During our time at NYCC we spoke to some very talented creators in the industry and were fortunate enough to get to sit with Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander, the creators of Concrete Park from Dark Horse Comics. What started as your standard interview grew into an conversation not only about their sci-fi story where prisoners are transported to a devastatingly harsh planet ironically named Oasis but the process behind it, diversity in comics, and not letting someone’s shortsightedness get in the way of the story you want to tell!
Comic Attack: Can you give us a bit of insight on how the idea and concept for Concrete Park came about?
Erika Alexander: [laughs] You take this one Tony!
Tony Puryear: Erika’s brother had a great title, “Concrete Park”, and we were all sitting around talking it just stuck with us. Now I’m from New York City where a lot of the parks are concrete, or at least they where when I was growing up, but it really resonated with us. We started to think about this world where Earth had shipped off it’s poor youth and underclass kind of like when in the 1800s during the potato famine in Ireland and the Irish were shipped off to Australia. This presumably empty continent but of course it wasn’t empty but the British treated it as a “new world” to colonize. So we thought what would it be like to live in a colony like that. A penal colony, a prison world. I grew up just across the bay from Rikers Island, the worlds biggest prison colony is in America. So we started thinking about prison, we started thinking about if more youth and people of color were shipped off to this other planet. So that’s the basic concept. The question however is, are they going to reproduce the violence, hatred, and tribalism they left on Earth. Or will they be able to make something new and maybe even make something beautiful.
CA: We haven’t see any type of security force in Concrete Park but there has to be overseers because the inmates aren’t flying the ships that are bringing everyone in because it’s a two year trip in cryo. Someone also has to be making money off of this operation and the work the prisoners are doing so is that going to be touched on in the story?
TP: All of these people came there as slave labor and there’s a reason for the bar codes on their faces because they’re all a product. They were scanned and stamped like a bag of beans. They were sent off to this planet and do a two year stint in these mines. Now, we live in California and you can look at the ariel photographs of the lakes drying up. So in our future world that is a real issue! They sent these young people to mine for ice which is under the surface of this planet.
Erika speaks quite often about the Middle Passage and how Black people were bred to withstand the physical labors of slavery so these people you see in Concrete Park are those who survived their Middle Passage and survived the mines. So they are very rough and tough but are they also being bred and groomed for some other sinister purpose?
EA: Other than what they think they’re there for. It looks like it’s just for resources but we’re also hinting that this could have been a failed encampment with failed pioneers. So now they’ve put down heartier people to meet what’s really going to face them which is already there.
CA: Something along the lines of eugenics?
TP: Yes! And when we also talk about the legacy of self hatred, our character, Luca, the one who wears the flower in her hair she hates herself. But she’s a remarkable survivor! She’s a leader, she’s tough and she’s got a beautiful soul. She wears this plastic flower because nothing grows on this planet and this is her little symbol of hope.
CA: I know it’s a bit hard to pick in a story that you’re creating and building but do you have a favorite character out of the many that we’ve seen so far?
EA: He knows, it’s Luca! He thinks Luca is him! [laughs]
TP: I do like Luca! [laughs] I write her from an inside place. The idea that you can have something beautiful inside of you but do people know it? Is anyone ever going to see it? And like I mentioned earlier she goes around with a lot of self hatred and a lot of other things that are holding her back. I like her a lot. We also have a character, Monkfish, who is a shape shifter and he’s also a favorite
CA: He’s one of my favorites as well! I thought that if this ever became a movie I could see Mos Def playing him!
TP: Yes! With that voice of his he’d be great!
CA: Will we also get to see where some of these characters came from before they were shipped off to this planet? They had to have left behind families and in America whatever area you came from when you ended up in prison you’re no longer counted on the census. You’re counted to the area you’re moved to so when they disperse the money it goes there.
TP: Yes, and we’ve also tried to keep their cultures alive as well. Some of these people will bond and identify based on where they’re from while others will forget.
EA: That’s what the Glow Road is for that we talk about in the book. The whole “message in a bottle” concept.
CA: Now when your story starts to really embrace the sci fi elements like the shape shifting and space travel it brings me to recent articles that say that to diversify is “hard” in that arena. So I want to ask if you had a difficult time getting Concrete Park out because the cast is predominantly filled with brown people from various Latin American and African American regions?
