The Harlem Shadow prowls his city in a long trench coat, slim scarlet tie and mask. Now he roams the digital realm as well.
Brian Williams created the comic book superhero set in 1920s Harlem. The self-proclaimed “comic book freak” writes and independently publishes The Harlem Shadow’s adventures—and the capers of Afro-topped giant, Lucius Hammer—through Ravenhammer, his fledgling press.
Ravenhammer recently went digital, making Williams’ books available on iTunes, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and Amazon’s Kindle.
Now The Harlem Shadow and his brothers-in-arms can thrill fans all over the world.
“I’m honored that people enjoy it,” Williams said. “All I’ve wanted to do my entire life is entertain people with stories and characters I create.”
Williams’ comics won immediate critical acclaim. Ain’t It Cool News, a staple for comic book news and reviews, featured Williams’ first story, Lucius Hammer #1, in its Indy Roundup.
In the Roundup, comic book pundit Jesse Holland, known online as Mr. Pasty, called Williams’ first story “not good, great.”
Williams’ heroes grapple with racism as often as villains–Ain’t It Cool News crowed about that too. “The execution was flawless as Williams seamlessly weaves in and out of social commentary without shouting from his soap box,” Holland posted.
Critics also heralded “The Harlem Shadow,” Williams’ second title. In his universe, the Harlem Renaissance-era Shadow is the first African American superhero. (Of course, Marvel, DC Comics and Image Comics have long featured black superheroes like The Falcon, Power Man and Spawn.)
Other critics questioned the comics’ salability, however.
“The mass market appeal is not there,” wrote World of Black Heroes, another comic commentary site. World warned that Ravenhammer’s independence would prevent its products from reaching mass audiences; it lacks the promotional strength major comic book companies use to reach a broad fan base.
But Williams is undeterred.
His path to publication was a snaky one. He grew up in the Cincinnati suburbs, playing ball after school. A full ride to Boston College as a defensive back for their Division-1 football program carried him far from comics, but hardened his resolve.
“I used to go onto the field against guys twice, three times my size,” said Williams. “I had to be tougher than them, or I’d get embarrassed, run over.” Williams’ toughness has kept him in the comic book game through a recent divorce and financial woes.
“There’s been collateral damage because of my indulgence in my passion,” he said. “Some pain involved. But that’s what makes it art. Angst and struggle distills creativity.”
Much of the writer’s inspiration stems from a year spent in New York after college, when Williams lived in SoHo, worked on independent films and fell in love with Harlem. Though he’s since returned to Cincinnati, the author’s reverence for Harlem’s culture and history led him to place his characters uptown.
“Harlem is one of the first powerful black cities of this country,” Williams said. “The sounds, the sights, the sense, the jazz, the gangs, the number-runners, the zoot suits—it’s a setting for black people to assert themselves. What better place could there be for a black superhero to be born than in the center of the Harlem Renaissance?”
Other superhero creators felt the same. Marvel’s Falcon (a.k.a. Sam Wilson) was born in Harlem. Power Man (Luke Cage) was, too, and Static Shock (Virgil Hawkins) relocated there last year.
Williams acknowledged this semi-stereotypical origin, but said his stories raise the ante. “I don’t think those writers ever used Harlem for its full impact,” he said. “We never saw Luke Cage in a Harlem that had jazz cabaret, The Falcon flying through a neighborhood with stylish art exhibits—the landmarks of Harlem.”
The Harlem Shadow (a wraith with advanced fighting skills), Lucius Hammer (a super-strong behemoth) and the rest of Williams’ cadre of African American superheroes adventure not in a vague version of Harlem, but in the real thing: Lennox Lounge, Marcus Garvey Park and all.
Williams believes his stories are unique for their “African American perspective,” what the author calls, “adapting new material to old formulas.”
Williams wants his heroes to represent the African American experience authentically, allowing black fans to slip comfortably into superheroes’ shiny red boots. Williams struggled with inaccessible heroes as a young comic fan. He coped by imagining Shaft’s Richard Roundtree in Adam West’s Batman costume, a combination he called “Batman in the ghetto.”
His more recent creations are far more successful.
To Ain’t It Cool News’ Jesse Holland, Williams has created true African American heroes, something no one else has done. “Historically, ‘black’ superheroes were superheroes who just happened to be black,” Holland told The Uptowner. “What makes Lucius and Shadow such dynamic characters is they are blacks—who just happen to be superheroes.”
As long as Williams stays the course, “creating content that stays true to the vision without alienating the demographic,” his stories have a “terrific shot” at success, added Holland.
Williams has already sold about 1,000 copies of his books in digital format, adding to the 5,000 hard copies he’s sold since launching Ravenhammer in May 2009.
“There’s still a long way to go,” the 44-year-old Williams said, “but I’m doing pretty good.”