It’s pretty rare that I’ll actually sit down and read a web-comic that I truly enjoy, mostly because reading comics on a laptop was never in my top five list of favorite things to do. But that’s exactly what I found myself doing at 3AM on some random day of the week. That comic was Blackguard, a comedic story written by brothers Willie and Jerrod Smith and illustrated by the former.
Willie had previously emailed me, requesting that I take a look at his work so that I could feature him in an article on the blog. That night, I baked some cookies, ate too many, and was absolutely wired. High on sugar at 3 in the morning, I started reading Blackguard and an hour later I was still laughing my ass off. I quickly emailed Willie to set up a phone conversation.
Besides talking about his adventures as a self-proclaimed emcee, and the state of Hip-Hop today, we got into a pretty deep discussion about Blackguard, what it’s like working with his brother, and the controversy behind the comic’s free use of the n-word. I’ll warn you guys now that Blackguard is not for the easily offended, so if you are, turn back now. Actually, don’t. You’ll be fine. We’re all adults here…sort of.
Anyway, not surprisingly, Willie grew up reading and studying popular comic strips like Calvin and Hobbes and Garfield. As a budding artist he picked up on creative nuances, like the way the characters’ hands and head shapes were illustrated. “Even as a kid, I knew I wanted to create my own comics one day,” he says. “Like, there was never any other career out there for me. I just knew.”
Jerrod was Willie’s partner in crime. They had been creating stories together from the time they played with action figures as kids. Both knew that it was only a matter of time before they would start writing comics together, but for the time being, life was calling them in different directions. “For a while, I was taking classes at the Savannah College Of Art and Design, performing at hip hop shows AND serving in the Army Reserves,” Willie explains. “Jerrod was studying Computer Science up at Clemson University.”
Willie spent the time honing his hip-hop influenced style of art as well as his skills with a mic. “My approach to character design is heavily influenced by the hip hop culture, and the key word there is culture,” he says. “Many people forget that hip hop is indeed a culture, a life style of sorts, so it makes sense that hip hop can be seen in my comics, ’cause after all, one of the founding elements of hip hop is the art style known as graffiti.” Coming from a musical background, Willie began incorporating his views and the spirit of hip-hop into his art. “As an emcee, I’m very proud to represent hip hop, so even if I’m not rhyming on a stage, I still want people to know it’s where I come from, so I showcase that in my art. And not just with the appearance of characters, but also with dialogue, and the approach to the stories themselves. Much like an emcee on stage, my style of art and the characters are very much in your face.”
It was this “in your face” attitude that both Willie and Jerrod would bring to their comic, Blackguard, in the few months after Jerrod graduated from school and moved down to Savannah, Georgia with his brother. “Ideally, we both just wanted to make an easy going comedy that would be fun for the two of us to work on. We just needed a simple idea to get us into the routine of working on a comic together,” Willie explains as he reflects on the first time he and Jerrod worked on Blackguard. “The idea of doing a comedy about a team of black heroes seemed like fun to us. Even when we first mentioned the idea, jokes started coming out easily and we were laughing pretty hard, so that seemed to be a sign that we had something good to stand on.”
Blackguard was born as a story about a man named Eli Mercer, formerly known as Blackfist, the first African-American super hero to ever exist during the Civil Rights Era. After being cryogenically frozen towards the end of that era, Mercer wakes up in a world that is completely different from his own. People are praising rappers and athletes, but there are no black super heroes. So what does Mercer do?
“He decides to form an all black super hero team,” Willie explains. “However, he takes a shortcut and hires a group of former felons in hopes of training them to be his dream team. From there, it becomes an uphill battle as he must teach them to be morally courageous and keep them from killing each other WHILE they attempt to save the day.”
Of course, the team gives Mercer more headaches than actual results as each character’s personality comes into play. At first, it would seem that the characters are satirical versions of common stereotypes in the black community, but that wasn’t Jerrod and Willie’s intention when they began creating the comic.
“We didn’t set out to necessarily address the stereotypes of the black community,” Jerrod explains. “It just sort of turned out that, by making a group of black characters with differing interests, backgrounds, and motivations, we covered many sides, both positive and negative, of the black race. The racist, yet proud Melanin. The cocky, yet talented Odan. The reckless, yet fearless Staples. The cynical, yet sensible Sequoia. The judgmental, yet inspirational Mercer. And the crazy, yet genius Darius Doome.”
Each character’s personality has deep roots, if only partially, in the personalities of their creators. While the perceived stereotypes have not been social commentary altogether, the use of the n-word by some of the characters has caught the attention, and offense, of some readers. So much so, in fact, that Jerrod actually wrote a lengthy entry on his blog about it. But what kind of writer would I be if I didn’t ask the creative team how they felt about it for myself?
