You can learn a lot about a person based on who they look up to. Either through inspiration or identification, outside influences can shape how people interact with themselves and with the world. For this reason, exposure to positive role models from a young age is important. However, racial disparity in the media means that while white children can look anywhere and find familiarity in anyone from news anchors to CEOs, black children have much fewer options. Before President Obama, it often felt like it was a choice between a hoop dream and a mixtape. For black women, it’s historically been even worse.
I've often wondered who my little sisters can look up to, where young black women can find themselves represented in non-stereotypical ways. Then I stumbled across the work of Markus Prime, a Los Angeles-based artist whose recent book B.R.U.H. hopes to offer an alternative. B.R.U.H., an acronym for Black Renditions of Universal Heroes, addresses the representation of black women in pop culture by drawing them as superheroes. By positioning them in the roles of famous fictional characters, Prime's purpose is to directly oppose the status quo while simultaneously giving young black women new ways in which to imagine themselves.
Born in Ohio to a religious family, Prime was raised by pastors. His obsession with cartoons and anime, and his love and talent for drawing, surfaced from a young age. Today, he's an artist with a distinct message, but his moment of awaking happened very early on, he says. "The first time it bothered me, I was five years old, watching Bugs Bunny. The black guy hunting him was the most stereotypical black dude ever. He had huge pink lips, he had this dialect where he was just overly country,” Prime recently told me over the phone. “It was crazy. I couldn't believe it.” That moment would eventually go on to mold his artistic mission. Prime's popular Instagram is an extended gallery of his work, and is explicitly filled with blackness, womanhood, and a beautiful marriage of the two. We spoke about topics ranging from Hollywood to contemporary anime, and a single theme was constant throughout the conversation: passionate advocacy for black women.
Where did you get the idea for B.R.U.H.?
I was doing a lot of Dragonball Z flips of my usual Goku, who I recreate into Foku, a black female version. I really took a liking to her and people began to really appreciate my version of her. It wasn't just about her being black, it was more about the idea that she could've been a real [character]. After I got known for my version, it dawned on me that it would be cool if people had something they could look at to give them that perspective. A lot of my favorite characters, I wish I could've seen them presented like that so I decided to put together a collection. It was that simple. My team and I got the ball rolling and here we are five months, five to six drawings a day, later.
Literally, this is just a coffee table book. A collection of drawings. I thought about doing an explanation for each character but the audience that's going to be attracted to this already knows the back story of the original characters. I want to leave it in a way where you have to start the conversation yourself. I want to invoke discussion. I have original characters that I plan to do stuff with in the future but this book is moreso to show the power of representation. Let's say you're not a person of color and you pick up this book, I want you to feel things you've never felt. Engage new ideas. Like, “Oh, this would have been an interesting way to present this character.” People forget that we are just imaginary characters. People take offense when I race-swap or gender-bend any of these characters, which is funny to me. It’'s been done to our history since damn near the beginning of time.
How did you decide what to focus on?
The last couple of years, I only focused on women. I feel compelled to do it because of the lack of representation. It's not an obligation but I feel like this is the best way I can help. I'm not a genius nor do I know what it's like to be a woman. But I see a void and this is the best way I can contribute. And as a comic book animation fan, I've never really seen a consistent amount of black superheroes in general, but more so for black women. I just thought, “Why not do a whole book?” I considered putting men in there but figured, “What could be the harm in putting only women?”
What type of feedback do you get from black women?
About 80% of my support group is black women. They're very supportive. Of course, you always have opposition. I have black women who don't think I should be doing what I'm doing or who don't support it, mainly because of the nudity aspect. They say my fine art is misogynistic because I'm a guy [drawing women's bodies]. It's tough because I try not to do anything vulgar. A lot of them are also saying I'm trying to control the black woman and her image. But I continue doing what I do because the positive support is overwhelming.
Why do you use the ankh in your drawings?
When I started doing it was right around the time when Odd Future blew up. They were doing upside down crosses on the forehead. And I just wanted a tag. People were taking signatures and watermarks off of images at the time. The ankh was like my symbol to show, That's Markus Prime. And the ankh was the Egyptian symbol for eternal life and the bond between man and woman and creation of light and it was where the Christian cross deviated into the symbol for femininity. It just made sense.
“When I learned that April O’ Neal from the Ninja Turtles was actually a woman of color in the original, I was heartbroken. Why couldn’t she be left that way?”
What is the role of the modern day black artist?
I used to think activism came with the territory but now I honestly believe it's personal. Everyone isn't built for that. I used to struggle with that idea. A lot of things I still choose not to speak on because I'm not knowledgable enough to say something. People don't understand that when you take a stand for something and you're not educated on it, you're just digging yourself a hole. People are very empowered on the internet and learning at a much faster rate, so if you don't know your facts, you can set yourself up to be embarrassed. A lot of my friends who are black artists just stay in their lane and do what they do—draw their characters and do their own thing. And I feel like that's just enough activism as what I'm doing because just for you to be a black artist and be striving in this industry is still an inspiration to other people of color.
When did you become aware of your message?
I started off just drawing cool shit. The issue of black women being underrepresented started to bother me when, one day way back, on Tumblr there was a cool blog called Fuckyeahsexywomen or something like that filled with beautiful women. I used to submit to them all the time but it was difficult to get my work on there. But I used to see certain artists on there all the time and certain models on there all the time and most of them were white. It dawned on me that, “Wow, there really aren't any women of color on this page and this is one of the biggest pages on [Tumblr].” At that moment, it kinda made me start looking more into the representation of black women period throughout animation comics. That's when I decided to keep drawing black women. About four years ago is when I started when I started to say, "I'm not drawing anybody else."
When did you notice the void?
Not to be clichéd but sometimes I believe that it was destiny for me to be doing this. The first time it bothered me, I was five years old. I was watching Bugs Bunny and there was a black guy that was hunting him and it was the most stereotypical black dude ever. He had huge pink lips, he had this dialect where he was just overly country. It was crazy. I couldn’t believe it. The fact that it bothered me as a toddler—even though it was funny, something told me that this was wrong. Also, I mention in the foreword of my book that when I learned that April O’ Neal from the Ninja Turtles was actually a woman of color in the original, I was heartbroken. Why couldn’t she be left that way?
Are any modern cartoons getting it right?
You know, as much as I love anime, I would say they're not. There's [Cartoon Network’s] Steven Universe and though [the character] Garnet isn't black, she's still great. Steven is a character of color and the fact that there's two characters of color carrying half the franchise, that's a pretty big deal. Anything that is black is usually by us and scarce. We have Black Dynamite, which is a niche, and The Boondocks, which is way past its prime. We still are barely seeing ourselves. However, I see a resurgence of the ‘90s golden age happening. There was this ten-year span where we dominated the media in comedies, drama, sitcoms, cartoons, and movies that suddenly ended. I’m trying to encourage all the black artists that I know to participate. I don’t want to do this alone.