At 5:09 p.m., I receive an email from Off Shoot Comics’ co-founder, David Clarke: “It was hard to find, but I made it to the Red Door! I’m just chilling inside.”
Panicked, and still at home, I whip through our email exchange to double-check the time of our rendezvous; I was certain we had set the time for 6 p.m.
We had. But Clarke, professional in every way, simply arrived early—I had warned him that the entrance to the bar in L.A.’s Toluca Lake neighborhood is a bit tricky to find—the only signage is a red light over a door in an alley.
When I arrive, I spot Clarke on a leather couch hunched over a tome about the history of Marvel Comics.
With a big grin, Clarke shakes my hand and explains that he didn’t mind getting there early—he’s getting school credit for his MBA course at American Jewish University to read the book on comic book history.
Comic books are not merely entertainments in themselves—they are the foundation of much of our TV, our films, our culture. Clarke and his partner, Walter Bryant, hope to diversify the fictional landscape of the entertainment industry in all media, starting with their comic book stories, animated content, and books targeting young adults.
Clark and Bryant were frustrated with not only the lack of ethnic and gender diversity in comics, but also the reliance on violence, explicit language and sex to keep readers interested.
With this in mind, they decided to try something shockingly out-of-step with mainstream comics: Rely on a compelling story, complete with heroes who fall well outside the bounds of the archetypal characters common in the comic book world.
“We wanted to see women and people of color have the starring roles in comic books,” he says. “I mean, every time a magic ring or hammer falls from the sky, it can’t go to the same white guy in New York. By the numbers, there should be way more Indian and Chinese superheroes, so we decided to get into the comic game to change it ourselves.”
A quick Google search of “women in nonviolent comics” makes it clear that if you’re a young teen (or the parent of one) seeking any sort of well-written fantasy or sci-fi series that is nonviolent with strong female or ethnic characters and also religiously secular, there’s very little to choose from.
And while Marvel Comics has a series of comics for younger teens, they still follow the same white-male-centric tropes as the industry standards. This is why Clarke’s stories are paving the way for a new type of superhero story.
Clarke, the 25-year-old son of a pastor, grew up (and still lives) in Arleta, a small L.A. community adjacent to Pacoima. He went to Los Angeles Baptist High School and then received his undergraduate degree in criminology at Cal State Northridge.
So how did Clarke, who planned to go into federal law enforcement, end up pursuing an MBA and writing a comic book series?
“While I was in school pursuing criminology, the federal government had a hiring freeze and the economy collapsed. I even had an internship with the sheriff’s office on a really cool task force, and they told me, ‘We like what you do. Can you do it for free?'”
He declined the offer.
Instead, halfway through college, Clarke decided to start his own business, a “nerd-news website thing” with his friend, Bryant. It was never meant to be anything other than a fun side project. On one small tab on the site, they created their own comics. Soon, the tab grew so quickly that it cannibalized the rest of the website, and Off Shoot Comics was born.
Clarke, who acts as head writer, comics creator, and chief creative officer, tells me Off Shoot is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. While Clarke had always loved writing, he never seriously thought about pursuing it professionally. But when the Batman film, The Dark Knight hit the billion-dollar mark, he re-evaluated. “I thought, some guy wrote that out of his face, so let me go and try that!”
The comic book industry is a multi-billion dollar-money-making machine, with Marvel (purchased by Disney for $4 billion dollars) and DC Comics (owned by Time Warner) holding the lion’s share of the market.
In comparison, Off Shoot has 15 part-time employees, mostly located in Los Angeles, and has sold roughly 1,000 comics in the past three years, mostly in-person at conventions, with a few hundred sold through Amazon. Only recently, has Off Shoot finally started to turn a slight profit on their books.
Clarke was initially afraid that people weren’t going to be interested in reading a comic book that bucks the white-male-protagonist trend. But, he says, “They’re touching people in ways I didn’t realize. Last year, when we were promoting [Sanctioned], this 9-year-old girl walked up and she looked at the main character, Maggie, and said, ‘She looks like me.’ And her parents said, ‘She’s never been able to say that before.’ It hit me right in the heart.”
Maggie, who’s fresh out of magic school (and unlike Clark Kent, always has her glasses on), is tasked with creating a team of individuals to help defeat evil through a combination of fantastical journeys, spells, smarts, and the power of effective leadership.
The emphasis on intellect and teamwork as powerful tools to overcome tremendous obstacles helps set Clarke’s stories apart from many of the other comic books on the market.
What’s even more exciting to Clarke is that kids are starting to recognize their comics and brand at conventions, asking for more. And parents are keeping up with them on Facebook.
Clarke is also starting a nonprofit, Conventions for a Cause (CXC) where money from comic book conventions would go to Off Shoot’s “Anyone Can Be a Hero” program, which helps kids create their own comic book characters and tell their own stories.
He wants to build on what he saw when a partnership with an organization called ‘Just for the Smiles’, brought Off Shoot to Maryvale, a residential group home for girls in Rosemead, a city about 12 miles east of downtown L.A.
“Some of these girls have been through the ringer,” he says. And drawing comics gave some of the girls an opportunity to face their own demons: When they were given the chance to write their own story, they overcame evil, conquered arch-villains, and emerged as victorious heroes. It gave them a chance to change their own real-life narratives.
“One little girl was asking me to help her draw a shark,” he adds. “I’m a writer…but I did my best and her and the other girls spent about 30 minutes making fun of my shark; but they were happy! For awhile, they were just kids having fun.”
More than that, some of the girls showed true talent, so much so that they’ll be accompanying Clarke and Off Shoot representatives to future comic book conventions where they can meet people in the industry and start to learn about the professional aspects of comic book creation.
While Clarke revels in the successes, especially when he sees the positive impact on the kids, the road to “comic book empire king” hasn’t been without setbacks and surprises, including hiring snafus with convicted criminals who answered their Craigslist job postings and the fact that the entertainment industry still often doesn’t know what to do with two black guys running their own company.
“Walter and I had this pitch meeting once for our kids book, and the first thing the guy said to us was not, ‘Hi,’ but, ‘Holy crap, you’re black!'”
Clarke and his partner were so stunned that they had no idea what to do, so they decided to just sit there.
“I remember thinking, ‘This is a story I’m going to tell until the day I die.’ And the guys at the meeting were very open and honest with us. They said ‘Look, you and Walter are both college-educated. You don’t talk like stereotypical black guys, but you look like stereotypical black guys, but you also do nerd stuff…we can sell that!’
“And I was like, ‘Your mind-set is weird, but you make money, so let’s do this deal!’ In Hollywood, it’s all about checking off your demographic boxes, and we meet a bunch of those boxes.”
Clarke says it helps to have a sense of humor and a healthy dose of ‘are-you-kidding-me?’ But he’s not going to give up his ambitions.
As we head to the bar to close the tab, the TVs are playing the “In Memoriam” segment from the Oscars telecast.
We, along with the staff and two other patrons, pay our respects and watch the still photos flicker by with only the occasional under-the-breath “They died this year?”
It seems like an appropriate end to an interview with a man who wants to say farewell to the old guard and usher in a new era in entertainment.
Julie Bien is the blog manager and part of the web editorial team at the Jewish Journal as well as a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.
*Photo by Julie Bien.