By Sridhar Pappu
Three demons stand in an unnamed Chicago alleyway, clustered behind their leader, Lady Torra. The sky is all lightning and black clouds, and Torra has raised her glowing wiry hand to conclude a moment of uneasy respite. Before them stands Reaction, his face cloaked, a cross swinging from his neck. The costumed hero engages Torra and her demons in a round of midair fights and superpowered high jinks, expelling them from earth in the course of ten pages. Despite their extravagant getups, superheroes are nothing if not efficient. Yet when was the last time Spider-Man went over Luke 4:8 (“Get thee behind me, Satan…”) before taking on Doctor Doom? Did Superman ever send his father’s nemesis from the phantom zone shouting “I bind you and banish you from this earth in the name of Jesus Christ”?
Religion, particularly Christianity, is rarely seen, talked about, or even hinted at in comic books (though the devil seems to turn up a lot), but it’s the foundation of Vinson Watson’s Reaction: The Ultimate Man. At 27, Watson has spent nearly half his life writing and drawing small-press comic books. His Bible-thumping, demon-whupping African-American hero dates from his high school days at Hales Franciscan. Initially called “the Acrobat of Power,” he was put together by angels on another planet and sent to earth. Watson fiddled with him over the years, tossing out the alien elements and christening him “Reaction” because of the secular world’s view of Christians as “reactionary.”
“The thing I didn’t want was for the book to be preachy,” Watson says. “He’s a guy who believes in this. But he doesn’t quote scriptures all the time, he just acts.”
Growing up in Hyde Park, Watson was drawn to Batman and Superman, but not until he began to read G.I. Joe and Wonder Woman in grammar school did he realize that his art skills could be applied in interesting ways. By the early 90s, when he was a student at Columbia College, the collectors’ market had produced an outlet for independent work, with no less than a dozen distribution companies. Watson’s first large-scale effort, Sweet Childe, about a possessed woman stalking male victims, drew fans from as far away as England during its three-year run. He stuck with the horror genre, financing his work with market research jobs, but by 1997, Marvel Comics had filed for bankruptcy and all but one of the distribution companies catering to collectors had gone under.
“My intention was always to have a Christian character,” Watson says. “One day I found myself sitting there, just kind of asking, ‘What the hell am I doing? This is not what God put me on earth to do.’ He gave me a talent. I knew what I was supposed to do with it, but it took me a while to take that direction.”
As with most independent comic book writers, Watson’s struggle to win a readership for Reaction has been an act of faith–and debt. He gave a Canadian publisher $800 to put out the “zero issue,” with less-than-great quality, and paid an American company $2,000 for the higher-grade first issue. Watson began saving for the latter while working as a law clerk, and after he lost that job he used his unemployment checks and a loan from his mother to bring the book to light. Unveiled in August at the Wizard World comicon in Rosemont, Reaction can be found at Graham Cracker’s Comics on Madison, Tower Records on Wabash, Chicago Comics on Clark, and Watson’s Web site (www.jps.net/artstar/reaction).
There are lots of ways this comic book could have been awful, but Watson avoids all of them. His artwork owes much to the dark, early 90s style that produced scores of bleak, heavy-handed comics in which the hero was one drink or decapitated corpse from becoming his obverse. But Watson’s hero is likable even to a secular reader, acting not from vengeful wrath (like Batman or Spawn) but from a desire to help. Moreover, Watson follows the precepts of the legendary Jack Kirby (Captain America, the Incredible Hulk), using big battle scenes and large-scale action to capture the reader’s attention.
Reaction may be a black superhero, but only because his alter ego, Darian Watts, happens to be black. “You write a black superhero like a superhero,” says Watson. “Every black superhero does not walk out of his house and see the KKK on his doorstep. It doesn’t happen. Racism happens. But me, personally, I’ve only experienced racism a few times. It may happen, but it’s not where you walk out and every white person is trying to kill you because you’re black. There’s a lot of comic books that just used black versus white. That’s an easy sale. That’s a gimmick.”
These are rough days for comic book writers and artists not working for a big company. With complete control over the market, Baltimore’s Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc., is the sole outlet for national distribution, and Watson says the company is less willing to take chances on work that isn’t guaranteed to sell. Still, he’s prepping Reaction for a nationwide run, with other artists currently working on the next two issues. Watson hopes that with months of “really pushing” the book he might break even. “This is fantasy. I keep it where fantasy belongs. I keep it as fantasy. But it’s affected by my faith. If I were to do anything, no matter how big I’d get, my faith would still be important.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.