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Genre as a Trojan Horse: A Roundtable with Tanna Tucker, Ezra Claytan Daniels, Ben Passmore, and Ron Wimberly

Over a period of months in 2019, Tanna Tucker, Ezra Claytan Daniels, Ron Wimberly & Ben Passmore got together to discuss BTTM FDRS, a graphic novel by Daniels & Passmore published by Fantagraphics. Their discussion of the work, the cultures that surround, shape and inform its creation and the racism that it seeks to confront follow. 

Tanna Tucker: I was immediately reminded of Octavia Butler’s short story, “Blood Child.” In it, humans have “discovered” and colonized what they initially thought was a lifeless planet, only to learn that not only is there intelligent life, but that it demands a price for occupying its space. In the case of “Blood Child,” the bargain is that men must act as the reproductive incubator for the native species, in exchange for a livable space. Similarly, in BTTM FDRS, the gentrifiers are expected to participate via shared consciousness for the organism to accomplish its goals. In Octavia Butler’s afterward, she refers to “Blood Child” as her “pregnant man” story, but it’s also a story about “paying the rent.”

Is this your revenge fantasy? If so, to what extent is it an interrogation of what it means to contribute to the community you’re trespassing into, in a meaningful and committed way? What is the price for safe passage?

Ezra Claytan Daniels: There is a massive element of catharsis in this story. I was actually in a very angry state of mind when I was writing the last few drafts. Eric Garner and Mike Brown were both murdered that summer, and everybody was just in a very dark, furious mental place. A big part of writing this story was an effort to control the narrative, and for the bad guys to be exposed and punished in a way it seems like they never are in real life. There’s one particularly gruesome and mean-spirited death in BTTM FDRS that I think stands out. Writing that was a total revenge fantasy.

I haven’t read “Blood Child,” but I love that idea. I wish there was a clear price of passage. Someone asked Ben and I in an interview what we thought being a conscientious gentrifier looked like. I was like, “Well, you must support local businesses and engage with your neighbors and use whatever privilege you have to amplify their voices,” and Ben was like, “We have to destroy white supremacy!”

Obviously, I agree with Ben. That would solve, at least, a lot of the issues, but as far as a prescriptive solution for people to adopt, I think you’re absolutely right, it should be decided by the community. But how do you give a community that power, or that voice, especially in Black neighborhoods, which are particularly vulnerable to gentrification because Jim Crow laws have historically curtailed Black home and business ownership? It’s like if nobody who lives in a neighborhood actually owns property there, then gentrifiers coming in have no incentive to pay any price or listen to anything the residents have to say. I have no idea what the answer is.

Ben Passmore: In some ways, I dislike being asked by white people what to do about gentrification because I feel like the actual question is, “How do I variate my life enough to not feel bad, but not so much that I can’t do what I want?” If white people wanted to solve black displacement, they’d think about putting their money and time toward it instead of making ironic purchases at boutique coffee houses. But even with that said, we can’t use capitalism to solve something capitalism started. Something I like about BTTM FDRS is that it doesn’t propose anything. It just leads you through the complicated discomfort and terror of the characters. It also doesn’t make a hero out of anyone in any obvious way. The monster, Darla, and even Chucky are not saints. It would be easy to make a book that mirrors a popular, simplistic narrative about gentrification without actually trying to reflect the ecosystem of displacement that exists that includes non-rich, non-white people. There was one scene that was real cathartic for me to draw, though.

Tanna: Yeah, that scene was cathartic to read and probably the closest I’ll actually get to any justice as a tenant …

Even W.E.B. Du Bois employed science fiction (“The Comet” and “The Princess Steel”) as a tool for political commentary on race, class, and economics and to provide the necessary distance to “see” reality through a different lens. Can you talk about your preference for genre fiction to examine and document a difficult question such as gentrification?

Ezra: Yeah. There’s a long and important history of writers using genre as a Trojan horse for political commentary. It’s historically been easier for writers to inject conversations about race or class into the public discourse if the players are recast as aliens or elves, or whatever. I’m very much inspired by this legacy and instinctively make work in that mold, but I also constantly wonder how necessary that obfuscation is, and how much it clouds my agenda.

