Jimmie Robinson: On Power Lines and Having His Say [Interview]
March 30, 2016
IMAGE COMICS: Jimmie, what's the basic pitch for POWER LINES?
JIMMIE ROBINSON: This is the Prince & the Pauper story, or the Country Mouse & the City Mouse.
POWER LINES is about a poor black teenager who discovers he has superhuman abilities when he is in a certain rich white neighborhood. At the same time, we follow a middle-aged white woman who finds she has superpowers that activate only when she is in a lower-class neighborhood. They become heroes for each other's social class. Along the way, they learn about life in the other's community, which they often stereotyped with racist views.
IC: What kind of story is POWER LINES? Are you aiming for a story where people leave with a new perspective on the race conversation, or is it more a straight-up action comic with a particular focus?
ROBINSON: At first I wanted a straight up action story that just happened to target characters to bring up societal points, but that's not what I ended up with. I think the REAL story that I wanted emerged during the writing process.
This is a story that I want to get people thinking and talking. It might start out one way, but I swing it around midway and then I pull the rug out at the end. But keep in mind, this is a focused story, not a huge examination of every racial discussion or conflict across the world. I have a set cast of characters and I am speaking through them about the situation they are in—not what everyone else is in.
IC: On The i Word podcast last year, you mentioned that you'd done a fair amount of research for POWER LINES. What kinds of things were you looking to learn? How did they play into the series?
ROBINSON: What I was seeking to learn was how we got to the point we are in now. Not just as a society, but geographically. Why did certain people end up in the suburbs, why did certain people end up the inner city, why did certain people end up in rural zones? Historically, you can look at that and develop a story. But I took it even further. I went back hundreds of thousands of years to how the geographic landmasses actually formed. How it split the land when the glaciers melted, which in turn created separate communities and regions.
Also, my research went into the native people of this land. Native Americans play a huge role in POWER LINES and I wanted to get that right. Granted, this is very much a fictional tale with a superhero narrative, so it's not like I'm making a documentary. Still, I wanted a solid starting point for motivation. I just hope the native peoples understand what I am doing and not take umbrage with my usage of their culture for the story. Then again...I hope the same for the black and white readers who see this story.
IC: You're dealing with race relations pretty directly in this series. How are you approaching the discussion? Are you coming in with a direct point of view, or exploring the issue from a variety of them?
ROBINSON: I'm looking at this from several views. I don't want to be preachy from one view. I also don't want to be didactic and tell the reader exactly how and what to feel.
Take the lead character, for example. He's not just a black kid who could step into anyone's role. He's the type of person you see on the street that you don't make eye contact with. These are the guys who hang out in front of liquor stores in Oakland. Their pants hanging low around their thighs, and they talk in a language all their own. I grew up around people like this. I've been mugged by them. I've been friends with them. BUT, this is the type I want to turn into a hero in the series. Someone you wouldn't normally like. So I'm not approaching this in a nice, feel-good fashion. I'm going straight to the rough part of the street. The stereotyped roughneck thug.
But that's one side of the story. The other side we have a middle-aged white woman in an upscale neighborhood. Some might call her a Fox News, Trump-supporting, closet racist with limited views, but I take that character and make her into a hero. Along the way we discover why she's upset with blacks and immigrants in America. We see it from her view.
Then we have a view from a Native American who sees this in a completely different light. What is it like to have your homeland stolen away and have your people placed on reservations with little to none in the way of representation in the laws of the land? How would that make you feel? What would you do to correct it if you had the power?
Then there is a news media. How do they deliver this story to the public? What responsibilities do they have in how they report the news? Likewise, I also talk about the police, the good cops and the bad ones, and the circumstances that they end up in when they're stuck in the middle.
So yeah, I'm looking to cut many heads off this hydra—but you know what they say about cutting off one head...
IC: You've mentioned before that you haven't really tackled race and diversity in comics before. Was that a conscious hesitance, or just not the way your stories naturally shook out?
ROBINSON: Hesitance. Plain and simple. I'm not an A-list creator who the retailers order on name value alone. I am STILL trying to get a hit series off the ground after twenty years. BOMB QUEEN might be considered a minor hit in the long run, but the truth is I know a story about race just doesn't play well in the Direct Market. I've seen others around me try and fail. I've seen other publishers put content out seeking that diverse audience. Some do okay, but most look like fads and ultimately fail. When I see someone who looks like me actually succeed, it's because they are working on a project that doesn't look like them.
To this day I get royalty checks and digital checks from Image and Comixology for all the different books I've done. And EVERY check shows that BOMB QUEEN continues to outsell my other books. FIVE WEAPONS was all-ages. THE EMPTY was sci-fi. EVIL & MALICE was all ages for girls. Bomb Queen is a white female with T&A. So I'm pretty sure you can tell who pays the rent.
