Black Future Month ’10: Jay Potts

February 11th, 2010 by | Tags: , , , ,

The nice thing about interviewing people is that sometimes they manage to school you. I thought I knew a little bit about blaxploitation, but Jay Potts, creator of World of Hurt, clearly has a PHD. I looked up some stuff, added others to my Netflix, and came out of this a better, more knowledgeable man. I figure you will, too. His dissection of who Luke Cage is- whoo. I hope Jeff Parker’s going to be using that for his Thunderbolts run.

World of Hurt is, to put it simply, a Blaxploitation web comic. Isaiah Pastor is a good man who does bad things for good reasons. Really, that’s all you need to know. The comic updates on Wednesdays and Jay generally has a good review or blog post each week, too. It’s must-reading. Follow him on Twitter if you’ve got one.

The images in this post are the first six episodes of World of Hurt. They are, of course, the property, intellectual and otherwise, of Jay. If you like them, click over to the site and start reading weekly. If you’d rather read them on his site, check out the first episode here. The ones here are a little smaller than his, but if you click, they’ll go big.

Finally, if Jay recommends some music or a movie? Get up on it asap. Trust me.

-Who is Jay Potts? I saw on your site that you went to SCAD. Did you focus on comics while you were there, or were you more interested in fine art or some other discipline?

Heh. I’m still trying to find out who ‘Jay Potts’ is! I’m a corporate paralegal by occupation, and artist by inclination. I enjoy politics and hiking. I have lovely, talented, smart fiancée named Noelle, a dog named Hoppie, and a black cat named Boo. Amongst the three, I’m not sure who’s my biggest fan. 

I started out in the graduate program in Illustration at SCAD, but I quickly transitioned to Sequential Art. Until going to SCAD, I was self-taught, so I was introduced to concepts and ideas that I had never heard of before. I had great professors, like James Sturm, who went on to found the Center For Cartoon Studies, Bob Pendarvis, and Mark Kneece who were fantastic. Mostly, I enjoyed interacting with peers who treated cartooning as an art form and not a hobby, and this was the first time I ever had the opportunity to enjoy that sort of give-and-take and interaction. I learned so much about storytelling and the creative process from just talking to those guys and watching their own process. That interaction, and the friendships I forged in Savannah, were invaluable.
-Rather than employing the tongue-in-cheek tone of Afrodisiac or Black Dynamite, World of Hurt is very straightforward- it’s a black action film on paper. Why’d you choose to do a straight blaxploitation comic, rather than updating it as others have?

Although I think that, sparingly, the tongue-in-cheek treatment of Blaxploitation can be a legitimate way to approach the film genre, but for the most part it seems to be the ONLY way that is ever used. I wanted to try something else. Also, I would put Afrodisiac and Black Dynamite in a slightly different category from films like Undercover Brother or I’m Gonna Git You Sucka or Greg Houston’s graphic novel, Vatican Hustle. In the first two you can not only see a familiarity with Blaxploitation, but a real understanding and reverence for it. These guys KNOW their subject, and the work is steeped in that knowledge. There are plenty of Easter eggs for Blaxploitation fans buried in the work, and those references are tweaked and subverted for comedic effect. For example, in “She Came From Venus,” an 8-page Afrodisiac tale, Rugg references Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques‘ portrayals of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson in Cotton Comes To Harlem, Calvin Lockhart, Robert DoQui in Coffy, and a classic Max Julien in The Mack and still delivers a heckuva story. That’s reference and reverence. In works like Undercover Brother, the surface elements of Blaxploitation are skimmed for cheap laughs for people who know nothing about Blaxploitation other than some dim cultural memory of bellbottoms and pimps in giant hats and ermine capes.

I have a rule of thumb for Blaxploitation parodies. If there are gags derived from a) giant platform shoes or bell bottoms, b) someone adjusting a giant Afro, or c) someone pulling something out of said giant Afro, that person may know Blaxploitation films, but they don’t GET them.

I wasn’t out to make jokes out of the styles or the films themselves, because I recognized that at that moment in time, Black Americans were at a fascinating crossroads where the general thrust of our culture, from the way we wore our hair, to the way we dressed, the way we talked, and the art we created was about testing new, hard-won freedoms; self-discovery; and empowerment. I can’t laugh at that, anymore than I can laugh at a baby taking its first steps. Those steps can be awkward and clumsy, they made further advancement possible. I don’t feel comfortable laughing at that with a sense of detached, hipster irony, given the fact that I have nearly 40 years between myself and the social, economic, and political forces and historical limitations that gave rise to the creation of those films. 

