Tim Fielder’s graphic novel Matty’s Rocket would be an innovative, inventive and moving comic no matter what year it was published. In a year when Black Panther has made the term “Afro-futurism” ubiquitous, the book has managed to come out at just the right moment to find a larger audience, but also offer new ways to rethink and redefine the genre. This is a project that Fielder has been working on for years about a young woman growing up in 1920s Mississippi, who moves to France in the 1930s so that she can pilot rocketships.
It’s an amazing book told in a number of styles, from the sepia-toned Mississippi Delta of 1920s to the 1930s, which resemble a recolored silent film, to a 1960s that evokes the comics and science fiction imagery of the era. The book’s real strengths, though, lie not in its imagery, but in its writing. Matty’s Rocket is great fun, but to engage with the book and Retro-Afrofuturism – as Fielder calls his approach in the series – is to be forced to rethink not just the genre and the stories we know, but the world, and the assumptions that underlie them.
The first volume is out now from Diesel Funk Studios and Fielder sat down to talk about the book, Afro-futurism, Mississippi, what Black Panther means and his next books.
I had done some work for Marvel, this fully painted Dr. Dre graphic novel which still to this day never been published. I was so despondent that I went back to my stuff and I pitched this to Lou Stathis at Vertigo Comics. He loved what I had submitted but he passed away. I made a last minute pitch to King Features, but it was really half-hearted. I raised my kids, I went back to school. Part of my studies was an independent study and I decided, let me go back to this concept. At the time it was called, If God Was a Woman. The main character is named Matty Watty and that’s my great-grandmother’s name. I was born in Tupelo and raised in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I went back to that concept and looked at doing it as animation. At the time I was fascinated with motion comics and animation.
When I got out of the comic book industry I decided to go into animation and when I went back to the concept, I formulated this way of telling the story based on old movies. It’s what I called Retro-Afrofuturism, if that makes sense. I’m an African-American male and my parents were born in the 1930’s. They grew up not seeing themselves in film, in comics, and then when TV came around. I decided, I’m going to do this concept but I’m going to do it like an old movie. I said, wouldn’t it be cool if Oscar Micheaux had done a science fiction movie, like Buck Rogers, but with Lena Horne in the main role? That’s what I wanted to do. Retro-Afrofuturism is the effort to fill in those voids due to Jim Crow and the racist systems that existed in the United States at the time, so that my parents can see what science fiction and fantasy would have looked like when they were young. When the animation didn’t work my friends John Jennings and Stacey Robinson encouraged me to publish it. I ended up revamping Matty’s Rocket and it has worked well. My parents love Matty’s Rocket, which is a relief. It would be terrible if your parents thought your work sucked. [laughs]
You made a lot of interesting stylistic choices in the book. One is that you decided to frame the story with Matty talking about her life in the 1920’s and 30s to a reporter in 1968. Why did you decide to frame the story like that?
Matty started out as a graphic novel in the nineties, like I said, so I already had a fairly tight idea of the concept. I moved to animation and all of a sudden everything became much more spread out. If you broke everything down I probably have five volumes of Matty’s Rocket. I want to mimic a film that was made during that period. I’m a major fan of Frank Hampson’s work. He had such a huge influence. Dan Dare was ahead of its time. It was done during the fifties. Frank Hampson worked for Eagle Comics and he was the absolute truth. He was a man who knew how to use reference. He was a man that had no fear of putting his blood, sweat, and tears in his work and it showed. I wanted to pay homage to him. I wanted to homage to Oscar Micheaux. I wanted my parents to feel like they were seeing something that had actually been done back in the day. That was the idea. That’s easier said than done.
Matty’s Rocket in its original animated form was a silent movie. I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if you could tell the story just visually and have these cards come up like in old movies. For a very brief second I had a deal with a publisher and part of the discussion creatively was, this publisher wanted it to look like a comic. Meaning I would have to re-do the artwork. Two of the people who had such dramatic effect on me as an artist are Scott McCloud and Ridley Scott. For several years I taught storyboarding to filmmakers and you teach them how to tell stories. You’re coming up with what I call design solutions. When you read Understanding Comics, as revolutionary as it was, the two or three pages that for me are the most essential pages in the book talk about panel to panel transitions. There’s only six of them, and the last one is non sequitur, which is all about not following any rules. Having worked as a designer in film, you can’t get married to one design. You have to be able to let an idea go if it doesn’t suit you. But sometimes you hold on and retain an idea if its giving the vibe that you want. Sometimes design challenges require a unique design solution.
That’s a long way of saying that I decided to retain some of these storytelling elements from the film work. I saw how the story could be told if I retained those elements. That’s why you have dialogue cards in those full color sequences. That’s why you have narration that’s written like a diary in the flashbacks when Matty is a young child. I came up with Matty narrating because I didn’t want to use word balloons. I wanted to have it be told as if she’s telling someone else, in this case, a reporter when she’s an older woman. That would told like a regular comic book because I wanted that to be an homage to the comics of the sixties and seventies.
In his introduction to the book John Jennings talks about Mississippi, which is not a place most of us – and I am as guilty as anyone – think about in terms of Afrofuturism. He makes the case that we should be. This is something that was clearly important to you in telling the story.