“This could stem from the fact that I’m an emcee, but I’ve always been about saying exactly what’s on your mind,” Willie says. “I’ve always been drawn to ‘controversial’ entertainers such as Eddie Murphy, Eddie Griffin, Martin Lawrence, Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle and Aaron McGruder. And not because they were considered controversial, but because they said exactly what they felt. Many of those same comedians, who were once seen as rude and inappropriate, are now praised for sharing their point of view.” Willie goes on to relate his experiences with Blackguard, and the open use of the n-word, with those aforementioned, controversial entertainers. “BlackGuard is just another example of two young men expressing themselves,” he says. “If anything, I think it may throw people off because such language and slang is being used in a comic. But it’s really no different than when Richard Pryor first came out with his comedy routines, or when N.W.A first arrived in the hip hop scene, or when Aaron McGruder had Huey Freeman saying the n-word in the Boondocks comic strips, and eventually, in the Boondocks television show. At one point, these were all controversial.”
Jerrod also chimes in to give his stance on the use of the word in the comic, stating, “Simply put, we see the n-word as a joke. Not just the word itself, but the reaction that people tend to have towards it. ‘Ass’ and ‘Bitch’ may or may not be offensive based on the context in which they are used. The meanings of those words have gone through changes over time. Now compare those to the n-word. Not only is it also used today in a different context, it’s even spelled and pronounced differently. To claim that a word should never be used because it had a different meaning at one time is ridiculous to me. To the British, ‘fag’ means cigarette. Are we going to tell them not to use that word because some people interpret its meaning differently? Maybe the n-word does have harsh origins, but I think we have to get over it eventually. Why not start now?”
So far, no readers have come out and stated that they disliked the comic solely based on its use of the n-word, but many have questioned why. “It’s not like we just say the word out of ignorance. We often use it to portray ignorance,” Willie says. “But even more so, Jerrod and I don’t believe in giving power to a word. It seems ridiculous to us to ‘erase’ a word. If we as human beings have the power to create language, then we have the power to re-create it.”
“Bill Watterson apparently received angry letters about a few Calvin and Hobbes strips that seem entirely innocent to me,” Jerrod says, giving his thoughts on the offensive perception of the n-word. “If even he offended a few readers, then we’d be crazy to think no one would find Blackguard controversial. I think you have to realize that no matter what you do, someone, somewhere, is going to be offended. There are people out there who look for things to complain about. The sooner you realize that, the less you worry.”
At the end of the day, Willie and Jerrod just don’t want Blackguard to be taken too seriously. “The problem I have with many forms of African-American entertainment is that we often seem to try too hard to make ourselves look good. It’s like we’re trying to make up for years of negative portrayals,” Jerrod says. “Will and I aren’t trying to make a statement about stereotypes. People are drawn to BlackGuard because the characters are both flawed and bad-ass at the same time.”
While some controversy might have come out of the comic, Willie prefers to focus on the positives that have come his way as a result of creating Blackguard, instead of the negative. “My greatest reward has been knowing that even in the beginning stages of Blackguard, which have been the past two years, I’ve managed to inspire some people, and in particular, other Black kids who draw comics. It really warms my heart when other younger artists in middle school and high school ask for my feedback on their own comics that feature black characters.”
Despite the controversial nature of the comic, Willie and Jerrod both approach it like everyday professionals, making sure that they’re serving their readers with a healthy comedic dose every Wednesday. “I take my deadlines very seriously and I know that every Wednesday, there are about two hundred some odd people who want to read BlackGuard. I don’t like for people to ever have to wait on me, “ Willie says.
And as a team that doesn’t like to keep people waiting, tomorrow Willie and Jerrod are debuting a brand new Blackguard storyline called Psycho Therapy. Yep. That means now would be a good time to catch up on what you missed. And I know some of you are reading this on your lunch break, so you don’t have anything better to do, right?
Pfffft. Tell your boss to read Blackguard. He’ll understand.
Willie and Jerrod Smith are a creative duo based out of Savannah, Georgia and co-writers of Blackguard. When he’s not drawing Blackguard, Willie leads a secret double life as Righteous The Poet, one integral part of the hip-hop collective, Dope Sandwich. You can easily find their music on iTunes and Youtube, and download Willie’s solo EP for free at his Bandcamp site below. The first installment of Blackguard, entitled Monkey See, Monkey Free, is available in print on Indy Planet, or on the Blackguard website for your viewing pleasure. If you want to keep up with the comic, what Willie and Jerrod are doing, or get a taste of some of that dope sammich, you can follow the team with the information below.
Personal Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=508763179
Deviant Art: http://suicidalassassin.deviantart.com/
Web Site: www.bosccomics.com
Bosc Comics Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/BOSCComics
Bosc Comics Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/BOSCComics
Blackguard on Indy Planet: http://indyplanet.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=6260
Willie’s Bandcamp: http://righteousthepoet.bandcamp.com/