Art Books In Conversation
BENJAMIN MARRA with Ashok Kondabolu
A few months ago I was reading Benjamin Marra’s Gangsta Rap Posse (Traditional Comics)—a comic book series about an N.W.A.-style group that spends its days brawling with rival rappers, fighting a racist L.A.P.D. force, and running lucrative drug and prostitution rackets (while paying scant attention to actually recording music)—and wondering, Who wrote this crazy shit?
Posse’s over-the-top depiction of a black, West Coast gangsta rap group, and the comics’ liberal use of the N-word, made me want to figure out what would compel Marra, who is white and grew up in New York, to create such an incendiary work.
Ashok Kondabolu (Rail): What was the idea behind Gangsta Rap Posse? You’re drawing on the mythology of N.W.A. and blowing it out into a comic, but did you have a larger point to make?
Benjamin Marra: I was watching the VH1 Behind the Music documentary on N.W.A. and found all the material really inspiring. I just thought the subject matter was so rich it would make for an awesome comic book. I’d seen some other comics about rappers, like Public Enemy, and loved the idea but didn’t like the execution. So I wanted to make a comic about rap the way I thought it should be made. I didn’t have a larger point to make when I started, but knew that a larger point would be taken from the results. All of my comics are kind of about comic books, how they should function as subversive pop culture entertainment. I feel like comics have become less powerful and weaker in their desperate attempts to be taken seriously as significant literature, like Maus had done. I’m against comics as literature. Comics used to be dangerous, viewed as tools that corrupted innocent children and turned them into criminals, and they should continue that legacy. Probably the same fear comics used to inspire is similar to the fear the authorities had toward gangsta rap in the early ’90s.
When I finished the Gangsta Rap Posse, I saw it as a kind of statement about white kids interpreting gangsta rap. I wrote and drew it (as I do with most of my comics) from my adolescent self’s perspective, without a clear understanding of the world. I view the book as a satire of a young white kid’s perspective from the suburbs on the East Coast of black culture in South Central Los Angeles, with gangsta rap as the only resource of information to base his comic book story on.
Rail: Were you always fascinated by N.W.A. and gangsta rap from that period? What do you think drew you to that?
Marra: I’ve always been fascinated by N.W.A. and gangsta rap in general. That era was hitting its peak around the time I entered high school, so those were very formative years for me. I was still trying to make some sense of how the world worked. There were Congressional hearings about gangsta rap and fear of it from the powers that be, fear of what it would do to a younger generation. It was viewed as a threat to society. And that all gave gangsta rap a huge amount of power to me.
There’s a certain segment of American pop culture that romances the gangster, the thief, the criminal. I love noir and crime fiction. I guess it’s the same kinds of things that attract me to gangsta rap. The celebration of rebellion against societal restrictions through criminality. The fantasy of having the power or the confidence to break the law in the most egregious ways possible. That’s a powerfully seductive idea that’s a basic human attribute, I think.
Also, I like villains better than heroes. Even anti-heroes are boring to me. N.W.A. seemed to be celebrating their villainy, and to me that was the ultimate cool thing to do. In the end, I just think gangsta rap is fucking cool and N.W.A. are fucking awesome and my comic is basically a love letter to N.W.A. and gangsta rap and everything it represents.
Rail: Growing up in New York, why did you obsess over West Coast music?
Marra: Anywhere N.W.A. was from was going to be super interesting to me. They just happened to be from South Central Los Angeles. I knew the dialogue that was occurring, or starting to occur, between East Coast and West Coast rap, and all the beefs that were happening, even within New York. Watching MTV was sort of my only access to it. The West Coast was so different from where I came from.
Rail: Do you think their larger-than-life presence and the overblown media coverage of that era appealed to you in the same way that comic books might have?