I think about how nearly everyone in America was raised on stories warning us of fascists and demagogues, from Star Wars to Hunger Games, and yet, when those archetypes run for public office, it becomes clear A LOT of people didn’t take those lessons to heart. Like, how many conservative Star Wars fans still somehow identify with the Rebellion? I think a big part of the problem is just that too many writers write political genre stories from a place of ignorance, and it just confuses the matter. A lot of writers just don’t have a grasp on the big picture. When you watch something like the new The Handmaid’s Tale series, and race never comes up as an issue, it’s easy for white viewers to take away the lesson that we’re all fighting oppression from a position of equal footing.

And look at all the dystopian movies, where all the oppressed people are white. In certain cases, I guess this approach might theoretically work to get white people to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes, but too many people see that and take away the lesson that white people are the “real” victims of oppression. So, I don’t know. I go back and forth. I still think there’s a valid argument for tricking people into reading about real issues by disguising them as genre fiction, but a big part, for me, is that I love science fiction and horror and selfishly find it more fun and therapeutic to play in those sandboxes than taking the ideas on more literally.

Ben: I grew up on Star Trek and, man, I hated how each “alien” race inhabited the homogenous ideas and culture. It helped codify my feeling of alienation from my own blackness as a mixed nerd. Most of the sci-fi I interacted with in the ‘90s had that same failing, and it’s always a joy to read speculative fiction that makes decisive moves away from that. I also always had a problem with the “big bads” in movies like Star Wars or The Matrix because the evil overlords were obvious, and in my experience, oppression was often more subtle. I think sci-fi can obscure what it takes to identify and position yourself against oppression. But maybe that’s what riot porn is, and I should just enjoy lazers and shit ...

Ron Wimberly: I don’t know about the practical application of genre as a Trojan horse. Presenting aliens and other non-human persons as metaphors for people othered by racism or sexism essentially just reproduces the othering that it intends to critique. Human beings (namely white people) aren't forced to question their position in relation to the other and whether it’s merited scientifically, socially, etc. “We shouldn’t kill E.T., but that nigga CERTAINLY is not human (he needs to go back to where he came from).” So, it’s no wonder then that white people don’t see themselves in that alien or monster or giant gorilla.

What I liked about BTTM FDRS is that it blurs the line between the human and non-human. It left me with questions regarding my assumptions about that line in its world and joined the conversation around that line in mine.

Was it your intent to explore this, Ezra?

Ben: Get Out was this huge hit, but, Ron, do you think white people learned something new through viewing that movie, or did a woke narrative about themselves allow them to enjoy watching black terror?

Ron: Ben likes to embed my answers to his questions in his questions. But I’ll go one step further and give [Jordan] Peele a big compliment. Get Out wasn’t for white people AT ALL. It’s THE BEST thing about the film. White people have to do work to make it about them ... and it’s one of the rare cases that white people will consistently work for free, making it about them. Get Out works on levels. One of the levels it works on is that liberal whites like to see themselves and self-flagellate (careful to never give someone else the chance to hold the whip, though) and/or – they love this too – smugly poo-poo how other, less woke white people carry on, and then broadcast it. I’m not sure it’s necessarily about watching black terror, or black suffering. They don’t have to pay for that as long they can catch the evening news for free. Black terror may even scroll by on their drive home. How many times has someone on here projected their terror onto the face of a white person, and they didn’t even notice it?

Ezra: The story is very much in the tradition of body horror, which is all about blurring the line between human and non-human. And I’m personally most influenced by horror stories that humanize the monster. So, I’m employing these approaches just as much in homage to my influences as I am in service of the story’s metaphors. It was crucial to the metaphor here that the “monster” be something that doesn’t have any agency of its own, and instead just amplifies the desires of its host. So, the distinction between human and non-human really ceases to exist, at least consciously.

But back to what you said about othering, Ron. Do you feel these metaphors could be more powerful if they came from more of a “one-race” philosophy than one that just reskins our physical and cultural differences?

