Home / Fall Table of Contents
Lateef Ade "L.A." Williams '94 was not yet in kindergarten when a cousin introduced him to brightly colored reading material with characters called "The Human Torch" and "The Thing." Comic books, where human abilities are exponentially expanded, locked onto Williams's imagination and didn't let go; years later at UMass, he wrote his senior thesis on black characters in superhero comic books.
Today, Williams lives as close to the two-dimensional world of the comic-book page as one can get without special powers: He's working in New York City as an editor at DC Comics, publisher of such superlegends as Batman, Superman, and Wonder-woman. Every morning when he steps off the elevator into DC's perpetually twilit main lobby with its Michael Keaton-as-Batman mannequin and its life-size likeness of Michelle Pfeiffer in her Catwoman suit Williams gives himself a little pinch: Yes, this is real. His passion for comics has brought him to those five floors at 1700 Broadway that are exactly where he wants to be.
Williams's ticket to the throbbing heart of Gotham was his senior thesis in Afro-American studies "The Content of Their Characters: A History and Examination of Black Characters in Superhero Comics" an overview of black people in comic books from 1896 on, and a detailed examination of their treatment there in the early 70s.
The idea was a tough sell. His peers were incredulous, his professors reluctant. Today, faculty member Michael Thelwell credits Williams with the ability to recognize the academic potential in comic art. "I didn't see the serious relevance of comic books to
African American studies," Thelwell says. "But he was seriously committed, and argued convincingly that this was a good topic. I became convinced."
Williams's argument is that the racial makeup of comics characters is both deliberate and consequential. "If a heroine resembles Pam Grier, and a villain resembles a member of the Black Panther Party," he wrote, "it is not coincidental. The creative team is making a point, and simultaneously teaching children of all races whom to admire or despise."
In a stroke of synchronicity, soon after Williams graduated, the same cousin who'd given him his first comic book met someone with connections to DC Comics. Williams sent in his thesis along with his resume, and shortly thereafter was hired. The move to New York required little adjustment, he says. He grew up taking the Peter Pan bus between Manhattan, where his father runs the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, and Amherst, where his mother, Aquila Ayana-McCants, is a director of UMass's Native American Student Support Services.
At thirty, L.A. williams is not yet feeling old. Besides the fact that his colleagues wear Tweety Bird ties and body-hardware and keep their black leather jackets on in the office, "it's hard to feel old when you spend half your day talking about when Impulse is going to meet up with Plastic Man." Yet there's a center of gravity to this alumnus. No matter how frivolous the rest of the world may think comics, Williams takes his genre and his place in it very seriously.
On the way to his office in the inner core of the building, Williams sticks his head into the tiny offices branching off the halls to say hello to women in the copy room, to draftsmen hunched over story boards, to mailroom people. His tiny office is shared with the assistant editor for the Scooby Doo and Aquaman series, Harvey Richards, and an assortment of superhero memorabilia: a plastic Spiderman crouching on a shelf, a Superman frame on his computer monitor, an impossibly endowed young Def Jam rapper glaring regally down from a poster on the wall.
From this lair Williams stays in touch with some of the more than 1,000 freelancers writers, pencillers, inkers, colorists, letterers who work for DC nationwide. He assistant-edits half a dozen series, among them Legends of the DC Universe and Martian Manhunter. But his pet project is the fledgling Impulse series, the editing and promotion of which have been entirely entrusted to him.
Created by Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo, the monthly comic features Bart Allen, a.k.a. Impulse, a lad from the thirty-first century blessed with super-speed and cursed with a birth defect that will prematurely age him. (Typically for the genre, Impulse is the grandson of The Flash, a 50s superhero who time-traveled as far into the future as possible to escape the Eisenhower era.) To slow his decline, Bart's grandmother sends him to live back in the late 1990s with an uncle, retired speed guru Max Mercury, who tries in vain to teach Impulse to use his powers judiciously.
In an insightful twist on the problems of the Ritalin age, Impulse's creators made him a three-year old in a teenaged body. "Actually, the writer and I tend to think of him as a really smart eight-to-nine year-old in a teenaged body that's existed for three to four years," says Williams. "He's not going to cry if you take a cookie away from him, but he's also not going to try to put the moves on your daughter or try to get a fake I.D." Raised in a virtual future in which every misstep could be corrected with a click of the reset button, Impulse has much to learn in the non-virtual present. "If you or I see a truck coming, we panic and try to get out of the way," says Williams. "Impulse says, 'Cool'!"