Marra: I do, but it’s not a conscious thing. I didn’t think N.W.A. was cool the same way I thought Wolverine was cool. At the time, I was still figuring out how the world worked and was very impressionable. So to me N.W.A.’s larger-than-life presence wasn’t larger than life at all. It was a fact. They weren’t characters at all to me, they were real and everything they did, said, and rapped about was as real to me as the sky. That’s not to say they were creating some kind of false illusion. I think they were very good at brand identity and representing ideas, experiences, and a world they came from and in which they were experts. You understood who they were just from their logo and their photo and from the font that spelled “Straight Outta Compton.”
Comic books were a different animal. The ideas I found in comics didn’t inform me about the world in the same way observing gangsta rap did, even though I didn’t fully get it. Comics, for me, were a source of artwork. I wasn’t as involved in the story or the ideas there as much as I was hypnotized by the drawings.
Rail: You take a lot of liberties using the N-word in Gangsta Rap Posse. Did you feel uncomfortable using the word?
Marra: I don’t feel comfortable at all. But to honestly reflect gangsta rap as subject matter, I had to get over the discomfort and try to use it as freely as they did. I don’t want to make safe work and I don’t want to make dishonest work. In order to do that, I have to deal with things that are internally difficult to process or reconcile, like using the N-word. I try to make work that I don’t feel comfortable making. It’s a gauge as to whether or not I’m operating in a place that is unsafe, where I am challenging my own notions or other people’s notions about boundaries and acceptance.
Rail: Your next comic, Lincoln Washington: Free Man, is about a former slave in the Reconstruction-era South. Why did you choose this topic?
Marra: It started with the name. It was going to be the name of a comic book character I created for my thesis in grad school—an aging, white superhero who was kind of like a Captain America propaganda tool. But my professors said Lincoln Washington sounded like a black name. So that spun me off into thinking about who Lincoln Washington was, and I thought, maybe he’s a freed slave with super powers. The story sort of incubated in my mind for many years.
Rail: These comics have a focus on fearsome cliches of black men that date to a very specific time: Rappers in the early ’90s, liberated slaves seeking revenge. What draws you to this subject matter?
Marra: I’m not sure. I think I’ve always been interested in heroic male archetypes that represent power. The archetype of the black male hero to me, maybe stemming from blaxploitation films, is about overcoming an all-encompassing, unseen oppression from white society. As a white kid from the suburbs, it’s easy for me to romanticize that idea. It’s so different from my world; it becomes a fantasy.
I’m also just really interested in black culture and the way it’s represented in pop culture. One of the reasons I make comics is as a response to so many indie comics I revile that celebrate powerlessness, that romance some kind of nerdy, sensitive type of American dude, usually a stand-in for the author, I guess.
Rail: You’ve expressed in past interviews your intense fear and nervousness surrounding violence as a child. Why do you think you were that way?
Marra: I don’t know. Seeing violence on TV really upset me as a child, even if it was just in an action or horror movie. The idea of a violent act terrified me. That someone would actively seek to hurt someone else was a paralyzingly horrible idea to me. I guess I was afraid that it would somehow happen to me at some point and I would die. I guess it was a fear of death. Now my work is all about violence and horror. And I wonder if drawing those things, expressing those ideas, is in some way how I sought to master my fear of violence.
Rail: What are your memories of the Rodney King riots? Did these inform how you drew the comic?
Marra: I remember very distinctly the day after the riots started. I was a freshman in high school, and I remember being in English class with a teacher I hated. We didn’t have class that day, we just talked about what was happening. I didn’t really understand that the riots were happening because of the Rodney King verdict. Watching the footage on TV on the news—I couldn’t process it completely because it was, first of all, so far away. I grew up outside New York City, where nothing looked like L.A. at all. It seemed to me like total mayhem, but at the same time totally natural. It seemed totally understandable for that type of response to come down. Even at my young age, that made a lot of sense. I had abstract notions about government misbehaving and all that stuff, and about why people were rebelling. But I didn’t start paying attention to the news in earnest until after 9/11. I worked in newspapers for many years.
As far as the riots affecting me creatively, it was probably indirect. Gangsta rap was certainly affected by the riots and certainly came out of the L.A. of that time, before and after the riots.
Rail: What work did you do for newspapers?
