By Jonece Starr Dunigan
Before 28-year-old Blake Showers illustrated for a global publication, he was kid from Birmingham, Ala., who found solace and safety in Japanese comics.
He got his first taste of the genre, popularly known as manga, in first grade while recovering from nasal-passage surgery.
“My mom brought me a bunch of manga books to read,” Showers said. “It really helped take my mind off the pain. Being in the hospital made me restless as well. So during that time, I used my energy to daydream and enjoy manga.”
Today, Showers sketches his own manga series. Edited and co-written by another Birminghamian, Daniel Williams, “4strikes” is published through Saturday AM, the world’s most diverse manga anthology. The series features a Black, male demon-slaying protagonist. But its creation is part of Showers’ own heroic story arc: a Black man wanting to increase Black representation in the manga industry, while also obliterating the Black monoliths that exist in the genre. Showers said kids can tell when people who look like them are missing from the narrative.
“I don’t want a kid to feel like how I felt,” Showers said. “If they don’t see themselves in anything or see a Black main character they can relate to, they may think, ‘I just shouldn’t read this stuff.’ So that’s kind of why I really do a lot of Black representation in my work.”
Showers got his start in 2018 working as an illustrator for Saturday AM, which features kid-friendly manga published biweekly. Meanwhile, Saturday PM is described as the company’s “Adult Swim” version and comes out every three months. Both are available through Saturday AM’s app.
Due to its gory images and adult language, “4strikes” is published on the Saturday PM side of the brand. But Showers kept the kids in mind by creating a Power Rangers-esque comic called “Tortuga Force Five.”
While Showers moved to Philadelphia to be closer to his girlfriend and school, his work remains rooted in the South. Tortuga Force Five’s adventures take place in Georgia. “4strikes” takes place in Vulcan City, which is based off Birmingham’s Vulcan statue. The largest cast iron statue in the world towers over Birmingham as tribute to the city’s legacy in the iron and steel industry. Showers said he wanted to honor a region that’s often mischaracterized.
“People say, ‘Oh, everybody from the South is dumb, this, that and the other,’ Showers said. “But there’s a very rich culture in the South, and I don’t see a lot of stories that show that. So I’m gonna try to make characters that I know about because there’s so much you can talk about like there’s so many dialects.”
‘Well, I’m Not White’
While Showers also enjoyed western cartoons and American comics while growing up in Birmingham, both manga and anime added to the playground of his imagination throughout his life. With little money and no internet at his home, his local library on Birmingham’s east side fulfilled his manga craving. The stacks of manga books he checked out told stories that were slightly different than American comics. Instead of adult superheroes saving the day, the manga comics Showers picked out centered younger protagonists. He enjoyed Goku defeating monsters and demons in “Dragon Ball” and Luffy’s pirate adventures in “One Piece.”
But while these characters were around Showers’ age, they didn’t look like him. He noticed a lack of Black main characters in both American and Japanese comics and cartoons. Even at a young age, Showers felt erasure’s consequences weighing on his self-esteem. When he wanted to be Wolverine for Halloween, the only costumes he could find featured white muscles.
“I felt weird wearing it. I was like, ‘Well, I’m not white. So, I guess I’m not supposed to be Wolverine,” Showers said. “It was one of those moments when you don’t see yourself and you feel like, ‘Oh, you’re like not supposed to like this’ or ‘You’re not supposed to be included in this.’”
Even when he did see a Black on-screen hero, like “Blade,” he still felt disconnected from the character’s personality.
“They were always like the buff guy and cool and they kind of followed a certain stereotype,” Showers said. “And I was like, ‘Well, I’m not buff and I’m not really cool.’ So, it still kind of makes you think, ‘Hey, either you be cool and buff or just don’t be a part of it at all.’”
Showers found his solution through drawing. Looking back, Showers realizes his artistic style was influenced by the different ways he found joy during childhood. Whether it was to his grandmother’s house or running errands, Showers and his father found any excuse to leave the house. His father’s black Cadillac would vibrate around town as they listened to Southern rappers like Memphis’ Three 6 Mafia and New Orleans legend Master P. This special father-son time gave him to space to relax and appreciate the mastery behind both manga and hip hop music.
“I think hip hop is a really great art form because it started from taking nothing and making it into something through sampling, DJing and making beats,” Showers said. “It’s just like (visual) art, you have to sit down, practice it. You have to sit down and think about how you want to make your stuff stand out from everyone else’s.”
The Full Spectrum Of Blackness
For Showers, that practice started with redrawing panels of his favorite manga. The stories remained the same, but he added his own touches with a drawing style that meshes his childlike imagination with graffiti art. He enrolled in an animation class during high school where he’d basked in the spotlight as the student who really knew he could draw. After high school, he enrolled in Lawson State University to learn more about animation and worked side hustles teaching art to kids at a local art gallery and producing commissioned artwork.
The premise for “4strikes” came to him one night after getting off the bus. As he walked home in the darkness, he imagined what his life would be like if he also fought off monsters like the heroes do in his favorite animes. The first sketches of “4strikes” were created in 2016. Showers tapped his friend and fellow manga lover Williams to help edit and co-write the story which is about Meleak Williams, a shy and timid teen who ventures out of his comfort zone after becoming a bat-wielding demon hunter. When it comes to anime and cartoons, Showers said both writers and illustrators need to recognize the full spectrum of Blackness.
“Not every black person is going to be a tough guy. Not every Black person is going to be angry,” Showers said. “There should be a whole like spectrum of different personalities so you can get like the full understanding that Black people are just people as well. You don’t have to group us in the same boxes.”
Showers and Williams first tested out the popularity of their idea on Webtoon, a sort of database for digital comics. Their work soon caught the eye of Frederick Jones, founder of Saturday AM and writer of “Clock Striker,” the first shonen manga featuring a Black girl as the lead protagonist. Showers said it was fascinating networking with another Black man who also knows the ins and outs of the manga and pop culture industry.
Saturday AM and PM currently exist only in digital form. But Showers said the anthology is on its way to being printed and sold in bookstores like other manga series. Hopefully by June 2022, comic lovers of all colors and ethnicities can pick up a manga anthology that is full of characters that look like them.
Showers said he is proud to be a part of that team.
“It’s been really crazy seeing that unfold because they’ve been working so long,” he said. “I’ve only been there for four years, but just seeing our hard work on the shelves with ‘One Piece’ and ‘Naruto’ is very nice.”