Ron: I wouldn’t say “one-race;” that situates the discussion within a framework in which we acknowledge race as a legit, real classification. It’s like, “Don’t burn her, she’s a good witch!” No, I think the metaphor should call into question the notion of “race” altogether. The metaphors aren’t accurate if they reframe race as a significant biological difference on the level of extraterrestrial or another species or something like that. So, if it’s like E.T. or Bigfoot or some shit, it’s essentially saying, “We should treat non-human persons with some sort of dignity or respect.” I don’t disagree, but this is not a metaphor regarding racism. It’s a metaphor regarding ethical treatment of non-human persons. We can argue whether humanism is broken, too, but if it’s supposed to be about race, and your metaphor has like “humans vs. aliens” or “cats vs. mice” or some shit, then you’re kind of building on racist ideology vis-a-vis essential differences.

Tanna: We learn the organism only became menacing after corporations interfered to weaponize it, with the intention of selling it to prisons. With the right symbiotic host controlling it, it will be directed to harm and profile a specific group of people. The organism, invented by one of the Black residents, begins as a “living home” meant to benefit the community, but we witness its appropriation and, consequently, its corruption. What does the creature in your book represent?

Ezra: The story is ostensibly about gentrification, but in researching the topic, it struck me that gentrification follows the same exact stages as cultural appropriation. The gentrifier or appropriator first fears, then covets, then takes, then nullifies, then abandons the object of desire without repercussion. It’s worth noting that this maps almost perfectly to [Joseph] Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but that’s another discussion.

I’ve been an artist my whole life, and appropriation has very clearly defined players in my head, so wrapping the story in that metaphor made it easier to pin down the players in the cycle of gentrification. There’s the Nicky/Iggy dichotomy at the center, the greedy record executive racing to cash in, and the O.G. who lives and breathes the culture but was never given the shot at the throne that’s just handed to the cute, little white girl (who only stumbles across it because she’s trying to hide).

The creature specifically represents hip hop. It’s a thing that was cobbled together from discarded and disparate elements into something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s given power and potency by the vilest aspects of society (in the story, it’s literally shit). It’s benevolent and empowering by nature, but can be incredibly destructive when wielded with malice or greed — whether it’s fast food companies using rap jingles to shill junk food in food deserts, or record labels skewing the culture toward its basest extremes in order to sell records to its largest perceived sales demographic: suburban white kids. In the end, the only way to nullify the creature is to (spoiler alert) literally water it down.

Ron: What do you mean by hip-hop? Rap music? Or a specific iteration of rap music? Were there specific elements of hip hop you intended to clue us to? I hate this. I’m of the school “just look carefully,” but maybe some people will be into it. Did the formal elements of hip hop find their way into your writing process, Ezra?

Ben, were you hip to this metaphor from the outset? If so, to what extent did you play in pulling this off thematically?

Ezra: The characters reflect archetypes found specifically in rap, but they exist in this building in the same way that rap exists within hip hop. The clearest I wanted to get in spelling out the metaphor was with the famous novelty rapper who lives in the building. This character is at the conflux of pretty much every theme in the book, from complicity and accountability to gentrification and appropriation. The conversation he has with Darla in the bar stands out in the book as one of the only scenes of deep sincerity, but it’s also the only scene that breaks the logic of the world, at the end when everyone in the bar approves of their conclusion by raising a drink. That moment is my wink at the reader that this scene is kind of the key to the puzzle.

Ben: It was hard to know how to apply Ezra’s metaphor in a very literal way. I thought about how incongruous it is for culture vultures and gentrifiers to inhabit physically or metaphorically the space and the culture of a people that made their home in the margins of our nation. Most black communities were developed in the places that were unwanted by white people, so they are inhabiting nearly uninhabitable places. I wanted the reader to wonder, “Why are they trying to live there? That’s not a comfortable place to be,” but still have the environment be attractive. So, I played a lot with unnatural color that’s inspired by industrial or neon lighting and crafted the buildings after Brutalist designs.

Tanna: I like that the main protagonist occupies a complicated position, as a young Black artist from the neighborhood, who is also complicit in economically gentrifying it. Everyone on this panel is a Black cartoonist (myself included) who have had to grapple with this exact thing: the simultaneous role of gentrifier and gentrified. To what degree does the work reflect your lived experiences?

Ezra: Oh, 100 percent. Writing this was a hugely reflective experience, not only as a person of color occupying gentrifying spaces, but as a white-reading, cis-gender person of color who benefits from enormous privileges that make that occupation even easier. As the policing agenda in a gentrifying neighborhood shifts, I’m not the one who’s being hassled by cops for no reason. As landlords look to cash in on the rise of rents and property values that changing demographics represent, I’m a more appealing tenant. It’s a position that’s rife with guilt, awkwardness, and misunderstandings. That’s what I was interested in exploring, both because there’s a lot of absurdity to be mined for comedy, and because it’s my personal experience.

