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Ho Che Anderson: I never actually said 'hey mom, this is my sex book'

Published on

Translation by:

Nabeelah Shabbir


The London-born Canadian graphic novelist, 38, is relaxed and frank as he discusses being chosen as the only black cartoonist to portray Martin Luther King, a series which took him ten long years to complete

My tall, dark guest is waiting patiently for me at the Mirada art gallery, decked out in his dark sunglasses and looking like a Hollywood star. Ho Che Anderson is a Canadian graphic novelist best-known for King, his series on the life of the African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther.

Science fiction childhood

Anderson was born in London in 1969. He moved with his parents to Toronto when he was five. 'It's a kind of traditional story, moving from England to Canada or the United States. A kind of migration for jobs - there is a lot of work in Canada and they shipped over there.' As a child he was already drawing quite a lot, although he never went to art school. 'I don’t like that. I just kept writing and drawing on my own. It's not a devalue on what you can learn in art school, I think, for me it's just never been something necessary. I was so motivated to learn by my own.´

His other childhood interest was science fiction comics, which were flooding the scene in eighties Canada. His favourite comics included American Flagg! by Howard Chaykin and Love & Rockets by the Hernandez brothers. But he cites Ronin by Frank Miller, creator of the original comics now known as successful Hollywood films Sin City and 300 as one of the reasons for wanting to become a cartoonist: 'I was so overwhelmed by this story, I never saw anything like it in my life. At that point it was completely revolutionary and really set me like I want to get in, do this kind of work.'

One letter changes everything

Anderson began to knock on various publishing house doors whilst still a teenager. There were many rejections, but also baby steps from the likes of Toronto-based publishing house Vortex Comic, also very active on the alternative Canadian scene. 'One day I got a letter from a company called Eros Comix. Not sure how they heard about me or why they decided to send me a letter; they said that they were starting this new company and they wanted submissions. It smelt like an opportunity and I jumped on it. At that point I didn’t realise - nobody knew at that moment - that it was the hot shot of Fantagraphics books based in Seattle,' - the heart of underground comics at the time. With his short story I Want to be Your Dog, inspired by a famous song by Iggy Pop & The Stooges, Anderson made his debut in the comic world. He's Anderson easy to talk to and very casual. Our beers arrive, which we toast before continuing where we left off – arriving in the comic business, an ambience with a lot of white and not much black. A detail soon to bring about a positive change.

King: ladies man with an inflated ego

Fantagraphics were looking for an author to start a biography on Martin Luther King. Anderson was chosen as the only cartoonist with black skin. He knew, that he wasn't the most qualified – he didn't know too much about civil rights, but he took the job on. He's either too modest or tries not to overexaggerate his story. That goes for King too. The charismatic leader without any faults of the official iconography is presented as a ladies man with an inflated ego. Furthermore, it took ten years to complete the series in three volumes. 'At first when I started, I was very enthusiastic about King. But after, wow, I just started to feel kind of burdened … and, what was my passion for it was replaced by burden and irritation.´

Being permanently broke at the beginning of his break meant he had to commit to various other projects. Frustration went hand in hand with this. Anderson experienced a crisis, and it took seven years to complete the second volume of King. But the final results speak for themselves. A hit with the critics as well as the public, in USA and in Europe, two markets whose taste he marks as being relatively similar. 'I am surprised,' he jokes. 'I cannot expect the positive feedback I had. I was expecting some negative reactions!'

The King biography combines fiction with close research. The black twentieth century icon is portrayed first and foremost as a human being. A human being, who is split between his private and public life. His characteristics are described in a fashion inspired by the film Reds by Warren Beatty. A number of witnesses provided quotes for Anderson, which he says are '99% real things that people said.´ From the basis of this information he portrayed King in his entire complexity, with all his virtues, passion for women and his power. A portrait, that inevitably disgruntled the wife of Luther King herself, before she passed away in 2006.

Ho Che Anderson on...

... his 'hot debut'

'I never actually said hey mom, this is my sex book - I think they know my graphic novel exists but I think they haven’t ever read it

... comparisons with graphic novelist Art Spiegelman's Polish Jew memoir 'Maus'

I never understood people saying that King and Maus are similar, it sounds ridiculous to me - they are completely different!

... becoming a cartoonist

... the future

Godhead is my latest project, where in a not so distant future a multinational enterptise builds a machine to communicate directly with God. The Vatican, opposed, hire mercenaries to destroy the devilish work

In-text and homepage photos and video: Anderson at the Komikazen festival (Emanuele Grifoni), slideshow (Ho Che Anderson)

Translated from Ho Che Anderson: «Disegnavo fumetti hard»