INTERVIEW: Eric M. Esquivel speaks on "The Blackest Terror"

I've heard of a few comics writers taking a stab at some of the comic characters that have fallen into the public domain (that just means that no one owns the rights to the characters... try to keep up), and have seen some interesting things done with them... one that crosses into the territory of being eyebrow-raising is Eric M. Esquivel's new superhero/revolutionary The Blackest Terror.  I got a chance to interview Esquivel pretty in-depth about the universe he created for The Blackest Terror one-shot, the other books in the series he is creating for Moonstone Comics, and pretty much anything else I could think of...
GhettoManga- When you first asked me if I wanted to review The Blackest Terror, I remember you saying that I would either love it or hate it. I was ready to marry it just from seeing the cover, so why did you think I might hate it?

Esquivel-   Well, I guess the thing I'm most nervous about with this book is that Blackest Terror himself isn't necessarily likeable.

  My take on superheroes in general is that they're revolutionary figures, more than "crime fighters". 

  People who want to uphold the law enroll in the police academy or go to law school. Folks who stencil symbols onto their chest and practice their mantra in the mirror have an agenda beyond the preservation of the status quo.

  As such, B.T. is a pretty hardline guy.  He doesn't see things in shades of grey (which is the main reason the book is printed in black and white).

  Some of the things he says and does are pretty incendiary...pretty polarizing.

GhettoManga- It's interesting that you describe the Blackest Terror as a revolutionary figure, and characterize super heroes as the defenders of the status quo. I read a book a few years ago called How to Read Superhero Comics and Why that goes into delightfully academic detail (yes... I am a dork), and posits that generally heroes want to uphold the status quo, and villains want to disrupt the status quo, with the exception of Batman, who sees corruption in the status quo in Gotham, seeks to upend it, and is thus seen as a villain there (although outside of Gotham, he is seen as a hero)... Batman, like many modern age heroes, thinks something is wrong with the status quo. To the extent that a heroic figure thinks something is wrong with the establishment, they behave more and more like "villains" (re: The Authority, Morrison's Marvel Boy, etc).And because comics is a visual medium, many modern heroes look like classic villains too...

Anyways, I said all that to say that the Blackest Terror seems to be that kind of super hero. How much of all this was mostly inspired by the name (the original public domain hero was the Black Terror, right?) and how much of it was just a story you wanted to tell for a while?

Esquivel - Honestly, this is a story I've wanted to tell for years.  I could have named the character "The Black Rage" and been more original (and I almost did), but commandeering a well-known superhero like Black Terror did two things:

 First, it recontextualized the idea of the superhero genre almost by itself.  The United states has a history of costumed Caucasians (the revolutionaries decked out in Native American "black face" during the Boston Tea Party, the white-hooded stormtroopers of the Ku Klux Klan),
but our black crusaders have always stood tall and unashamed. So, the image of a black man in a mask has a built-in novelty appeal.

 ...And I purposefully gave Blackest Terror the smallest mask the genre would allow, to try and convey the idea that he's not trying to shamefully hide his identity--he wears the mask to give the rest of  Black America a new one.  Any black man could be The Blackest Terror--and that makes every black man a threat to the status quo. It makes every black man a superhero.  It makes every black man a bad idea as a target for undeserving aggression (When's the last time anybody tried to lynch Superman, y'know?).

 Secondly, using the name "Black Terror" (or a derivation thereof, as was deemed necessary for reason of Brand Identification by the publisher) gets thousands of more eyes on the thing than we would've gotten if the title was wholly original.

 Also, we're in this awkward age of superheroes as a functioning wing of the military-industrial complex ("S.H.I.E.L.D.",  "S.H.A.D.E.", Checkmate, etc.) which I H.A.T.E., so I thought it'd be cool to subvert things and try to write a likeable terrorist.

 You know those stories about how Stan Lee created Iron Man (an affable weapons manufacturer) and The Silver Surfer (a soldier who commits genocide on an hourly basis at the behest of his master) at
the height of the anti-war movement to teach hippies empathy?

 I always liked those.

GhettoManga- Huh! Good stuff... I think it's interesting that a lot of the people that will probably react negatively to The Blackest Terror publicly show a distrust of the federal government and a supposed affinity for local and personal empowerment that is embodied by the character, and the revolutionaries he would find inspiring (the Panthers, Malcolm X, etc). But it's not about race or anything (eye roll)...

Speaking of political leaning in comics, it would seem reasonable to conclude that mainstream comics are more liberal now than in Stan Lee's glory days, until you think of Civil War and The Ultimates (both written by Mark Millar, as it turns out) which epitomize the militarizing of superheroes you eluded to... so what is your take on the political leaning of modern comics?

