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Comics in the Spectrum Age: A Conversation with David Brothers, Image’s Branding Manager

By | February 15th, 2016
Posted in Longform | % Comments

If you have attended an Image Comics panel at a convention of late, listened to the official Image Comics podcast, “The i Word,” or interacted with imagecomics.com and the company’s social media presence, then you’ve been exposed to David Brothers, branding manager, editor of Lazarus, and all-around toastmaster for the Image assemblage of empowered creators. Having known David to be an outspoken voice in the culture of comics, now interacting regularly with the creative leaders at Image, I sought him out to get his thoughts on the company, his work, and comics today. His thoughts are best served unvarnished, so I’ll save my own commentary for the end of the interview. Here’s our conversation with David Brothers…

David Brothers, you are Branding Manager at Image, an editor of several Image books, host of “The i Word” Image Comics podcast, and, on a recent “Robots from Tomorrow” podcast, Greg Rucka called you “one of the smartest people” he knows. We’re excited for the opportunity to pick your brain about Image’s role in comics and your perspectives on the industry.

David Brothers: Greg’s always saying nice things about me, I think so he can trick me into one day taking a compliment like an adult…thanks, but good luck, man! One day! I actually only edit Lazarus with Michael Lark & Greg Rucka right now. I’ve worked on books like Wytches and Velvet, but for now and the foreseeable future, Lazarus is it for me.

First off, can you give us a quick rundown of a day in the life of David Brothers? What kinds of tasks are on your table on any given Monday? Who do you interact with to make the impact that you do?

DB: Mondays are a little more email or admin heavy than other days, just because I try to get a good idea how the week is looking so I can figure out how an angle of attack. Past that, most days are entirely up to where I’m at with my deadlines for imagecomics.com and getting content from other people for the weeks to come. I generally work directly with creators and the production artists who lay out their books, so it’s just a matter of sending an email or walking down the hall to get things done. I try to stay off the phone as much as possible, because nothing I do is so mission critical that a phone call will make it happen faster or easier. Thanks to that, I mostly play music or stream TV to give me something to idly listen to or ignore while I focus on the job at hand.

If I’m working on interviews or analysis, I’ll try to spend the morning (re)reading comics, reading interviews, and writing notes, leaving the afternoon for the actual writing and construction of a post. If I have an episode of The i Word podcast that needs editing, I’ll do it while I do something mechanical like formatting a post or gathering images for an art gallery. Recording them takes full attention, obviously.

Before your current role at Image, you were a writer about diversity, race, pop culture, and comics. Those of us who watch Image closely can tell what an incalculable asset you’ve been and what great contributions you’ve made to the company. How did that past work and experience prepare you for what you do at Image today?

DB: I’ve got a lot of answer for this theoretically simple question…

Before working at Image Comics, my day job was in creative services for video games, with writing about comics being a hobby/walking around money thing. Video games taught me the importance of time management, the folly of all-nighters, and how to be an honest judge of your own capabilities. Overcommitting is great on the wallet but hard on you as a human being. It’s better to be honest, modest, and consistent. A good work ethic is crucial.

Meanwhile, parallel to all that, writing about stuff pretty much let me discover my point of view, refine my interests, and grow up, too. My earliest posts on 4thletter! were essentially Jubilee-focused story pitches and slapdash explorations of comics I liked. My last year of posts on 4thletter! were brief blasts that dug into “violence comix” and much more personal fare that was still tied into the broader idea of comics. The only superhero I wrote about at length in that last year was Luke Cage, and that was mostly an excuse to sing the praises of Richard Corben and Jose Villarrubia. Between the first and last post was almost ten years and a whole lot of growing up. I did just under one hundred posts as part of my Black History Month celebrations over the course of a few years, and I can see myself finding my self in the process.

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Writing about comics taught me how to be direct, focused, curious in an effective way, and that what I don’t know could fill a couple dozen libraries. I carry that into my work by looking for an angle that other people aren’t taking when it comes to content, being confident about what I’m capable of even when I feel like I’m on shaky ground, and being willing to ask a dumb question in order to get a smart lesson.

More than all that, it taught me how to be an active reader. I’ve got very specific tastes in my personal reading, like everybody, but I feel confident that I can read anything and figure out why it works for people on some level, and if I can’t, I know that I can suss out which questions to ask to get that answer from someone else.

That’s fascinating. And it rings true with your persona: diligent, disciplined, wide-ranging and knowledgeable, but also honest about yourself and your subjectivity, true to your sensibilities and even your weaknesses. Do you have a theory for why you’re such a good fit with Image’s ethic, or perhaps with its readership? Or a story of how you’ve been able to pose a needed question or provide a constructive perspective in collaboration with creators?

