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Exploring Hip-Hop’s Relationship with Comic Books

In 2023, hip-hop’s comic book representation has come full circle; contemporary rappers are positioning themselves as heroic figures from graphic novels to animated visuals. Last year, to promote his LP Heroes & Villains, superproducer Metro Boomin went superhuman for the comic book-inspired art for the project, some cover art including his star-studded guest features. (He also did something similar for the Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse soundtrack). While the limited print graphic novel series Hip Hop Family Tree, published in 2015, chronicled the origins of hip-hop, noting the rise of early acts like Run-DMC and Slick Rick.

The early days of hip-hop and comic books

Comic books’ ties to hip-hop are just as storied as the genre itself. For the origins, we can start with graffiti culture, one of the four elements of hip-hop – along with emceeing, DJing and breakdancing. By the ‘80s, New York City graffiti broke into the mainstream through the act of ‘bombing,’ tags and pioneers representing their distinct boroughs with spray paint.

As hip-hop entered its Golden Age in 1986, Bronx artist and self-proclaimed “World’s First Hip-Hop Comic Book Creator” Eric Orr released Rappin’ Max Robot. Orr’s titular character was a robotic hero fully immersed in the early days of hip-hop culture, with a fictionalized version of the Bronx – complete with local freestyle battles and graffitied subways – serving as a backdrop. After the brief run of Rappin’ Max Robot (which only had four issues), hip-hop’s presence became more in demand; the ‘90s even saw illustrative stylings on album covers.

‘Rappin’ Max Robot’ by Eric Orr.

But superheroes and villains from publications like Marvel Comics and DC Comics weren’t just limited to replica front cover artwork on albums like Organized Konfusion’s 1994 LP Stress: The Extinction Agenda or Outkast’s 1996 sophomore album ATLiens – its influence was resounding in hip-hop content. In the mid-’90s, Zev Love X found new life as MF DOOM, channeling Marvel vigilante Doctor Doom while using Spider-Man samples and wearing various chrome-plated gladiator masks. East Coast rap collective Wu-Tang Clan even gave nods to comic book characters in their pseudonyms, like “Johnny Blaze” and “Iron Man.”

For some notable comic book artists, like Sanford Greene, who illustrated the 2008 graphic novel Method Man – based on the legendary Wu-Tang Clan member – the dawn of hip-hop culture magnified a fascination with cartoonish visuals.

“Growing up [I realized] that a lot of the personas that were portrayed in music videos were also superhero-like to me,” Greene told Okayplayer. “Run-DMC, LL Cool J – they were so larger than life that it somehow felt seamless to me that those personas would fit a comic book aesthetic.”

Greene says his artistic sensibility began when seeing the album cover for Just-Ice’s 1986 LP Back to the Old School, exclusively made by graffiti artists Gem 7 and Gnome of New York City art collective Craftwork Kings.

“I was like six or seven and it just fascinated me,” Greene said. “I would try to draw and emulate those things because I knew there was a connection between what I saw on those album covers and comic books, as well.”

Through his partnership with Method Man in the late-aughts, Greene illustrated the rapper’s 96-page eponymous graphic novel, which depicted Meth as an exiled member of an order of barbarous priests. With Meth’s ‘Peerless Poe’ alter ego, Greene’s drawings take readers through visual storytelling from urban to imaginative settings. Method Man became a hit as Greene held a signing event at the San Diego Comic-Con alongside the legendary rapper in 2008. To date, the book is sold out and hasn’t been reprinted.

“We wanted to have those elements of the urban to ground the story to some degree to where you can invite yourself in because there’s something tangible, something familiar,” Greene said. “Once you’re in, we take you on this fantastical journey so you get a little more than the urban point of view.”

Last year, Greene designed the “Marvel-style” poster for Rock the Bells Music Festival, where he portrayed artists including Rick Ross, Lil Kim and the “superhero-like” LL Cool J that he grew up on. Instead of delving into each acts’ likeness, Greene sought to emphasize their respective personas.

“Even everything down to certain elements for apparel – things that stand out that are signature pieces for each performer or act, whether it be hairstyle, clothing or a certain gesture that they do,” Greene said. “I try to capitalize on those things to emphasize the person. I’m not trying to do a portrait, I’m trying to create an essence of the person.”

