Standing Room Only
Thursday, June 6 was a big day at the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina. Not only were the outdoor plaza and indoor theater crowded with live music, food trucks, beer and wine bar, live improv, and grassy yard-like areas, but Sanford Greene was in the house and on the walls. The museum exhibit Shades of Greene: The Art of Sanford Greene highlighted his cover and interior work across the comics industry, from Marvel (Black Panther, Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur, New Avengers, Miles Morales, Power Man & Iron Fist) to IDW (Harriette Tubman), Valiant (Fallen World), Dark Horse (Black Hammer ‘45), Image (Bitter Root) and webcomic 1000. Framed works included finished prints as well as Bristol boards roughed in pen and ink. Skateboard decks were also hung on display. Considering his status as a local comics star and Benedict College alumnus, with recurring appearances at nearby conventions and art events, it’s hard not to feel extra pride for his recognition. Plus, y’know, his work’s a joy for the eyes.
I went to the museum, issues of Bitter Root in hand, looking for a signing in progress, but what I found was a standing-room-only Q&A to kick off his appearance. Here are some observations from that event:
When he was a young boy, Sanford’s mother could not help but notice his love of comic books. She offered to buy them for him every so often so long as he read them, which stoked his passion for the medium in no time. “She didn’t know what she unleashed.” He was already drawing based on what he watched on TV, but now he had plenty of print fodder to guide his style. Frustration set in when he tried to imitate how small many of the comics panels were, but he was determined to figure out the art of tiny illustration. One day he read How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way and saw an explanation of how comics artists draw on extra-large paper so the art can be shrunk down on the finished product. It was a forehead-slapping moment for him, and one that several in the audience shared.
He gravitated toward the art crowd at Benedict College and not so much the drama kids. He attended Benedict at the same time as Luke Cage star Mike Colter, and wound up drawing a Luke Cage comic. He’s also done plenty of Black Panther art, and Chadwick Boseman is also from South Carolina (hot damn). Meeting artist Tyrone Geter opened his eyes to the demands of professional illustration.
Foot In The Slamming Door
Discussion of Greene’s early gigs started on a high note: he was invited to work on a Star Wars project soon after college. However, he would have had to relocate to California, and he and his wife were not yet prepared to do that. Greene cited that “God doesn’t close one door without opening another,” and he was invited to draw a Superman story. (At this point, the audience was a little beside itself that Greene’s early career consisted of offers from LucasFilm and DC.)
“From the perspective of a person of color drawing a white iconic figure, it was overwhelming.” He didn’t think race would be a factor in drawing Superman! But he didn’t know any other black artists who’d drawn him, so there was a little pressure there. He was let go after one issue, which humbled him but also challenged him to step up his game. “You have to be on a certain level” to get into Marvel and DC, he learned. He also learned a lot about deadlines – when an editor needs an issue done in four weeks, that means working all four weeks. “You can be the most talented person in the world, but if you can’t handle the grounded stuff, you won’t be successful.” He noted that artists have to give 110% for professional work, otherwise there are 300 people in line for any given job. “Thank God I had a background in graphic design,” he observed about the graphic design and animation work he did between comics gigs. “I got my foot in the door, but the door slammed on my foot.”
Some work on Spider-Man led to a number of opportunities at Marvel, including X-Men and Hulk, then what he considers his “next level” of work through Luke Cage and Black Panther.
A Matter of Legacy
Greene met David F. Walker working on Shaft. By the end of their Power Man & Iron Fist series, they saw the writing on the wall. They knew Marvel the corporate machine was done using them and that they would have to make their own way on future projects. Walker founded his own publisher, Solid Comix, and he and Greene went all in on buddy Chuck Brown’s pitch about a family fighting soul-corrupting evil during the Harlem Renaissance. Maybe you’ve heard of Bitter Root (along with its colorist Rico Renzi and letterer Clayton Cowles).
With his wife’s full support, Greene & Co. took the series to Image with no guarantee of success or a paycheck. Creating and maintaining an original series was important for artistic as well as practical reasons. Most of the creators who work for Marvel and DC don’t have pensions or retirement plans, only a check from their last assignment. You see old folks selling at conventions because they have no other options! Greene has two young boys and loves them to death, and art is a cathartic exercise and breadwinner for all of them, so creating something with lasting potential was key. Factor in that character design can take 3-4 hours each, and the average comic page takes 6-8 hours, and you can hear the clock ticking to create something unique and great. As of March 2019, Legendary Pictures purchased the live-action film rights to Bitter Root, and the creative team has plans to continue the comic past its first volume. Greene said he’s always meeting with Brown about maintaining their momentum.
The Next Generation
Following the prepared discussion and a couple of audience questions, Sanford had a surprise in store. He called the students in his art master class to the stage to give them certificates of completion, sketchbooks, and an album by Dose inspired by 1000. What better legacy to build than one filled with family, friends, fans, royalty checks, and passing on one’s trade to the next generation? Speaking of which, some of the adults in line for Greene’s autograph told stories about how they lent him office space or other resources because they believed in him back in the day. Greene’s career, including this celebratory day, has certainly been a source of validation for what they had and have to offer the next generation, as well.
As a parting image, here’s the line for his merch/autograph table afterward:
Bonus: here’s a thread of photos I took from the exhibit. You should check them out in person for the full effect, though!