Do you consider your writing (on The Blackest Terror, and in general) to be a reaction to that? If so, in what way?

 Esquivel- I guess I respectfully disagree with the premise that comics are more liberal now than in the 60's and early 70's.

I find the current state of comics to be, as always, entirely reflective of the actual politics of the "real world": the creative, Aquarian-types have the reigns (Obama as President, Jim Lee as Co-Publisher, Geoff Johns as Chief Creative Officer, Brian Bendis as Chief Marvel Architect) and are trying to make the world a better place (universal health care, putting pants on Wonder Woman, introducing diversity to the Ultimate Marvel universe) while the unwashed masses indignantly berate them for it.

Oh, comics.

The fringe is pretty great right now. I'm enjoying Casanova, Butcher Baker, Rocketeer Adventures, Elephantmen, Invincible, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles book...

I suppose my stuff is a reaction to the superhero-as-violent-super-cop stuff, but it's not really conscious attempt to be contrarian sort of thing.  It's more of a "I don't like where things are at right now and I can either complain about that or actively work to change things" sort of thing.

GhettoManga- I grew up on Marvel Comics, but as I've aged have become a guy who reads on the fringes. Even as a heavy mainstream reader (until Image came and made it not-so-scary to stick a toe into indie waters), I always read books that got canceled for low readership. Once indie superhero books became common, it was easy to be lured away from the so-called Big Two.

I think the way that The Blackest Terror is told just begs for more issues. What is the possibility that we will see The Blackest Terror again? Has the publisher left the door open for a mini-series and/or full-length GN if the one-shot does well? Is that even something you would be interested in?

ESQUIVEL - With this being my first "holy crap, people are actually paying attention/giving me money to do this" comic book gig, I designed everything ask as little of the consumer as is possible.

You don't have to read anything else beforehand to enjoy BLACKEST TERROR.  You don't have to buy anything afterward to complete the story.  The beginning, middle, and end are all contained within those
32 pages.

I enjoy those kinds of comics as a reader, and as a creator...this is my first multinational-distributed book...if it doesn't sell, I'm not going to get a second issue green lit, y'know?

Luckily, people have really seemed to respond to my concept and Ander Sarabia's art!  So that's a huge relief.  Believe me.

BLACKEST TERROR is the first of five one-shots I have coming out from Moonstone, each in a different genre, and each reinterpreting a public domain "Golden Age" character for a new era:  BLACKEST TERROR, THOR: UNKILLABLE THUNDER CHRIST [EDITOR'S NOTE: I gaffled some pages for the Thor book-including one in process that features the Blackest Terror from Esquivel's blog and posted them below!] , MOON GIRL: PRINCESS WITH A PUNCH, SUPER AMERICAN: RED, WHITE AND BLUE KNIGHT, and MODERN MYTHS: IN THE COMPANY OF IMMORTALS.

Again: going in to this thing I wasn't sure if I'd ever have another chance to produce work on this scale, so I put every big idea I've ever had into these things:

B.T. is about the nature of personal identity, Thor encapsulates my feelings on the role of religion in a modern society, Moon Girl is about gender laws and kung-fu, Super American is about the nature of time, and the Modern Myths thing is a team book that's about the state of modern comics--and pop culture in general.

They combine to form a loose continuity--and Blackest Terror appears in all of them, to varying degrees-- but, again, each comic is a self-contained unit of entertainment.

I look at them like tightly packed, self-sufficient little art-bombs.

GhettoManga- Word. I definitely think that's the way to go... having said that, when The Blackest Terror breaks all of Moonstone's Sales records, and they beg you for an ongoing title, if you need more ideas, give me a call.

Esquivel- HA!  Totally, man.

Not for nothing--but I'd really like to let other writers get a crack at him, the way Erik Larsen gave Robert Kirman the reigns on Super Patriot back in the day.  Especially young, up-and-coming black writers. 

That's sort of the create characters bigger than myself, who speak for communities I feel are under-represented in pop culture, and then to allow those characters to grow into intellectual properties that can be sort of handed over to those cultures--the way Spider-Man belongs to every kid who ever got bullied in high school, or Superman belongs to everyone who ever did something just because it was the right thing to do. 

Not for nothing, but I lost my mind as a kid when I discovered that Peter David created Miguel O'Hara, the Irish/Hispanic Spider-Man of the year 2099.  I thought that was the coolest thing in the entire world.

I have every toy they ever made of that guy.  I've been thinking of a tattoo for like, six years.

GhettoManga- That's what's up... We'll get back to Spidey 2099 in a minute... I'd like to ask about your artist... this dude Ander Sarabia, he's awesome! Where'd you find him?

