those things..I describe it as you’re playing a lot of two-strike baseball, you can still get on base with two strikes, you can still make it home with two strikes but you don’t have as many chances to swing. But hopefully it will get better. It honestly comes down to the decision makers not all being from the same socio-economic space because we tend to gravitate to what we know and if you don’t know any people color you’re probably not gonna gravitate to them.
But here’s what I think is great, I don’t think readers at all hold deep prejudices really. If there are any issues its the issue with the people who make the hiring decisions because people just care about their thing being cool. (laughs). People don’t have inherent aversions to anyone writing anything as long the thing there reading is cool so it’s more on the company hiring people to think about talent and creativity in more dynamic ways than just the obvious connections between what someone is and what someone can do.
As far as getting more people of color in the decision making positions, is it just as “simple” as having more mega-successful projects like Black Panther with it’s cast, director, and writers all being black and making a billion dollars?
Obviously if you have a bunch of movies with people of color making a bunch of money that’ll make it easier in the boardrooms to get the ideas through. But creatively I think what we can do is demonstrate how OUR experience is also a universal experience.
I get a lot of flack because I tend to be a bigger tent kind of thinker. I know some creators of color out there that would rather me focus solely on issues concerning African-Americans, on political and social issues and really putting those to the fore of my work. And I’m not opposed to it but one, I don’t have a great story in that space. American Carnage is where I’m putting all that energy into my Vertigo book so that’s where I make all my statements.
But I also think it’s important that people realize that they can share in our experience. Because if Black Panther made a billion dollars it didn’t make a billion dollars just because of black people. that means while there are issues, like systematic racism that’s real, while we have culture and racial prejudices that are real, while we have deep problems with law enforcement from how it’s enforced in the streets to how sentencing is executed in the stystem–these are all real things. But at the same time we have to give the world credit. You can look at 2018 in two different ways. It’s either a word where donald trump is the leader of the free world, which is true and can make you feel a certain way. Or you can look at like it’s a world where Black Panther can make a billion dollars worldwide. And the hardest part about living now is that you have to live inside of that contradiction. We’re in a strange place where we’re kind of a pscizophrenic culture and we’re deciding what are we? What are we going to be? What is our soul? I think the big question is what is our soul? And I think when creators of color can have faith in capturing the interest of people in our worlds, our stories, our characters, and our experiences I think we can bring a lot of people into the fold. And people can realize that just because you have something with a lot of African-Americans in it doesn’t mean you’re only making it for 13% of the population.
And I think those are the things that can help. It’s all the little things. As things become more profitable then more opportunities will emerge. I’ve gotten more opportunities because of Black Panther. Because now there’s more value in being a black writer that knows comics, and writes screenplays and TV. There’s more value now then there was last year. So in general I’m optimistic, I’m just a little pragmatic about it. It’s more about getting into the universal aspects of who and what we are and turning those things into powerful revenue streams.
How do you feel technology has assisted in helping comic book creators of color?
I do think that with distribution being what it is and you being able to get your stories out to more people than you ever have before. With production of stories being more cost-effective than ever before. With social media allowing you not only cummicate your work but also the conversation around your work, there’s so many now that I think anyone is capable of expressing themselves and finding an audience we now just honestly need more of us creating. The more of us that create, the better off we’ll be.
Could you give us 3-4 creators that have influenced you and/or who you think are underrated?
The biggest motivators I had growing up were the people who proved to me that I could exist. Christopher Priest was walking evidence that I could exist, Dwayne McDuffie, Mike Pondsmith (the creator of the Cyberpunk role-playing game back in the 80’s). So those were the biggest influences because growing up in St. Louis, MO in a single-parent home without a lot of money and being a black guy that wanted to tell sci-fi and fantasy and horror stories, there’s not a lot of you’s to point to. You don’t have the James Cameron’s and the Ridley Scott’s and the George Lucas’ and Steven Spielberg’s that look like you…I love all their work but there wasn’t evidence that I could be, that I wasn’t completely insane to think I could do this. And that’s what I try and be for the younger folks who may look at me and say if Bryan is writing Batman maybe I can write Batman. I got to meet Christopher at Long Beach Comic Con and tell him thank you for existing.
There’s something important about seeing evidence that you can do what you want to do. It’s very difficult to carve that path yourself through the jungle. And for people of color there just aren’t any of us in these positions because we’ve only been “equal” members of society since the early 70’s, that’s one generation. I think what we’ve been able to do in that one generation has been remarkable. To go from 1960 when you couldn’t walk into a bathroom to 2008 and you’re the President. That’s a pretty remarkable journey. My mom can remember not being able to sit in the front of the bus AND she voted for Barack Obama twice.
What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a future comic book creator of color?
You have to commit to a long journey. The most difficult thing I see people go through a lot is delaying the gratification. We have a lot more instant gratification now than we did when I was a kid. Now with social media it’s lead to the feeling that if I don’t get it now then I’ll never get it and creative industries don’t work like that. You have to commit yourself for the long haul so the most important thing I would tell people to keep in mind is that it will take time. Even when it doesn’t look like it took time that’s probably not how it went, it’s only what they’re showing you.
You gotta build it brick by brick and everyday do something that’ll lead you to where you need to go. If you do one thing a day, write one page then that’s 365 things, 365 pages you wrote in a year. Look at the little victories and commit yourself to the length of the process.
And finally, what does the term “The Culture” mean to you?
It really means a collection of people that are bonded by experience, history, and predicament that have created a unique aspect of society. An instant fraternity of people that have been touched by the same thing. It’s your broader family, a family born out of experience and legacy that manifest in unique methods of creativity and self-expression.
Check out our other interviews with black comic book creators
Interviewed by @TalentedMrFord