By Matthew Cowans

The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.

Not every influential comic must be the product of large media conglomerates staffed with legions of writers, artists, and editors. Sometimes, an influential comic can come from three brothers from the City of Brotherly Love. Brotherman Dictator of Discipline #1 (published by Big City Comics in April, 1990) features lawyer-turned-vigilante for justice Antonio Valor and his alter ego Brotherman. This debut issue of an eleven issue series was one of the first successful Black owned superhero comics starring a Black hero in a world populated by African American characters. It has the rare honor of being displayed in the National African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington DC, and paved the way for imminent Black owned initiatives such as Milestone Media. 

Brotherman was the brainchild of three brothers: Jason Sims, Guy Sims, and Dawud Anyabwile. who were inspired to start the project after attending the 1989 Black Business Expo in New York City. In an interview with Emory University, Anyabwile opined “We were amazed with the amount of people and opportunity for business owners to connect with the public. We knew we needed to be there. The idea for a comic came after we went home to process what we experienced”.

At the very same expo the following April, Brotherman Dictator of Discipline #1 was ready for sale as a result of their pooled efforts. In developing the character of Antonio Valor, Guy Sims had always been around and admired lawyers and this admiration guided both Brotherman’s profession and strong sense of justice. As a child, Guy was encouraged to write by his college professor father, and wrote and took influence from theater. Dawud Anyabwile – then David – started his career as an artist airbrushing and selling T-shirts at the Gallery Mall in Philadelphia. His parents encouraged their son’s artistic endeavors and could often be seen doodling in the margins of notebooks in his youth.

Brotherman Dictator of Discipline #1 opens in Big City USA where a reporter is conducting interviews following a rash of bank robberies. The bank teller and security guard at the scene exclaim that they were powerless to stop the robber as they were enraptured with her beauty and touch. The scene then shifts to a heated discussion between lawyers Melody Rich and Antonio Valor, where the former extols the latter for his inability to take a break. The idealistic Antonio believes that a week taken off is a week where justice isn’t served, to which an exasperated Melody responds that their work does not make a difference in a city as corrupt as theirs. Their boss then assigns them to make sure that once the serial bank thief is caught, she doesn’t escape justice on a legal technicality.

Determined to capture the robber, Antonio works late into the night and finally deciphers the villain’s pattern. He confronts the Seductress not as the lawyer Antonio Valor but Brotherman, Dictator of Discipline! However, a costume alone isn’t enough to keep the fledgling hero from falling under the bank robber’s spell. The comic concludes with Brotherman being detained by police officers – who seem to be relishing the idea of administering a more brutal form of justice.

In an interview with Ebony Magazine, Dawud said “Brotherman was the metaphorical expression of consciousness vs. apathy in the fictitious all Black universe we call Big City”. It is this fight against apathy which serves as a major theme of Brotherman Dictator of Discipline #1. An apathy that, in Antonio’s eyes, has infected the very halls of justice that are supposed to uphold the ideals of truth and equality. After watching disturbing news report after disturbing news report, Antonio emphatically replies “It will be done”, answering a reporter’s sobering plea for action.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Brotherman Comics / Big City Entertainment, Inc.

Brotherman – both in the world of Big City, USA and in ours – is a defiant reaction to the silent acceptance of an inadequate status quo. At the time of Dictator of Discipline’s 1990 publication, the creation of Milestone Comics and their universe of black characters was years away, as was the founding of Image Comics. The American comic book industry was largely dominated by the admittedly less diverse worlds of DC and Marvel. In that context, Guy and Dawud saw that African American stories were not being told… and if they were, it was not in a manner that they wanted. Through the publication of Brotherman #1, the brothers answered their own call to action and left their mark on the world.

The sense of apathy and powerlessness that pervades Brotherman‘s Big City USA mirrors real world conditions that were prevalent throughout the US. By 1990, much of Urban America was at its nadir. Decades of white flight, disinvestment, and deindustrialization transformed once powerful metropolises to shadows of their former selves possessing a surplus of crime and a deficit of hope. Philadelphia was certainly not immune to these trends, with the tenures of Mayors Rizzo and Goode contributing to the decline. Even today, Philly is plagued by corruption at the federal, state, and municipal levels with a poverty rate only exceeded by its levels of civic apathy. Big City reflects the turbulence of its era, if to an exaggerated effect. 

Social commentary oozes out of the issue, with satire spilling from every page. From the overaggressive police officers itching to crack some ribs to the news reporter from the poignantly named Bad News One, many facets of modern American life are referenced. While Big City, USA is not based on any one city, given that the creator’s Philadelphia roots, it’s clear that the City of Brotherly Love had major influence on the setting.  Sadly, the over the top depiction of the police may not be as exaggerated as intended, given Philly’s 1985 bombing of the Pan-African group MOVE being still fresh in people’s minds, as well as more contemporary events.

With the exception of the cover, Brotherman is a black and white comic. Under Dawud’s pen, the world of Big City, USA comes alive with large expressive faces and intricately designed splash pages. The art is decidedly moody, featuring heavy linework and use of solid background and gradients. Certain speech bubbles and sound effects are given a look reminiscent of graffiti for emphasis, and you can tell the artist enjoyed utilizing a variety of techniques to immerse readers into this world. Prior to writing Brotherman, Guy Sims lacked experience in the comic book industry or scripting a sequential story. The fact that writer and the artist are siblings therefore proved to be a boon for the creative process, as the two men were able to delve into their wealth of shared experiences and use them as inspiration for characters and settings in Brotherman. For example, Guy could describe a certain character’s appearance as resembling someone that both he and Dawud knew from youth. Finally, Jason handled the business end of the operation. He was originally part of the air-brushing business and eventually became Brotherman’s production manager.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Brotherman Comics / Big City Entertainment, Inc.

The first issue of Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline sold 40,000 copies and the series ultimately reached 750,000 copies sold. The brothers eschewed mainstream comic book stores, preferring to sell their books in black bookstores and other black-owned places. The Sims founded Big City Comics in Philadelphia in 1995 as a way to build on to the ongoing success of the Brotherman books while providing some way to give back to the community. In addition to selling comics, Big City sold Brotherman merchandise and offered screen printing and drawing lessons. The project was in many ways, a family run business with Guy and Dawud’s parents providing encouragement and inspiration. Unfortunately, production issues hobbled the run with publication ceasing entirely following the Sim’s parent’s deaths.

Following Brotherman’s eleven issue run, Dawud Anyabwile worked as an artist for MTV’s Daria and was a character designer on Nickelodeon’s 90s hits Rugrats and the Wild Thornberrys. Guy Sims subsequently fleshed out the Brotherman character Duke Denim in a series of spin-off novels, and Brotherman himself returned in the 2016 graphic novel Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline: Revelation written by Sims and illustrated by Anyabwile and Brian McGee. Guy is currently a chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Free Library of Philadelphia among other roles in academia.

The three brothers created Brotherman as a way to advertise a fledgling air-brush business, but ultimately created a comic series that has been deemed a hallmark of African American culture. As much as Brotherman strived to fight apathy, he certainly gave underrepresented people in our world a character that proved to be a trailblazer for many. Much like their hero, these creators did not wait for someone else to answer the call. They took it upon themselves to create a comic that better reflected the world through their eyes. Brotherman is here thanks to the work of these three men, and as the front cover declares: everything’s going to be alright.

 

Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline #1
By Jason Sims, Guy Sims, and Dawud Anyabwile
Published in 1990 by Big City Comics

 

For more from Matt, you can find his writing over on his website here!