Furthermore, making fun of those films has rendered that time in Black popular culture virtually radioactive among Black creators, because the belief is that nothing positive came out of that period and it was all dreck. However, in terms of dramatic tension, action, and storytelling, films like The Spook Who Sat By The Door, The Mack, Shaft, SuperFly, Coffy, or Across 110th Street are a match for any of their mainstream Hollywood contemporaries.  I think the social and political backdrop of the early 1970s through the eyes of a Black main character adds an interesting texture to an action-adventure story, and because that time period has largely been abandoned, or misunderstood, by most creators it leaves a big playground for me to play with.

-You’ve described World of Hurt as your “personal love letter to the Black action films of the 1970s and the Golden Age of newspaper adventure strips.” I’m curious as to what you consider to be part of that Golden Age. Are we talking Alex Raymond and Milton Caniff-era strips here, Dick Tracy, or something more modern? How’d you discover the strips?

Slightly more modern, but concurrent with those strips, too. One of the biggest inspirations to me was Alex Raymond, but for his work on Rip Kirby more than Flash Gordon. Raymond lauched Rip Kirby in 1946, and continued it until his untimely death six years later. I think, like a lot of artists, I first became familiar with his work on Flash Gordon, but once you see the work he produced for Rip Kirby, it’s an absolute revelation. Al Williamson‘s art on Secret Agent Corrigan is humbling in its classic illustrative beauty, and I contend that Peter O’Donnell‘s and Jim Holdaway‘s work on Modesty Blaise is the apex of the adventure strip as an artform. I also love Stan Drake‘s work on The Heart Of Juliet Jones and Kelly Green, his proto-graphic novel series with Leonard Starr

I discovered the strips through the website, Rules Of Attraction: The Rise and Fall Of The Photo-Realistic Newspaper Strip, 1946-1970. Sadly, the site is no longer active, but I hope the site’s creator, Armando Mendez, brings it back some day, in one form or another, because it was a real inspiration and a tremendous resource. (In the meantime, the content is available through a mirror site at archive.org)
-On that same note, I’d like to talk about your art style a little. My first instinct when looking at World of Hurt is that you’ve got a little of ’70s Gene Colan in you, which has in turn been filtered through classic Caniff. I’m pretty sure it’s your use of black that put that thought into my mind, particularly in this this strip, The Thrill-seekers 39. How would you define your own style? Am I close with regards to your influences?

I love the looseness of Colan. There seems to be a clinical precision in some modern inking that saps some of the spontaneity and energy of the linework. It almost seems like there’s a mathematical formula being imposed for how every item should be rendered. “Trees are drawn with this many lines with this feathering effect. Hair, like so.” My favorite artist is Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and whenever I look at his inks, I see that freewheeling sensibility that I really love. Of course, there’s planning involved, but the end result has the impression that he’s just laying down ink and drawing, like jazz riffs with ink, and the results are absolutely beautiful. (Kevin Nowlan is inking much of Garcia-Lopez’s current work, and he adds a different sensibility, but it’s a uniquely beautiful “rough slickness” that I’d love to emulate.) If you look at David Mazzucchelli‘s work on Batman: Year One or Daredevil: Born Again, you see a similar freedom and looseness. Walt Simonson is another incredible artist with that sense of energy and looseness that I envy. I’ve gotten a lot looser with my pencils than I used to be, because I fear some of my figure work can be a little stiff. Personally, I think I’m terrible at spotting blacks, especially when I see work from guys like Chris Samnee or John Paul Leon.
-You’ve posted posted pages from an aborted Power Man & Iron Fist pitch to Marvel. That’s a team that’s near and dear to my heart, so I’ve gotta step away from World of Hurt for a couple questions. First- your interest in Blaxploitation is obvious. Are you at all a fan of the other titan of exploitation flicks, kung fu movies?

I am, but I don’t have the same familiarity with them. Russ Meyer was one of the godfathers of the drive-in, trash cinema (I say that in the most flattering way), and his Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill! inspired one of my early, unpublished pitches called Va-Va-Vroom!! My brother, Phil, and my cousin, Clarence, made it a regular ritual to watch Enter The Dragon whenever we got together over the holidays. I’m fairly conversant with Sonny Chiba‘s films, but I probably know just enough about the other ‘sploitation genres to be considered a poseur.

