Buffalo Soldiers ride on through comic book artist, writer
LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Immersing himself in the wild western adventures of the African-American Buffalo Soldiers has been a return to some familiar themes and narratives for graphic designer and comic book artist Stan Webb.
Webb and writer Dion Lee released the first issue of the comic book “Buffalo Soldier” in early October. But the characters and storyline have stuck with them for close to 20 years, since the two originally published the first four books of “Buffalo Soldier” in the early ’90s.
Webb recalled the work involved in traveling along the east coast to independent comic expos and conventions, spreading hype about “Buffalo Soldier” the old-fashioned way.
“You printed up a bunch of books and then you hit the road and sell them, and that’s how we did it,” he said. “But life got in the way as we got older; I got married, (Lee) got married, we had kids and life got in the way.”
The duo had collaborated on comics since their school days. Webb said they were big fans of comics like Superman and Spider-Man growing up and would work on ideas for their own comics during summertime.
Webb honed his skills at Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in New Jersey, where he also learned about animation and graphic design.
“It was a real treat to have a teacher who was actually in the comic book business and I really learned a lot from that school as far as illustration was concerned,” he said.
When he’d come back home to Lynchburg from college, Webb recalled visiting the late teacher and historian Henry Powell, a family friend, on Saturdays to listen to him wax on about history — national to local. One of the discussions that particularly caught his ear compared the Tuskegee Airmen, the decorated African-American pilots who flew during World War II, to the Buffalo Soldiers, a group of African-American army men who fought Native Americans to help settlers move west in the late 1800s.
Webb said he was familiar with the Tuskegee Airmen but knew nothing about this other black military unit that wasn’t mentioned in textbooks. The Buffalo Soldiers piqued his interest and Powell loaned him more niche history books to learn from.
“The more I read up on it, the more I like the history behind it,” he said.
Powell asked Webb if he’d be willing to draw illustrations for a children’s book that’d introduce them to the Buffalo Soldiers. Webb said the two met for months brainstorming ideas for the book, and eventually the prospective project morphed into a comic book he and Lee dreamed up, based on the historical material Powell provided them. He said Powell thought pursuing the comic route was a great idea and the first book in the “Buffalo Soldier” is dedicated to him.
For their comic, Webb and Lee filled the Buffalo Soldiers’ historical narrative with characters they thought up themselves, like the hero, Tom Wilson.
Most of the Buffalo Soldiers were illiterate and couldn’t record their own exploits, Webb said. He said white cavalry units in the same areas as the Buffalo Soldiers — largely from the Dakotas down to Texas, as far out as Arizona — didn’t keep good records of the black units and there isn’t much historical literature about the 10th Cavalry unit. So, Webb said he and Lee decided to focus their story on what is known about the 10th Cavalry.
“We might embellish a few things here and there, but we try to stick as much to the history (and) what was in the history books at the time that we can pull from,” he said.
With the Civil War right behind them, Webb said the soldiers fought through segregation, prejudice and disadvantage. At the time, the U.S. Army refused to integrate and instead pushed segregated black units — later becoming known as Buffalo Soldiers — out west, into America’s no man’s land.
“Anybody that was . out west and going into dangerous territory, they requested the Buffalo Soldiers because they had a really good record and they knew they would be in good hands,” he said.
When Webb and Lee decided to stop publishing “Buffalo Soldier” in the ’90s, they said they still kept the ideas and storyline flowing over the years as they kept in touch.
Besides their kids transitioning into adulthood, Lee said the white supremacist-led Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year and the political climate surrounding that rally helped energize him to try and push the Buffalo Soldiers’ little-known story back into the spotlight.
“I thought that we needed to inject something different, something more positive, something new into the current climate,” he said.
Lee, who also lives in Lynchburg, said he sees “Buffalo Soldier” as counterprogramming to history on U.S. slavery and as another, different perspective to black history.
“There’s a gap between what you hear about slavery and the Tuskegee Airmen,” he said. ”. So to fill that gap and to fill that void and to provide new information and some history that a lot of people didn’t know about . you combine the lack of knowledge with Mr. Powell’s passion and Stan’s passion about the project: that’s what made me want to pursue it.
While there have been a few African-American heroes from comic book giants like DC and Marvel over the years, Webb said he hasn’t seen a lot of change in the same white heroes stealing the show. Even within the independent comics scene — made more accessible than ever now with technology and the internet — he said black comics typically see more of a cult following.
“You’ll see some that’ll pop up every now and then but you still don’t see it as much as you should, I think. I don’t know what the real reason why you really don’t but it’s unfortunate,” he said.
Webb said he’d like to publish 10 issues of “Buffalo Soldier” — one or two 60-page issues a year — and see where the series takes him and Lee from there. Next year, he said he’d like to tap up comic conventions and expos nearby to reintroduce the comic to new audiences. A few readers, like members of Buffalo Soldier associations, have asked Webb to keep them in the loop for the reboot.
He and Lee are also exploring new, innovative ways to bring their story to readers: a side story for “Buffalo Soldier” is online in an interactive format and the two are hammering out the best digital medium for “Buffalo Force,” a futuristic sci-fi spinoff of their original creation. For “Buffalo Force,” he said they’ve experimented with using cellphone scanning apps to help tell their story.
A graphic artist for Dayrich whose work can be seen in the Lynchburg Museum, at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest and at Amazement Square, Webb said he’ll sometimes pepper in some comic art during his typical work day: filling in some ink or color on a panel, drawing up a quick sketch or jotting down an idea as it comes to him.
“Right now it’s a little harder getting back into it because I’ve got to pull out my old drawings of the characters and all . getting back into drawing horses again, and people on horses, so it takes a little bit,” he said. “But I try to work on it every day.”
Information from: The News & Advance, http://www.newsadvance.com/