By Lonnie MF Allen
Denver comic artist R. Alan Brooks’ ambitious new graphic novel, The Burning Metronome, is a sci-fi noir spiced with subtle hints of social commentary. With characters revealing nuanced humanity inside a world of desperate urgency, all couched within art that is electrifying as it is seductive (illustrated by Dion Harris, colored and lettered by Matthew Strackbein), Brooks manages to captivate readers with that rare, Rod Serling-esque quality that both entertains readers on a visceral level, and provokes them on a cerebral one.
I recently sat down with Brooks inside Mutiny Information Cafe on a rainy afternoon, discussing police brutality, being a black cartoonist, and the difference between performing music and drawing comics.
Lonnie MF Allen: Tell us about The Burning Metronome.
Alan Brooks: Well, my elevator pitch for it is the Twilight Zone meets Usual Suspects. Six courageous explorers find themselves trapped in a world where they encounter the strangest creatures they’ve ever seen: human beings. Twist!
There’s a scene in the book involving police brutality that’s garnered a lot of media attention, even though just a small component in the overall story. Are you surprised at the interest this scene has garnered?
In retrospect, perhaps not. Well . . . at first, yes, because I was trying to focus and deconstruct how human beings treat each other, and try and look at that from different perspectives. I was trying to move us towards thinking about how we treat each other better, and that just happened to be one of the topics of the story that I touched on.
Police brutality is nothing new, but there’s suddenly so much media attention surrounding it. Why do you think that is?
It’s definitely been present for a while now, but the proliferation of cameras has moved it from being anecdotal—something people can deny—to something people can’t deny because they see it. Well, some people that see it still deny it [laughs], but the evidence is a lot stronger now.
I feel like anyone watching one of those videos can see . . . There was the one from about a year ago where a middle school girl was thrown to the ground by a cop—a grown man—yet people were saying, “You don’t know what happened before!” It doesn’t matter what happened before. He wasn’t in any clear danger in the video, not in that moment. He could’ve arrested her. I think the only way you could watch that video and deny the injustice of it is to not believe in her humanity. And there are some people who will just never acknowledge her humanity.
Then there are people who are just in the middle, who haven’t had the chance to experience humanity in a different way than their own. So my goal in these stories is to bridge the gap of people who are seen as the “others” from either side. In the story, I start off from the police officer’s perspective and wanted to humanize him, so that as you go through the story he’s not a one-dimensional character, or a villain. You can explore the humanity of both sides.
Were there any particular comics that influenced you to incorporate political or controversial subjects for what is fundamentally a science-fiction story?
I think comics have always been political to some extent, just look at Chris Claremont with X-Men, which was an allegory for Civil Rights. The act of superheroes deciding to fight crime is inherently political. However, with this book I was thinking about the Twilight Zone a lot, because of the way Rod Serling uses other worlds and supernatural situations as a way to comment on war, racism, or sexism. That was really inspiring to me, and what I had at the forefront of my mind.
Are you familiar with some of the EC Comics from the same period? If I remember correctly, I think those inspired the Twilight Zone.
That’s true. And those comics were addressing moral issues, too. It’s funny that the genre of horror often has a deep moral system. For example, often the person who was having too much sex or doing too many drugs was the one who would be killed.
Sometimes they do lean heavily towards the puritanical. Turning more to the comics community in general, and working in it as a black cartoonist, do you find there are any specific challenges to you?
I think it’s just a microcosm of my life as a whole. I’ve always been the only black person wherever I go . . . well, except when I was younger growing up in a mostly black city [Atlanta], but whatever struggles I face aren’t necessarily specific to comics. The ways I’ve learned to navigate prejudices serve me well even in the comics community. Were I to write a super militant, angry black, fuck-the-cops kind of story, it wouldn’t only not be true to myself, but it would also limit the amount of people I would reach.
There are people out there who are just trying to figure things out. My goal is to communicate ideas to those people in a clear and concise way, and then allow them to appreciate a well-told story, regardless of the more disturbing moments.
I know you personally, but I think had I not known you, there’d be no reason from solely reading your book that I would assume that you were black. There is a better representation of people of color in your book compared to the average comic book, but that is not something that I think is necessarily reflective of your particular choices, but rather says something about the way people of color are typically portrayed in comics.
Well, I’m certainly proud to be black, and it obviously affects my perspective, but I’m striving toward a universal human experience in my story. Actually, I think “universal” may be overstating it . . . I’m just searching for a way to reach a larger amount, and wider variety, of people and still convey challenging ideas. Otherwise, if I’m just trying to be extreme for the sake of it, I’m ultimately just serving myself.
You were a musician for several years, toiling away in obscurity, but being relatively new to comics, you’ve garnered a lot more media attention. You’re an excellent musician, so what do you think that’s all about?
Well, I think it’s a few things, one of them is that I used to believe, if you build something good, people will come. But then I got into networking. Networking is a separate job from creating art.
I wasn’t aware of that for many years with music. Going into comics, I was definitely aware of it. I have skills now in networking that I didn’t have all those years in music. I didn’t cultivate relationships with the press, I didn’t go to networking events, I just put out music I thought was good, and people thought it was good, but I expected they would pass it on and it would just grow. With comics I’ve been able to take a more aggressive tactic. Also, I think the music scene is filled with charismatic personalities, whereas comics . . .
Hey, what are you trying to say, man?
[Laughs] There may not be as many. Also, there’s less black creators in comics. So there are more ways to stand out.
I honestly don’t think that’s been a factor in your garnered media attention.
Thanks. I think the biggest difference is that I’m fundamentally an introvert, and the thing that people often want from me is engaging with them about my project, but it’s the hardest thing for me to do. It just drains me. Previously, I just wanted people to interact with the art and not interact with me as much. So with this project, I’ve just accepted people want to know about me, and if the art is good, they’ll support that.
The Burning Metronome will be out this summer. Available at retailers such as Time Warp Comics in Boulder, and Mutiny Information Cafe in Denver. You can also check it out online at The Burning Metronome