Welcome, X-Fans, to another uncanny edition of X-Men Monday at AIPT!
Let’s kick things off by rewinding the clock to November 2018–a simpler time when hundreds of people could pack themselves into a giant room loaded with wall-to-wall tables and narrow lanes… I think these events were called “comic conventions.” Anyway, this trip down memory lane is relevant because Rhode Island Comic Con 2018 was where I met artist Ray-Anthony Height, who I was excited to see had worked on two early issues of X-Men Blue (a personal favorite of mine).
The only problem was, despite the press pass hanging from my neck, RICC–for some bizarre reason–had forbidden reporters from interviewing any of their guests that year. That’s right, in addition to the Hollywood celebrities, which I can understand, I wasn’t allowed to talk to the comic creators at all career levels in artist alley who would likely welcome the press.
How dare they?!
So I did what any upstanding comics journalist would do: I broke the rules and interviewed Ray-Anthony about X-Men. (What? Was I supposed to cover some forgotten TV show’s cast reunion panel instead? Pshh.)
It was a brief but great chat and I promised Ray-Anthony we’d do a more extensive interview in the future. Well, cut to the first week of June 2020 and I’d say there’s no better time for us to get back on the record. If you’re like me and follow Ray-Anthony on Twitter, you’ve likely taken notice of his recent string of sobering tweets.
I feel EXACTLY the same way. I have never been this open with my views online. It’s extremely rare. I do not think my ‘voice’ is so significant that it can change the hearts and minds of the masses. That being said, out of love, it was just to difficult to remain silent. https://t.co/pBsKCfOHf8
— Ray-Anthony Height (@RAHeight) May 31, 2020
If we’re going to crush systemic racism and end police brutality, we need everyone to speak out when they experience it. Ray-Anthony has a lot to say about the comics industry and the ways it can become a truly inclusive space for all creators. I was more than happy to listen and I hope others in the comics community do too.
AIPT: Welcome to X-Men Monday, Ray-Anthony! I’m so happy we’re finally connecting again. As I was doing my research and putting together questions, I noticed you’ve done more than comics. You’ve worked in animation and toys as well. So for those who are unfamiliar with you, what would you say your current profession is? Who is Ray-Anthony Height?
Ray-Anthony: I will say jack of all trades, master of none. I told a friend of mine, I never saw myself designing toys, but I ended up working for Hasbro and worked on Action Man, Stretch Armstrong and a few other things. Art is everywhere and that’s a skill that everybody can use, especially in entertainment. It’s integral in any and all forms of entertainment. I’d say I’m mostly a comic book creator and illustrator, but I do it all if I can.
AIPT: In addition to X-Men Blue, your art’s appeared in Marvel series like Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur and Miles Morales: Spider-Man. Who or what would you say has influenced your style?
Ray-Anthony: Well, it depends. I’ve got new influences–or mostly current ones–but there are things that are ingrained in me. John Buscema was a big influence. And Arthur Adams. I’m heavily influenced by a lot of manga artists and anime, so I like Katsuhiro Otomo and Naoki Urasawa. When I think about who I go to for storytelling foundation, it’s a lot of animators through the years. Oh, and Paul Smith is a great one. OK, here we go: Alan Davis is like my true north. He’s someone I’m heading toward when I think about being a comic book artist. I want to be in that arena–he’s just so well-rounded and there’s nothing he can’t do.
AIPT: I’m currently reading the Excalibur issues he wrote and illustrated for the first time–they’re so good. But you’re great too! What are you currently working on?
Ray-Anthony: Well, I was part of the furlough…
AIPT: At Marvel?
Ray-Anthony: Yeah, there were a couple of things I was working on that I definitely can’t say–I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that, so it’s mostly been Midnight Tiger, the book I Kickstarted. I’m doing issue 3. The series came out in 2013 and the sales weren’t that great. Usually, when you launch a series, the first issue should do well enough that it helps pay for the first four or five issues because there’s always that dip after the first issue. So it started at the line and it just went downhill. So I really wanted to cancel it, but Midnight Tiger’s been in the Action Lab series Actionverse, so he’s been around. And over the years, when I worked on Marvel stuff, people started searching and they found Midnight Tiger and its popularity started to grow. Now I get asked about it just as much as I get asked about X-Men Blue and Moon Girl.
