Ezra Claytan Daniels Talks His Influences and winning the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics

I recently got a chance to catch up with the very busy creator Ezra Claytan Daniels, the master mind behind the brilliant and criminally under-read Upgrade Soul (for which he won a Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics at the Long Beach Comic Expo, back in February) and the forthcoming BTTM FDRs with Ben Passmore (Your Black Friend), to have a frank conversation about how he got his start in comics, what is his motivation and why representation matters to him.

Graphic Policy: What were your favorite comics growing up?

Ezra Claytan Daniels: When I was a kid, it was the box of 70’s Marvel comics my uncle Bobby left me he joined the Marines. Old Spiderman and Iron Man, mostly. I don’t remember really getting into the stories, though—I was mostly just interested in the art. Even as a teen, I cherished Wizard Magazine and the Previews Catalog more than I did actual comics, just because there were so many art styles to look at.

GP: I loved reading Wizard Magazine as well, did any artists/creators, that caught your eye in that magazine, which you think has influenced your style?

ECD: I remember really liking Sam Keith, Art Adams, Jim Lee. When I was drawing super heroes in my teens I was influenced by guys like that, but not so much now. I was also SUPER into the Marvel trading cards from the early 90’s which was an amazing reference point for comic art.

GP: Is there a specific comics creator that influenced you?

ECD: By the time I moved away from home, I hadn’t paid attention to comics for a few years. I didn’t really have access to anything but Marvel and DC in my hometown of Sioux City, Iowa, and I’d kind of lost interest in that stuff as I got into more weirder movies and books like Tetsuo the Iron Man and Geek Love. When I arrived in Portland, OR for college, I discovered Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, and Charles Burns. All three were big influences on me in different ways, from Burns’ body horror, to Clowes’ absurdist humor, to Ware’s emphasis on design. A lot of my favorite comics from this period were old Catalan reprints of European books, too. I got a lot of inspiration from those as well, particularly in terms of pacing and narrative tone. Giardino, Bilal, Boucq, Hermann.

GP: You grew up in a time, much like me, when Saturday morning cartoons, were a thing, what influence do they have on your work, if any?

ECD: I remember years ago when there was this big influx of American artists drawing Manga-style comics, and there was a big backlash against it. I wasn’t adamant either way, but I admit I did tend to dislike it. But when I realized a lot of these kids learned how to draw from watching cartoons like Pokemon and Yugi-oh, it dawned on me how much my own figures and faces resembled G.I. Joe, M.A.S.K. and Transformers.

GP: Were there any manga artists/creators, such as Futaro Yamada or CLAMP, that you were a fan of?

ECD: Not really when I was a kid, just cause there wasn’t any access. I got really into anime when I was in high school, but this was before the internet and even DVDs, so the only way to get stuff was for me to beg my mom to drive me to Vermillion, South Dakota, the nearest college town, where they had a record store that sold some anime VHS tapes. But since I didn’t have any way to learn about what was good, I just had to buy stuff without knowing anything about it—just by the cover art alone. And they weren’t cheap! Venus Wars, Lensmen, Windaria, Appleseed, Wings of Honneamise, Harmageddon, Akira, Ghost in the Shell—these things were my world back then. As an adult, I fell in love with Junji Ito, who is a big influence. And of course Otomo’s comics work, especially Domu.

GP: I read in another interview you did, where you talked about collecting all the black action figures, i.e. GI Joe, much like most children of color such as myself (LOL, I did the same with black and Asian GI Joes, even collecting Storm Shadow, just because he was Asian and Spirit, just because he was brown just like me),  can you explain the type of impact, the lack of representation at that macro level had on you, as a child, and how you as a creator now, incorporate those changes  in your work?

ECD: Representation was huge to me as a kid, and in a lot of ways I feel like it’s gotten worse. Look at something like Conan the Destroyer, where you had a really diverse cast and it wasn’t even a thing (granted, it was still rare to see a person of color as the lead), vs. Lord of the Rings, where they say it’s not realistic or whatever to have a diverse cast in this fantasy world. It’s as if directors somehow stopped seeing people of color in the world. People of color exist in every corner of this country, in small towns and in rich suburbs. If you create a story that omits those people, as far as I’m concerned, that’s a statement. You’re telling the world that you don’t acknowledge people of color. So if you’re telling a story that purports to illuminate an aspect of the human experience, but you only see half the population as human, then what value does that illumination have? It’s definitely a challenge to honestly try to put yourself into a perspective that isn’t yours, but if you’re too lazy to do that as a writer, then how good could your stories possibly be?