DB: I think the fit is just a matter of being experienced in being part of a team. Whether you’re playing basketball or cutting down a tree, everything in a system moves more smoothly when you’re working in concert with everybody else. I’ve got strong feelings about the importance of creators over characters and how to effectively discuss comics, and that follows through in how I approach imagecomics.com and our panels at conventions. I think my approach is working. I did something like forty-four panels last year, and they all felt pretty good. Good management puts people where their skills can best be put to use, so what I’m doing just kinda makes sense for who I am and what I’ve done.

As far as perspective and collaboration goes, I think Rucka’s talked about how I helped them out when they were creating the Barrett family, which includes an interracial married couple. They wanted to be very sure they weren’t reenacting old stereotypes by accident, so I gave them some advice, things to look at, research, and so on, and they took it from there. It’s like consulting. I don’t make the decisions. I just provide another point of view and inform them as much knowledge as I can so that they can make informed decisions about where they want to take their work.

There was another I liked, where they were trying to figure out how a certain action a certain character took wouldn’t result in open warfare immediately after. My input was basically, “What if this person does [something horribly, horribly mean, but also incredibly eyebrow-raising and situation-appropriate], in the name of keeping the peace?” and they ran with it to great effect.

My goal is to be a facilitator more than anything else, whether that’s encouraging people to utilize informed portrayals of things outside their experience or depicting entertaining violence or even just sharing their stories in general. I don’t have much interest at all in creating comics, and that’s a decision I made years before I shut down 4thletter!. I like being around them, and after seeing what saying a little bit about them can do to or for a creator, I think my best place is helping out. Plus, I’m generally curious about things, and I’ve got a job that lets me ask just about anyone anything at all and they’ll usually want to answer, which is seriously wild. I did a podcast with Skottie Young that was about I Hate Fairyland, his first creator-owned book, for the first half and then our shared love of rap music for the second half. I got to bend my interests and curiosity toward something that benefits both of us, I hope.

Brothers with Tula Lotay at Image Expo 2015

Especially given its vital role in the industry, Image has been instrumental in the sea changes in US comics today– still imperfect, but more diverse representation, wider audiences, a broader range of genres and stories– in what I’ve called comics’ “Spectrum Age.” Can you speak to how Image’s commitment to “creator-owned” has also fostered the kind of diversity and range we see in Image’s line?

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DB: It’s sorta funny you call it the Spectrum Age. The Mindless Ones had another name, the “Prismatic Age.” In the time since, we’ve entered the era of Marvel Movies, which have probably shifted the perception and execution of cape comics yet again. I think overall, though, we’re entering a point where mainstream comics are catching up to our reality. The work we’re seeing and praising as part of a change has always been present—Love & Rockets started before I was born, Solanin is as honest as any given autobio comic, and between the two is plenty of gold in any and every genre—but now our corner of the industry is at a point where those works can reach even more of the people who are hungry for it.

I think the easiest explanation of what I mean is what Raekwon said on Wu-Tang’s “Can It All Be So Simple”: “The Wu got something that I know that everybody wanna hear, ’cause I know I’ve been waiting to hear.”

When you give people space to create something they’re passionate about, be it comics or music or Vines or movies, I think you get a closer look at what’s in their mind than something made in a work-for-hire context. Which isn’t to say that work-for-hire is bad. Work-for-hire is value-neutral, assuming the contracts are fair to the creator. But work-for-hire has certain built-in constraints that result in a different finished product than you get from the freedom of creator-owned. I feel like every creator-owned project has gotta be something you’re passionate about, because you’re shouldering a certain level of risk and flying on your own, so if it’s not something that fills a need in you, what the heck are you doing?

And from the reader point of view, I think that thirst for stories that you can feel inside and out is real, too. There’s nothing like picking up a book and realizing that you’re into all the same weird stuff as the creator, or are going through the same struggle, or even just have the same sense of humor. I think that’s why people connect to these books the way they have, that more direct personal touch. A little freedom goes a long way.

As you talk to and work with Image creators about their comics and their other interests, do you find patterns or themes in the way they approach their work that helps explain their success, their resonance, or their creativity?

DB: Freedom, first and foremost. I did a process-oriented panel at San Diego Comic-Con last year with the core creative teams of East of West (Dragotta/Hickman) and Invisible Republic (Bechko/Hardman), and one thing they both shared was that they got to do their books exactly how they wanted, and a big part of the fun of the panel was in the way that their respective creative processes differed, but still resulted in good stuff.

And like I said above, that freedom leads to passion. If I give you carte blanche to do anything you want, you’re probably not going to do something you’re not into. You’re going to do that thing that feels like lightning from heaven when you first put pen to paper. You’re going to express yourself to the best of your ability.