EA: Well, it turned out to be easy because Mike Richardson (founder of Dark Horse) is used to publishing outsiders. He saw the art and thought it was beautiful. He did not ask questions after that. Actually he asked us one thing: Is there hope? We looked at ourselves and said “We’re Black, there’s always hope!” We’re putting them in a hard situation because that’s where we come from but that’s their starting point but hopefully they get somewhere beautiful. It’s going to be full of violence and emotion and drama but it’s also sexy, colorful, and funny like the neighborhoods and places that we come from. It’s not always just these dark places in fact when you go in the door there’s a lot of love but also a lot of angst.
TP: So it was not, in THIS environment, an impediment at all. As a matter of fact it was a selling point. We had tried to sell this as a feature film and you may have heard this ridiculous story we tell all the time. We were seeing a studio that makes little pictures for a major studio and were talking to a decision maker who routinely makes movies with Black casts. We’re showing him our stuff and he says “Let me stop you right there, Imma do you a favor. Stop your pitch. I see these Black faces and I’m going to tell you something no one else has the courage to tell you: Black people don’t like science fiction because they don’t see themselves in the future.”
EA: Tony, who is half Malcom X and Martin, tells him the past is painful, the present precarious, but the future is free. We always see ourselves in the future that’s why you have jazz, hip hop, ragtime and all of that. What was Jimmy Hendrix if not the future? We created that because YOU GUYS didn’t see us in the future so we always had to project ourselves forward because somewhere in the future we would be free. We are the original futurists and that’s why you have this here. So he got mad and threw us out and Tony said he was going to draw it himself. He had never drawn a comic before and you’re looking at someone who taught himself after that meeting.
CA: You had never drawn before?
EA: He’s a writer that writes action movies but he bared down and said “I’m gonna do this.” and that’s why he got to this point. Not just to prove a point to him but it was to say if we can’t get message out then maybe since it’s in our hands and if I can pull this off we can get it out another way. We think the story is important and wanted to ultimately shut him up and say once again we are in the future and we’re not going to deal with a future you created that tells us we’re maybe a seventh lead or just a mechanic. No, we’re driving the future!
CA: After hearing that story, I have to tell you the first thing that really impressed me was the art because it really is a beautiful book. So how did you come to the visual style that you’re using for Concrete Park? Was it something you nailed right away or was there a learing curve to overcome?
TP: I did nail it at the beginning. I didn’t know the physical mechanics of producing comics using Photoshop and all that stuff. These days the computer coloring and lettering makes things go faster but you have to know what to do. My style has heavy outlines because it makes it easier to color. I don’t use any crosshatching, or all that shit that came out in the 90s with Jim Lee, I’m the “Anti Jim Lee”. Because I can’t crosshatch all of that because I don’t have time! [laughs] So I tried to make it radically simple. My style is influenced by Hyman Hernandez who is the master of quiet and simplicity also Paul Gauguin. Because Gauguin to me was the most “comic book” of the painters. He didn’t do figure drawing well but what he did was amazing when he would use those heavy black outlines and those mesomorphic Polynesians. Luca is a Gauguin woman and that’s where the style comes from and to make things easier to do all the things I couldn’t do. But I can draw some faces and chunky bodies, so yeah, that’s where the style comes from.
CA: Before we wrap up what can you tell us about where the characters are headed and where they might end up in volume 2?
TP: I’d like to say we’re doing it like Game of Thrones in that there’s going to be major characters that you’re going to love that may or may not make it to the end. When this five issue mini series wraps we’re going to see some serious transformations and we’ve set the table for that!
EA: We’re really happy that the people who have found it have reached out to say so because sometimes it feels like we’re doing this in the dark. You don’t know who is listening and you want to know if the message is connecting and how. So we say to your audience to let us know what they think whether it’s good, bad, or ugly. We’re very thankful for the support that’s come to us in in droves.
After speaking with Tony and Erika it’s evident they have a drive and passion for the story being told and are giving comic fans the diversity they have been demanding from the industry for years. So go and check out Concrete Park: You Send Me HC and R-E-S-P-E-C-T from Dark Horse!
All NYCC photos courtesy of E. Snell Design