Printouts obscure David Brothers’ desk. They signal a full slate of projects. A branded company hoodie says something about belonging. “I want to see where it takes me,” he says. “I want to see how this type of sausage is made.” He’s away from the old office off Shattuck Avenue out in Berkeley, and he’s far, far gone from the scene in Portland, Oregon. Here on the second floor of a building planted along San Francisco’s Market Street, a 4.5 mile stretch of pavement cut through a city weary of its new successes, Brothers is about seven months into a gig with Viz Media, and he feels established. “The level of faith they've put in me is really heartening” he adds. “I've got a broad set of skills, and I get to exercise a bunch of them.”
Being an editor is an opportunity for Brothers to have a hand in the creation of comics. Which is notable. The man spent nine years blogging about and covering them as an interest and industry, issuing criticisms and calls for correction from the crowded void, to arrive in some position of actual influence. The accomplishment follows a legacy of others like it, some of them actualized back when fanzines could propel young men to positions of prominence. Yet the actual destinations now vary. This isn’t a superhero house. It's a manga and anime entertainment company. It’s the purveyor of a style and rhythm founded far outside the United States, and it attracts readership with different expectations. Editorship at Viz isn’t as direct in its powers as some other industry positions, but it’s the closest Brothers has been to the point at which the product coalesces on the printed page.
He’s thinking about that, about what that kind of presence means and requires of the individual involved. “I have different access to things and people and procedures, so fighting with someone online isn’t necessarily the best use of my time. Marvel was never going to listen to anything I had to say,” he says. “Sharing the rolodex is very much my speed right now.” It sounds constructive. Open a few doors for the people you know; populate the business with the personalities and moral qualities you admire; make things; avoiding talking about making things; and bag a few wins. “Yeah, but it doesn’t mean I’m not mad all the time,” he adds. I laugh, and I think about this. I think about the few times in 2018 Brothers has tweeted about what’s bugging him in this industry and artform. I think about last year, when he let us all know C.B. Cebulski wasn’t really Japanese. He hasn’t stopped. He’s still tugging at the same things, and all that continuity says something. It says what led here wasn’t only so just to get this far. And of course, it never seemed to be. It’s just, you know, enticing to see some juice. To see the same thing flowing despite time.
Brothers became an interest for Viz Media at some point during Chris Butcher’s courtship for a job. The co-founder and artistic director of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, as well as a consulting editor-at-large for Viz, emphasizes he really had nothing to do with Brothers’ actual hire, but he was there when the manga journalist and critic Deb Aoki mentioned Brothers to executive vice president and publisher Leyla Aker at a dinner in San Francisco. “Just spontaneously we were talking about the manga / comic book divide,” he says. “His name had come up earlier that day as someone who understood the dichotomy.”
According to Butcher, the role Brothers has assumed can be played two ways. There’s the side of it that’s all about project management, where the editor hires letterers, translators, and rewriters, and oversees the general production of various titles, some of which court tens of thousands of readers. “Or you can take an interest in the work that’s larger and help facilitate the connection between that series, that author and their fans in North America,” he says. “That’s your baby now. You’re in charge of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. That’s a huge responsibility.” I throw out the word ‘advocacy,” and Butcher says the word is accurate. He says it’s akin to the type of journalism Brothers wrote at sites like Comics Alliance, and it becomes apparent to me Brothers would fulfill such a role well. Then Butcher alludes to something else the act of advocacy could contribute to at Viz. “We’re going to try to do new comics that add to the market,” he says. “We’re actually going to be working directly with creators at Viz for an original content line.”
I ask Butcher if that’s a “pretty, big, new thing,” and he assures me it is. As America’s largest publisher of graphic novels and other collected comics work, Viz Media possesses such market share by mostly republishing Japanese work for an English-speaking audience. The company dabbled in original content with its kids imprint, Perfect Square, but the line has not displayed much activity since 2015. So much of what Viz offers is often old news by the time it hits this side of the world, and the editorial processes which produce it differ from those familiar in North America or Europe.