Once you’ve got it in front of people, you’re probably going to find people who think like you. There’s a reason why so many of this current crop of cartoonists, creators, and critics cite people like Akira Toriyama or Rumiko Takahashi or Ai Yazawa or Kyoko Okazaki as major influences or interests. There’s a reason why James Stokoe or Sloane Leong or Emily Carroll turn heads whenever they drop new work. I grew up on Spider-Man and X-Men, and the influence of those is pretty obvious in modern mainstream comics, but what about Dr Slump? Or Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark? Or Dune, or Shinkiro, or Falcoon, or Moyoco Anno, or Godzilla, or One Piece?

Creator-owned comics often allow for a more direct expression of your interests and creativity. Not in the “Here’s a bunch of Dr Slump homages” way, but maybe an “I learned how to tell jokes by studying the timing in Ranma 1/2” kinda way. What you’re into tends to filter through your work, and when people who are into that same stuff find you, there’s a good chance for a connection there.

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I think it starts with freedom. That’s most important, that’s what people mention to me most often, and everything falls into line after that. If you get to do anything, then the only thing you should do is what you want.

So what forthcoming Image projects or developments in your current books are you excited about right now?

DB: Ahh, I’m always bad at this. My duties keep me pretty focused on what’s coming out “now” as far as what Image publishes. Lazarus is the only book I work on directly, and I’m stoked for what Rucka, Lark, and Trautmann are cooking up. That’s a book with twists that surprise me, which probably sounds weird because I edit it, but that’s kinda what I enjoy about that position, too. I give input when asked, but the creators are the ones who are in full control, and there’s a ton of reasons why people like that book and those guys so much.

Ronald Wimberly Sunset Park


Outside of that, I’m looking forward to what Ron Wimberly’s gonna bless us with. Ron’s one of those people I mean, where you can feel the passion through his art. Prince of Cats is one of those books that I had been waiting to read my whole life. Kyle Baker and Kevin McCarthy’s Circuit Breaker is coming soon, and Baker’s one of the all-time greats. It’s not even a question. I’m glad to see Emma Ríos and Hwei Lim’s Mirror out. I’ve liked Emma since Osborn, I think, and I own a Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure fanbook Hwei created…they’re a good match, and they’re doing a comic that breathes like manga.

I mostly take it as it comes, because there’s so much to keep track of. A side effect of my job is that I have to stay pretty much centered in the present, which makes teasing stuff difficult…I once looked at an issue of Previews after we sent it to press like, “Wow, we’re working with Meredith Gran? Really??? Why didn’t anyone tell me?” Surprises are nice.

Can I get you to opine a bit on the state of the comics? Where does the industry need to grow? What do you wish readers would give more of a chance? And what do you see in the comics community, whether at cons or in comments sections, on blogs or in business meetings, that gives you hope and encourages you?

DB: I think it’s the abundance of confident voices across pretty much every level of the industry that gives me the most hope. I’m gonna go long here because I don’t write as much as I used to and want to put this out there:

I like that fans are increasingly vocal about what they like and what they don’t. Superhero comics have the safety net of brand recognition most times (“Oh I remember Spider-Man, what’s up with him lately?”), but for creator-owned stuff—whether it’s Image or Fantagraphics or indie or small press or Gumroad or a webcomic—recommendations count for a whole lot. I’ve seen from doing panels that a single recommendation can go a long way, and it’s as true of friends and family as it is of creators whose work you enjoy. I grew up scouring liner notes looking for new musicians to listen to. The internet makes it so that you can do that on a whim, just by peeping someone’s blog or Twitter.

I like that more and more of the press is willing to engage with the diversity conversation on a very real and personal level, though I do wish it was more of a sustained conversation and less of a “One person writes a thing, everyone links to it, and three months later they write the same thing again” thing. The press decides the tenor and scope of the online comics conversation a great deal, and the more people on the bigger sites working that angle regularly, not just when something blows up, the better off we’ll all be. I think the good work’s mostly done at the smaller sites for now, but the bigger sites are kinda starting to get it. Looking at a comic through a certain cultural lens is no different than looking at it through the lens of forty years of fandom. In fact, we’ve had the latter for-basically-ever, so maybe we can overindulge on the former a bit. I’ve learned a lot from reading people whose experiences aren’t like my own, whether they’re writing directly about those experiences or just doing their thing in general, and the better informed I can be, the better informed the people I work with can be, the better informed the readership will be, and so on down the line. It’s a cycle that feeds itself.