-Brian Azzarello and Richard Corben‘s CAGE sits in a weird place for a lot of black fans. Some view it as stereotypical and racist, while others appreciate how it updated Marvel’s #2 black character for a new generation of readers by presenting a John Singleton/hip-hop-inspired type of story.. I can see the merits of both arguments, though I fall firmly on the side of “I dug it.” What’d you think of it, particularly with regards to its Blaxploitation elements?

Although I loved Azzarello’s work on 100 Bullets and Jonny Double, I think people found CAGE to be less successful, simply because the characterization of Luke Cage as the “taciturn, hard man,” wasn’t consistent with how he had traditionally been portrayed. There was something about the stoic, “I-don’t-give-a-damn-about-anyone” attitude of Azzarello’s Luke Cage that didn’t ring true to how we had seen him in the past. I think people’s reaction to the series hinged on that vital detail. Cage is a tough guy, but he’s got a big, outgoing personality, and seeing him as a nearly monosyllabic thug rocked fans back on their heels. The setting, the dialogue, the updated gear and everything else was spot on, but if a little more of the classic Luke Cage’s personality had been present, I think comic fans would have been a lot more receptive. However, I think Azzarello writes some of the most unique and authentic voices in comics, and I’d love to see him take another crack at it with Eduardo Risso. Marvel Comics? Joe Quesada, if you’re out there, holler at me, and I’ll gladly do a Luke Cage series, but I’ll give you this for free: Luke Cage has the heart and soul of a hustler, not a gangsta. He can make a dollar out of 15 cents and he’s always looking ahead so he can STAY ahead of the game. In his first appearance, he didn’t become a superhero. No, he took on the ASPECTS of a superhero so he could make money off his newfound powers. He recognized the tiara and the yellow shirt were corny the moment he put them on, but it was a marketing strategy, because he knew the public was fascinated with superheroes. He knew he wasn’t the strongest, fastest, or smartest guy out there, but he was crafty and tough. Half of his schtick was bluster, and he played the “Angry Black Guy” thing to the hilt, because there’s nothing scarier than the “Angry Black Guy.” Further, the guy owned property in Times Square before Guiliani and Disney moved in, so he should be doing alright for himself now. 
-Sliding back to World of Hurt… what’s in its future? Its current layout makes me think that it’d be very easy to collect in a book, and I know you mentioned a Wednesday Comics-style collection. Where do you want to go with World of Hurt? Are you on the con circuit?

I’m still looking at printing options. I was looking at the Wednesday Comics-style collection, but based on reader comments, I think they want something a little more substantial. I’d love to put together a nice hardback volume collecting “The Thrill-Seekers” arc. Now, I’m working on monetizing the site. I’ll be scrapping the CafePress store shortly to sell my own ringer T-shirts and other items. 

I don’t harbor any illusions that anybody would pick up WORLD OF HURT as a movie or TV series, because it cuts too far across the grain, but I do believe it would make a tremendous ‘Grand Theft Auto’-style video game, since there’s so much opportunity for world-building in the concept (no pun intended.)

I’ll definitely be in Charlotte for HeroesCon, and I’m planning on going to the East Coast Black Age of Comics, too. The rest I’m kind of playing by ear, since I plan on getting married this year.

-Isaiah Pastor is a classic blaxploitation hero. He’s a good man, but willing to get his hands dirty when things go south. “A good man willing to do bad things,” if that description isn’t too reductive. What, or who, did you have in mind when you created him? Is there a line Pastor won’t cross?

Actually, that’s analysis isn’t reductive at all. It’s an extremely accurate assessment. One of the taglines for the series, which you can find on my Twitter site, is “Sometimes Good People Need a Bad Man. In 1972, Isaiah “Pastor” Hurt was the BADDEST man alive!” He’s definitely out to help people, but he has an end goal. Although I haven’t stated as much in the strip itself, I know what the precipitating event, or events, were that placed Pastor on his present course. Given his unique skillset, he could make a lot of money doing what he does, and he has.  Pastor has already made sacrifices and committed acts that even he finds unforgivable, so he feels there’s no need for decent people to get hurt, or die, to make things right when he can step into the fray. He’s damaged, but he would never complain or break down because of it. He’s not a woe-is-me sort, he’s a man of action. To quote James Brown from Black Caesar, Pastor “paid the cost to be the boss,” and he accepts that. I’ll draw the line at Pastor intentionally harming women, physically or emotionally. One interesting debate I had with my fiancée was over whether Pastor should set someone on fire. Ultimately, we figured that under the right conditions, it would be OK.  