Marra: Most of what I did was infographics. If there was a fire in a town, I’d draw a map of where the fire was. Or for a profile in the business section about some company that wanted to show its profit margin in chart form, I’d create the chart. If it would get complex, like a dissection of a nuclear reactor, I’d have to show that. Just how things work, a diagram to help the readers understand what was being discussed in an article. That helped me doing comic books later on because it was translating narrative ideas and explaining how things work through visual means.
Rail: What is your day job? Do people at that job know about your other work?
Marra: I’m a designer for Major League Baseball, for mlb.com. A bunch of people in the design department know that I make comic books, underground comic books and things like that. I’m in a creative position so it’s sort of not too inconsistent with the things that I do there as far as creative work.
I’ve always had a job. I don’t know what it’s like to make a living doing comic books or freelance work. It seems impossible to me. I’m always in awe of people who are able to make a living doing just comics or just artwork. It’s something that I’ve never been able to really figure out for myself.
Rail: Why and how did you start Traditional Comics? Was it the easiest way to get your comic books published?
Marra: I started Traditional Comics as a banner under which I could publish all the titles I wanted to create. I wasn’t confident any comic book publishers would understand my comics and believe in them the same way I do, so I did it myself. I actually had some interest from some smaller, upstart publishers looking to enter into comic book publishing, but I liked the idea of being in total control over publishing my art, stories, and properties, not having to answer to anyone else. Self-publishing is probably the easiest and fastest way for me to publish my work in print.
But it’s probably easier to publish everything online as web comics, actually.
Rail: Do you plan on putting any other comic’s work through Traditional Comics? Have any expressed interest?
Marra: I would like to at some point but am in no rush. Also, I have pretty high standards and require a certain tone other comic creators would have to adhere to in order to be published by Traditional Comics. Anyone that I would want to publish would probably be successful publishing with one of the bigger houses anyway.
I’ve had a few friends who I’ve discussed the idea of publishing their books through Traditional, but in the end I think they’re capable of putting it out themselves and going down the same path I did, being successful without my help. They don’t really need me.
Rail: You’ve designed album artwork for Lil B (6 Kiss and Black Ken) and Madlib (The History of the Loop Digga). Have either of them personally commented on the artwork? Did Madlib dig the RAPPER X CD booklet comic book?
Marra: I heard from Lil B through his manager. It was a while ago, but I think he liked the stuff I did for those albums. I dealt with Jeff Jank, the creative director at Stones Throw Records, for the Madlib project. I never heard from Madlib himself. I can only hope he dug the art and comic I made. Jeff just let me do whatever I wanted. He’s a great art director so it was a real privilege to get to work with him on a project. He gave me a lot of space and just made all the work I created better.
Rail: Would you be interested in working on a contemporary rap comic? I think Danny Brown, Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire or Action Bronson would all be perfect for comic book treatment.
Marra: Hell, yeah. That would be amazing. Any one of those guys you listed would be awesome as comic book characters. Actually there have been some nebulous discussions with some rappers’ managers about doing that sort of thing.
But my schedule is really tough with my full-time job and comics take a long time to make. I’m faster at creating a full 24-page comic now, but to pull me away from my other projects, ones that I’ve created for myself and am very excited to work on, to spend that time on something else for someone else, it would just have to be the right project, right situation, right time with a lot of creative freedom.
Rail: What projects coming up soon are you excited to talk about?
Marra: I’m working on a bunch of really small projects right now for various anthologies. I’m working on a piece for a zine Mercyful Fate, which was King Diamond’s first heavy metal band. Another heavy metal zine for a friend. I’m in a show in L.A. that’s called “Freak Scene” happening in July. A couple of projects for myself that are going out through my own company, Traditional Comics. A few book proposals that I’m working on for a couple of publishers. Hopefully I’ll be working on some longer format things. Also, for a webcomic publisher, Study Group, an epic soap-opera comic about this town that’s gonna be really romantic. A lot of weird affairs and murder and mayhem and vices. Cults and things like that.