By Kenneth Laster
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.
Wanting to be a filmmaker, a young Arvell Jones’ father handed his son a pencil, paper, and comic books… after seeing the price of a film camera and film development. The idea was that if he could articulate his stories through comics, then he would then get the camera. The camera never got purchased, but an instrumental figure in comics history was born.
Arvell Jones was an important figure in the Detroit comics scene long before he got his first job at Marvel or DC – but not too long after he reached adolescence, with the creation of Fan Informer at the age of 13. Fan Informer was a comics fanzine that, despite printing around 200 copies an issue, got wide circulation, and included early artwork from Jones and several other future big names. It even got a teenage Jones an impromptu interview phone call from Jack Kirby. The group of Detroit based fans – spearheaded by Jones – made a pact to break into the industry together and from this pact came some of the most influential comic creators of the bronze age. One of the first creators from the Detroit Fan Informer era to move to New York and break in was the soon-to-be prolific artist Rich Buckler. Buckler would then bring in the future Firestorm creator Al Milgrom, and Thanos creator Jim Starlin would follow shortly after.
This chain of creators bringing each other up eventually reached Jones, as Rich Buckler brought him on as an assistant on Black Panther stories in Jungle Action as well as other titles such as the Fantastic Four. Jones would go on to draw the first five pages of a Marvel Two-in-One pitch that got expanded to a full story with a Roy Thomas script, and from then on Jones began getting more and more work. As before, he did his part for the Detroit chain and called up his old friend Keith Pollard. Jones and Pollard, like much of the Detroit scene, went back a long while but there was most definitely a connection in terms of their race as well as their complementary artistic talents.
As I told last time I was here the two had their art reviewed by John Romita Sr., who declared that with Jones’ storytelling and Pollard’s draftsmanship then together they would be the perfect Marvel artist. So it only makes sense that Jones would call up Pollard to come to New York to not only help him out as the iron artist (tackling art on Iron Man and Iron Fist) but to live together as roommates. Together they were living the dream life as some of the first two Black mainstream comics artists by waking up at 7am in their apartment in Brooklyn, getting breakfast, drawing in the cramped freelance room at Marvel (along with John Romita Jr, Klaus Jansen, and Ed Hannigan), and catching a movie together at the end of the day.
Jones would go on to make his mark with his Iron Fist and Iron Man run and co-creating the character of Misty Knight along with Tony Isabella. There’s an anecdote Jones shares about his time on Iron Fist, where he bristled with Larry Hama writing Tarzan, a white guy who goes to Africa and becomes “King of the Jungle” – to which Hama replied, “Well you’re doing Iron Fist.” Thus the two were at a stalemate. Jones would later hop on over to the Distinguished Competition and become the artist for what would become All-Star Squadron. Jones was the artist on the title for the majority of the mid-80s before leaving comics for some time to work in television as a producer. He would return to comics in the mid-1990s to work on a few Milestone titles, however, one in particular being Kobalt.
Kobalt’s premise was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek “how to be a superhero” title written by John Rozum featuring the titular character, designed by Jones’ former assistant Denys Cowan, as the experienced hero leading the way. Jones, having made a relatively recent return to comics, was brought on for the series artwork and had reservations on the title. He felt the design was a bit too much like a Chippendales’ dancer and struggled to get a hold of the tone of the book. This dissonance between concept and execution can definitely be felt in the final product of Kobalt #1.
The script and plot by Rozum weaves the story of a loner vigilante and a superhero-obsessed high school outcast together with impeccable balance: however, it lacks much more to it to compel readers before revealing the final page hook which ties the two characters together. Kobalt’s dialogue and actions could be attached to any street level hero types and the only insight into his personality or history is a reference to former partners. That aside, there’s not much more that sets him apart from that archetype. Even looking at it from a lens of parody of this archetype, there’s no hint of satire or being in on any type of joke with this characterization. That being said, there is a fun sequence of a balloon descending on a crook with a note attached. The balloon has “I love you” written on it with a folded note attached. The guy opens the note to read the words “Not!” just before the balloon bursts with a knockout gas taking him out.
The same straightforwardness can be leveled at the B-Story showcasing the follies of Kobalt’s protege-to-be. Rick’s loser showcase doesn’t really do much to innovate on it’s high school nerd cliches – even down to the era-specific homophobic implications of his superhero obsession.
The true standout of Kobalt #1 is Jones’ artwork. The influences of Kirby in the dynamic and creative storytelling choices are right there on the page. The anecdote of John Romita Sr’s review of Jones and Pollard’s respective sensibilities also come to mind when looking at the figures Jones draws. They are far from the TV stars that would be at home in a Pollard book. They have grimy, hatched faces, with expressive, almost melted screams when getting grabbed by Kobalt. Also in a very Kirby-esque way, Jones is very knowledgeable about when to put anatomy aside for the purposes of a dynamic image.
And speaking of dynamic images, some of the pages in this book go very hard. In one scene, the last-remaining thug of the gang drops his flashlight as Kobalt comes for him next. It’s depicted as one large image split up in a grid, as the flashlight falls between the panels and simulates a type of slow motion. This book is full of so many slick ways of storytelling both overt and subtle – there are actions and movements that flow so smoothly into each panel that you almost don’t notice them because they fit so well.
Jones’ mastery of storytelling is showcased in the ease in which Kobalt’s legs entering one panel leads to that action being followed through in a pounce in the next. This casual dynamism is why Jones made such a name for himself as a superhero storyteller. This book is an incredible display from an artist and storyteller 20 years into his career, and while Kobalt as a title never made particular waves in the memory of Milestone (or really in the memory of Jones’ career) it’s still a great marker of the quality of work that was second nature to him at this point.
Following Kobalt, it would appear that Jones left comics in 1995, not long after his return. He’s continued his producing and multimedia work in the time since while maintaining a regular presence at conventions, providing commissions, and selling original artwork. There doesn’t seem to be a particular antagonism for the industry as evidenced by the conventions, and he’s spent time happily providing promotional art for the Black Panther film. Earlier this year Jones was announced to be contributing to an upcoming Milestone Black History Month anthology, although the issue was delayed until June.
Centered around telling the history of real-world Black trailblazers from the eyes of the fictional heroes of Milestone’s Dakota, it’s only fitting that Jones is here for this as one of those trailblazers in the world of comics. Once into the industry, Jones was monumental as one of the first Black artists in superhero comics, but even long before he “made it” he was instrumental in connecting and igniting the passion in so many pillars of the Bronze Age of Comics. The fan to creator pipeline goes back to the days of Roy Thomas, but seeing an entire region of fans put their drive together to become something in this industry is a feat of fandom I haven’t seen before. And it was all started by a Black kid, who dreamt of being a filmmaker, chatting with Jack Kirby at a dinner table.
Written by John Rozum
Pencilled by Arvell Jones
Inked by John Stanisci
Coloured by David Montoya
Lettered by Steve Dutro
Published in 1993 by Milestone Media
Kenneth Laster is a cartoonist and critic who has written for sites including Multiversity, ComicsXF, and Comic Book Herald. You can find Ken’s comics available (for free!) here, and follow Ken on Twitter here!