For Pastor, I wanted to create a character with the smoothness of Fred Williamson, but the physicality of James Brown. Williamson was smooth, worldly, and he brought a sense of cunning and intelligence to his performances. However, even when you dressed James Brown in a tuxedo, he still seemed like he’d rather punch you than have a drink with you. Robert Hooks in Trouble Man had a HUGE impact on me, too. Vincent S. Moore of ComicsWaitingRoom.com had the best description of Pastor that captured what I was going for when he said, “[Pastor] especially fills every panel with his presence, being both larger than life and down-home all at the same time.. And that’s his power both inside and outside the strip.” 
-There’s a two-disc CD set called “Can You Dig It? Music & Politics of Black Action Films: 1968-1975.” It’s kind of a greatest hits of Blaxploitation collection, but it reminds me that Blaxploitation films almost always had a strong musical component, whether it was “Across 110th Street” or “Down and Out In New York.” What would be on World of Hurt’s soundtrack? Do you write and draw to music?

My fiancée got that collection for me for Christmas, and I love it. I get easily distracted, so I’ll listen to music to ramp myself up for drawing, but I usually have to turn it off before I put pencil to paper. Oddly enough, when I do listen to music, I work better listening to music I’m less familiar with, otherwise I get caught up in grooving to the lyrics. At the suggestion of a reader, I created a station on Pandora.com called SOUL FIST – The World Of Hurt Blaxploitation Radio Network. My favorite songs from Blaxploitation films are “Trouble Man” by Marvin Gaye and “Are You Man Enough” by the Four Tops from Shaft’s Big Score, Edwin Starr’s “Easin’ In” from Hell Up In Harlem, and basically any track from Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack for SuperFly. Dennis Coffey also created some of my favorite songs from that era that never appeared on a Blaxploitation soundtrack but really should have,  such as “Getting It On” and “Scorpio.”

Incidentally, Christopher E. Garcia, an extremely talented musician who performed on the Black Dynamite soundtrack and tours with the Black Dynamite Sound Orchestra happens to be a fan of the strip, and he offered to write a song specifically for WORLD OF HURT. He e-mailed some of the work-in-progress, and it is incredible. The song drops electric bass, electric guitar and the instrumentation over this ringing church bell and tight little snare riff. It sounds like someone stalking you in a dark alley; like impending doom, so it’s perfect for Pastor!
-I’ve found that Blaxploitation itself exists on a razor’s edge between stereotype and reality, similar to how hip-hop walks that fine line between glorifying and providing context for the seedier aspects of, for lack of a better term, black culture. There seems to be an extra burden on black creators to portray the culture positively. Do you buy into that at all or do you just do your own thing? How careful are you to stay whatever you personally consider appropriate? Have you ever gotten any angry emails about the strip?

I think most Black creators, and any non-Black creator writing for a Black character definitely feels that pressure. Superman is Superman (when he’s not being used as a Christ metaphor), Batman is Batman, Spider-Man is Spider-Man, and no reader mistakes them or the multitudes of White comic book characters as stand-ins for the entirety of the White population. However, because there are relatively few Black characters in genre fiction, each Black character somehow becomes a de facto representative of EVERY Black person. I think female comic characters, notably Wonder Woman, and female creators also face this dilemma. Therefore, the tendency is to create Black characters that somehow address EVERY social ill, combat EVERY social stereotype, and they become almost TOO perfect as a result. They don’t have the luxury of just being interesting characters in an interesting story, because they’re carrying the ball for an entire race.  There’s nothing less interesting than a character who’s too perfect.

I struggled with the twin notions of exploring the conventions of Blaxploitation, a film genre which has an overwhelmingly negative reputation, vs. the desire to reflect Black culture in a positive manner. Ultimately, I decided to give more weight to the demands of the story and characters. However, I think that simply by deciding to approach Blaxploitation in a serious, thoughtful manner, half the battle of presenting Black characters in a positive light is already won. 

I only placed two limitations on myself. First, I would do my best to avoid the n-word as much as possible, whether it was a casual greeting or an epithet. We can’t pretend that we can take ownership of the word and strip it of power or redefine its meaning. It has too much history and too much power of its own, so I’d prefer to let it atrophy and die of neglect. Secondly, I would try to have Pastor avoid the use of handguns. I have no problem with rifles or shotguns, but a pistol is only good for killing another human being. Any punk can shoot a handgun. It doesn’t take any skill or strength, physical or moral. Pastor pointing the gun at Duke in Episode #16 was a signature moment in WORLD OF HURT, but I tamped down the some of the “Cool” factor by coming up with the running gag of things going bad for Pastor whenever he used a pistol.