GP: Definitely, how do you feel about the lack of representation/appropriation in fantasy shows like Game Of Thrones (whose Dorne mythology has Middle Eastern and African influences) and movies/books like Dune (which has major Islamic influences), Starship Troopers (whose main character in the book was Filipino), and Earthsea Trilogy (which Ursula LeGuin spoke out against when Syfy made the TV movie), which all these examples partially or completely derived influences from Middle Eastern/African cultures?

ECD: Well, it’s totally maddening. People say minority leads don’t sell, but that’s been disproved time and time again. How can The Fast and the Furious be one of the longest running and most profitable franchises in history if audiences don’t like diverse casts and lead actors of color? I think comics is even worse. That whole thing with Marvel blaming diversity on their dwindling sales makes no sense when you look at the numbers. For YEARS the highest selling graphic novels have been created by and featuring women and girls. I’d be willing to bet real money that Raina Telgemeier has sold more comics than ANY mainstream comics superstar. And the biggest graphic novel series of our generation is about a black congressman. Like, do they think we can’t look this stuff up? So many people at the helms of the media companies that decide what our pop culture looks like either have blinders on or they’re just straight up racist and sexist. Actually, let me take that back. If you have blinders on that prevent you from acknowledging women and people of color, I think that qualifies you as racist and sexist.

GP: Are there any influences outside of comics which you draw upon in your art?

ECD: I actually take more of my inspiration from film than comics. Cronenberg and Tarkovsky are two major influences.  I also worked in trial graphics for a few years, creating infographics and medical illustrations for court cases. I think a lot of that rubbed off on me as well, which you can see in the flat, clean, almost instruction manual-like quality of my linework and layouts in Upgrade Soul.

GP: Which of Cronnenberg’s and Tarkovsky’s films are your favorites and why?

ECD: Cronenberg’s The Fly is a huge influence on Upgrade Soul. Even though I admit he’s a guy who I don’t think has ever cast a person of color in any of his films. Maybe once in M. Butterfly. Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Solaris pretty much defined my ideal of science fiction and the unknown. Not so much in Upgrade Soul, but certainly with some short comics I’ve done recently in Speculative Relationships and Iron Circus’ New Worlds anthologies.

GP: What influence do your parents have on your work? What was their reaction, when you told what you wanted to do for a living?

ECD: My dad died in 2012, just as we were starting to really reconnect after years of just kind of not being in each-others lives. As I was taking care of his estate, going through all his stuff, I really saw him objectively as he was for the first time. He was just a weird old black nerd who loved Star Trek and B sci-fi. I realized then that my whole life I’ve been making stories for him. Ironically, after I found the unopened package I’d sent him of my first graphic novel, The Changers, I don’t think he ever read anything I made. There’s definitely fodder for an autobio book in there.  My mom, on the other hand, is my biggest champion. I could never do any wrong in my mom’s eyes, and she always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted as a career.

GP: Did your Dad try to put you on to Star Trek or did he watch any of those old B-movies with you and your brother when you guys were growing up? I f so, how do you think that influence the subject matter in your work?

ECD: Yeah, absolutely, that was our bonding with him as kids. Star Trek, Dr. Who, Red Dwarf, Sliders, Ice Pirates, Robocop, the entire Schwarzenegger catalog. And we had no restrictions on content when we were kids, so we’d watch Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Jason, all that stuff. All those influences are very strong in my work.

GP: How did you get started in comics?

ECD: I always drew comics, ever since I was a kid, but I went to college to study filmmaking. I did that for awhile, but eventually went back to comics because it was so much easier for me to tell stories that way. I made a few minicomics and then self published The Changers in 2003.

GP: When did you know working on comics would be your career?

ECD: Well, I don’t know if I’d call it a career because it’s never made me any money. And I wouldn’t even say I’ve committed to it as my preferred medium for telling stories. I’d still love to get back into filmmaking (I made a short sci-fi animation with Adebukola Bodunrin that’s screened all over the world the past few years as part of Black Radical Imagination), and I’m really interested in doing some more interactive stuff.

GP: What was your inspiration behind “The Changers”?