Here’s a story Ben loves. I live in Leimert Park, a black neighborhood in South Los Angeles with massive gentrification crosshairs on it. Real estate listings here actually use the term as a selling point. A very bougie, new coffee shop just opened down the block from me, but it’s black owned, so I try to support it. After BTTM FDRS came out, I was out here hustling my book, and I went in to get a cup of coffee and show them the book to see if they wanted to sell it on their little “local artist shelf.” I mentioned the book was about gentrification, and the owner started laughing and joked about how ironic it was that the local white guy was out here selling a book about gentrification. At a coffee shop with $7 cappuccinos. So, this issue is far from black and white — no pun intended. There’s SO much nuance to be interrogated.

Ron: So, you were passing at the time? Did you come out to him?

Tanna: Yeah, that resonates with me. I’m also an “arty, mixed, safe Black.” While I definitely don’t pass, I’m still a light-skinned/bi-racial presenting person, who has access to certain privileges because of my “palatable” presentation and proximity to whiteness. It’s pretty fucked up (and I love to ruin people’s day when they realize I’m not safe at all). Honestly, I’m very glad you don’t shy away from the politics and implications around this, as it pertains to your own experience and privileges. It’s not spoken about enough.

Ezra: [Laughs] I don’t know if I was passing at the time any more than I pass any time. It’s not like I came in wearing hiking boots and a fedora. But, of course, I told him I wasn’t white, and it was super fucking awkward, and I fumed about it for an hour after. I’m sure everybody here knows how shitty it feels to be put in a position of defending your identity. And the other thing is, this dude was light-skinned, too! So, after I cooled off and recalled the interaction later, it occurred to me that he may have felt defensive because he thought I was coming in accusing HIM of being a gentrifier, with his dry-ass $4 vegan donuts. Anyway, I’m trying not to be petty, but I’m obviously still in my feelings about it.

I actually do feel, though, that my mixed-race background has a lot to do with my fascination with genre. While I’ve very rarely seen a thoughtful biracial experience depicted in genre stories, the idea of the half-breed, vampeel, or half-caste is a tried and true trope that I’ve always, at least subconsciously, identified with. I just realized 75 percent of the people in this discussion are biracial (sorry, Ron). Have my fellow grays felt this specific connection to genre?

Ron: No offense taken! To me, it’s literally like claiming what wizard house you belong to. I could identify as biracial. I wonder if what you mean is “not-white.” I mean, I’m sure the Spanish have a racial designation that you all fit into. You won’t have to split hairs. Or, maybe, I misunderstand. Quick aside: I always saw Blade and Vampire Hunter D as self-loathing black or aristocrats. Like black cops or Jacobins or something. The glaring difference between a dampeel and somebody who’s light-skinned is the degree to which the environment recognizes their identity.

Tanna: Always the antagonist, Ron.

Ezra: Yes, it’s contributed to my gravitation to, and fascination of, these characters that shouldn’t exist. Abominations. Damnable creatures. Especially when you simply don’t see yourself reflected in stories, you get very good at finding ways to relate, even if it’s a stretch. At least, I did as a kid. Aside from Blade, maybe, I can’t really think of half-blood characters that still don’t present as white, but I was at least able to connect to the half-caste part. Grasping at straws, but it was something.

I like Ron’s take on Blade and VHD as self-loathing, which only works because the vampires in those stories are broadly coded/function as shorthand for evil. Maybe this would feel different if they were depicted with more nuance and less of a moral binary.

Ben: Part of why I liked the script Ezra sent me was that the protagonist occupied a position within gentrification that I was familiar with. I’m an arty, mixed guy (read as: “safe, kind of black guy”) from a rural town, but I’ve lived almost exclusively in lower-income black neighborhoods. On top of that, I’ve been living in punk houses and squats for years with mostly white people. I’m part of a dynamic that allows white people to feel comfortable taking up space in impoverished black neighborhoods. I don’t think I, or other white-adjacent black people, are the tip of the spear of displacement, but we do contribute to displacement if we’re not intentionally attacking gentrification.

