Victor Dandridge: The Hardest Working Man in Comics Tells All
I caught up with Victor Dandridge after a panel on independent comics and diversity that was a bit of a disaster. All of the other panelists were white men, and while they acknowledged the absurdity of their situation, they ended up sidestepping most of the issues that the panel intended to engage with. But Victor clearly had plenty to say about representing diversity: as an African-American writer, as the creator of black gay superhero The Samaritan, and as the owner of Vantage: Inhouse Productions. We discussed his many projects, marketing to different age groups, and identifying with comics characters who don’t look like us. I started off asking Victor to talk about his work in general.
Victor Dandridge: Basically, with my work I try to – and this is one of the things I wanted to get into [on the How Independent Creators Can Help Solve the Industry’s Diversity Issues panel] but we didn’t get into, is I actually delegate my books based on age range. So I have all-ages with Wonder Care Presents: The Kinder Guardians, teen-friendly with Origins Unknown, young adult with The Trouble w/ Love, and adult with The Samaritan. So I’m actually one who aims to speak to age groups more than anything. That’s what’s important for me.
Graphic Policy: You’re trying to get a wide audience by segmenting and having them cross over.
VD: Exactly. I don’t want to be one of those guys that presumes the universal product. I know a lot of people that are like, “Oh, anybody can read my book.” Yeah, that might be true, but it’s made for somebody in mind. Like, there’s a certain audience that it speaks best to. I’m not one to openly say, I make black comics, but The Samaritan does speak as a black comic. That one is one. Is The Trouble w/ Love? Maybe not. Does that mean black people can’t get into it? Far from it. But that’s not necessarily who it seems to be marketed to, so that’s not necessarily who I would market it to directly. Same thing with Wonder Care. I know plenty of adults who love Wonder Care. It is kid friendly though. It aims to market itself to children. That’s the goal. So it’s one that says, yes, I acknowledge that this is who it’s for. Can other people get into it? Absolutely. But I definitely take into consideration that I am making things for certain groups of people that might not transcend to everybody. That’s legit, you know?
GP: And there’s a place for that. I think you do run into that trap of, do you write for “everybody,” or do you market to a specific segment, or do you just write what you feel and just figure out who’s going to respond to it?
VD: As an indie guy, one of the things that I think gets me away from that is having multiple titles. I know a lot of people who only have one title, so they’re stuck in this place of saying, “This is my book, and it has to speak to everybody, because I only have this one thing.” I’ve been fortunate enough to have a diverse range and so I am effectively able to say, no. This is more for you. This is more for you. And people can say, “Okay, cool.” And I can accept that, and I can run with it. So it works out well.
GP: It’s fun to hear somebody say that when you do have most people who are very, very invested in one project. But I do want to hear more about some of the specific titles that you write. I’m really curious about The Trouble w/ Love, especially because of the anecdote you told [on the panel] about people not wanting to look at it.
VD: Okay, so The Trouble w/ Love is a young adult title, and it features a Superman analogue named Apex Prime. And he has a wife and a family, but then he falls in love with someone else, and years later his son comes to him and says, “Dad, what happened?” And he’s basically explaining how human he is despite all of his myriad superpowers and things like that. And it’s more of a true story. It is actually about my life, a little bit more than not. I had to actively decide not to portray the characters as African-American, because I didn’t want it to necessarily be this thing that is used as a stipulation against black people. I had to think that way. I felt like it would actually speak more universally if it had more roots toward the Superman archetype that it’s built off of. So that’s what I wanted. I already had an African-American Superman-level character in The Samaritan. No need to overpopulate, try to fill in quotas. Let’s switch it up! I don’t have to make him look like me even though this is my story. This could be anybody. Let that play out on the page. So he is definitely Caucasian. The woman that he falls in love with is Hispanic. We’re playing around with things. Not trying to hit quotas, but it’s just how the story worked. It worked for me that way. So that’s why I wanted to tell it. It just is ironic that I was at a show, standing behind a table for black creators, and this woman’s like, “No. I don’t want to read it because it doesn’t have black people.” And I’m like –
GP: It’s autobiographical!