In a 2015 Book Riot interview, Viz editor Hope Donovan explained that manga editors employed by the company “have zero creative control,” while editors with Viz’s Japanese parent company, Shueisha, were the ones to exert real influence over story direction and the artwork. But Butcher believes this will change when an original content line is executed in the western hemisphere. “All the editors that are at the company, that are interested, will be suggesting stuff, and they’ll be available to help edit and shape North American or, really, international creators,” he says. “Whether it’s working with Japanese manga artists to create original work for America, … to people in North America who have grown up with manga and want to do work that uses that storytelling language.” The opportunity will be there.
Brothers keeps his lips tight. He punts any and all questions about an original content line at Viz, and he will not specify any involvement he may have with it. “It's way, way too early to talk about, and I don't have permission to discuss even the early, early days we're in just yet,” he states. But Butcher says the development had been previously teased at about the time of his own hiring in June 2017. “I think we are getting closer and closer to an official announcement,” he adds. “The exact shape of it is to be revealed.”
On some Sunday morning I ask Brothers why he quit Image Comics. As the company’s branding manager, he held a desirable spot at a prominent publisher, assisting with book production; helping organize Image Expo; editing an in-house magazine (Image+); and hosting panels and events at conventions nationwide. But by the time December 2017 rolled through, after four and a half years, Brothers tweeted a GIF of Tupac throwing a peace sign into a camera lens. No explanation with it.
“Yeah, Portland sucks,” Brothers responds. “Portland is twee on a level I cannot take.”
Image made the move north in January 2017, leaving its longtime home of Berkeley, California for a new pacific northwest headquarters. The staff went in waves, with publisher Eric Stephenson leading the line and the Bay-area diehards waiting it out, soaking it in. “Everything felt very inevitable,” Brothers says of Image’s last week in Berkeley. “By that point, I made my peace with it a little bit.” But the company’s office off Shattack Avenue provided proximity to the bars and block parties, protests and happenstance, maybe making the departure a little more real. Brothers felt apprehensive. He lived in the Bay Area ten years. It’s where he settled after a childhood of three elementary schools, four middle schools, and three high schools, all across the states of Georgia, Texas and Virginia and the city of Madrid, Spain. It’s where he became an adult.
You can scroll back through a personal blog and see some of this. Like this essay Brothers published on July 12, 2013. It’s about buying an ugly green lawn chair at Target and placing it on a small, first floor apartment balcony located somewhere in Oakland, California. Out on it, after work or on the weekend, he sat and listened to the sounds of a city or ate two-egg omelettes or tweeted about rap music. Back then, this was all part of the plan to fix his life. The essay covers Brothers’ tendency toward workaholism and hints at a history of depression; the balcony represented a truce. After a few years of unquestioned work ethic in the video game industry, 2012 and 2013 brought “a series of wake-up calls, frustrations, terrifying moments of clarity, and downers,” and with a then new job at Image, the moment seemed opportune for change.
“I started enforcing free time,” he says now. “When you’re young and in a new city and you’re eager to prove that you’re worthy of a job, it’s very easy to slip into the thought of, ‘hey, I’m going to work all the time because that’s how I was raised.
“So I would sit in my cheap chair after work and find a book and just be outside for a while. That gave me a lot of time for introspection. … I feel like I leveled up as a person over that span.”
Such experiences influenced the view that Oakland could very well be a long-term or permanent home. Yet Butcher says Brothers wanted to see the move to Portland through based on some sense of dedication to Image. “He wanted to be a positive force there, but ultimately you go to a place and you feel like you don’t fit in [Portland] … and then all the sudden here’s a job working for a company you really respect [Viz] in the place that you want to live. Who wouldn’t take that?”
