Whether or not you read comic books, youâ€™ve probably heard of characters like Ironman and Dr. Octagon due to the schizophrenic name-changing nature of hip-hop artists Ghostface Killah and Kool Keith. The list of names, however, goes on: Big Punisher, Chali 2na, DJ Clark Kent, Jean Grae, and many others have been inspired by superheroes, supervillians, and the rest of the colorful characters youâ€™ll find at the local comic book shop.
Until recently, the Doggystyle insert was about as close as the hip-hop community came to seeing a narrative of its own in comic book form. That has all changed. At the forefront of a fast growing movement, which has embraced both comic book and hip-hop culture, is production company, StreetLegends Ink. Creators of the comic book Blokhedz, Brandon Schultz and the Mad Twiinz, Mike and Mark Davis, respectively write and illustrate the story of Blak, an inner-city MC battling the cold streets of Empire City.
Format: Why is Blokhedz relevant?
Mike: Blokhedz is relevant for various reasons on various fronts. Blokhedz is relevant to hip-hop, because it serves as a vehicle to express our views and opinions to what we feel is going on with hip-hop past, present and future. We wanted to make a statement that it is important to use the power of oneâ€™s words in a responsible manner. Hip-hop is very powerful and influential. Words have manifestation and attraction powers. What you think is communicated by what you say and what you say shapes your reality. With the current values that are presently reigning in mainstream hip-hop, the message the youth are receiving is one of materialism. The essence of the struggle and its creativity is being over shadowed by industry. We wanted to do our part to maintain the voice of struggle, its creativity and express the strength and influence of this magical art form called hip-hop.
On the comic front, it is relevant, because heroes like Superman are outdated. We wanted to introduce a hero that is contemporary, addressing the issues that todayâ€™s youth face and a hero that they can relate to, not just in imagery, but in personality and culturally. There are a lot of people who read comics, but not a lot of people of color in comics. We are creating our own mythologies and archetypes for our children and childrenâ€™s children â€“ something we had very little of growing up, reading comics.
Lastly, on the social front, Blokhedz has become a tool to encourage literacy for the generation that was born in the information age and might not want to read a book. With the imagery, and hip-hop undertones, we attract them to the look and then drop jewels or lessons to them in a non preachy way.
“Blokhedz is relevant to hip-hop, because it serves as a vehicle to express our views and opinions to what we feel is going on with hip-hop past, present and future.”
Format: When Blokhedz was initially developed, being that itâ€™s in comic book form, was there any discussion as to what degree to keep it real, as opposed to fantasy?
Mark: Not really. When we were out pitching, a certain major comic publisher wanted us to take the fantasy element out and make it a regular ghetto bang-bang book, but we felt like the message behind it is a lot deeper than that, and we are not going to sell our audience’s intelligence short.
Mike: Well, the way Mark and I have developed our storytelling style reflects the way we think and move. As it stands, we have always prided ourselves on walking that line between keeping it real and fantasy. The realness is the foundation to make it relatable. And, the fantasy aspect is to engage the imagination and hopefully inspire new thoughts and ideas.
Format: The storyline of Blokhedz closely resembles the one the hip-hop generation has been exposed to, was it a conscious decision to make it general and relatable?
Mark: Yes, because there wasn’t anything like that out at the time. We wanted to bring that type of storytelling to the hip-hop community and what better way to get them pulled in by telling stories that directly reflect our experience.
Mike: Itâ€™s a natural Madtwiinz approach to storytelling. I like to use Nasâ€™s album Illmatic as a metaphor. It sounds like Blokhedz looks; it was an influence; it had the balance of dropping jewels with a street feel; relatable, not preachy; the perfect blend. It helped define our style of storytelling.
Format: Working as a team, whatâ€™s the process like issue to issue in developing Blokhedz?
Mark: First, we all bump around a story see what works and doesn’t work. Then me and Mike take the rough story, and begin thumb-nailing it out. From then, the story goes back to Brandon who interprets the thumbnail and story suggestions into script form. Then we give it a final story review. After that I take the script and begin final pencils and layouts. Then Mike takes the final pencils and colors it. Once the artwork is complete, Mike and I, along with Kobina Yankah, layout the book and ship to publisher.
Mike: It was difficult at first, because when we created the storyline it was very close to Mark and I. In the beginning, although we are open to creative criticism, it was a challenge to open it up to others because of that closeness to the story. After the growing pains we worked out a cool system. It was a good thing to have Brandon and his knowledge of screen writing to aid in the process because he took all the ideas and story and helped structure them.