ECD: The Changers started as a screenplay that I had every intention of filming. I even made a teaser for it which I don’t think I ever showed anyone. After kind of half-heartedly starting the process of trying to find people to collaborate with on it, I just said screw it and decided to draw it as a graphic novel. The characters are mostly based on me and my friends from that time of my life. The story is just kind of a narrative take on the things that were on my mind in my early 20’s, like becoming an adult, having responsibilities, navigating a social world, and living up to my own expectations as an artist. Those ideas manifested as a story about two brothers who travel from the distant future to our time to catalyze a leap in human evolution. When they’re confronted with the result of their mission, they have to decide whether their sacrifice was worth it.

GP: What was your inspiration behind “A Circuit Closed”?

ECD: That was my only ever paid comics work, for an anthology Dark Horse did with MySpace. I actually don’t remember where the idea came from, but I’d started working on Upgrade Soul by then, and some of those elements found their way in. The main character is one of the minor characters in Upgrade Soul, and the device at the center of the story is featured as a small aside in Upgrade Soul. It’s basically a story about the idea of a soul mate. What if there was a scientific way to track down your soul mate, and what of that person was someone who revolted you?

GP: Before I forget, congratulations again on the Dwayne McDuffie Award, were you aware of him growing up and if so, what were your favorite comics/cartoon projects he worked on/created?

ECD: Thank you! Like most kids of my generation, my first exposure to Dwayne’s work was the Static Shock cartoon. My brother and I used to watch that show religiously. I didn’t know about Dwayne’s legacy, though, until I was an adult.

GP: Where were you and how did you find out you were nominated for the Dwayne McDuffie Award?

ECD: They emailed me to let me know. A few weeks later there were articles in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter listing the nominees. That was totally crazy. It was definitely the first time my name had ever been in publications of that size. It was super exciting, but I never thought I had a chance of actually winning. I was up against some insanely talented people, including David Walker. David, to his credit, told me right away he knew I was going to win, haha.

GP: Have you and David talked about working together on a project,  as I know he is not only an excellent comic writer like you but he is also an avid filmmaker (he made the brilliant blaxploitation documentary, Macked, Hammered, Slaughtered and Shafted)?

ECD: Yeah, we’ve talked about it, but there’s nothing on the horizon. I would be honored, though. He’s probably one of the only writers I would be interested in drawing for.

GP: What was your initial reaction, once you learned that you won the award? Have you thought about it since?

ECD: I really couldn’t believe it. Ironically, I was the only nominee in attendance at the ceremony, so it would’ve been extra sad if I didn’t win, haha. It’s the only award I’ve ever won, so it holds a prominent place on the bookshelf in my living room. Dwayne McDuffie was a legend and an inspiration to so many people. Being honored with his name is definitely not something I’ll ever forget, or ever stop trying to live up to.

GP: Did you get a chance to hang out with Phil LaMarr, (voice of Static in the cartoon) who emceed the event?

ECD: Yeah! We got to chat for a bit after the ceremony. He was super nice. It was the best celebrity experience I’ve had since moving to LA, for sure.

GP: Let us talk about the project you won the award for, Upgrade Soul,  what was your inspiration behind it?

ECD: If The Changers was about my preoccupations as a 20-something, Upgrade Soul is about my preoccupations as a 30-something: Aging, leaving a legacy, evaluating my identity, grappling with my privileges. Superficially, the challenge I set for myself with Upgrade Soul was to write a soap opera. It’s basically a melodrama built with body-horror and cerebral sci-fi motifs.

GP: The main characters, Hank, and Molly,  did you base those characters on anyone you know of?

ECD: Hank and Molly are based on my grandparents, Leon and Barb—at least as far as the way they interact, and kind of in the way they look. Hank’s look is largely inspired by Samuel Delany. I was actually blessed enough to meet him once and give him a copy of the book. He called me a “very talented artist”! But I don’t think he was particularly flattered by my representation, haha. After I started the book, I discovered the work of Leo and Diane Dillon, illustrators whose work I’d grown up with and loved, but had never put a name to. When I saw photos of them, I thought I MUST have made a subconscious reference to them in my designs for Hank and Molly. The resemblance is truly uncanny.

GP: Samuel Delany, is an excellent writer as well, loved all his work, I know he was a contemporary of Octavia Butler, has either Sam or Octavia’s work influenced your work on Upgrade Soul?

