Inside Brotherman's Big City

By Victoria Comella | Emory University, August 30, 2017

In 1990, Dawud Anyabwile and his brother, Guy A. Sims, created "Brotherman," one of the first comic books to feature a black hero set in a mythological world of black characters. Almost three decades later, with help from Emory University's digital scholars, this groundbreaking text is being reimagined for a new generation.

Dawud Anyabwile – then David Sims – grew up in Philadelphia wanting to be an artist. What began with finger painting in kindergarten and watching his oldest brother draw monsters and animate cartoons in their basement in 1971 turned into a lifelong career.

"I was always intrigued with cartoons, animation and creativity and it was also cultivated in our home," Anyabwile recalls.

Now that creativity has another home at Emory University's Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS), where a team led by Clinton Fluker, ECDS’s outreach coordinator, has been working to bring Anyabwile and his brother Guy Sims' "Brotherman" comic book off the page and into the world of virtual reality.

Anyabwile, who lives in Atlanta, worked with the ECDS team on Emory’s Big City Map Project, a digital reading comprehension prototype that launched Aug. 17 with the aim to change the way we read and teach literature.

"I was first exposed to 'Brotherman' when I was at Morehouse College, but I never really paid it much mind," says Fluker. That is, until he went to Emory's Laney Graduate School for a PhD in the Institute for Liberal Arts. As Fluker studied black speculative fiction, "Brotherman" showed up time and time again.

"I read all of the material and was amazed by the wit of the writing and the stunning visuals," he says. "Sims and Anyabwile truly are a dynamic team that has had a major influence on independent comic books."

When Fluker wanted to meet the creators to see about opportunities for collaboration, a mutual friend put them in touch.

"I met Clint in 2015 when I was working on the all new 'Brotherman: Revelation' graphic novel," Anyabwile says. "I was showing him the process as I was drawing it. We eventually began to discuss possibilities within this Black Comix scope, not knowing that one day he would ask me to partner with Emory University to develop the Big City Universe. That was like a dream come true."

He's the superhero, but not the only star of the "Brotherman" comic series: The fictional Big City shines, too.

The Big City Map Project came about because Fluker realized the main character of the "Brotherman" series is not, in fact, the hero, Antonio Valor, but rather the fictional backdrop of Big City.

When it comes to the world of Big City, the talent and skill on the page is unmistakable. Anyabwile's expert hand makes Gotham City look like child's play. The streets are familiar yet menacing, and in reading it you can't help coming to recognize it in many ways as your own home, a town you'd like to see protected no matter the cost.

"Big City is what grabs the reader from the very first panel," says Fluker. "The amount of detail and care that goes into the visuals of this crowded metropolis is astounding."

This multilayered city would become the perfect tableau for Emory to create a virtual reality (VR) world for the text, resulting in a prototype that explores the possibilities of using GIS mapping and other immersive techniques to highlight the creative process associated with developing fictional worlds.

The evolution of "Brotherman": The cover of the first issue, published in 1990, and the graphic novel, published in 2015

The Beginning of a Movement

As a boy Anyabwile could always be found doodling and jotting down sketches in his notebooks. Yet he wasn't the only creative person in the family. His brother, Guy A. Sims, says he has been a writer "for as long as I can remember." "My mother reminded me that I was a storyteller as early as the second grade," says Sims, who now lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, with his wife and three kids. Sims is the author of several works including all 11 issues of "Brotherman"; five spin-off novels featuring the character Duke Denim; an adapted version of the graphic novel "Monster,” written by Walter Dean Myers; and a novel, "Living Just a Little," published in 2015.

"My parents, through their encouragement, helped me to grow, not only as a writer but as a reader and thinker," Sims reflects. "My father told me that what I put into my head would manifest itself in what I put down on paper."

Anyabwile and Sims grew up in a house that placed strong emphasis on education. Their father, Edward Sims Jr., was a professor of sociology, and published his own books that celebrated the black family and served as guides to rebuilding healthy black family life. Their mother, Deanna Jones-Sims, was a public school teacher in Philadelphia.

"For me that was a foundation that eventually became a major influence in my life's work," says Anyabwile. "I figured out how to implement their influence into my work and eventually developed my own understandings of family life and history."

