The creators of the indie comic ‘Tuskegee Heirs’ on mythologizing black history


The comic Tuskegee Heirs: Flames of Destiny finished its last victory lap around its Kickstarting goal this weekend, ultimately managing to raise over $74,000—seven times what Marcus Williams and Greg Burnham were initially aiming for. In the days since, fan art of the the characters has popped up across the internet as many eagerly await for the first two issues to drop.

With funding goals firmly met and the buzz around Tuskegee Heirs growing louder each day, Burnham and Williams are looking forward to the project’s future that exists beyond the page.

I spoke with the duo earlier this week about what it meant to immortalize icons from black history and what they described as a tipping point for comics creators of color to empower themselves to make art outside of the mainstream industry.

How do you go about mythologizing the Tuskegee Airmen in a way that makes them cool for readers?

M: The part that excited us initially was when we came up with the concept of bringing the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen the future and finding a way to insert actual history that readers can connect with regardless of whether they’re young kids or adults.

G: We wanted to immortalize the original Tuskegee Airmen. What typically happens during black history month, you get people choosing to highlight certain things about the Airmen, like the fact that they were some of the first black pilots, but that just becomes another blurb in a history book. We want to make them almost like mythical heroes for our young crew.

M: A few years back when I was working at another job, I was looking through an issue of National Geographic and I came across this article about how Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt, and it’s things like that that we’re working into the story.

We’re trying our best not to make the book feel “educational,” and so we had to find creative ways to have the kids travel the world. Each story is a mission-oriented vehicle—there’s reasons they’re going to Egypt. They’re doing it for the story.

G: Right. All of our characters are from around the world. Some are American, but another is Sudanese. They’re all Americanized, but their cultural roots reach much farther.

Let’s say that this is a kid’s first exposure to the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, how much of their story exists in the plot of Tuskegee Heirs?

G: It’s delicate because we want people to form their own ideas. They’re heroes to us, so they’ll be painted in a heroic light, but it’s an homage. We want people to know that these cool, high-tech heroes are their own thing.

M: The original Airmen weren’t millionaires, or famous people. I want a young person to see them and know that they don’t have to have money or status or be entertainers to become legends. They just have to have passions.

Aside from the educational stuff, what are your readers going to take away from the books?

M: Imagine watching the original Star Wars trilogy as a young kid, seeing all that sci-fi like the lightsabers and stuff and then finding out that there’s an actual history there. Like there actually were Jedi thousands of years ago.

So even though people will be reading Tuskegee Heirs, that’s what we want to happen. I want them to see themselves in that history and in the story. I don’t want them to just be entertained, I want them to be inspired.

Why is it that independent black and brown artists so rarely go mainstream?

G: In this industry, typically, we’re looking to someone else to validate us. We’re looking for others to give us the green light and with that they control our output and the things we make.

As a father, I’ve got a duty to show my children stuff with them in a brighter light and it’s not just us. We’ve all got to do it.There are tons of people who are creating work and it feels like a dam is about to break.

I think that once we understand that we don’t have to go outside for validation and we can support ourselves from within, that’s when things change. That’s when the dam breaks.

What about this particular moment in time makes you feel that way? That the dam is about to break?

M: This is the first time in history that we could do something like Tuskegee Heirs. The tools that are available for independent developing like social networks have changed how we work. We have these networks that allow us to reach thousands of people that are actually interested in what we’re making.

G: There’s this swell in interest. A few weeks back, there was a black comics convention at Schomburg Center in NYC. People were ready to come with their checkbooks and their wallets open to support black businesses. There’s a large group of people that’s continuing to grow and it’s not just black people, it’s white people who are glad to see something different.

You’ve said that you want to see Tuskegee Heirs make the jump from comic books to animation, what’s next?

G: Before Tuskegee Heirs, we were working on a more mature superhero project that we were really passionate about. But when we started talking to people, we realized that it had a much broader audience

M: Five years from here, we can get into education, comic book fairs, toys, merchandising. As soon as we sat down and thought about that, it all clicked and that’s what we’re working towards now.

What would you say to an artist who wants to emulate your success?

M: Educate yourself. In terms of crowd funding. It looks great and it works, but you have to educate yourself about what you’re creating. Don’t do a Kickstarter if you don’t understand the comic business. You have to look at distributors and binders. Do you understand what comic book shops and retailers want?

If you talk to those owners, the things that influence them to carry your books are different than what you would get from a big publisher like Marvel or DC. You have to understand that. You have to understand the importance of comic conventions.

This isn’t just you behind your computer. You have to go out and promote yourself . You can’t be a douchebag.

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