So yeah, hesitance played a huge part in doing POWER LINES. I'm not sitting on a pile of cash and fame with other successful books to lean back on. Doing this means I'm gonna pay instead of getting paid, but that's okay because this is something I want to do. Just get it off my chest.
IC: What was it that led to changing your mind? Why's now the right time?
ROBINSON: A number of things, but mostly I was invited to speak at the Image Expo last year and it just hit me when I saw Ronald Wimberly on stage pitching his next series. I mean, there I was watching a black man, you, introduce another black man, Wimberly, who was pitching a story about alternative slave history. I sat there thinking, this is great—except I am NOT contributing to this experience.
I was born and raised in Oakland, California. Lived and traveled though every region of it for over 40 years. I've seen the entire spectrum. So, I think I have something to say and some qualifications for saying it. To be honest, anyone can do a story like POWER LINES. You don't have to be black. But...there are experiences and nuances that I have lived through, and the people I have grown up with, who can color my book with the slant that I feel qualified to give.
The fact that Image Comics is publishing it makes it even better, because Image allows me to do it my way. Image is hands off in how I create my story. That is huge! I wouldn't be able to do this story at Marvel or DC. In fact, since the sales on this book are extremely low, I doubt many publishers would keep doing it, even if they did accept it. At Image, the responsibility is on me. I can cancel this book at any time since I won't make a dime. Image will get their upfront office fee no matter what, so it's not hurting them. This comic rides or dies on my say. And right now I say it's the right time. I can catch up on making money later.
IC: "Diversity in comics" is a conversation we've been trying to get off the ground in comics for a while now. From your perspective, what is the appeal of bringing more diversity to mainstream comics?
ROBINSON: I think it's important to add more to the mix because readers should experience more from comics. It's not just about making Spider-Man or Captain America black, though that's okay if they want to do it. What we need in comics is simply MORE types of comics. Not just turning the existing ones black. The blockbuster movies are attracting a wide range of viewers, why not comics? It's really that simple. Look at any other medium and you'll find that diversity has a foothold in some corner of it. Music has hip-hop, R&B, etc. Movies have lines of afrocentric films. Prose books by and about people of color are on the shelves doing well enough to have their own section. Comics? We HAD Milestone. That. Was. It. Beyond that, it seems to be up to the individuals to make new content for a diverse audience. Be it race, gender, or sexuality.
It's not just the right thing to do, but it's the logical thing to do, financially, for the long run. However, so many factors would have to change to make diversity into a lasting impression. At this point, and for the foreseeable future, there is no one place in the direct market that I can confidently turn to and say "Look!" All I can do is cherry pick certain books by certain creators who are trying to do something unique. That is sad.
IC: At the same time, do you feel that we're missing anything in the conversation?
ROBINSON: Yes. We are missing that this conversation is merely a theory. This is what many of us would LIKE to happen. But I think we are missing the point that this is NOT happening—and that is important. We are mostly talking ABOUT diversity, which is great. Some of us are creating diverse product, which is also great. But this is mostly the sparks off a flame, not the fire itself. Don't get me wrong, as I said I don't want to change comics, I want to ADD more to the comics we already have. Sometimes when people talk about diversity in comics they make it sound like they want to change the industry, not simply add to it.
In fact, I don't think it's possible to change the industry. Retailers order based on their customers, and if the majority of their traffic is white and reads DC and Marvel, then what can we expect? Is that healthy for the long run of the industry? No, not really. We're already aging out the last generation and technology and money demands so much of us in other arenas. But you look at the New York Times Best Sellers list under graphic novels and you know there is a market out there. You look at the numbers Scholastic puts out for libraries around the country and the world and you know there is a market out there.
So what are we, the comic industry, missing in the conversation? Simple. Patience. We want long-term growth. One of the factors for that growth is to diversify the product, but that won't happen until we diversify our outlook and approach. It's a no-win situation for now, but it's a win-win situation if we work towards that goal. That...requires patience and effort.
IC: While getting prepped for this interview, you mentioned the importance of "having your say." Can you expand on that for us?
ROBINSON: Well, I am over 50 years old so I'm like a woman in her late thirties or early forties who thinks her biological clock is running out.
In the comic industry, the young & fresh get the recognition. The old and already established creators tend to get put in a box. For folks like me, in my opinion, after a certain amount of years in the industry I'm not considered fresh by the majority of retailers. The orders on my books will never reach even fifteen thousand.
So having my say right now, while some people actually remember me, is important. I wouldn't try this series if I was too much older and out of touch with life in the streets.
Also, I want to have my say because more people are talking about diversity and it seems I'm not part of the chorus. I'm known for BOMB QUEEN and other things. I'm not the go-to guy who represents people of color in the industry. So with POWER LINES I wanted to have my say on it. Is it my final word? Nope. But this might be my most comprehensive play at it.
POWER LINES #1 is available now.