Ron: Word. And sometimes WHILE we’re intentionally attacking gentrification.

Tanna: I’ve recently had very uncomfortable experiences, where I and other “creatives from the community™” have been approached by real estate developers to vouch for their “community benefit” (usually at a commissioners’ meeting at city hall), so their project could be greenlit by the city. These projects technically fulfill the affordable housing requirement/law, but I have other thoughts on what should be considered affordable and sustainable. As a friend said, it’s probably the least punk rock thing I could do. As long as we’re trying to solve these issues with capitalist solutions, we don’t have much recourse, I’m afraid. But I certainly am not going to let them trade in on my Black-local-artist status as I’m being displaced.

Ben: This is a whole other article, but I’m obsessed with the white-coded practices of resistance movements that implicitly exclude non-white adjacent black people. Like, why do we need to formulate things around meeting structures? But anyway, back to lazers and shit.

Tanna: Can we make that article, though?

I see nods to, and subversions of, horror and sci-fi tropes. What were your influences for both the writing and visual execution of BTTM FDRS?

Ezra: A lot of my influences for BTTM FDRS were cinematic. There’s obviously a lot of [David] Cronenberg. [John] Carpenter’s The Thing remake was a huge influence. Tonally, I was really inspired by Attack the Block and Tremors. There’s also a great history of black satire like Melvin Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man and Wendell Harris’s Chameleon Street that I had in mind.

More recently, I think movies like Shaka King’s Newlyweeds and Dear White People left a mark on this story. There’s this amazing web-series by Numa Perrier, Lena Waithe, and Ashley Blaine Featherson called Hello Cupid I was watching during the last rewrite that I think shows in the friendship dynamic. Comics-wise, there’s A LOT of Junji Ito in there. Katsuhiro Otomo’s Domu, which is also a horror story set in a claustrophobic apartment building, is well reflected. There’s more than a little Ghost World in the deterioration of the central friendship. Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, too.

Ben: I grew up reading EC Comics horror stuff, and in college I got into lots of titles that were essentially clones of Mike Mignola cloning HP Lovecraft. When Ezra and I were talking about visual conventions we might use for BTTM FDRS, I felt like Ito managed to be uniquely terrifying in the way he built to scares. I think horror comics can be gory very easily, but I rarely feel unsettled reading horror comics. In BTTM FDRS, I wanted to build to scares visually without telegraphing it using composition and color in ways that were different than other comics I’d read.

Ron: The one portion where we aren’t quite sure what’s happening to the white girl off panel really pulls it off. Ben, your choice of positioning action in relation to the border of the frame was very smart. What was your method?

Ben: I was all like, “What would look mad dope here?” I’m just out here manifesting visuals like my nigga Mickey with the magic hat.

Tanna: Did you always envision BTTM FDRS as a horror book? If not, how did you arrive at this genre for this particular work?

Ezra: It was always first and foremost a horror book. The comedy moved front and center only in later rewrites, particularly after I finished writing Upgrade Soul and was just desperate to do something lighter. And after Ben signed on to draw it, I really went through and punched up some of the humor, often with Ben’s voice in mind.

Ben: Honestly, I was worried going into the book because I’d never really done horror straight up. But I really like morbid humor, though. It’s a go-to in my own dystopian humor comics, and BTTM FDRS is as much a humor book as a horror book.

Ron: This discussion was originally proposed with an Afrofuturist prompt attached. I thought that was strange. It played into my general suspicion that Afrofuturism has become a sort of catchall for “weird nigga shit;” anything from Afro-space helmets, to Octavia Butler, to that African cosplay you see at Afropunk. Do you feel or did you intend for this horror comic to be Afrofuturist or have a dialogue with Afrofuturism? Just out of curiosity, what do you see being the formal qualities of Afrofuturism, the general ethos?

Ben: Is this where my light-ass gets in trouble for expressing a hard skepticism for Afrofuturism and its popularity?

Ezra: Calling BTTM FDRS an Afrofuturist book in marketing materials was 100 percent Fantagraphics using a buzzword to sell books. But it never really bothered me because, to be honest, at the end of the day, I’m trying to sell books, too, and I do consider myself a tangentially Afrofuturist artist — just not so much in the comics I’ve made, as of yet.