I’ve tried not to censor myself, but I was REALLY nervous about the nude scene between Pastor and Mrs. Belmont, especially since my Mom had just started reading the strip. When I started WORLD OF HURT, I warned her that it would be rather violent and some of the language would be rather… salty. By the time she worked up the nerve to start reading it, BOOM, nudity! However, my nervousness was unfounded, because I received a lot of positive comments about that strip. My fiancée had been angling to see Pastor’s bare ass for some time, and her instincts were absolutely correct.

To date, (knock on wood) all the e-mails and comments have been positive, so I’m very pleasantly surprised by that fact.

-You’re coming up on a year of World of Hurt. I know you’ve got a new arc called “The Black Fist” coming up once “The Thrill-seekers” wraps. Have you learned any major lessons over the past year? Made breakthroughs in your art or become more savvy when it comes to marketing yourself and your strip? 

The major lessons I learned are that one should really have a buffer of a few strips in the can before you start. I’ve learned that the interaction of social media sites is absolutely essential to promoting your product. The Facebooking and tweeting from my old friends like Anthony Summey, Josh Gillin, and Doug Gross has led to new friends like Rodney Blackwell, Samax Amen, Stephen Lindsay, Brian McLachlan, Evan Shaner and Tracy Brady and so many other wonderful people, who have all helped push the “gospel” of Pastor.

As far as promoting myself, I’ve experienced a tremendous rise in self-confidence. There’s absolutely no shame in my game. I stalk Twitter like a hawk, looking for any mention of Blaxploitation. I’ll send links to anybody who I think might be interested in the genre. When Black Dynamite opened here in Columbia a few weeks back, I made up some WORLD OF HURT fliers and went to the local theater. I spoke with the manager and got them placed in a prominent position at the ticket counter.  I pursued my first sponsor, www.BMFWallets.com, because I thought their product would be a great fit for WORLD OF HURT. Also, I was proud of getting Carl “Apollo Creed” Weathers to tweet an “acceptance speech” for his Unsung Bad Mother******* Of The Year Award.

Artistically, I’ve definitely become more confident in my work. I have a hard and fast deadline where that strip has to be posted by Wednesday morning, so I have to just get over myself if I don’t like what I’ve done and pledge to do better next week. 

I’ve learned not to censor work, and just go with the flow.

I’ve learned that I have a much bigger female audience than I ever anticipated. But then again, Pastor takes care of himself, dresses well, keeps his promises, is respectful to people’s mamas and will fight to the death for your honor. What’s not to like?

Finally, I’ve learned just how patient, supportive, and wonderful my fiancée, Noelle, is. I couldn’t have pulled any of this off without her.
Overally, this past year has exceeded my wildest expectations, so thank you, everyone, for your continued support of WORLD OF HURT.

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9 comments to “Black Future Month ’10: Jay Potts”

  1. if Luke Cage was a hustler in the original Hero for Hire issues, then he’s gotta be the worst hustler i’ve ever seen! he couldn’t make a dollar outta 15 cents. damn, he could barely even make a dollar. he kept doing jobs for free or getting stiffed.

  2. I’m really glad Jay was able to sum up my problems with the Azzarello Cage series so completely. I read it recently and I thought it was a good story, but it didn’t sit right with me, because Luke actually does give a fuck about other human beings.

  3. Wow.
    Straight up kicking knowledge.

  4. Mr. Brothers-
    Thanks so much for the opportunity to get the ‘”Word” Of Hurt’ out there. It was a lot of fun and really challenged me to consider some things that had been rattling around the back of my head, half-formed.

    Thanks again!

    – JEP

  5. […] Creators | David Brothers talks to Jay Potts, creator of the webcomic World of Hurt. [4thletter!] […]

  6. Mr. Potts,
    These are some beautiful pages. Keep it coming, and congratulations on your upcoming nuptials.

    Mr. Brothers,
    It’s nice to see Black History month being celebrated rather than mourned. Thanks for some great writing. 🙂

  7. Really good interview.

  8. […] pop-up everywhere. He’s been nominated for a ton of Glyph Awards, also, so congratulations! [4thLetter, The Comics […]

  9. […] It shattered previous images, but created or perpetuated, new ones. http://www.4thletter.net/2010/02/black-future-month-10-jay-potts/ in reply to rusjafoster […]