First of all John is from Mississippi and I’m from Mississippi. There is at times a bias that can be inherent. The Southern region of the United States has a stigma placed on it – well deserved – that it’s regressive and at times racist. But we still lived and we still loved and we still raised our families and we still got married and died and all those things that human beings do; and we did it down South. My parents and my grandparents did not migrate to the North, they stayed in Mississippi, which I both love and hate. [laughs] What’s one of the worst states in the country for many reasons? Mississippi. But what’s one of the most beautiful states in the country? Mississippi. I grew up in the Delta where there was nothing. People say, what do you mean there was nothing? Meaning they had cut down all the trees so they could grow crops. But that alone is a beautiful sight. I grew up across from a cotton field. That’s something you would never see in science fiction. You would never see a cotton field juxtaposed with a flying saucer. But you’re going to see it in my book. I took this thing and I blended it with where I’m from. Without revealing the story, there’s a turn of events. It’s the old South but the world takes a turn. I hope that comes across effectively.
The other aspect of things is I’ve been through different points of my career. I did editorial cartoons I was young and then I segued into doing a graphic novel for Marvel Comics and that died and the industry changed and I went and raised kids and then I’m in animation. I learned that I’m a great concept designer, a great storyboard artist, but I’m a mediocre animator. Mediocre. What I learned is that you have to play to your strengths. You have to triple down on what it is that you do well. Having come from Mississippi I understood that. It took me a while to know that I had to go back to that spiritually as a creator, but thats what it was. I’m a country man and I can speak very proper, but you have to be able to code switch as a creator. If I never do another book, I wanted people to know my business. You can’t please everybody, but I pleased myself on this one. And I pleased my momma and daddy and that’s what mattered.
There was an article I read over the weekend talking about indigenous futurism and responding to Black Panther and one line jumped out at me, “it’s about past/present/future–the hyperpresent now. That we look seven generations before, and seven generations ahead.” I feel like that idea speaks to you and your work.
As an Afro-futurist – and back in the day we called it black sci-fi when it wasn’t as big as it is now where it’s affecting fashion and housing. Back then it was like I want to be the black Moebius and make science fiction that has black people in it. There is so much work to do in the field of trying to attract the attention of black people – whether they come from the continent or the diaspora – to fill in those spaces that were never filled. I have no idea what genetic lineage I come from in Africa. All I know is that my grandmothers were raped. That’s it. I know the names of the guys who did it. That is the legacy of African-Americans and many South Americans. You know what they allowed you to know. That’s what the black experience is in this country. Afro-futurism is the effort to take control of that for the past, present, and future. It’s tricky because we’re learning how to do it without necessarily trying to attract the white gaze.
There are some people who just cannot fathom the fact that Black Panther made so much money. I don’t have any skin in the game. I don’t own that. I’m glad Jack Kirby’s family settled. I hope they take care of Don McGregor. I hope they take care of Rich Buckler’s widow. I hope they take care of Billy Graham’s people. Those guys created Black Panther. But the notion that Black Panther was released and people are shocked that it made this much. It’s not anything that you have to overthink. I want to see myself in a space ship. The idea of seeing your image, yourself, your wife, your child in a speculative scenario. My twin brother said it best, he said as a film Black Panther on a scale of 1-10 is a 7 or 8, but culturally it’s a 15. Ryan Coogler has done such a tremendous thing for the world. Donald Trump is in office, because the pendulum swings one way and now that pendulum has swung the other. You’re going to see an attempt to push things back, but we live in different times now. There are so many operations out there so dependent on content to survive.
I created the Captain Battle character while working on Matty’s Rocket. He’s part of the same universe. I had the pleasure of working with Alex Simmons on Blackjack: There Came a Dark Hunter. I love The Shadow and Doc Savage and I love the absurdity of Rocket Man and I said, let me create a black character like that. I blended those concepts with Sam Battle, who was the first NYC police department officer of African-American decent, and I came up with Captain Battle. I knew I didn’t have time. I figured I’ll write a story and do spot illustrations. I started writing it and I did a few illustrations but I just made them into movie posters and hoped people would have fun with it. The problem is that whenever I’m selling the books people are looking at the posters asking, where is this book? When is it out? So I’ve started writing that.
I have divested myself of any external projects. My focus right now is on Diesel Funk Studios. We knew Black Panther would come out and hoped it would be okay but none of us knew it was going to be this. We’re at a cultural nexus where everything is coming to bear. My job as a creator is to meet that challenge. What does that mean? I started the next volume of Matty’s Rocket and I’m actively creating the art for Book Two that will mirror the format of the first book. I intended for that book to be out by the end of the year in time for the Christmas season, or at the latest, the premiere at the Schomburg Center Black Comic Book Festival 2019. In the summer I will be putting out a graphic novel called Infinitum, which is hard to describe. It’s my Afro-futistic epic. It’s a massive, massive story about a black man who can’t die. He lives through every time. It’s a nod to the works of Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Langston Hughes, old African kingdoms, the storytelling of the Yoruba, Robert E. Howard, James Cameron, 2001 – it’s all of that. I intend for that to be out by the summer. Then there are smaller projects. There’s a series of picture books I’m doing written by my wife who’s a fantastic writer. I intend for all of this to be done in the twelve months.