Brothers insists Portland wasn’t the sole deciding factor. He felt a bit out of step editing a print magazine this late into the century, and he was interested in other aspects of the industry, rather than staying a de facto marketer. Ultimately, though, the city got to him. It’s a place where the snow accumulates in feet and people spend their time drinking beer and too many of them drive Subarus, none of which he appreciates. It’s also mostly white (77.7%, according to the 2016 U.S. Census estimate), and Brothers questions how he may have appeared to the city’s police as the likely one, or one of few, black people they interact with. “I thought that life under white supremacy was tough, but I vastly underestimated Life Under Trump,” he says. “Portland is a liberal city, sure, but I've never felt as aware of being black as I was when I lived there. … it was often at the forefront of my mind, and that's an anxiety I don't want to and don't need to live with.” The behavior of the place, its quintessential odd-ness popularized as the city’s brand, seemed to rub it in. “There’s this guy that walks around with a machete, and people are just like, ‘hey, it’s machete man.’ In my head I’d think, ‘I would get murdered if I was machete man.’”
But Brothers expresses gratitude for the experience at Image. It lent him direct access to the production process, and it taught him the small particulars necessary for North American comic book creation. He learned to color flat to know how it worked, all because the job could satisfy certain curiosities. Image also pushed Brothers’ skills as a mediator and critic in a new direction. The job positioned him in a very public spot, where he was expected to represent and broaden the Image brand through convention panels and event presence. Up there, he could talk to a revolving cast of the company’s artists about their work or broad matters pertinent to the artform. “It felt like extensions of his writing,” the artist Nick Dragotta says. “[Brothers working in comics after writing so much about them] seems like a natural progression.”
Progress and a public role presented opportunity for reprieve. Brothers made the decision to not write or tweet about Image’s product or any corresponding controversies or accomplishments while employed at the company. This choice spilled out, becoming a general rule of thumb for most comics culture discussion points. All of this to save himself the headache, as well as maintain any authority his word had carried.
But according to Butcher, despite Brothers’ effort to pull back, industry talent and fans still emailed Image to demand answers of why the critic held the opinions he would sometimes offer. Silence on an issue could elicit similar response. When Image published Howard Chaykin’s 2017 mini-series, Divided States of Hysteria, with its controversial, LGBTQ-pride approved lynching cover, Brothers says people sent him direct messages via Twitter, angered. “[They were] cussing me out about it, which was kind of funny. Because I feel like if you know me on Twitter, I’m like the least likely dude to approve of a lynching cover,” he laughs. But he kept his mouth shut, even though he’ll now admit the Chaykin cover was “a missed lay up” on Image’s part. “Everything to do with that situation was completely upsetting.”
When I emailed a few follow-up questions, one asking how he would characterize the business before and after his time at Image Comics, Brothers responded with a line Q-Tip rapped on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rhime”: “Industry rule number four-thousand-and-eighty: record company people are shady." For him, there is no before and after, only a slight variation in the experience. Whereas before much of the business’s baggage was hearsay, after his employment in the industry he could relay specific sights and sounds captured at convention after-hours or elsewhere. “Post-Image, I don't do the Barcon, glad-hand, network-y things,” he says. “I don't hang with people that talk about groupies or give me bad vibes. I made my circle smaller while I was at Image, and it made comics more fun than it was when I had to pretend to like empty promises.” None of this is specifically aimed at Image, he says. His comments reflect general concerns of harassment and poor behavior often discussed on Twitter or at large publications.
His willingness to share a low opinion of the business is why Butcher took to Brothers’ writing. He felt it was a breath of fresh air in a room of bullshit. Butcher does not understand how someone can write about what is printed on the page, yet ignore matters of creators’ rights or any other thing hanging behind the curtain. To him, there’s a cause and effect. What happens off the page somehow makes its way on. “David was a person who came right out of the gate and was like, ‘actually, no, we’re going to talk about this,’” he says. “Comics can be really unforgiving about anything that matters. As soon as you start talking about what’s going on in the industry, you open yourself up to criticism and a closer critical eye from people. And that’s OK. That’s actually a pretty good idea, in the general sense. But there are also way fewer boundaries if you’re not protected by Marvel or DC.”
