While the goal for comic book creators like Hannibal Tabu is to entertain, a broader cultural aspiration is linked to their efforts. Can their vision find traction in the marketplace? How does their success or failure serve as a marker of societal evolution?
For his part, Tabu has craved out a space for himself as a professional writer through years of hard work. The winner of Top Cow’s Talent Search competition in 2012, he had a career as a journalist and columnist before garnering success as a novelist and poet. Indeed, within the geek realm, Tabu is probably better known for his “Buy Pile” column for Comic Book Resources (CBR). Yet, he has racked up writing credits that hit the benchmarks associated with both creative vision and professional production. The Operative Network, a studio made up of Tabu, Jason Reeves, Alvernes Ball, Damon Gonzales and Quinn McGowan serves as a creative collaboration dedicated to bringing unique intellectual properties to audiences on multiple platforms. Tabu is front and center and his rhetoric often strikes an entrepreneurial tone. While identity is a subtext, the creative texts meet mainstream expectations for genre entertainment. The stories do so while incorporating a vision of diversity that aligns with the new voices and experiences that define contemporary society. While critics fault mainstream comics for not being diverse enough, the reality of a changing marketplace around geek culture means independent creators have an opportunity to garner a wider audience. Tabu and his compatriots face the looming question of if they will be able to realize the opportunity offered by this moment and how they will balance the cultural expectations that have defined the mainstream marketplace while holding on to the perspective inherent to their identity. Jack Kirby made it clear the comics reflected society, but he and fellow creators of Jewish descent followed an assimilative path and promoted the “Anglo Saxon” identity that defined the U.S. experience. Decades later, creators like Tabu highlight the possibility that comics can encapsulate both expected and unexpected stories that do not assumes whiteness as the baseline of the U.S. experience.
JC: How has your view of comics changed over the years?
HT: I am less impressed by spectacle than character. Nuance matters more to me, which is why even The Great Darkness Saga holds up because of the nervousness Superboy felt trying to live up to his own legend (the animated series captured that well) or how Mon-El’s struggle over what happened to Daxam drove him.
JC: You have a stronger presence in comics as a reviewer and writer looking at the industry before publishing your work. How has the experience aided in your understanding of the challenges facing creators of color?
HT: It let me get inside info that I sometimes didn’t want to know. It let me have a major talent recruiter at one of the Big Two tell me I could never get a book at his company unless I could prove my work at a high level outside the industry, but knowing he hadn’t looked at Geoff Thorne or Marc Bernardin or other black writers who wrote for far larger audiences than comics could boast. I heard Brad Metzler admit that sometimes characters end up white despite what the creator wanted, as were the case with Grant Morrison’s New Gods. I was able to catch it when Tom Brevoort broke down the case for not publishing non-white characters. Unlike Brian Williams, I was there when stuff happened, which wasn’t an option for my creative partner Quinn McGowan, who lives in Memphis and doesn’t (yet) have the same level of access. I am enormously grateful to Eric Stephenson, now the publisher of Image Comics, who recommended me for the job at Comic Book Resources and talked me into taking it because many more people would see my name and my work, allowing me more opportunity. He was right, and I’m grateful every day, and try to return the favor by both being very indie friendly in my column — such as my support of Super by Unlikely Heroes — and by being open to at least advise new creators stepping into the arena.
JC: What you just described is more than opportunity; it seems to suggest systemic limitation with the comic business. You won Top Cow’s Talent Search contest, but such contests are not prevalent in comics. Why aren’t publishers doing more to attract more diverse talent?
HT: Many reasons. They don’t want to. They don’t have to. They are making “decent” money doing things the way they work now. If you’re a person of color, do you go out of your way to open up your social and business circles to white people? Most don’t. Same thing. It’s not illegal, by some value systems it’s not even a bad thing, but for a long term business sense it’s (as my Oakland friends say) hella short sighted. They’re businesses. They think of profit. If hiring their friends and people who look and think and act like them makes profit, they have no motivation to change, especially when Black consumers in particular are well known to NOT vote with their dollars, propping up terrible series consistently regardless of dips in quality and not doing much to become a force in the market. The day we, as a community, make Miranda Mercury or New Money or even Watson & Holmes sell forty or fifty thousand copies, then we can have a say at the grown ups table.
JC: Your collaborative project The Operative Network is an attempt to nurture new voices and ideas in contemporary media landscape, do you think creators of color need separate space to grow?
HT: Sometimes. The problem is that the way to succeed is to have your name well known, and the way that happens is by selling a lot of comics. Every top selling book in the top 100 is either a licensed property or written by somebody who has written for Marvel or DC. It’s the gateway to higher sales and higher page rates — ask Robert Kirkman or Matt Fraction. By and large, Black creators haven’t gotten a chance to play at that level — only 21 Black writers have ever written more than one issue of a Big Two comic in the entire history of both companies. 21. Total. EVER. We have to make our own place in order to exist at all, but until we have the same access to the 70 percent of the audience held by the Big Two, or that stranglehold on the zeitgeist changes, we need to be represented there as well.
JC: Ok, given what you just said, comics creators do have avenues to pursue creating products, what do you think is the most effective?
HT: That’s a loaded question, as everyone has different definitions of success. I love the creative freedom of self-publishing, but I love my editors at Aspen Comics, I loved the intellectual volume of Matt Hawkins’ mind and working with him at Top Cow. I believe that everybody should start with their own thing and work towards opportunities with publishers when they’re available.
JC: Continuing along that line, recent changes in the comic market seem to have opened the door for independent creators, are you excited by these changes?
HT: I don’t know exactly what changes you mean, unless you’re looking back a few years at comiXology Submit. However, again, the pattern of true success (I.e. five figure per issue sales) starts at working at the big two, because otherwise the audience has a hard time learning who you are. I’m enormously grateful to Comic Book Resources for providing a platform for me, because I don’t think I’d have gotten this far without that being available to me. Access matters, and for creators of color, especially WRITERS of color, that’s a steep climb.
JC: How can fans contact you?
HT: I am available online — Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram — as “hannibaltabu.” I have the same name on Facebook, but for some reason that link doesn’t work for everybody. Likewise, I’m at my own site, hannibaltabu.com and at The Operative Network, operative.net. Every week my Buy Pile reviews are at Comic Book Resources and I consult for Eagle-Con at Cal State LA every May. I may not respond immediately, but I’ll holler back sooner or later.
 Julian Chambliss, “Blank Panther?: Jack Kirby, Blackness and the American Dream,” PopMatters, February 17, 2011, www.popmatters.com/post/137258-blank-panther-jack-kirby-blackness-and-the-american-dream.