VD: It’s about me! “Yeah, but it doesn’t look like you.” And I’m like, so? There’s lots of people that don’t look like me that speak to me. It is what it is. But people sometimes have trouble looking beyond themselves, which is sad. Forest for the trees.
GP: Are there characters who, growing up as a comics fan, you identified with despite the fact that they didn’t look like you?
VD: Absolutely. So I gave the “Great power, great responsibility” thing. My uncle was violently killed. He was one of the guys who was so behind my getting into comics, and I was eleven years old. Batman! I can get behind that! So the idea of me saying, at eleven, I want to make comics for a living in honor of my uncle, that is essentially my vow by candlelight a la Batman. I didn’t have to have Bruce Wayne look like me in order to have that understanding. Gun violence is something that is very typical in the black community. I can understand that. I don’t have to [descend] into being a gang member, I don’t have to run the streets. I can say, okay, this bad thing happened. I don’t want it to happen to me. I want to do something different. And this is something that we both had an affinity for. I’m going to do something in this vein for him. That’s what I got from Batman. Same with the X-Men as an entire concept. The idea of being hated and feared because you’re different! Yeah, that speaks! It wasn’t until 1975 that we actually had an African-American character in the X-Men, and she was female. I’m not female, so all the more reason to find something akin to who I am, or something about what I think, that is alike with these characters, and it not have to be this cookie-cutter flat-out mirror image of myself.
GP: I’m very much with you on that. People always ask me who my favorite member of the X-Men is, and I’m like, Beast, obviously, and then they look at me for a minute.
VD: I love Gambit. I wanted to be a charming guy, and I wasn’t that cool. I was kind of nerdy. So there was something majestic about how suave he was. I loved Gambit, and that was it. He wasn’t Wolverine, he wasn’t Cyclops. I didn’t need to be the leader. I didn’t need to be the most popular dude. I wanted to be the cool guy.
GP: And I wanted to be the one in the basement who was secretly solving everybody’s problems. Which is Beast. But I did want to talk to you about The Samaritan, which is the one of yours that I know, and didn’t realize was yours. So I’m putting a face to it, which is really cool. But what I love about it – I don’t know if you realize that whenever people talk about queer comics, this is one of the first ones that comes up as an interesting one because of the intersectionality of it being a comic about a black character and a comic about a gay character. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that intersection and how you’re twisting the Superman tropes?
VD: With that one, the main character, Smith, is actually homosexual. It’s not something that is widely talked about, because it’s not necessarily pertinent to what he’s doing right now. But it is something that I’ve built into this character, something that’s not going to be for a shock and awe reveal or anything like that. It’s something that I feel is pertinent to him. In fact, there’s a part in the fifth issue where Nita, who is – we’ll call her the prostitute, she throws an option at him, and he declines. That’s one of the first clues that you get, it’s like, he’s not interested in her because he doesn’t like girls. The figure [of Smith] himself is a strong, resolute figure. The idea that he’s homosexual does not make him weak, it doesn’t make him a pansy, sissy, any of the stupid, degrading adjectives that are thrown into anybody who is homosexual. Especially in the black community, it’s not something that is regarded as highly, or even respected as it should be. A person’s preferences, they’re preferences, leave it be. But that’s not the way the community as a whole operates. So that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to look at him that way, to showcase him as that type of figure. I think there’s nothing wrong with that, and that’s the point. I want kids to be like, “Yeah, I want to be Smith!” and have him be so cool, that even with the reveal that he’s gay, they’re like, “So? He’s still awesome. Yeah! I still want to be Smith.” That’s what I’m looking for.
GP: So he’s transcending, and also the idea that he’s still gay even when he doesn’t have a love interest.