According to him, Brothers is a willfully misinterpreted person. The thought of a profile presents opportunity to either set the record straight or do additional harm. “Having other people talk about him has historically been part of the problem,” he says. “Do we really need anyone else’s opinion on this dude?” Butcher refers to an editor at Marvel Comics who, he says, took Brothers out of context on Twitter and lashed at him. He won’t name the name or specify the event, but he may have meant Stephen Wacker.
In February 2012, Wacker, the current vice president of development for Marvel Entertainment, then a senior editor of Marvel Comics, took the time to respond to Brothers, after the critic criticized the company’s twice-monthly publishing schedule for certain titles. Brothers noted how it may have lessened the quality of the product, as well as devalued those creating it. Wacker argued the point and threw a bit of snark. The debate stood to hash out whether one party misunderstood the other. Blah, blah, blah. The conversation is an old one at this point – but it’s an example of what Butcher believes. Brothers published a post at 4thletter! to summarize the matter, titling it “this is what they think about you”. He wrote: “He [Wacker] implied that I’m just looking for something to be mad about … he calls me defensive, he calls me angry.”
Reductive terms have been a point of contention for Brothers. He’s felt self-conscious as a black man writing about comics, as he’d rather not be “the boy who cried racism.” At some point in his writing career, he believes he was definitely labeled a “race blogger,” and he feels much of his work was viewed through this lens. He experienced some annoyance that his essays regarding race or social justice would receive excited attention, while his takes on craft or character were overlooked in comparison, but he ultimately understands such pieces were marketable, as well as relevant to the broader conversation. He makes clear “the black label” itself didn’t upset him. It was more so the idea someone else could tell him who he was.
“I'm pretty protective of who I am and what I do,” Brothers says. “Pretty much every time someone has tried to tell me how I feel about something, the conversation has gone south immediately. … It got under my skin because, while it was technically true, it wasn't Actually True. It was just part of the story.”
That story exists in all the 4thletter! blog posts and Comics Alliance essays and reviews he wrote. Revisiting some of them, you see they’re not always these stand alone, cold, commissioned pieces, but they’re mostly created from a personal point of view the reader recognizes and invests in. They span anywhere from creators’ rights to particular panels to asides on music. “There’s a sort of illusion of effortlessness to his writing, a conversational but knowledgeable tone that’s inviting and explanatory without being condescending,” David Uzumeri, a former Comics Alliance writer, says. It’s spot on. Brothers took comic books and the culture around it, which is subject matter that is often personal for those who participate (in terms of taste and emotional connection) and approached it aware of these complications, yet he was still capable of asking questions. And it’s true some of those questions really stuck when they were asked in regards to identity or prejudice.
A good example is his 2011 review of Frank Miller’s Holy Terror. The long-awaited graphic novel provoked a complicated experience for the critic. As someone fond of Miller’s work, Brothers saw Holy Terror as misleading propaganda, and he argued it promoted a simplistic view of Islam. He saw it as an example of bigotry on Miller’s part, yet admitted the book was made by a master of the craft, whose skill is undeniable. The review is like many essays published in this #MeToo moment, where critics / fans of things weigh their enjoyment of art versus the deeds / beliefs of the maker. Speaking to him now, I listen to Brothers reiterate points of his piece to me in real time, and I explain to him the complication it evoked. I remember reading and being angry. I was also a fan of Miller, and I found it aggravating his new book would contain such material, but I wanted (and still do, honestly) to believe the critic made a misinterpretation. That somehow the perspective of the story wasn’t the perspective of the artist. That the artist wasn’t to blame; it was some reader telling me what to think. A recent profile of Miller at The Guardian suggests this wasn’t so, and I feel dumb about the whole thing. It was this unnecessary, odd loyalty getting in the way of thought. Re-reading Brothers’ review, I’m less caught by the conclusion and more so entangled in the conversation presented - something I originally missed. Brothers critical success is he communicates disappointment, yet pushes past his particular connection to the artist and addresses the matter at hand. There’s an element of professionalism in it. It’s also a show of how you can admire something / someone, yet question it / them, and how this process ultimately serves the discourse surrounding a work / creative person.
