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A Chat With Black Vans Creators Alex Smith & James Dillenbeck

Black Vans is a story coming from the collaboration of two indy creators: Alex Smith is the writer, James Dillenbeck provides stunning art with lettering and layout from their friend Steven Arnold. In a world where superheroes are disappearing, hackers are the next — maybe last — line of defense against the evil machinations of a single man who wants to control everything. Thanks to Alex and James for taking time to talk about Black Vans!

Gay League: Hello, Alex and James! You’re collaborating on the indy limited series Black Van with one issue behind you and the second coming soon. What’s the premise of the story and what makes you excited about working on it?

Alex Smith: Yes, Black Vans is about a group of 20-something queer hackers living in Phuture Philly known as EQs, prejoratively called “vannies” by the establishment. They provide intel, communications and support for the local super-hero community, much to the chagrin of people like pharma/tech magnate Goran Gale! The prototypical “guy in the chair”/ “man in the van” tech types. Bo is the lead– he’s an Afro-Latino plus-size gay man trying to find his way, constantly fucking up but somehow pulling it together. The super heroes start disappearing though, so it’s up to the EQ’s to the find out why and save the day. I wanted to write about characters who are, often quite literally, on the margins of genre films– typical queer Black and POC folks. It’s all told in this wild cyberpunk, super-hero high octane story!

I’m excited about every aspect of it. The story, art, even the lettering and layout from our friend Steven Arnold at Heel on the Press. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it to bring a story featuring varying body types, cultures and ethnicities saving the day! It’s still rare in comics and really rare in gay comics, at least those featuring gay men, to have larger bodies, browner and Blacker bodies. We trying to uplift.

James Dillenbeck: What makes me most excited is how uncompromising it is for both of our artistic visions, and that I think people will vibe with that.

GL: How did you two meet?

AS: We met on instagram! I found James’s art about two and half years ago through a friend who showed me and I was absolutely blown away! James draws what’s in my head, he manifests things in such a perfect, precise way that I can’t believe his work exists sometimes. After seeing the art, I was super nervous about contacting him, people are very very standoffish online, especially artists, unless you’re offering an immediate bag. But not only are James and I connected through our shared interests– art, punk and hip hop and all genres in between, weird films, sci-fi, comics, large chubby bear men, sumo wrestling, etc.– but we are both kindred spirits who love collaboration and meeting people through out art so it was super super easy for us to become fast friends! We just gossip into the wee hours and plot the overthrow of the world.

JD: Hmm. I think one of the big things that plays into the visuals is when we did meet, we were both doing a lot of the things we do visually in Black Vans, making fat bodies and People Of Color amplified, and in cyberpunk settings. Like the magic of the book for me is how the overlap in our passions is like, on the pages. You can see it. We really push each other and drive each other just through feeling seen by each other. It’s cool.

GL: One aspect of Black Vans in particular I think a lot of nerds will like is the commitment to feature characters with different body shapes which is something rarely seen in superhero comics. James, your fluid line work and bright colors really brings Alex’s characters to life.

AS: I hope you’re right about the welcoming of different body sizes. I still don’t see much by the way of differing body types, especially larger, fat bodies, in a heroic– strong emphasis on heroic– context in comics, so hopefully the people who have been wanting to see it feel empowered by our book! Fat people are usually portrayed as incapable which is just wrong on so many levels. All bodies are heroic bodies. The response to issue number one has been mostly like, 97.2% good, although James has definitely had his share of people being put off by his art– calling it scary or weird because he uses fat dudes in sexy, powerful ways. Whether they like it or not, this is the world of Black Vans– beyond inclusive and on to empowering.

Art from Black Vans #1

GL: There’s a political element to Black Van and I suspect a lot of that revolves around antagonist Goran Gale and his connection to an industry that countless Americans outright despise or have ambivalent feelings about. Is there anything more you can tease about Gale or other elements in the story?

JD: Gale is sexy as hell but don’t let him fool you. He’s equally evil, probably more so. No spoilies.

AS: Yeah, definitely keeping Gale more under wraps. Issue #2 explores him more. A lot more hahaha, he does some sketchy, sexy shit, but he also is pretty evil– he’s the representation of all the dudes we all hate, the Martin Shkrellis, the Donald Trumps, the war profiteers, the so-called A-list gays who think they run every aspect of gay culture– all gross, arrogant white men who need to be shut down, even if society tells them they’re hot haha. Like, we deliberately made Gale super super sexy from a visual standpoint in order for us to examine that– what defines sexiness?

GL: Are there any influences and creators in comics or other media that inspire you in general and or specifically for this comic?

JD: Movies like Blade Runner, Hackers, Big Trouble in Little China. Moebius and Metal Hurlant meets like 80s cartoons and some 70s Japanese imported toons. Old Toys. A whole lotta music.

AS: Yeah, for me all that James said and of course writers like Grant Morrison and Samuel Delany– just the way they tell stories by dropping you in face first and letting you figure it out really helped define my writing style.

GL: If Black Van had a playlist, what would be on it? And what music did you listen to while working on the issue?

JD: God there’s a lot but I think it would have a lot of original scores and some really cool classic track pulls. Stuff that speaks to the queerdos like us as far as like non score tracks. While working on it I listened to even more Shabazz Palaces, Sinoia Caves, Young Fathers, Nmesh, Sex Pistols, Los Saicos, Psychedelic Furs, Wu Tang, Pharcyde, Blondie, Fela Kuti, Fatboi Sharif, Gary Numan, The Jetzons… And tons of soundtrack music from fav films.

AS: I listened to a lot of scores like Mr. Robot, Stranger Things, Bladerunner 2049. Some of them got taken off Spotify so it’s made it harder to search for, but I liked the soundtrack to this weird indie sci-fi film from a few years ago, The Signal. And I love Ben Frost’s earlier work and his work on that show Dark. Always bump either Godspeed You Black Emperor or Chromatics for decades at this point when I need to get really zoned out and honed in on a piece of writing. I can’t listen to too much stuff with lyrics when writing. As for Black Vans soundtrack or playlist, I’d love to have some Yves Tumor, Moor Mother, The Comet is Coming, Buruka Som Sistema, Joker, Otis Galloway, Araab Muzik, Arca, Fatboi Sharif, Armand Hammer, Savan Depaul, Ghosh, Soul Glo, Pure Hell, Los Crudos…I could go on and on hahaha.

GL: Where can people find you on social media?

JD: I’m at @Jamesdillenbeck on Instagram and Twitter and my website is Jamesdillenbeckart.com, I have some cool non-Black Vans related artwork, prints and art books with similar big boy vibes folks can check out.

AS: Find Black Vans directly through the indie publishing company I started, @TheAfterverse on instagram. On twitter, I’m @Alexoteric. I am also publishing a collection of short stories titled Arkdust through Rosarium Publishing, out in September. Thanks for the interview!

GL: Thank you very much, Alex and James! Where can you find Black Vans? Alex and James are crowdfunding their second issue on Kickstarter with a few more days to go! What’s that? You missed the first issue? No stress! There’s a tier reward for both issues! Click the link to go to the Kickstarter page!

August 15, 2022
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