Esquivel-  Ander Sarabia!  My God!  That guys is my own personal guardian angel.  Sometimes I feel like I willed him into existence, like some ridiculously talented tulpa. 

The best thing about Ander is that he can't not make comics.  He physically can't do it.  I'll send you some of him emails to me....they're all in comic book form!  Dude doesn't type like a normal human being, he makes these Harvey-Pekar-esque autobio comics wherein he speaks directly to the reader and just sends those instead.

He even includes silent panels where he's pausing to take a drag off a cigar or sip some tea, or whatever.  It's wild.

I kind of want to fuse with him into one being.  Like Firestorm. 

The insane thing is that Ander sought me out. 

He's from Bilbao, Spain--and apparently teaches himself English by listening to comic book podcasts while he draws.

I've been on a few shows in the past to promote my self-published work with illustrator Dave Baker, shows like Word Balloon, Comic Book Queers, The Modern Mythology Press Podcast, and a few others I can't remember right now because I am insane and literally haven't slept in two days, and he happened to catch all of them.  He then looked me up on the trusty internet and read some of my webcomics, reviews, interviews, whatever, whatever and got a hold of me via email.

And I promptly crapped myself.

Ander is amazing.  I can't wait to work on Jimmy Olsen with that guy someday.

GhettoManga- I used to send letters to all my friends that were 2 or 3 page comics. Sigh... I used to be so awesome before the internet took over my life :(
I'm sorry, what were we talking about? OH YEAH! You should definitely enter into something binding with that dude asap! Speaking as an artist, if you can get your artist any paying work, he will love you forever! Also, I can totally see him drawing Jimmy Olsen! Or Shazam (you know, the DC Captain Marvel). His work has a natural "wholesome" quality to it, which makes it all the more awesome drawing edgy material like The Blackest Terror. I also saw Velma in the studio audience, and I can't think of any story that wouldn't be better with a Velma cameo.

Esquivel-  Yeah, that's sort of how I roll.  I don't have a bunch of money that I can use to pay artists, but I seem to have a knack for getting attention, and for convincing other people (like Moonstone) to fund my projects.  And they wind up paying more than I would've to self-publish.  It's a good rep to have, and I'm super grateful for/shocked to have it. 

GhettoManga- The reference to David and Leonardi's awesome Spidey 2099 book is a good one to talk about more, because when all the fuss about Bendis' ALTERNATE REALITY biracial Spider-man came up, I immediately thought of Spidey 2099. I don't remember if there was any outrage about Miguel O'hara or not. I was bored with the mainstream Spidey books, so it came right on time for me, plus, it made sense that there would be more multiracial hispanic people in New York in 100 years...

Do you remember there being any negative backlash to that character?
Also, what do you think it says about America today that
1) Bendis/Marvel sought to make this move now
2) people (comics readers and mainstream/non-reading Americans) and the media have reacted so strongly?

 Esquivel- In regard to the Spidey 2099 stuff: the internet wasn't really in full effect when that guy made his debut, so things weren't nearly as negative as they are currently with Miles Morales.

The thing I hate about the internet is that it makes everyone feel entitled to an opinion on everything.

America is pretty rad for the most part, but the negative side of a democratic society is that it empowers hateful, willfully ignorant, unimaginative people to such a degree that they feel like they're entitled to having their voice heard.  Combine that with news sites' utilization of online message boards, and you get this weird, angry, loud minority of couch potato politicians and armchair artists who think they have a better idea about everything...but have never created or done anything worthwhile in their entire lives. 

The funny thing is, consumers don't really want to dictate the stories they're told. That'd be boring.  Everybody lost their mind when Bucky came back in Ed Brubaker's Captain America run--but then those same people flipped out again when he died.  With equal fervor. 

People want to be surprised, they want truth, and they want to be moved to feel something.

I can't speak for Brian Bendis (we've only ever communicated via Twitter, and even then it was just to talk about Moon Knight)--but it seems like he's rolling out the Miles Morales story now because it makes sense in the context of the narrative.  I've been an Ultimate Spidey reader for years--and the "death of" story doesn't feel forced or gimmicky at all.

I think it's more informed by the fact that he has two adopted African American daughters than any marketing ploy.

GhettoManga- Yeah, there's lots of e-thugs that need e-hugs out there. People use the internet in lieu of therapy or a social life. One of the comments I saw actually said that "white kids need heroes too..."
That's how you know the e-world is not so familiar with "the reality"...

Anyways, I could probably do this indefinitely, but I feel like I have monopolized enough of your time... Remind the good folks out there how they can get The Blackest Terror and the rest of the Modern Myths joint.

Also, is there anything else you want to say to the mighty GM readership?

Esquivel- The pleasure was all mine, man.  Believe me. 

