R. Alan Brooks has been busy.
Over the last several years, one success has led to another for the Denver-based writer. In 2016, Brooks teamed up with fellow comic book nerd Jordan Froelich at Mutiny Information Cafe to create the Motherfucker in a Cape (MFIAC) podcast, talking to creators, activists and other key figures in “geek culture” about topics that are often overlooked. It’s a lifelong crusade for Brooks, who, as a child, was often the only black person at the comic book conventions he went to.
That same year, Brooks launched a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to write his first graphic novel, The Burning Metronome, a murder mystery with supernatural undertones. Then came the teaching position at Regis University, where he’s the first professor of graphic narrative, then a gig with the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and a weekly comic called What’d I Miss? for the Colorado Sun. By 2020 he was working on his second graphic novel, Anguish Garden, an allegorical sci-fi piece about white supremacy, and The Straw Man, his first screenplay, cowritten with longtime friend Victor V. Hogan.
This month, Brooks has teamed up with the Dairy Art Center to host a four-part series of MFIAC for the arts organization’s Black History Month celebrations. He’ll also be contributing a one-minute lecture once a month for the Dairy’s e-newsletter.
He’s got a lot on his plate, but Brooks seems to be enjoying the meal.
“I’ve just spent so much of my life having to do things that I didn’t enjoy for employment, so now that I get to do it, I’m just doing it all,” Brooks says with a laugh. “This is what I want to do. This is what I wanted to do. So I’m going to do it all. That’s kind of how it’s going, you know?”
Raised in Atlanta, Brooks’ love of reading was fueled by his father, a journalist who gave his son books by Octavia Butler, Walter Mosley, C.S. Lewis, Mark Twain and Ralph Ellison — all of which he loved. But it was comic books that entranced the young Brooks, especially X-Men.
“Being the only black kid at comic book conventions and only having one other friend who liked comic books at all, being an outsider because of that, and because of liking Weird Al Yankovic and stuff like that, the theme of X-Men being excluded because they were mutants certainly appealed to me,” Brooks says. “And then Professor X and Magneto felt like analogs for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. I just enjoy people sort of finding their special talent that allows them to break out of whatever box they were put into.”
It took Brooks a while to break out of his own boxes and find his place in the world of comics. When he moved to Denver in 2003, he threw all his weight into a rapping career as Soul Daddy, writing, producing, booking and promoting his work himself, hiring jazz musicians as his backing band. He spent about a decade playing shows around Denver, but finally burned out and decided to try something more stable. So he opened an insurance firm.
But burnout struck again after some years, and Brooks, then in his late-30s, needed a reset. He took a trip to Europe that became a turning point in his life.
“I basically grew up in the one place where people really didn’t like me,” Brooks says of his childhood in the South. “When I went to Europe, I was nervous that I was going to have that same experience — people were going to dislike me. And then I realized in other parts of the world, that most people value my creativity and intelligence.”
When Brooks was back stateside, he threw himself into working on graphic novels. And then the aforementioned cascade of success.
Of course there have been some setbacks: The pandemic paused production on The Straw Man (though Brooks says talks have resumed and filming may start in September of this year), and when he announced he was starting Anguish Garden, Brooks received racist death threats.
Unwilling to allow himself to be silenced by fear and shame, Brooks shared the comments on social media.
“I’m not going to let them do that to me in secret,” he says. “If you’re going to go to a public social media platform and you’re going to send me something like that, then you intend for it to be public.”
So far, he hasn’t experienced anything like that again.
But it speaks to the issues we’re still facing in this country, which Brooks addresses in his graphic novels. Much like Star Trek and X-Men, Brooks is able to dissect social ills in a disarming way through fantasy and sci-fi.
“In, say, relationship counseling, you’re taught how to address a conflict; they teach you to not say, ‘You did this,’ or ‘You did that,’ they teach you just to talk about your own feelings, your own experience,” he says. “If I wrote a speech or a manifesto about racism or social justice or whatever, it has a different kind of charge, it feels accusatory. Whereas if you take the same principles and put them in a different context, suddenly the charge is removed and people can hear it.”
Brooks points to one of his idols, Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone. Serling himself wasn’t interested in fantasy or sci-fi. His scripts about racism and war weren’t jiving with TV producers of the late ’50s and early ’60s.
“They called him the angry young man of television,” Brooks says. “And then he hit on an idea that if he embeds his messages in sci-fi and fantasy, he wouldn’t be censored. I’m paraphrasing him here, but he said, ‘I could have Martians saying things that I couldn’t have Democrats and Republicans saying.’ So I think that fantasy removes the emotional charge around these topics.”