Format: Youâ€™ve mentioned before that you feel there is a spiritual aspect to the comic book, can you elaborate on that?
Brandon: Black culture, for that matter youth culture, is so often portrayed as just surface materialism to the highest degree. But, if you look at groups like the Wu, Tragedy Khadafi, Nas, even Outkast, they discuss metaphysics, five per cent nation, highly spiritual concepts. Blokhedz, to me, is a mirror to that culture â€“ the superficial and the supernatural.
Mike: This goes back to the power of words. Using words to facilitate the things you want in your reality. Also, the choices made and being responsible for those choices or lack of. Blak as a character becomes lost and must find himself through his choices and what is real in his heart. The spiritual aspect is also reflected in the power of belief against self-doubt or adversity. In the story, Blak becomes more in-tune with his super-powers as he becomes more in-tune with what is in his heart.
“Blokhedz has become a tool to encourage literacy”
Format: What are the differences in response to Blokhedz from the urban community and the comic book community?
Brandon: Some in the comic book community had some preconceived notions and judged the book as a celebration of thuggery from just a few preview images. Others in the industry like Christopher Golden, Scott Lobdell, Jim Mahfood, Hannibal Tabu, even Stan Lee, supported Blokhedz.
In hip-hop, or just the hood at large, from Mos Def to Redman to Nas to veteran graf writers, have given Blokhedz props in a way that is humbling. Method Man bought a toy. Everlast got one of Japanese Vulture exclusives. Will.i.am copped the toys in Japan on tour. The response from artists has been crazy. Even more, to have OG’s come up and say â€˜My brother, he was just like Konzaquence [Blak’s older brother]â€™ with their eyes welling up, that’s just a testament to Mark and Mikeâ€™s characters and the truth that’s in them.
Format: You chose to market the comic primarily in places like barbershops, schools, and teen centers as opposed to comic book stores. What are some other creative marketing plans youâ€™ve developed to promote Blokhedz to the urban community?
Brandon: Some of the things we’ve done before: fan art contest which brought us a sick final piece, e-mail blasts, LowRider bikes features, donating Essence figures to KDAY’s House full of toys, have brought us closer to the people. That said, we’re about to kick it up another notch so stay tuned.
Mark: Well it’s really a balance. We are in comic book stores nation wide, but we’re reaching out to an audience that doesn’t necessarily go to the comic book stores. We are bringing the comics to them. Some other marketing that we have done is having a feature in Scratch magazine, sponsoring the Justo mixtape award and things of that nature.
Format: How did the deal with Scratch come about, what has the feature done for Blokhedz?
Brandon: Jerry Barrow is a visionary journalist and editor. Nicole, [Blokhedz PR], and Mark sat down with Jerry in NY and after that he was behind the Blokhedz feature 100 per cent. That feature has been huge, because Scratch is one of the few music mags that is absolutely legit. For them to give up a page of potential advertising shows Jerry’s commitment to bring something fresh to his readers.
“We see Blokhedz, not as a comic, but an idea â€“ a world.”
Format: Talk a bit about the Blokhedz toys.
Mike: The toys came about at the same time when the urban vinyl or designer toy movement started to hit the shores of America. It was already popping in places like Japan. Being a novice collector of these toys and new wave art, we decided it was the perfect platform to apply to Blokhedz. We see Blokhedz, not as a comic, but an
idea â€“ a world. These new urban vinyl toys are being spearheaded by our generation and hip-hop generation, and the cultures art is a real heavy influence. It was where the culture was moving and Blokhedz made perfect sense in that realm.
Format: Why do you think that in the past few years there has been a sudden surge of hip-hop related comic books?
Mike: The kids that grew up reading comics and listening to hip-hop are now the ones who have the resources to create produce. I think itâ€™s a natural occurrence. But, it has always been a relationship. From Nucleus â€œJam On Itâ€ talking about Superman got rocked, to the Wu-Tang taking on super-hero personas like Ironman and Bobby Digital. Do you remember when Inspectah Deck was sticking on walls like in the â€œTriumphâ€ or â€œReunited,â€ I forgot which one, video? It was crazy!
Format: Why do you think it took so long for the hip-hop generation to be represented in comic books?
Brandon: Fear. We were initially an Image book, but for some reason, still never got a plausible explanation, we were dropped before the first issue came out. It was actually the best thing that could have happened because it forced us to control our own destiny. So we took a cue from hip-hop and brought it straight to the people with StreetLegends Ink.
Mark: Because it wasn’t being made by the hip-hop generation, but we here now!
More Info: http://www.blokhedz.tv