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November 23, 2013 / bcremins

Grass Green’s Afrofuturism: Notes from Columbus, Part 2

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A copy of Richard “Grass” Green’s Xal-Kor, The Human Cat #1, New Media Publishing, August 1980

In a letter dated January 1962, Jack Kirby offered advice and encouragement to aspiring comic book artist Richard “Grass” Green. In the letter, published in the June 2002 issue of Roy Thomas’s Alter Ego magazine, Kirby explains some of the more technical aspects of drawing comic books. “In regard to comic magazine pages,” Kirby writes, “I rule mine to a size of 12 ½ X 18 ½ and divide them into thirds. The size of the individual panels should depend on the artist’s dramatic sense.” Before closing the paragraph, Kirby adds, “Actually, you will find that scenes with the most movement will demand larger space.”

Tom Spurgeon points out Green’s “particular fondness for Jack Kirby and the superhero genre” in an obituary published in The Comics Journal #247 (October 2002) shortly after Green’s death from lung cancer at age 63. Encouraged by Kirby’s letter, Spurgeon writes, “Green became one of the most prolific fanzine artists of his time, contributing pin-up art, adventure stories and parodies to the parade of publications upon which mainstream superhero companies built their fervent, dedicated modern audiences.” I thought again about Green and his work after John Jennings’ talk last week at the Festival of Cartoon Art. John’s talk, “Black Kirby: In Search of the Motherboxx Connection,” included selections from his striking collaborations with Stacey Robinson. Jennings and Robinson sample images from Jack Kirby’s comics in a series of paintings that imagine, for example, what Galactus might look like if he and the Silver Surfer teamed up with Sun Ra’s Arkestra. You can see a few slides from John’s talk on Gene Kannenberg’s Flickr page.

Towards the close of his lecture, John suggested a link between Kirby’s idea of the Source and George Clinton’s vision of the Funk. The Black Kirby images, John explained, are remixes of Kirby’s art and concepts. I began to wonder if Grass Green’s comics, especially the Xal-Kor stories, might be read as significant, early examples of Afrofuturism.

In order to tell the interdimensional tale of Xal-Kor’s fight to contain the evil of Queen Roda and the other citizens of the planet Rodens, Green created a cosmic landscape of bizarre creatures, dynamic action, and slapstick humor. After producing work for Kitchen Sink, Charlton Comics, Renegade Press, and Eros Comics, Green returned to Xal-Kor in a collection published by TwoMorrows in May 2002. The splash page from the TwoMorrows collection, featuring inks by Angel Gabriele, is an image of Xal-Kor in a state of suspended animation:

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In Green’s 1980 version of Xal-Kor, a character that first appeared in the fanzine Star-Studded Comics in the 1960s, we learn of the ongoing battle between Xal-Kor’s people, the Felinians, and the Rodentites, who have travelled across time and space to reach earth. The “native rat people,” the narrator tells us on a page outlined in traces of Kirby krackle, plan to “rule all of ol’ Universe VI, starting with planet Felis!” The narrator then adds, “—Naturally, the Felinians don’t DIG the idea worth a sh t, and the result is WAR!”

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In “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” Mark Dery describes the Afrofuturism of African American writers, artists, and musicians ranging from George S. Schuyler to Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix to Octavia Butler, Charles Saunders to Jean-Michel Basquiat. “The notion of Afrofuturism,” he writes, “gives rise to a troubling antimony: Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of history, imagine possible futures?” For Grass Green, the answer to this question involves the “movement” and the “larger space” Kirby described in the January 1962 letter.

