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"I want to be more than just a whisper on the edge of the comic book industry."
JaVon Stokes, a black comic book writer coming out of Hartford, Connecticut, is kicking down barriers, walls, henchmen and anything else that's in his way. He’s bringing readers around the globe, HEAT; a comic book series that's a guaranteed page turner. Not only is HEAT one of the comic book industry’s newest superheroes, he also happens to be a Black superhero, which makes this comic book series that much more special!
For years, the comic book industry has struggled with integrating diversity into it’s animation and story lines. Yet, steadily new minority artists and writers have emerged into the light with the help of social media platforms. They are quickly helping to fill the representational gap and JaVon Stokes is one of them.
JaVon’s journey to becoming a comic book writer has been challenging; essentially a balancing act between his current career, family life, responsibilities and his passion project HEAT. His voyage has had its bouts of ups and downs. But he’s persevered and triumphed, little by little with great humility and appreciation for his craft. With the help of a financial boost from a Kick-Starter campaign, JaVon was able to make what he has worked so hard on, finally come to fruition.
Recently, The Truth Hive had the privilege of sitting down with JaVon to discuss HEAT, released on August 30th, and the process he went through creating it. The story revolves around our hero, a relatable young man by the name of Cameron Clarke a.k.a. HEAT. In spite of his supernatural abilities, he still struggles with those “life happens” issues we are all no stranger to.
We met with JaVon and his beautiful wife Tinika Stokes at a cafe called Tisane, located in Hartford. JaVon, dressed in a HEAT comic T-shirt, blue jeans and his prized comic books in tow, greeted us with welcoming hugs.
Tell us about yourself.
So, I’m 36 years old, born and raised in Hartford, actually born right in Mount Sinai Hospital. I’ve lived in Hartford for probably 30 years, then just recently moved to Windsor. I’ve been an artist for pretty much the entirety of my life. My mother’s an artist; Evelyn Cook, so I’ve kind of learned through her. I started drawing at a very young age and actually did comic books when I was really young. I would tape and draw on paper and staple them together and that would be my little comic book. I graduated in 1999 from Hartford Public High School and I have a B.A. in 3D animation from Savannah College of Art and Design, c/o 2008.
Tell us about Visually Stoked Media? When did you start your business? Do you have a team/partnership with anyone?
Visually Stoked has a long history, it actually started as J Lingo Studios back when I was a teenager. I would just do little logos and other things for people. I then went to college and kept doing logos here and there. I was going to do a comic book then but that didn’t work out too well. And you know, it’s gone through a bunch of iterations, but right now its just me. I do everything! Visually Stoked is any art.
Who were your role models growing up?
Well, outside of my mother - my mom was always my role model - she was an entrepreneur you know, when I was growing up she had her own company called J.A.M. (Junior Art Makers), they made holiday cards.
Another one of my big role models is an artist named Todd McFarlane, he's the creator of Spawn. I’ve kind of modeled my artistic career after him. He did the independent comic book Spawn then, that became cartoons, movies, etc. And Obviously, Stan Lee, creator of everything Marvel; those are my three big role models.
What was the first comic book you remembered reading or what comic book growing up stood out to you the most?
There’s one comic book that stands out to me, it’s called Captain Marvel. The characters’ name was Monica Rambeau, she's actually a black character from Marvel. That one sticks with me forever because first off, it was a black character in her own comic book. It was not something that I saw a lot of. And number two honestly, it was a black woman that was you know, in charge. That sticks with me when I think of my earliest comic book. That's the one that kind of constantly sticks with me.
Do you think that it sticks with you because you saw a black woman that reminded you of your mother?
Probably, you know, my mom is my hero. So, seeing a black female character, if you really look back in the history of comic books, that doesn’t happen often. But, the fact that it was out there! I still have that book somewhere, I’m almost certain. It’s somewhere in my legions of comics.
What made you fall in love with comic books?
To begin with, comic books help you to learn how to read. So, I would have the comics, I’ll read them, encounter a word that I didn't understand, and my mom wouldn’t tell me what the word was. She would say “go look it up.” So I’d have to get a dictionary, look it up, and be like “oh okay” and then go back to the comic book and re-read what I read and then it makes sense. So it has helped me to build a vocabulary. And first and foremost, comics are about morals. It’s about heroes, it’s about people being the best that they can be. It’s about helping other people for nothing, no monetary gain. It’s just people showing the best in each other. Thats what I love about comics. And I keep reading them because it shows you how to be a good person.
When did you realize that you had a talent for drawing and animation?
To be honest, I never even really thought about it. I was probably five years old. My mother is an artist, so I just kind of assumed I could draw. I’ve been drawing and doing comics forever. I think my mom just saw that I was drawing and she cultivated it by enrolling me in art classes, gave me books to read and stuff like that. I personally would trace. Tracing was a big thing and that's how I got better. I would just trace right over the comic book to try and get it and I would venture away from that to doing it on my own. Then you take the classes and the classes built up the fundamentals. But, when I first started doing comics, I'm thinking I was five years old, that's when I kind of figured out this is something that at some point in my life, I will do.
Tell us about HEAT. How did this vision to create your own comic books come about? How did you come up with the character Cameron Clarke?
I originally did a comic book a few years ago called The Dark Path. It wasn’t very good; I was probably not taking it as seriously as I thought I could. I just thought, hey, I can draw and I’m going to sit down and do a comic book. But, there’s just so much more to doing comics than just drawing. It’s story telling. So I did that, and it didn’t do well. When I went back to college, we had an assignment where we had to create a character. So I created HEAT but, it was a little boy, and he had dish pan gloves on, a sock on his face and pretended to be a super hero.
