From Big Hank’s Superman references on hip-hop’s first chart-topping single “Rapper’s Delight” to Onyx rapper Sticky Fingaz playing Blade in the vampiric antihero TV series, to 50 Cent adapting his New York Times best-seller The 50th Law into a graphic novel, hip-hop and comic books have been inseparable for over 40 years. Lyrical references, artist stage names, album artwork, soundtrack curation—the two now share an elemental blood-force.
So, without anyone noticing, did comic books join MCing, DJing, breakdancing, graffiti, and knowledge as the sixth element of hip-hop? Furthermore, how could comic books exist as an element of hip-hop if they’re so common outside of the culture?
First, we must consider the back-drop of hip-hop’s origin story in the Bronx. Marginalized African-American and Latin-American youth who were clutching spray-cans, microphones, mixers or cardboard mats often buried their noses in comic books. In the colorful pages of the “funny papers,” the likes of Grandmaster Caz, Melle Mel, Spoonie G, and Kool Moe Dee would escape the harsh realities of their circumstances and be whisked away into worlds of superheroes and vigilantes fighting injustice. For proof, just press play on any of their earliest works.
Revisit seminal hip-hop film Wild Style (1982) and you’ll see comic book influences reflected in the bombastic, colorful palette of the art splashed on brick walls and train carriages. The main character of Charlie Ahearn’s film finds graffiti legend Lee Quiñones cast as “Zoro,” named after the iconic pulp character—a template for modern day vigilantes and superheroes (see: Batman)—whose visage is thrown up in one of the film’s many memorable murals.
In Wild Style’s documentary counterpart Style Wars (1983), murals by Kase 2, Skeme, Cap, Dondi, Seen, and Shy 147 prominently feature logos of Superman, Batman, and Captain America.
Naturally, hip-hop’s founding generation was drawn to the idea that ordinary people could survive trauma and gain extraordinary abilities. In superhero comic books, everyday men and women conceal their true identities in favor of saving their city as an alter-ego adorning a colorful costume, a reality not dissimilar to that of young b-boys and b-girls rocking colorful tracksuits to empower themselves in the middle of an unforgiving post-Vietnam War Bronx.
In 2019, new superhero movies are released to theatres every month and have captured the pop culture zeitgeist, but this shared thread allowed superheroes and comic books to effortlessly and unconsciously permeate hip-hop culture.
In 1979, one year before the release of “Rapper’s Delight,” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “Super Rappin’,” a record that marked their arrival as real-life superheroes. Grandmaster Flash’s namesake even shares the same moniker as many comic book characters, from Flash Gordon to DC’s various speedsters and Spider-Man bully Flash Thompson. DJ Kool Herc, the Godfather of hip-hop, took his name after Greek demigod Hercules, the ancient template for the superhero archetype. These links aren’t coincidental, either. Even today, the originators of the ‘70s and ‘80s still boast ties to comic books: Graffiti legend Mare 139, featured in Style Wars, has illustrated comic book art, and Darryl McDaniels, aka DMC, one third of the legendary Run-DMC, has been printing comics under his publishing house Darryl Makes Comics (DMC) since 2014.
The influence of comic books on hip-hop poetically reflects the similarities between both art forms—each is a pastiche wonderland. Hip-hop’s sampling of jazz, blues, soul, and itself mirrors comics’ own self-invention. From The Spirit onward, mainstream and independent comics have been replicating their own characters and scenarios as well as lifting inspiration from broader literature and popular culture.
The mere idea of the superhero itself echoes themes and subject matter from Ancient mythology to the Bible. How Batman mixed The Shadow and Zorro is no different than how hip-hop artists continue to flip not just samples but samples of samples. Both comic books and hip-hop are cyclical self-perpetuating collages.
At the grassroots level, both hip-hop and comic books are an accessible medium for anyone experiencing low economic means. All you need to write a rap or create a comic strip is a pencil and a notepad. Then there are the similarities hip-hop practitioners share with the characters in-between the comic panels. Young emcees, DJs, b-boys and graff writers, much like their favorite superheroes after discovering their superpowers, would select an alter-ego complete with a matching style that reflected their everyday wardrobe and personality. Comic books helped give birth to a generation of hip-hop superheroes, and that simply wouldn’t be possible if they didn’t share the same life force.
On an even deeper level, hip-hop practitioners and comic book authors share an overlapping origin story. Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby—the six founding fathers of the comic book industry—all came from first-generation European immigrants and created superheroes in a post-WWII America. Just like the African-American and Latin-American youth in the post-Vietnam Bronx, the comic book golden age saw creators turn their traumatic past into a tool of empowerment. In both hip-hop and comic books, creators and creations turned trauma into triumph.
As it pertains to mainstream comics, the connection to hip-hop is directly linked to proximity. Like hip-hop, both Marvel and DC call New York home, the former basing their superheroic tales directly in the city with the latter creating fictionalized versions of the Big Apple in Gotham and Metropolis—“Gotham,” in fact, was a sobriquet for New York in the 1800s. Not only do hip-hop and mainstream comic books share a spiritual bond but also a geographic one.
Consequently, from the ‘70s onward, a decades-spanning symbiosis began: generations of New York hip-hop heads would begin regularly reading comic books. Vice versa, a generation of comic book creators started bumping hip-hop in their tape decks and on their record players.
In 1986, Bronx graffiti artist Eric Orr launched the first four-issue “hip-hop comic book,” Rappin’ Max Robot; its main character beginning as a signature caricature in Orr’s street work. Orr’s series was a strictly DIY affair, moving units from car trunks and marketing via word of mouth. In the decade that followed, comic book art could be seen on album covers across cassette cases and CD covers.