The 1980 Xal-Kor, The Human Cat includes several apocalyptic fight scenes in which Planet Felis’s champion defends his people and the earth from the Rodentites. Green’s pencils, featuring inks by Howard Keltner, are strange, exciting, often funny, always engaging. At his best, Green draws with a flair that suggests a Midwestern Raymond Pettibon in love with Jack Kirby, cats, and Chicago (although, in Xal-Kor’s world, the war between the Felinians and the Rodentites takes place in Grande City). When Xal-Kor arrives on earth, he employs “his unique mental powers” to transform himself into “basic cat form” before a domestic shorthair—a creature still “in the primitive stage of my ancestors of eons ago, before entering the 4th dimension and hyper-evolution!”—leads him to a breathtaking cityscape. These earth cats might be primitive, but, in Grass Green’s universe, they climb skyscrapers:

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In the first panel of the next page, Green and Keltner include a detailed street scene, one with traces of the urban landscape featured in the artist’s controversial Super Soul Comix #1, published by Kitchen Sink in October 1972. In The Comics Journal’s 2002 obituary, Denis Kitchen suggests that Green “never seemed interested in race relations or politics as subject matter, to my frustration.” Later in his discussion with Tom Spurgeon, Kitchen remarks, “I sometimes wondered whether his raunchy humor disguised experiences too painful to relate or whether he felt his own experiences weren’t interesting enough to tell. But he made it clear he had no interest whatever in creating serious comics.” In Super Soul Comix #1, however, Green takes aim at American racism and hypocrisy as he revisits (remixes?) the tropes of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America. And even Xal-Kor—for all its fanciful, comic (cosmic?) touches—includes evidence of Green’s desire to challenge stereotypes of race, class, and gender common in most superhero comics.

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In the text box of the panel’s upper-left corner, the narrator tells us, “Xal-Kor sees and studies all the various peoples from many different walks of life, listening to the talk, learning the myriad expressions…” A balding, middle-aged executive insists that he is happy with his job; a cop chases a boy on a skateboard; three young men marvel at the kid’s speed and daring; two women discuss their relationships as the man behind them, his head turned, remarks, “That kid needs a gud whuppin’!”

In a panel cluttered with word balloons, Green includes the voices of characters from a number of racial and economic backgrounds. In panels like this one, Grass Green is more the Walt Whitman of the underground comics page than the George Clinton of the fan press. He imagines a city like the one Samuel R. Delany describes in his book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Green’s street scene is a space in which what Delany calls “interclass contact” is possible:

Contact and its human rewards are fundamental to cosmopolitan culture, to its art and to its literature, to its politics and its economics; to its quality of life. Relationships are always relationships of exchange–semiotic exchange at the base, in a field where, as Foucault explained, knowledge, power, and desire all function together and in opposition within the field of discourse. (See Delany 198-199)

Green is at his most futuristic when his panels are at their most quotidian: men and woman, old and young, black and white, each one walking, talking, and interacting within a visionary, almost utopian urban landscape–the “movement” that “will demand larger space.”

If Afrofuturism as a style or set of strategies is a means of imagining the future, it often begins with attention to the present, even as it struggles to recover the past. Think, for example, of the heroine of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, or the explorers of Pauline Hopkins’ 1903 novel Of One Blood: Or, the Hidden Self. As Paul Gilroy reminds readers in his classic essay on the Black Atlantic, a sense of location–coordinates in time and space–are essential in any attempt to articulate a diasporic identity: “It ain’t where you’re from,” Gilroy reminds us in the title of his essay, “it’s where you’re at,” a line adapted from Eric B. and Rakim’s classic 1987 track “I Know You Got Soul.” In Grass Green’s world, “where you’re at” is always about what you hear; the word balloons that fill his panels are like notes or chord diagrams on a sheet of music. As Tom Spurgeon reminds us in TCJ #247, after all, Green was also a working musician.

A week after John’s lecture, I am still imagining Captain America on board the Mothership, and I am remembering Grass Green’s shape-shifting cats, his time-traveling rat warriors, and his “strangely beautiful” skyscrapers.

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Photo of Grass Green (1939-2002) from Tom Spurgeon’s obituary, The Comics Journal #247 (October 2002), p. 32

For more about Grass Green’s impact on comic fan culture and the underground comix scene, see Leonard Rifas’s “Racial Imagery, Racism, Individualism, and Underground Comix” at ImageText. Also read Green’s wife Janice remember her husband here at http://www.inter-fan.org. For more on Kirby’s note to Green, see Bill Schelly’s detailed introduction to the letter on pages 25 and 26 of Alter Ego #15.

Next: A few last words on my OSU trip with notes on Walt Kelly, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and an attempt at a genealogy of comics and ecocriticism.

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