AIPT: That’s awesome. For readers who aren’t familiar with Midnight Tiger, what can you tell us about the character?
Ray-Anthony: Well, my elevator pitch is, “What if Peter Parker was in Gotham?” It takes place in Los Angeles County in a fictional city called Apollo Bay, which is a combination of Long Beach, Los Angeles proper and Compton, which is my home town. So it’s basically this teenage kid–Gavin Shaw–who grew up loving superheroes. As he grows up, he realizes there’s not a lot of superhero action in his city, so he gets pretty pissed off, you know? They’re saving the world every other week but we need help here. He’s very upset and basically becomes disillusioned and then serendipity steps in and a superhero named Lionsblood is gravely injured. He goes to his aid, gets injured in the process and to save Gavin, Lionsblood endows him with his power. Lionsblood ends up dying and… you can read the rest.
AIPT: Nice! And where can people find it? Comixology?
Ray-Anthony: Comixology is the best way to get it. The Kickstarter is over and I’m currently working on issue 3 in between my regular jobs. Catch up on everything and read Actionverse. Midnight Tiger shares a universe with Vito Delsante and Sean Izaakse’s Stray and Jamale Igle’s Molly Danger, so we’re kind of like the trinity of the Actionverse, so it’s pretty cool.
AIPT: Definitely. And I’ve interviewed Sean before–he’s great! Now, pivoting to X-Men, you co-created the Raksha with Cullen Bunn for X-Men Blue, and when we spoke in 2018, you mentioned that was the contribution to the X-Men mythos you were most proud of. You’ve done a few more projects since then, including X-Men: Wakanda Forever #1 and the Merry X-Men Holiday Special, so has your answer changed at all?
Ray-Anthony: That’s good–you’re asking some great questions! Let me think. I have to say I enjoyed X-Men: Wakanda Forever and I wish I had more chances to work on X-Men stuff. I always talk about different characters, especially now with Krakoa–there are characters who were either depowered or died and are now resurrected or have had their powers restored after M-Day. I had this idea about Prodigy and Synch where they would go around solving mutant hate crimes. I don’t know if they’re going to do that. Let me tell you, it’s a terrible thing to pitch online, but I know the response I got was over 200 responses like, “Yeah, we love that idea!”
AIPT: You also mentioned before that you love the B- and C-List X-Men characters. Which more obscure X-Characters would you love to see get more time in the spotlight?
Ray-Anthony: They’re doing a good job of using characters I haven’t seen in years. Marauders is a good book. I love what they’re doing with Kitty. Oh, Kate–she goes by Kate now. Excalibur’s very good. Very, very good–they’ve got a killer creative team. But I don’t think there’s anyone right now… wait, wait, wait–I know. Surge. She was going to be in my pitch. I had another idea where it was this girl group–Surge, Hazmat and Finesse. I hadn’t figured out the story yet but I love those characters a lot. I also don’t know what they’re doing with Hellion. I haven’t seen him. There’s a mutant that I loved that I don’t know if he’ll ever be out again: Butterball.
AIPT: Haha, I don’t think I know him. Who’s Butterball?
Ray-Anthony: The concept’s just amazing. He’s completely invulnerable, nothing can hurt him, it doesn’t matter what it is. And his aging has stopped. But he’s this kid–maybe 15 or 16–he’s this little chunky kid who never had a chance to grow up to his full adult self and has to stay in this body for the rest of his life. It’s come up a few times, he never had a chance to grow up because of when his powers manifested. He has no super-strength–he’s totally in stasis and completely invulnerable. There were characters in the Initiative who were part of the Avengers but they were mutants and I would love to know if they’re on Krakoa.
AIPT: I’ll have to look him up. Switching gears from Butterball to a more serious topic, you recently said on Twitter you don’t share your personal views online but you’ve started to. This moment in American history has had an impact on so many people, but in your own words, what’s inspired you to speak out?
Ray-Anthony: Well, this is the kind of thing where I have to speak up. The systemic racism we face regularly every day–we’re born into it. It’s one of the first things we get taught. We’re taught to walk, talk and that you need to put your hands on the steering wheel and be as affable as possible. All these different things just so people don’t think we seem aggressive, but that’s because they’re also taught something different. But my regular persona–I’m a nice guy, I like to share our experience.