I made an experimental, animated Afrofuturist short with my partner, Adebukola Bodunrin, that was part of the first Black Radical Imagination program. We sat on countless panels and had countless conversations about Afrofuturism with incredibly brilliant artists like Terence Nance, Cauleen Smith, Robert Pruitt, Jacolby Satterwhite, and D. Denenge Akpem, who actually stars in the film. I started that journey with only a vague idea of what Afrofuturism was. Eventually, these discussions brought me to a clear understanding of what Afrofuturism meant, at least to me.

To me, it’s about flailing for our severed roots and imagining a reality, past, present or future, where those roots have been either reattached, or were never severed in the first place. Afrofuturism is thick with vaguely African imagery. Mismatched and mashed up patterns and invented sacred geometries with references to incongruous traditions. To me, Afrofuturism conjures the feeling of being a little kid trying on your mom’s shoes. They don’t fit your feet, and they make you walk weird, but it’s a real connection, and it’s a real empowerment.

Ben: Like, is the best we can do as a people is dream of a highly aestheticized, technocratic future crafted around vague Afrocentrism and retrograde feudalism? Remember when everyone thought it was dope to rock guns, anti-colonial praxis, and feed children!?

Ron: Not sure I remember that. Maybe that was like one summer in 1997 after a dead prez record dropped?

Ezra, could you elaborate on how you see Afrofuturism as a real connection and a real empowerment? To what end have you been empowered by Afrofuturism (besides a useful marketing angle with Fantagraphics)?

Ben: “NAW nigga but we looking ILL in our WRAP out here at Afro Punk. Bad Brains? Never hear of it, is that a CBD juice company?”

Tanna: Ooooo getting spiceeeeey. I’m for these worthy criticisms.

While I like that Afrofuturism has become a more accessible term/canon outside of academia, I share in Ron’s suspicions and despise that it has become a catchall for “weird nigga shit” or any black storytelling working remotely in speculative or imaginative genres, to the point of becoming meaningless. To invoke it, without proper examination of its complexity, reproduces the very flattening of black identity(s) it seeks to reject/undo. It’s use as a marketing tool, without bothering to understand it’s tenants and nuances, borders on fetish. It’s disappointing, at best, but not surprising, I suppose.

Having said that, I believe Afrofuturism can be weaponized as a space for resistance and liberation.

Yes, Afrofuturism is fundamentally speculative, but I reject it as escapist fiction, purely concerned with “weird” or avant-garde aesthetics (though, I enjoy all of that too). And it’s far more than just Blacks in space/tech. I often think about it as a way to reclaim and recontextualize our past on our terms and to disarm toxic historical/political narratives. This cultivates empowerment and survival in the present in a very tangible way, which allows us to architect inclusive and sustainable futures. It’s as much a conversation about the past as it is the future.

This act of unlearning/reimagining can assist with the decolonizing process. As Ytasha Womack asks, “Whose imagination are you living in?” What does that do to our sense of self and connection? How can the limits or expansion of our imagination determine our survival?

I appreciate the way activists are using these frameworks to discuss organizing and radical social change. Adrienne Marie Brown (Emergent Strategy) asserts, “All organizing is science fiction.” You’re essentially world building something that is unprecedented or rejected as unattainable certainly something the capitalists want you to believe is unattainable. Expanding the limits of the imagination of what we must accept or can change, to me, directly connects to political will, empowerment, and our capacity for revolution. That’s what it means to me, but I obviously don’t view this as a purely aesthetic or neutral space.

Ben: It’s hard to get jokes off when Tanna is saying so much real shit.

I’ll admit that the hype around Afrofuturism raises more flags for me than any art I’ve consumed around it. Which maybe makes me a hater. I will say that coming from punk, a highly aesthetic heavy community, I realized after a while that there was actually very little to no transgressive ideology at home in it. In fact, punk just seemed/seems to mirror all the oppressive dynamics of the meta culture. I think this is because it’s easy to reduce punk down to some vague idea of “rebelliousness” and sell it. It’s disappointing, and I cringe when I meet kids going all in on Afrofuturism. I feel like they don’t realize they’ll have to battle to keep any transgressive-ness that might be contained within it. But yeah, I don’t know why BTTM FDRS is being described as Afrofuturism. We far out, but we ain’t in space.