That was the origin of HEAT. I then did the project and it did well. I kind of said “I want to do this seriously,” So I went back to the drawing board and essentially came up with HEAT. I did two or three designs before I got to the final design of the costume. That’s kind of where it started. I just built on it here and there, over and over for a few years, until maybe about three years ago I just said “you know what, if this is one of your dreams, sit down and do it.” So I bought paper for the comic, sat down and just started drawing right on my kitchen table.
Tell us about HEAT’s abilities and why did you choose illumination as his super power?
This character is pretty much an evolution of other characters I had when I was a kid. I had a character that I think was called Sun Man or Solar Man or something like that, in one of my staple comics I did. I just took his solar light and I have been pushing that idea. I came up with that I think, when I was 10 years old. I’ve just been pushing that along for 30 years. It’s pretty much the same character when I was a kid, he just looks different, same superpowers. I find that with black people, everything seems to be associated with darkness and evil. But in this case, this guy and his powers are about bringing light. I’m trying to subvert things. Like, I love the character black panther, I love him, but it’s still darkness. I am trying to flip it and have it be the black guy, being about light and pureness.
How do you bring life to the character?
I take a lot from my own life. This is my story you know. There’s an event within the book that’s inherently based on my feelings on my sister passing away. I had a lot of feelings of helplessness and I wished I could’ve done more and it’s kind of represented in the book. I think the best way to make a character alive is to base it off of aspects of other characters. HEAT is based off of me. There are other characters in the book, like the father, who is based off of all the father figures I’ve had in my life, including my dad. The mother figure is kind of my mom but also one of the main characters named Tiffany, she’s an affirmation of pretty much every woman I know. My wife is in there, my mother; the character is even named after my step daughter. I wanted to give them a character they could read like “oh my god, my name is in the book!” And they love that!
How important was it for you to create a black comic book portraying a black super hero?
I wanted to make him a black character because there aren’t a lot of characters that are black. You can probably name the ones that everyone knows on one hand. When I was five years old, my favorite characters were all black, so I never even thought of having someone of a different background. I think comics struggle with diversity and they’re trying to do better, but HEAT had to be black, because I’m black. I want my son and daughters to be able to see a character that looks like them; to be the hero, not just the sidekick and not the comic relief. He is the hero of the story.
In regards to him being a positive image, if you read my book, the story takes a bad turn. I wanted him to earn being a hero. It’s not just, “I’ll throw on my costume and know everything that I know.” Superman threw on his costume and he just knew who he was. However, this had to be earned, he had to mess up to become a hero. I wanted to go with the analogy of all the talent in the world but not quite sure on how to use it and use it correctly. I thought it would be great having an African American character without a gun, no criminal record; he’s just an average kid who gets these abilities. In my mind, I think if I had superpowers I’d be an awesome hero. But I’d probably learn real quick, that it’s not that easy as throwing on a costume.
Was it hard for you to break in to the comic book industry? Especially having a black superhero for your comic books?
The comic book industry is really difficult to get into in general. It's not so much the issue being, having a black character, it was more of people thinking it just wasn’t going to get done. I have a lot of support, but there were people that just didn’t think it was going to happen.
In regards to the actual comic book, I did an article about the comic book, I posted it online and I posted pictures of the book. In the article, I said that the reason that I made the character black, is because I wanted to see characters that look like me and that I can relate to and people who look like me can relate to. And you know, one thing they tell you is, never look at the comments section; and I looked at the comments section. There were guys saying that the art stinks and asking questions like “Am I supposed to get this because it’s a black character? Is that the only reason?” You know, there was a lot of negativity. But, there were some critiques in the middle and I just took the positive from there and kept going. When you’re writing comics, you just have to make it. They say, if you want to be in comic books, there is nothing more that you need to do than to just make the book. If people buy it, they buy it. If people don’t, they don’t. You have to have thick skin when you’re doing art in general. I learned that at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), you have to have thick skin, otherwise you’ll never make it.
What's next? What's next for HEAT? What's next for you? What are your goals going forward?
Whats next for HEAT? The second issue is coming out, that's what I am solely focused on. I am going to be designing another T-shirt with a HEAT logo that I created; kind of like superman has his logo, Spider Man; Dead Pool. Everybody loves the Dead Pool logo. There’s a HEAT logo that I designed that I want to put on a T-shirt. That's going to be for sale soon. The poster is going to be in different stores, but I’m leaving that more so if you did the Kick-Starter you’re going to get the poster. For HEAT, there’s a couple of things, I was just talking to my wife about doing a cell phone case with HEAT on it. I think people would like that. HEAT has been like a train, it’s been barreling forward and it's picking up so much steam, that it dominates everything being that its just me. But, just little things like that for HEAT; just getting it into more stores. Pushing it, I call it the HEAT Movement. So just pushing the HEAT movement and getting it going and trying to make it a household name. Thats the goal for HEAT!
Where do you see yourself next year?
It’s tough because I have to look at things day-by-day. If I try to look too far ahead, it might become too much for me. This time next year, I would’ve done a couple of Comic Cons. This time next year, I want to be selling 5,000 comics a month. That’s the goal that I’ve been trying to get to. This time next year, I will be doing this full time. Also, I am actually going to start migrating into 3D Animation using HEAT. I’m going to try to create and put some stuff on YouTube. Essentially, I want to be doing HEAT full time, Visually Stoked full time, and I want to be more than just a whisper on the edge of the comic book industry. I want to be kicking in the door. You will know who I am by the end of next year!
This last question will give the opportunity to sell yourself to all the people who will read this article. Tell all the readers out there what is your Truth in this world?
To order this issue and to pre-order upcoming HEAT issues, visit VisuallyStoked/HEAT