VD: Exactly. I recently saw something where they were talking about the notions of how bisexual individuals are portrayed in film, and how it always shows that they are either scandalous, or cheating, or things like that. And I was thinking, well, here’s the truth. The idea of you saying that you’re bisexual can only seem like it’s legit on paper unless you interject both sexes as an option. The only way that you’re really going to do that is to show somebody either being polyamorous, or they’re cheating, or whatever. It’s an unfortunate thing, but the truth is, you would be bisexual even if you’re with a guy and only a guy. If you still have an attraction to women, you’re bisexual. No one should have to prove it in order to claim who they are. And that’s what the point is with Smith. He doesn’t have to be actively seeking a male counterpart right now in order for him to truly be gay. Gay men can be single, too. I feel like that’s a crazy thing to have to say, but apparently we do.
GP: And I think you can get at that perspective by having him be an outsider in more than one way, and having his race something that’s not always commented on but is always present. And making the analogy between the two.
VD: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things that we ended up playing around with very decisively. We have him without a costume. The idea is that he’s wearing a simple hoodie. His aim is to fit into the neighborhoods that he’s walking around in. To just be who he is, and look like as many people as possible, function like anybody else that’s there, but actively be saving as many people as he can.
VD: Thank you.
GP: You are really proud of being an independent writer [and artist].
VD: Absolutely. I love it.
GP: What do you see as the advantages of going that route?
VD: I am free to do whatever style of storytelling that pops into my head. I don’t have to ask permission, I don’t have to see if it’s okay, if it’s going to fit somebody else’s demographic analysis, go through their marketing programs or anything like that. I can just tell stories. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I do have a story that fell short. It’s called The Villain. I’ve only recently started talking about it again because I was disappointed in it. But at the same time, I kind of revel in the sense that I was able to produce a multitude of titles, and only one hasn’t quite found the market that I was looking for. But in that sense, I can still say, hey, I did it! Nobody can take that away from me. I still put forth more work into this world. I put forth effort, and I learned stuff from it. As an indie guy, I am so free to do as many things as possible. It’s just really up to my whim, what I feel I want to do at any given time. And that’s the beauty part. I’m constantly creating. And I love it.
GP: Do you have any future projects, or anything you’re planning on?
VD: Oh, God, yes! The Trouble w/ Love actually has a follow-up. This is a one-shot, and we have a follow-up called Never Too Late. It’s going to be a four-part series that deals with some of the ramifications or repercussions of this story. That’s going to be coming out. We do have a secret thing with The Samaritan in celebration of the five-year anniversary of its first issue coming out. I don’t want to say too much about it. It’s going to be a surprise. We’re still continuing Wonder Care Presents: The Kinder Guardians. Issue four, ideally speaking, will be out somewhere around October or November. There’s lots and lots of things that are coming out that are all just about pushing ideas. We’re returning with Origins Unknown, volume two of that one. I’m very excited. Lots of cool stuff.
GP: You are so excited when you talk about your work! Don’t apologize – I love that.
VD: I love my stuff, yes, but I love comics as a whole. So it’s always going to be something I get excited about.
GP: If you were to go to the dark side and write for someone else, what character or series would you love to write or draw for?
VD: In the weirdest way possible, I openly state that I would love to write Youngblood for Rob Liefeld. I know! No one thinks that I’m serious when I say this, but I am 100% serious! I think it has such a unique cast of characters, and I would love to get my hands on them.
GP: I love the most left-field answers, because then I’m picturing it.
VD: Yes, you’re like, “So what would you do with it?” And I’m like, yes. Exactly.
GP: Everything! That’s what you would do with it.
VD: Everything. That’s exactly what I would do. I’d have so much fun with that.
GP: Pirates, aliens, cowboys, or ninjas?
VD: Aliens. All day.
GP: Why aliens?
VD: Aliens have the most promise. Like, we know ninjas, we know what they’re capable of. We know what pirates are capable of. There’s something about aliens that’s so far reaching and open. Yes. Give me aliens all day, every day. That’s what I want.