But things change, as well as perspectives (sometimes). It isn’t always the same. Brothers brings the conversation back around by describing where he’s at with it all. “I think the only responsibility that comes with being black in comics, or any other ‘blank in comics,’ is to be absolutely true to yourself. … There's no need to make stories about blackness, no reason to only work on black characters, unless you want to.
“I feel better about being the black guy in comics now than I did back then,” Brothers continues. “I stopped lying to myself about it. Because I do care about black issues, racial issues. How we talk to each other. How we communicate. And also black culture. … So, I’ve kind of leaned into the skid, I guess. … I’m pretty much rooting for anybody black right now. Whatever projects you’ve got, whatever you’re doing, just please put your stuff out and let people see it because it can only make things better.
“Whatever audience I have, they probably have expectations, but I don't think about them very often, if at all. … Expectations are right next door to demands, and unless you're cutting a check you don't get to demand any of my time!”
On May 21, 2018, I email Zainab Akhtar about writing this. Two days pass, and the curator and creator of Short Box responds. She’s game for a few questions, but I take a long time getting them to her, so the answers are inevitably undelivered in time for this paragraph. In her initial reply, though, she types something interesting. “I don't think anybody in comics occupies the space or is doing what David or I do in the field, irrespective of race/ethnicity.” I, of course, ask her to expand on this, but even without that explanation I sort of get what she means. One is pushing the ways comics are sold and distributed and is providing publishing opportunities to new talents. The other has, over the course of years, blended many aspects of the culture and packaged that into a core of knowledge, ability and perspective. The latter of which is likely his key strength.
They both represent efforts and desires to make comics into more. Or if that’s saying too much, they at least portray how an interest in something can make you move.
Butcher understands that motivation, but he also knows about the grind. It’s likely something everyone present in this piece, who began their relationship with this medium by way of a booklet, can attest to. For whatever reason you end up in the possession of this thing. And you know it’s sort of ridiculous. You know it’s partially destructive. “But I think everyone that loves the medium, if they’re lucky, will have a moment where they actually feel like all the work they’ve put in has been justified. That it was actually all worthwhile,” Butcher says. “I can’t say for sure [what David’s moment] was, or if it even came down to one moment, but I’ve had a couple of those when I’ve needed them. They were exactly what I needed … to keep doing more.”
At 2018’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival, Brothers and Akhtar room with the writer Jamila Rowser and Jemar Souza in an Airbnb somewhere within the city. They end each day with a meal. They spend time in the room watching My Hero Academia or playing video games or talking about comics, as well as talking about their lives. For Brothers, it’s a reminder comics isn’t only this Internet temperature weighted by name drops and gossip. “The comics community that matters to me are the very real and honest connections I've made with people in the industry, connections that have nothing to do with networking.” He collects his thoughts and steps outside the scene; he says the job at Viz is a pivot toward a quieter life. Less travel, fewer speaking engagements, a little more time for himself in the city of Oakland, where he’ll study Japanese and settle into the NBA postseason. But he cannot say whether he’s at all closer or connected to what absolutely matters in his life. I ask because it seems to be the running theme. For all the opinions on comic books, there’s been this quality and written through line about how the guy feels a need to improve or arrive somewhere where something is maybe supposed to be. “I'm in a constant process of figuring myself out. This is just another stretch on the path. Ask me again next year and I'll probably know better then. But I feel good more often than I don't. … If I'm not connecting to what matters to me yet, I'm at least within spitting distance of figuring out what I'm missing.” He slips back to where he was, in a rented room with the people he admires. It’s that small circle created in response to all the other stimuli. He doesn’t miss a beat. “A lot of folks in comics sound like they aren't happy to be here, but we're killing it. We're finding, and maybe building, our lane. … I want to make sure I keep up.”
*An earlier version of this story stated Image Comics' Berkeley headquarters was on Telegraph Avenue. It was actually off of Shattuck Avenue.