As a Black creator, I’m in a role model position. I may not have wanted to be, but I do it for the generation ahead and behind, so they can come up and look at this representation. When I was a kid, I didn’t know there were Black comic book creators until I was an older teenager, but I got into comics at 10. So for about 10 years, I didn’t know for sure. But then I started learning about people like Paris Cullins, and on the animation side, Larry Houston and Denys Cowan. I knew who Denys was because of Milestone, which was a huge thing for me, but he discovered me at small con in Los Angeles and invited me to Warner Bros. and that was one of the better experiences of my life, just talking to him and learning things from him. He’s one of the first people who told me who Alex Toth was. He reached out to me because he’s a mentor and he saw me, a young Black guy, hustling and doing things. He wanted to pull me up, so that’s my job.
We’re told, don’t speak too loudly and be nice because we want a job. We want to work and it’s so easy for people who aren’t Black, who have their own groups, who are familiar with other people who are their own friends. It’s easier to choose the guy who looks like you. There are racial biases a lot of people are unaware of–all of us have them. It’s unfortunate because that’s how systemic racism works. Once you’re aware of it, you can change it.
AIPT: Well, that was going to be my next question. Read any message board and it doesn’t take long to realize racism exists in comics fandom. But based on your experience, is racism also a problem within the comics industry as well, with publishers?
Ray-Anthony: I’ll say this: I’m sure that there is–I guarantee there is. But we know who they are and we know exactly their intention. My wife and I have this thing called “the unintentional racist.” They don’t feel like the things they say or do are racist, but they kind of are. And when I see pictures of people in offices and there are no people of color… why? When I see that only 15% of editorial or freelancers are people of color or women or LGBTQ… why? It’s not that they don’t have talent. It’s not that they’re not knocking on their door. But as I said before, it’s just easier to pick the person you know. You can open yourself up and just say, well, let me remove my bias, but you have to be aware of it. If you’re not aware of your bias, then how do you know how to remove it or check it?
So I think that what’s going on now is there are a lot of good intentions, but we all know where that road leads, right? Some of the choices made with Marvel or DC, yeah, you want to show inclusion, you want to do things, but you’re doing it in such a way where it’s trendy–it’s in fashion right now. I think some people have great intentions and want to do certain things, but they have bosses and those bosses have bosses and they don’t want to make waves because they’re thinking about the bottom line. So those voices get squashed, snuffed out or neutered. There was a point where they took a chance. Marvel’s supposed to be the world outside your window. Some of it’s straight fluff and there’s nothing more under the surface. If you’re going to do something, make it sustainable. Make it meaningful. Don’t do things because something seems popular.
Let’s take X-Men, for example. Charles Xavier–he could be Black–but it’s what he stands for that’s the most important thing. It doesn’t matter what race he was, except for the fact that he’s a mutant. But that’s really it. His message. That’s why it still stands and why almost every Black person I know loves the X-Men. Because it stands for something.
AIPT: Is there anything else publishers like Marvel can do to become more inclusive of Black voices moving forward?
Ray-Anthony: Hire more Black creators. Simple. Hire more Black creators and let them use that voice because they have a voice that you don’t. If they have to force feed it through your grinder, through your non-POC or non-LGBTQ grinder, then it no longer is their voice. That’s when it becomes the fluff. Really have it mean something.
There aren’t very many Black editors and I don’t know why that is. There are some great Black editors, like Chris Robinson and Joseph Illidge, off the top of my head. More editors like them need the work and if you slap their hands when they have some great stuff, it doesn’t do any good. Why are you hiring them? Are you hiring them just to fill a seat? “I have a Black female, so that’s two slots.” It’s three slots if they’re a lesbian. Why are you doing that? Hire the person who comes forth with the right voice. That’s what you do. That’s what I’d really like to see happen. If you’re going to go out and seek Black editors and Black creators, let them have their voice.
As a Black creator who has worked with you regularly, I really hope you stand by this statement, be more vocal, and proactive in a substantial way and not in a trendy way. Make it mean something. https://t.co/XAFHMdJ79z
— Ray-Anthony Height (@RAHeight) June 1, 2020
We have Alitha E. Martinez. She’s been in the industry for a long time but you wouldn’t know it. Here is a woman of color who’s been in the industry a long time and only now, people find out who she is. Why right now? Christina “Steenz” Stewart–she just won an Eisner! She’s an editor, she’s an illustrator, she’s amazing. She’s someone who could use an even bigger platform because she has things to say. You have to take those risks.