Z2 Comics immortalizes local heroes

Illustrator Jarrett Williams, who co-wrote and sketched Z2 Comics’ Rico Nasty – Nightmare Vacay, cites his upbringing in New Orleans’ Magnolia Projects where local heroes like Lil Wayne, Mia X, Master P and Juvenile shaped his “energetic and slick” approach to art.

“All of us grew up with comics, cartoons, anime, video games – I think most rappers and performers have a persona they tap into like a superhero,” Williams said. “I think it speaks to the impact of comics and heroes on American life and culture overall.”

‘Rico Nasty – Nightmare Vacay,’ co-wrote and illustrated by Jarrett Williams.

For his collaboration with the Maryland-raised Rico Nasty, Williams’ was already informed by her early projects Sugar Trap and Tales of Tacobella, pairing with the rapper for notes on herself and ‘friend’ characters Taco Bella and Trap Levigne.

“She even had ideas for their hair colors,” Williams said. “I write ideas for a lot of my comics in the notes [app] on my phone, so it was really familiar for me. I thought it was clever that she envisioned her aliases as fully-realized characters in the comic.”

To map out the Nightmare Vacay concept across a 48-page booklet, Williams presented Rico with ideas for a general synopsis, some of which she approved with Easter eggs that fans would instantly recognize, like 420-friendly spaceship quarters. Williams later gave the Las Ruinas artist and Atlantic Records visual interpretations for the characters, which soon finalized Nightmare Vacay.

Through his collaborative experience with Rico Nasty, Williams advises record labels to creatively market their rap acts using a comic book aesthetic for increased fan interest. “So many artists are chasing a modern ‘popular’ aesthetic which doesn’t work for all of them,” Williams said. “Some of these artists would benefit from a more traditional, underground or even cartoony comic presentation. It’s bigger than just TikTok, search engine optimization, and recording [Instagram] Lives.”

Z2 Comics has become a premier graphic novel haven for musicians, including Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, Ice-T and Arabian Prince as part of the company’s rap enclave. Released in the Z2 Comics canon at the beginning of the decade were Vince Staples: Limbo Beach and Flatbush Zombies – 3001: A Prequel Odyssey. Visual artist J.J. López was contacted by Z2 ahead of the rollout for 3001, reviewing character designs from concept artist David Nakayama before familiarizing himself with Flatbush Zombies through their music and interviews. With music journalist Rob Markman tapped to pen the graphic novel, López gained a well-defined perspective of the Brooklyn rap trio.

“They’re huge nerds. I never spoke to them directly but they wear that on their sleeves,” López said.” I read what they had spoken about in a press release which was that it was a childhood dream to have their own comic book.”

In 3001, group members Meechy Darko, Zombie Juice, and Erick Arc Elliott seamlessly work together, each taking an initiative whether indulging in psychedelics or performing selections from their underground catalog. As López immersed himself in Flatbush Zombies’ comic book fandom in 3001, he even referenced Flatbush shop Bulletproof Comics and its owner, Hank Kwon.

“That was another moment for me, I was like ‘Wow, this is really cool to put this New York City establishment in the story,’” López said. “That was their home for comics before they started doing rap, before they had a rap career. I think it’s another sign of our generation growing up and now we’re making the stories.”

Cover art: 'Back to the Old School' by Just-Ice.Cover art: ‘Back to the Old School’ by Just-Ice.

Creating bigger than life narratives

Crafting a story of his Long Beach upbringing was Vince Staples, who released Limbo Beach in 2021 with illustrations from Buster Moody. In the mysterious universe of fictional abandoned theme park Limbo Beach, the graphic novel follows “misfit teenage raiders” the Wunderlosts as they traverse through the journey of stolen youth. As co-authors Staples, Bryan Edward Hill and Chris Robinson retold Staples’ story through an adventurous lens, Moody visually portrayed the rapper and Long Beach in metaphorical and allegorical contexts.

“Everyone is the hero of their own story. Some rappers have alter egos and personas that are bigger than life,” Moody said. “Comics is a medium all about bigger-than-life narratives – most commonly exemplified by superheroes – so the connection seems natural to me. I think of it less as posturing and more of expressing themselves in a way that’s fantastical and appealing.”

Hip-hop’s historical ties to comic books have been ever-present since the inception of the music form. Comic book-style visual elements and storytelling media will undoubtedly elevate as the genre persists, giving rap artists the freedom to express variations of themselves.

“The connection between comics and hip-hop has seemingly always been there and seemingly always will,” said Moody. “Maybe the best era is yet to come.”

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