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(I think about a few lines from Saul Williams’s “Coded Language” a lot when discussing or thinking about comics: how our “current frequencies of understanding outweigh that which has been given for you to understand” and how we can’t “properly mature on a diet of applesauce and crushed pears.” I don’t buy into the lie that people are generally stupid. I think people are capable of great understanding, if you put it in front of them in a way they can digest, and from that point, you have a foundation to build on. We tiptoe around the nitty-gritty of the diversity conversation as if it were foreign or new, or only to be addressed as vengeance for a slight, or a question we can answer like good versus evil. I believe we can handle it without those limitations, and address it better than we have been. Let’s get deep and complex and painful.)

That’s a good word. Go on.

I like that pros are increasingly taking their future into their own hands. I’m a big believer in Patreon, Kickstarter, Gumroad, and whatever else it is that lets me put money directly into people’s pockets in exchange for cool pictures. Sloane Leong’s doing an Image book, making her own comics, and serializing comics on Zainab Akhtar’s Comicsandcola.com in addition to running a Patreon. It’s a lot of work, I’m sure, but I think that’s what it has to be right now. Emily Carroll puts out webcomics that feel like Best of the Year material every time out the gate. Spike Trotman made a publishing house out of a bunch of stuff people said comics couldn’t or shouldn’t do. Shawn Pryor, Janelle Asselin, and Hope Nicholson are doing the work. Jordie Bellaire and Declan Shalvey just started an internship program at their Red Cube Studio to help educate a new wave of creators. Periscope Studio has people like Smilin’ Steve Lieber and Jocular Jeff Parker doing the same. These are just people I’m personally familiar with on one level or another. I’m not a super social guy, so if these people are doing it, a whole lot more must be working the same hustle, too.

I look at basketball and see players like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James being vocal about the importance of being paid fairly for your work and also supporting the community. This is significant to me. They’re well aware of their station in life and how they are able to help, whether by providing an example for incoming players (via contract negotiation, competitiveness, honesty), helping out in their community, taking stances on important issues, and representing their culture.

I think those kinds of ideas and actions are something a lot more people in comics—reader, creator, publisher, critic—are starting to realize are absolutely necessary. Today directly influences tomorrow, and the more people we have invested in creating a tomorrow that works for us, the better off everyone will be. If you had a raw deal, you owe it to your kids to keep them from that same raw deal. This kind of community-building isn’t just “pimp my book and I’ll pimp yours back.” It’s not quid-pro-quo. It’s about figuring out how you can best be of use, according to your own conscience and capabilities, and playing that role as best you can. I’ve managed to find myself in the privileged position of being able to live this to a certain extent, and it feels like a lot of people I associate with are on the same wave, too.

I’m not too concerned about the industry. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be, and I’m more personally and emotionally invested in the creative/cultural side of things than economic in general. (The exception is when they intersect in a way I can recognize, I guess—diversity in mainstream comics goes nowhere if the comics by those creators don’t get shipped, sold, or bought. But that problem is above my pay grade.) But I do think if readers keep giving new and original work a chance, we’re all going to be better off in the long run. More people reading comics because they know that comics hold stories they want to read means we get more creators being able to live off their work and create their stories the way they want to. I think we’re on the cusp of a lot of things. We just need a sustained effort to get where we’re going.

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That’s really well put.  Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, David, and for the work you do that’s so true to the spirit you’ve described.

My exchange with David Brothers confirmed for me that the energies that make comics the medium we love pull inexorably towards two counter-corporate impulses, the independent impulse and the community impulse, the drives toward iconoclastic individualism and festival collectivity. I (Paul) would venture to say that, though Image is certainly not the sole proprietor of these energies in comics, they are the current apotheosis of that independent and community spirit. Not a step-brother to the Big 2 companies, but rather the cream of American comics’ creative soup, where those energies rise to the top. It’s no accident that Image’s spartan offices are in Berkeley, down the block from my favorite Pizza collective and Shattuck Blvd’s stridently non-conformist inhabitants.

Thinking of Image as, on one hand, fiercely independent, and on the other, invested in the curiosity and virality of the comics community (i.e., word of mouth, eager retailers hand selling, the comics twitterati), it makes sense why David Brothers is their branding manager; he embodies their brand in many ways. I don’t say this to diminish the brilliant labor of comics creatives, but Brothers reminds me that comics don’t just come from the single auteur behind the drawing board, hoping to appease a fickle and faceless market. Comics are collaboration, they come from a larger cultural community, and comics producers work in dialogue with others, not isolated from the voices of critics, vocal fans, and the attentive readers invested their work. 

And for the health of this community, I appreciate that Brothers points out that diversity should not be, cannot be, merely a cause for self-congratulatory celebration. It’s also a call to roll up our sleeves and engage in hard conversations and confrontations. Reactions to Beyoncé’s Formation have demonstrated (at least in my social media bubble) how necessary Art that confronts (and Confronting art that confronts) is to fighting stagnation and becoming “deep and complex and painful,” as Brothers says.

Paul Lai