ECD: When I was writing the sub-story for Upgrade Soul, that the main character writes, I realized that the basic premise is really similar to Delany’s Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand, which I’d read years prior. I’d only gotten into Butler’s work well after I was into production on Upgrade Soul, but she’ll certainly be an influence on upcoming projects.

GP: There were a lot of science fiction/fantasy/horror aspects throughout the story, were shows like Black Mirror  or Outer Limits, or even Twilight Zone, have any influence over you using these elements?

ECD: I’m definitely a HUGE fan of all three of those shows, and they’ve all influenced me. Black Mirror didn’t exist until after I was well unto production on Upgrade Soul, but it’s now one of my all-time favorite TV series. I also loved Monsters and Tales from the Darkside growing up. Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of…  was also hugely inspirational to me. I think my really mundane approach to horror owes a lot to that show.

GP: Were there any specific issues, you wrote about in Upgrade Soul, which you had a hard time talking about in the book?

ECD: Absolutely. I’m a much more woke person now than I was when I wrote the first draft of the script in 2008 (as most of us probably are). I’d drawn a good 50% of the book before I got to the parts in the script that really dealt with Lina, the girl who suffered a severe disfigurement as a result of a cranially conjoined twin. When I reread those scenes for the first time in a few years, I cringed. My handling of her disability was pretty problematic. She was really more of a plot device than a character. So I set myself down to fix it. I did a lot of reading, talked to people with disabilities, and took about 4 months off of drawing to totally rewrite the last half of the book to make her a stronger character with actual agency.

GP: Do you have any favorite comics you are reading right now?

ECD: I’m in love with Alone, by Fabien Vehlmann and Bruno Gazzotti. I picked it up after reading Vehlmann’s Last Days of an Immortal, which is an astounding work of comics science fiction. I recently tracked down a graphic novel adaptation of Donald Goines’ Daddy Cool, which I cherish. Ben Passmore’s Your Black Friend deserves all the praise it’s been getting. I loved Marietta Ren’s interactive graphic novel, Phallaina.

GP: Did you grow reading Donald Goines and/or Iceberg Slim? If so, do you think, in the future, you will write anything that pays homage to that era?

ECD: No, I didn’t, and I haven’t read a whole lot to this day; just Daddy Cool and some Walter Mosley. The new story I’m working on right now is an homage to George Schuyler’s Black No More, a Harlem Renaissance satire about a procedure that turns black people white. It’s incredible.

GP: Are there any current artists/writers out there you admire and would like to work with?

ECD: Oh, man, so many people. I would love to write something for Ron Wimberly. Natacha Bustos, Maria Nguyen, Meg Gandy, and Marietta Ren  are all on my dream list of illustrators to collaborate with someday. I guess I consider myself a better writer than illustrator, so I don’t keep a list of writers I want to work with.

GP: What lead you to collaborate with Ben Passmore on BTTM FDRs? What was the inspiration behind that? What can you tell our readers about it?

ECD: I met Ben at the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo 3 years ago. He first caught my eye because he literally looks exactly like me, if I’d become more of an anarchist than a hipster. When I saw his work though, I was like, “this can’t be right—this guy should be a household name”. It totally blew me away. We kept in touch; we had a ton in common—both mixed dudes from mostly white towns. Both toiling in obscurity while destined for greater things, haha. I guess about a year later I’d moved to LA and started polishing a script I’d written years before. When I finished the rewrite I posted it to The Black List, which I always do, to get an unbiased professional assessment of a script. It was really well received, which gave me the confidence to invest in it. I asked Ben if I could hire him to draw the story as a graphic novel and he was down. The story is a metaphor for cultural appropriation. Our politics are pretty well aligned and the story was a perfect fit for him—an absurdist mix of gonzo sci-fi/horror and anti-establishment politics.

GP: When can we expect BTTM FDRs?

ECD: It’s SO CLOSE to being done. We’re gonna try to finish it in time to print up a few copies to pass around at Comic-Con next month. Hopefully it’ll find a publisher soon, but it’ll all depend on where it lands. In the meantime, you can read the first 15 pages here. The 3 volumes of Upgrade Soul are currently available in extremely limited quantities trough RadiatorComics.com, but I’m currently pitching the collection to publishers, so keep your eyes peeled for that, too. You can follow me on all the things @ezracdaniels to keep up with news about both these books!