Young and ambitious, Anyabwile wanted to share his art with the world. At that time, in the late 1980s, airbrushing was all the rage. "So I borrowed $400 from my father for the airbrush tools and I told him I'd pay him back within the month," Anyabwile says. He paid him back in two weeks.

In 1989, Anyabwile and his other brother, Jason, traveled to New York for the Black Business Expo. "We didn’t go to assess if there were comic books, we just wanted to see what it was," Anyabwile remembers. "We were amazed with the amount of people and opportunity for business owners to connect with the public. We knew we needed to be there. The idea for a comic came after we went home to process what we experienced."

Dawud Anyabwile drawing "Brotherman" at his home, 1990

Once home, they called Sims and asked him to write a treatment.

"Working with Dawud and my other brother Jason was nothing new," says Sims. "We have always collaborated on projects growing up. All of my brothers had their own specific talents that complemented each other. So when the call came to work on what would eventually become 'Brotherman,' I naturally got on board."

At that point, Brotherman was just a generic character in one of Anyabwile’s sketchbooks who wore a hero costume with a "B" on his chest. Sims, who grew up influenced by the work of James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Harlem crime writer Chester Gould (best known as the creator of "Dick Tracy"), went home and immediately began working on a two-part story.

Two weeks later, he faxed it back.

"For us this was the beginning of a movement. We knew it was," says Anyabwile.

Big City Comics World Headquarters, Philadelphia, 1995

Success, then Tragedy

On April 9, 1990, they returned to New York's Black Business Expo, only this time carrying copies of "Brotherman" printed by an independent printer they found in West Virginia — the first book in what would grow into the 11-issue series that follows Antonio Valor, a man on the side of moral justice, fighting to bring light back to the darkness and corruption that has taken over Big City.

"When I read Big City for the first time, I thought I had been there before in real life," says Fluker, who knew right away that a city with so many layers would work perfectly as a VR project.

"Through the engaging writing of Guy Sims, the reader is introduced to a civics lesson on how the city functions. You spend more time learning how city permits are processed, or how court procedures are adhered to, than watching Brotherman show up in his costume to save the day."

To understand Big City, you have to recognize the scope. With inflated street numbers (our hero Antonio lives on 550th Street), Big City is a sprawling metropolis with its core characters drawn to represent a black community that readers had yet to see on the page.

"Antonio Valor was to embody the concept of the man who is upright and about his word," says Anyabwile. "He personified in our minds the black men in our communities who were disciplined, caring and protectors of their families and communities, yet go to their grave with no songs written about them. We wanted to celebrate those who deserved it in mythology."

Once "Brotherman" was in the hands of readers, it became an overnight sensation.

“People felt a new exhilaration when they found 'Brotherman.' They felt like they finally had a true hero that was owned and operated by black people.” — Dawud Anyabwile, co-creator and artist

"The stories came pretty easy," says Sims. "The first issues were developed in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Since I had never written a comic book before, I modeled the first story after what I was familiar with. By issue #3, I realized that I had the freedom to construct the stories in my own way. The writing became a lot more robust, fun and culturally meaningful."

Media scrambled for interviews, and coverage ranged from CNN and Arsenio Hall to NPR's "Fresh Air" and CBS News. The brothers sold 40,000 books the first year alone, and by 1994 the number had hit 750,000.

Guy A. Sims being interviewed by BET in New York City, April 1990

With "Brotherman" firing on all cylinders and more installments on the way, Anyabwile and Sims estimated they would hit one million sold by the end of 1995. It was everything they could have hoped for.

Then tragedy struck.

"Issue #10 was just released and my mother died that night. At that moment everything stopped," says Anyabwile.

Events, including their previously scheduled four-day stint at the Black Expo at the Javits Center in New York, were cancelled. Sales declined as the brothers were unable to produce the materials needed to meet the demand.

It was at that point their father stepped in and helped the brothers set up what would become the Big City Comics World Headquarters in Philadelphia in 1995, in honor of their mother. The aim was to use the space to teach art classes to youth of all ages, print their own merchandise and ultimately produce "Brotherman" #11.

"My father felt that my mom would want us to keep going, so he used a small portion of her insurance to help us obtain the deposit on the store," says Anyabwile.