Ron: I just want to note the difference between counterculture and subculture. So, where I’m coming from, I understand culture as a collection of aesthetics and rules that dictate behavior. I think dominant powers produce what we call “culture,” and flavors of that are “subculture,” and oppositions to that produce “counterculture.”

I believe that art production functions as the vanguard in any of those spheres, producing the aesthetics around that. I think some punk was counterculture in that it expressed an opposition to the dominant culture (heteronormative gender rolls i.e. “Punk”, race hegemony, class hegemony); however, consumer capitalism is powerful and has a way of destroying counterculture through aestheticization and/as commodification.

Afrofuturism is counterculture when it questions the dominant notion of history; it’s subculture when it just produces a “skin” for the dominant culture and how it frames “black bodies” and/or aestheticizes a black politic. However, as I’ve observed, Afrofuturism can also function as a subculture within consumer capitalism, maintaining a meta-narrative about how we consume and perform blackness.

... or nah?

Ezra: I totally feel that reticence, and I absolutely love your definition. I do go back and forth, but ultimately, I don’t really feel protective of the concept of Afrofuturism. I actually don’t mind having a catchall term for black stuff that has sci-fi, fantasy, or surrealist elements. I like the idea of putting the work out in the world and letting the academics and curators figure out if it’s “real” Afrofuturism. I mean, the fetishization of black art and problematic depictions of blackness in speculative fiction by both black and non-black creators didn’t start with [Mark] Dery’s coining of the term, and it sure won’t end when it goes out of vogue. Like, is Brother from Another Planet Afrofuturist? Is Men in Black? Is an anime-style, watercolor painting of a green-eyed black woman’s face with a galaxy superimposed in the silhouette of her afro Afrofuturist?

And we’re not even really talking about protecting the term from mainstream co-option by non-black creators, which is a bridge we’ll certainly have to cross at some point. Until then, I keep coming back to the idea that, if everybody’s trying to cash in on this niche buzzword by producing more and more stories featuring black people in fantastical situations that aren’t by default hinged on black suffering, I’m ultimately good with that. If the buzz around the term helped convince white studio heads to green light Random Acts of Flyness or Fast Color, I feel like that’s a net gain. No matter how much control we assert over the term, or how many barriers we erect around it, there’s going to be work that falls under the umbrella that’s problematic or just plain bad. That doesn’t mean it can’t still be a tool of activism and change, though, right?

I feel like everyone in this discussion is using Afrofuturist ideals in meaningful and empowering ways, and we’re doing so in a world where I’m sure you can also find an “Afrofuturist” comic about an intergalactic pimp who flies a spaceship that looks like a Cadillac. I guess what I’m saying is that I personally feel like there’s plenty of room under the Afrofuturist umbrella.

But ask me again when Quentin Tarantino makes an Afrofuturist movie.

Ben: Bars.

Ron: 100

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Tanna Tucker is an illustrator and cartoonist living in Oakland, CA. Her work has been featured in The Nib, LAAB Magazine, and in various anthologies including, Black Comix Returns and Cosmic Underground: A Grimoire of Black Speculative Content. She is currently a Political Power Fellow at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. You can follow what she’s up to on Instagram @t.ann.a.

Ezra Claytan Daniels is a writer and illustrator based in Los Angeles, CA. His Eisner Award-nominated graphic novel, UPGRADE SOUL, was the recipient of the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics and was named one of the best books of 2018 by Publishers Weekly, Vulture, The Library Journal, and Paste. His Harvey-nominated graphic novel collaboration with Ben Passmore, entitled BTTM FDRS, was released June 2019 by Fantagraphics Books. @ezracdaniels

Ben Passmore is the creator of Your Black Friend, DAYGLOAYHOLE, and the artist on BTTM FDRS, and a regular contributor to The Nib. Follow his spotty posting on Instagram @daygloayhole.

Ronald Wimberly is a cartoonist (Prince of Cats, GratNin) and founder of LAAB Magazine.

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One Response to Genre as a Trojan Horse: A Roundtable with Tanna Tucker, Ezra Claytan Daniels, Ben Passmore, and Ron Wimberly

  1. SchopenhauerintheAir says:

    Dope piece. You’ve assembled a crew of really articulate and curious and impassioned voices. More of this.

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