Before Frank Gomez linked with OutKast for ATLiens, Bill Sienkiewicz, revolutionary comic artist for the likes of The New Mutants and Moon Knight, illustrated the artwork for EPMD’s 1980 release Business as Usual, and to date has done the same for RZA, Kid Cudi, and T.I. In the 2000s, Spider-Man artist Jim Mahfood would do the same for MF Grimm’s You Only Live Twice: The Graphic Novel and Felt’s A Tribute to Lisa Bonet. These are but a few examples of how often the two worlds mesh.
As deep as the bond may be between hip-hop and comic books, it’s taken time for comic books to become one with hip-hop. Until the last few years, the relationship was rather one-sided, as evidenced by a singular damning trend: the low representation of people of color in mainstream issues.
Despite the superhero name checks and album covers and the clear influence on hip-hop, mainstream comic books remain an older and larger commercial beast. As an industry set in its way, the comics have been depressingly slow at reciprocating their respect for hip-hop, largely depicting white faces as saviors and heroes.
A lack of diversity wasn’t only missing from the page, but inside the white-male dominated offices of the businesses creating them. While there were triumphs of representation in Black Panther (1966), and John Stewart’s Green Lantern (1972) and Luke Cage (1972), they didn’t come without their problematic stereotypes and clichés.
These moves appeared as nothing more than exploitative measures to ensnare POC readers whilst the industry remained a white-male dominated space. During the short-lived ‘90s Marvel Music series, KRS-One, Boo Yah Tribe, and Onyx all had their own comic book series, but these offerings were largely seen as a desperate attempt to cash in on hip-hop’s rising popularity.
Of course, these failures are a symptom of a much larger problem; in order for the relationship between hip-hop and comic books to be more reciprocal, both the pages and the creators behind them must be as diverse as its consumer base.
Being a person of color doesn’t automatically make one a hip-hop head, but it goes without saying that hip-hop can’t be removed from black identity. Hip-hop is black music. Part of acknowledging the bond between comic books and hip-hop was in how the industry would prove it valued non-white voices.
Enter Marvel hip-hop variant covers, the brainchild of Axel Alonso, Editor in Chief of Marvel at the time. Starting in 2015, comic artists recreated famous hip-hop album art with Marvel characters. Due to the history of non-representation in mainstream comics, the publishing house behind the series was first accused of cultural appropriation and exploitation. But once the likes of Pete Rock, Killer Mike, Posdnous, Eminem, Ice Cube, and Lil’ B shouted out the variants in interviews and on social media, the complaints turned into praise.
The covers served as an authentic homage to the culture and music that influenced a generation of creators in the comic book industry.
“This variant program is an opportunity to show not only my love for hip-hop culture, but also the love of so many in Marvel's freelance community. Hip-hop inspires a lot of us. It is the musical score for a lot of our lives. This comes from a place of love.” —Axel Alonso to CBR
As representation on and behind the page started to increase, the intertwined industries began to snowball. In 2016, the now-canceled Netflix series Luke Cage was set in Harlem and boasted a mostly African-American and Latin-American cast. As an added bonus, each episode was named after a Gang Starr song. A year later, Miss America, Marvel’s first Latin-American LGBTQ character to star in an ongoing series, hit newsstands, written and illustrated by Latin-American LGBTQ novelist Gabby Riviera. Twelve months later, Marvel’s Black Panther was released to theatres, grossing more than $1 billion at the box-office, complete with a Kendrick Lamar-curated and executive produced soundtrack.
In February, Black Panther took home three Academy Awards. In doing so, it became the first film in the Marvel franchise to win an Oscar. Three months prior, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, featuring the Jordan 1s-wearing and Biggie-bumping Afro-Latino Miles Morales, delighted audiences of all ages, going on to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture. After years of movie studios white-washing superhero movies, the broader public now sees hip-hop and comic books intimately connected as one.
It’s important to note the comic book industry isn’t just the big two—Marvel and DC—nor is it exclusively made up of superhero stories. In 2010, Professor John Jennings and Dr. Damian Duffy compiled and published Black Comix, a 176-page compilation of art and essays celebrating the thriving African-American independent comics community.
For decades, the likes of Dawud Anyabwile, Eric Battle, Kenji Marshall, and Afua Richardson, among others, have been driving the demand for representation and cultural diversity and celebration in the comics world. In 2018, Professor Jennings and Dr. Duffy published their sequel, Black Comix Returns.
Another example of the evolution of the comic book industry’s embrace of hip-hop can be found in the groundbreaking Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor. Running from 2012 to 2016, the 12-issue series documented hip-hop’s early years from 1975-1985. Each issue focuses on seminal hip-hop artists, including Sugarhill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa, and the Beastie Boys.
Black Comix, DMC’s Darryl Makes Comics, and Hip Hop Family Tree are but a few examples of how the comic book industry has slowly closed the gap of what was once a one-sided relationship. Without the hard work of these individuals, there would be no Black Panther or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Comic books and hip-hop don’t just share superficial, surface level similarities; they have a bond that cuts deep at the core of one another. Spiritually they share the same genetic make-up as pastiche smorgasbords, which celebrate trauma giving birth to triumph.
With the success of Black Panther and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and the increasing growth of POC comic creators in the mainstream, it’s time to finally acknowledge comic books as the sixth element of hip-hop. It’s been a long time coming.