People are out there saying they want to take politics out of comics. Where have you been? Politics have always been in comics. The comics you said you love have politics in them–don’t twist and reshape things just to fit your narrative. It is what it is. Just because you don’t like what somebody’s doing, don’t reshape the truth. So that’s what they can do. Marvel, DC–everyone should be doing it. Get real people. Let them have a voice. Let them speak. Stop being afraid. Stop.
AIPT: What advice do you have for aspiring Black creators?
Ray-Anthony: No. 1, seek out people who have already been there. It’s easier than it’s ever been. They’re all online and you can reach out to them and talk to them. Be respectful, don’t tag people in things–that’s kind of rude. DM them and ask them if you can talk. Everyone’s pretty nice–there aren’t a lot of jerks. But most people are incredibly inclusive. They want you to be part of our community as much as you want to be a part of the community.
Do you want to do superhero comics? Great, talk to superhero editors and other creative people. If you want to be an editor, study everything. Editors to me have the worst job in comics. As a creator, I know us creative folks can be a pill, but a good editor knows how to bring out the very best in you, so that’s what it is. Artists, the same thing. Study everything, put yourself out there and be nice, kind and respectful of people’s time. Time is the most precious thing we have–it’s the thing we can spend and never get back. So think about that before you start talking to people.
AIPT: We’ve seen outrage before. We’ve seen protests. But I have to admit, what’s happening right now certainly seems different. Beyond people, so many organizations are speaking out and throwing their support behind Black Lives Matter. Like, I got an email from TGI Fridays about it.
AIPT: But, final question: What do you hope people hold onto from this moment and carry with them moving forward?
Ray-Anthony: Well, I have to agree. I went to Compton High School when the Rodney King verdict was announced and then the riots. That was quite an upheaval–fights going on in my own school between Latinx and Black people–emotions were high back then. This feels very different than that. There are some similarities, but the energy is different. Here’s the thing we didn’t have then that we do have now: The ability to document right in the palm of our hands. It’s the best thing you can do because the problem that’s perpetuated racism in all these different things was no one was able to document it all. These people that have been brutalized and murdered by police, there are probably countless more we’ll never know about. Because this isn’t new–it wasn’t new eight years ago with Trayvon Martin.
We’ve been here for 400 years. The Native Americans got the worst of it–they got completely wiped out. For us, this has been a long torture. There are laws that are passed, but also always ways to circumvent those things and suppress those things without actually having to break the law itself. So our best weapon is to document what’s happening. I’ve noticed so many white people I know go, “My god, that happened?” And they’re looking at the realness of it. This is the most real it’s ever been because before, it was like a he-said-she-said. “Well, I want to believe the authorities because we’re supposed to.” But the authorities are people too. And they lie. And they’re part of groups who are anti-people of color–they’re just hidden among us. So I think going forward, just keep documenting. It’s not just see something, say something–that’s the tip of the iceberg. Have proof. Because if you can take that to a court of law, it’s hard to refute video. It really is, and if multiple people are videotaping from different angles at the same time, it’s even harder.
And the other thing, some people are talking about the violence. Without Malcolm X, we wouldn’t have had Martin Luther King Jr. We need both. One gets your attention, the other makes change. So if you feel like we don’t want to do this and there’s too much violence, look at the videotape and see who’s actually looting. Think about it, a little damage from us vs. all the damage that’s been done to us for 400 years. I think people are getting it.
I think people are seeing real change–and it’s not real change like policy. First, you have to change people’s hearts, and that’s what’s happening. That’s what’s different. People’s hearts are changing because they see it.
AIPT: I think that’s the perfect note to end on. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk. And hopefully, we won’t have to wait another two years for our next interview.
You know, speaking as someone who started his senior year of high school on September 11, 2001, and, as a result, had to put up with ignorant classmates calling me names like “Saddam Hussein” simply because my last name is Hassan, you better believe I want to live in a world free of racism. But I also understand systemic racism isn’t going to go away overnight. Each and every one of us has a role to play, so I’m going to reshare the link I shared in the last edition of X-Men Monday, where you can find several ways to help fight the good fight. Every positive action–no matter how small–makes a difference.
That’s it for this week, X-Fans. Please stay safe out there, look out for others and remember: Black Lives Matter.