Okay, it's not Homer. But risk and loss the Scylla and Charybdis of teen readers' lives are played out on the comic page. Readership of Impulse is growing, and letters from fans show they care about the characters. "The Life Story of the Flash," wrote one devotee, "leads me to believe that Max Mercury is not going to make it out of this crisis alive, and Bart will be forced to go through life without Max, but will be comforted in his grief by Helen." This teen-male version of Harlequin Romances is one that Williams enjoys right along with his readers. And he is always on the lookout for new fans: When he learned that Bart's hometown of Manchester, Alabama, really exists, he got on the phone to the Chamber of Commerce to urge members to talk up Impulse. He even got them to send him videos of the town and its environs so his artists could fashion scenes of Manchester with authority.
Williams says his job description calls not for artistic talent but the ability to bring artistic people together. "I can tell you why your drawing doesn't work, but I can't draw to save my life," he says. "Our job as editors is to inspire creativity."
The creation of an issue starts with a conference call between editor, writer and penciller. Artists may live nowhere near Manhattan: On a recent issue the penciller lived in Boston, the inker in Wisconsin, the colorist and letterer in New Jersey. "I'll suggest an overall theme, for instance, Bart shouldn't be so isolated in Alabama, so let's bring in Superman," says Williams. (Borrowing superheroes from the publisher's pantheon is another tried-and-true comics convention.) Once the team has an idea they can all get behind, the writer gets to work, supplying the editor with a very loose plot which he edits and sequences visually.
"I have the job of grabbing readers in the first couple of pages," says Williams. "So I'll say, for instance, 'I want the dogs chasing the kids on page one.' To the penciller I'll say, 'Let's have an extreme closeup of a dog snarling, saliva dripping.' In his mind, it was maybe a wide pan." Keeping in touch with his team by e-mail and Airborne Express, the editor stays involved every step of the way, instructing artists where to place the thought balloons, letterers whether to bold this word or stylize that. "Acoustics" and "sound effects" also fall within his purview. "It's the editor's job to decide if 'shooooom' and 'zwipp' would really sound like that," says Williams.
Moreover, he has to make sure the graphics and personalities are consistent from one issue to the next. Niggling details "Did we get his hair right? The color of his cape?" take up a lot of Williams's workday.
"If the penciller forgot to draw Batman's utility belt on page eight, panel three, it's my job to catch that and have it corrected" to route the page to the "bullpen," the touch-up studio where artists spend their days making just such corrections. Similarly, he has to ensure allegiance to the inner laws of each comic world. If Superman is borrowed for a story, for instance, there are rules to be respected. The Man of Steel's creator, Bob Kane, wanted him to be the only one in the comic cosmos who can both fly AND bend metal with his bare hands. Liberties have been taken with the letter of that law, but Williams tries to respect its spirit. And since Superman never swears, Williams must make certain his characters watch their manners around the big guy. "We use @@$#!* symbols and substitute words," he says.
For all their capes, masks, muscles, and titanic powers, superheroes embody a duality a vulnerability that readers recognize, says Williams. "Most people think, 'If I had more money or I were in a better relationship or in better shape, I'd have it made.' But if you're a loser all your life and you suddenly gained super powers, you'd become a loser with super-powers!
"You just saved the world, and you still can't get a date. You just freed the city from Dr. Octopus, and when you come home there's an eviction notice on your door."
Having devoted his thesis to the subject, Williams is acutely aware that while his comics include some black figures, the main characters are as white as the paper they're printed on. He notes with frustration that the DC series Black Lightning ran for little better than a dozen issues in the 70s, got canceled, was revived in the 90s, and died again. Meanwhile, the Black Panther series, relaunched in recent years by arch-rival Marvel, is one of the top-selling comics in the country.
Most comics editors, says Williams, "aren't thinking the obvious: 'Hmm, even though this story is happening in the middle of New York City, there are no-o-o-o black people!'
"I can go to an editorial meeting and say, 'I think we should portray more minority characters, or not all women as floozies," he adds. "There's always the chance the executive editor may say, 'Wow, L.A. brought up a really good point and I want you all to follow up.'" But the chain of editorial command is long, and somewhere along the way, perhaps between marketing and sales, the characters usually become white again. "Because this matters to me as an editor and as a black person, I can tell the penciller to make sure there are black people in the crowd scene. But whether there is one or ten, they're still in the background."
For now, L.A. Williams is absorbed by the challenge of getting Impulse onto the racks every month. Someday, he says, he may metamorphose into a comics writer, able to bring black heroes alive on his pages. The comics genre, he is sure, will be around long enough to give him that chance.
"Comic books offer the comfort that the good guys do prevail," says Williams. "It's something people would like to believe in the real world, but don't, whole-heartedly. So I think that comics are here to stay."