Blackest Terror drops October 26th from Moonstone Books.  It's $2.99 and your local comic shop can totally order you a copy.  Just tell 'em to order you one, or give 'em order code "AUG111128".

The rest of the "Modern Myths" series (Including Thor, Incredible Thunder Christ!) will trickle out shortly thereafter.  Keep your eye on Previews for more details.

I also write for Moonstone's Zombies Vs. Cheerleaders book on a fairly regular basis.  Issue #4 has a story in it by Ander Sarabia and me, and it stars a straight edge hip hop head who leads a bunch of teenaged girls in a Spartacus-like revolution against the opportunist douche bags who took over her city after the zombie apocalypse fell.
yes... that cheerleader is rocking an Odd Future teeshirt...

Thanks for taking the time to see what I'm all about, folks.  This stuff means the world to me, and I'm thrilled to death to discover that there are other weirdos out in the world who vibe off of the signals I'm broadcasting.

And, please God, feel free to hit me up if you're picking up what I'm putting down. You have no idea how life-affirming it is to get a "Hey, you don't suck that much" note when I haven't slept for four days and I'm down to my last package of ramen:

So that's the interview. Hope you guys enjoyed it (you must have if you made it this far down!). Get at Eric via these links above, and make sure you support his work!

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J.R. LeMar said...

When I came up with my Black Female version of Fighting Yank, I was also going to do new versions of other public domain characters, including Black Terror, whom I was going to make a Black male vampire. That's probably too Blade-ish anyway. I'll be checking this book out, and probably some of the others.

Samax said...

A vampire doesn't have to be like Blade just cause he's black. I'd like to read that!

Anonymous said...

entertaing n in4mative. can't ask 4 much more than that. i'll be keepin' an eye out 4 The Blackest Terror!

cool stuff, gM!

Samax said...

Thanks! It's what I'm here for!

Thanks for stopping by!

corance said...

Dang! Great interview, Samax. I really liked what Esquivel had to say. Especially regarding his approach to the type of universe he wants to create and the type of comics he seeks to present them in. He sounds like a man with a plan.

I'm really interested in all of the ideas for Modern Myths he's stated. They all seem interesting in different ways.

Plus, his approach to comics as a cultural medium squares well with me, too. Like that page where Blackest Terror is talking to Thor; he's far from the psycho killer one might assume from the cover. He's actually quite thoughtful. I can't wait for this book!

Samax said...

Yeah... we talked more about the concepts behind the comic than we did about the actual comic... BT is pretty talkie, actually. But there is an action sequence retelling his origin... and it's pretty violent!

Samax said...

I can dig it! Let's RIDE!

Vee (Scratch) said...

I read the comic. It's fun.

I don't know why but I really like this . . . .

The thing I hate about the internet is that it makes everyone feel entitled to an opinion on everything.

America is pretty rad for the most part, but the negative side of a democratic society is that it empowers hateful, willfully ignorant, unimaginative people to such a degree that they feel like they're entitled to having their voice heard. Combine that with news sites' utilization of online message boards, and you get this weird, angry, loud minority of couch potato politicians and armchair artists who think they have a better idea about everything...but have never created or done anything worthwhile in their entire lives.

Anonymous said...

Lacking version of Kick-Ass taking on civil rights....blended with a more adult, punisher style violence.....and then a Thor parody.....His goal needs some more creativity

Anonymous said...

How is this any different? An un-original character bringing up old ideas...racism, minorities, hatred exist because people want them too, they have a hard time letting go...dont see how a vengeful, vigilante will solve anything, is fighting hate with hate the right way to go? This seems like a kiss ass thread anyway....self promoted interview all the way...

Samax said...

As I said in the interview, Eric sent me a copy of the book and I interviewed him because I was interested in his point of view. He's a young writer making his comment on well-trod social issues through his writing of superhero and fantasy comics. Nothing wrong with that.

I think it is a totally fair question to ask how fighting hate with hate will solve anything. I think there is room in the world of comics for the discussion of all kinds of ideas.

J.R. LeMar said...

You're not going to have a worthwhile discussion with anonymous e-thugs, Samax, so don't bother. I wish racism and hatred were "old ideas" that we could do away with just by not talking about it, but the real world doesn't work that way. Gotta love the "Black version of Kick Ass" comment, as if Kick Ass was somehow original. Whatever.

For the record, I didn't care for the comic, myself. Posted my own blog review about it. But I have Thor on order, just waiting for it to arrive in the mail. Hopefully that's better.

Samax said...

LOL! Yeah JR, I read your review. I actually agreed with most of it, but still enjoyed the comic for what it was.

In the interview,Eric expressed interest in having other writers tackle the character, and I think it you should take him up on it. Hell, if you do, maybe I'll draw it!

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