Tim Fielder, Black Metropolis exhibition, NYC

Tim Fielder has been an artist, cartoonist and Afrofuturist for decades. Before the term afrofuturism was ever coined. Though a lot of comics readers might be forgiven for only discovering him in recent years after he self published Matty’s Rocket: Book One and Infinitum which was released by Harper Collins. Earlier this year, Fielder got a boost when Steph Curry’s book club Underrated picked Matty’s Rocket as its February selection. And in February in New York City, Fielder’s company Dieselfunk Studios was an official festival partner of the Carnegie Hall Afrofuturism Festival.

One part of the festival is a gallery show of Fielder’s work. “Black Metropolis: 30 Years of Afrofuturism, Comics, Music, Animation, Decapitated Chickens, Heroes, Villains, and Negroes” ran through February and March. The show features decades of work, a lot of unpublished or unseen since it came out. Fielder is open about having spent much of his career on the margins, about projects never seeing the light of day. At the show it’s possible to see the Dr. Dre graphic novel and dozens of other works he made over the years, to trace the evolution of his work, but also to see how the place of afrofuturism in culture has changed. Because on the one hand, it’s a chance to see Fielder evolve and grow as an artist, at a certain point, one has to wonder why a lot of the work was so ignored. Most successful artists are very open about the role that luck plays in a career and in our conversation Fielder makes clear the value of all that early work, even if no one saw it, and not wasting a moment now that he has more opportunities.

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ALEX DUEBEN: This exhibit is part of this larger festival and beyond just being about your work, it’s also representative of a lot of things about Afrofuturism and what that’s meant. When did you first come across the idea?

TIM FIELDER: Afrofuturism as a term didn’t come into existence into 1993-94 with Mark Dery’s coining of the term. Before then we called it black science fiction or black sci-fi. There was an established operating procedure – I use the word modality but my twin brother has been getting on me about using the word too much – with prose writers. We have a tradition of black writers who have written science fiction: Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Steven Barnes, and before that, W.E.B. DuBois. But we didn’t have that with comics. I’ve been doing this since I was around 12. I had an exchange with my oldest brother where he challenged how I was approaching black culture within my work. And it took. That’s the gear I’ve been in for the last 45 years. It’s just what I do at this point.

DUEBEN: What was it your brother said to you?

FIELDER: I had created this character, an older white man in military gear who was this master swordsman. He had double swords. I called him “The Master”. My brother ripped into me. What are you doing? Aren’t you aware that you have this white character called the master? I was thinking master swordsman, but that’s what tends to happen with a lot of young kids. When you’re young and you’re aware of race, but you’re not intrinsically aware of how it colors most everything in this country – and all over the planet! I began to find a purpose, and frankly a lifelong compulsion, to do work that would be science fiction and things I loved and featuring black characters who had agency. I’m not looking for perfection. I think flawed characters are good. I’ve done that over the course of my entire career.

I make no bones that my comic book career has never been one of any distinction. Partly because of the subject matter that I was doing didn’t really make people go, oh man, that’s going to be a big seller. That will be awesome having all those black characters in a book. I’ve been doing straight Afrofuturism within my work whether it be comics, concept design, that’s what I did. It’s not that I do it necessarily better than anyone else. It’s just that I’ve done it as long – or longer – than the vast majority of other practitioners.

Tim Fielder, Black Metropolis exhibition, NYC

DUEBEN: It was this conscious choice you made, that this was the work you would do.

FIELDER: At this point there’s no denying it. You know how you can try to trick yourself, well, I didn’t really do that or mean to do that. But then they hang the show and it’s dated and you go, okay. That’s what it was. [laughs] That’s what I’ve done my entire life. It intersected into music and video games and animation, but it was the same thing. Whether it was mainstream publishing like the Dr. Dre comic – that still to this day remains unpublished! – or the other books that I did that nobody’s seen except the folks who come to the show.

DUEBEN: So much of science fiction is critique, and it’s not exclusive to black science fiction. It’s embedded in the genre.

FIELDER: It is a black thing. And not because I’m trying to push back against what you’re saying, but because I’ve just been doing it. [laughs] People have asked, what’s the genre you work in? Black science fiction. That’s what I do. It's a real thing. Chip Delany appears in my documentary, which is based on the show. I was trying to do a Black Metropolis book – and I’m still trying to do it as a book – but my twin brother and I shot a feature film length documentary which premiered at the festival. Samuel Delany appears in it and when we sat down, I said, you do realize that Afrofuturism is real. It’s a thing. And you created it! And he said, of course. Because he did! Whether or not he is totally in or out, doesn’t matter. The point is that he did something that influenced an entire generation of people who came after him. That’s what this particular event has been about for me. I’m seeing, oh my god, my work doesn’t just stand by itself in this vacuum. There are people who are practitioners that are both in my generation and people that are younger – and I’m not saying they look up to me – but they’re looking at me as a weathervane, maybe? I’m not adapting anybody else’s work. I’m doing my own work. I don’t have the convenience of being able to say, well, this author’s work, they’re the primary, I’m just drawing it. No. This is my work. It’s totally my work. And I have a responsibility to the work.

DUEBEN: Delany is amazing because he made a body of work that is so personal and unique. And it spoke to and inspired so many people not to be like him, but to make their own personal, unique work.

FIELDER: I haven’t talked about it, but I’ve been collaborating with Chip since last summer on an adaptation of Nova. You’re the first journalist who I’ve spoken to about this. A publisher was interested and I produced four pages. There are multiple gallery shows going on during the festival besides just my show, “Black Metropolis,” which focuses on my work. There’s the show at Carnegie Hall itself called “The Black Angel of History” curated by my friend Reynaldo Anderson. Those Nova pages appear in that show. I’ve talked with Chip and I don’t know if anything will come from it, but I felt like it was important that those pages be seen. I’m tired of doing work that’s not seen.

DUEBEN: From the start you were looking at writers like Delany and reading Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated and seeing your work in this continuum of work coming out and being made. Even if you weren’t being published, you had a context for what you were doing and trying to do.

FIELDER: I do understand that I’m part of this continuum. Richard Corben passed away, what. last year? and the last pro comic job I did in the first half of my career, which was the mid-eighties until 1999-2000, was on this soft porn comic. [laughs] It was called Forbidden Zone with Arthur Suydam. My friend Horatio Weisfeld was one of the editors. I had done breakdowns for Richard. He totally changed the breakdowns and I was just blown away because – Richard Corben changed my breakdowns! [laughs] I didn’t know the man at all, but I remember talking with him over e-mail a few times. I showed him Black Metropolis and he said, you would have fit right in at Heavy Metal. That was like Ah!! [laughs] Heavy Metal came out when I was nine or ten. I was too young, I mean I had no business reading that stuff, but it totally altered the course of my life. That and the concept designs of Ralph McQuarrie, Ryan Cobb, and Syd Mead, and it was over.

DUEBEN: You had this vision of the work you wanted to make, and when you came to New York, did you find your people?

FIELDER: Alex, when I came here I felt very much alone. I didn’t know any other people who did black science fiction art except for one or two people. Out of those people, one of them, Floyd Hughes, my good friend, we were both interviewed for a documentary called Black Science Fiction in 1991 that had Octavia Butler, Sam Delany, Steven Barnes. We were the only visual artists in it, but the guy cut us out.

DUEBEN: So it was a lonely profession in some ways?

FIELDER: Comics was a lonely profession, but I found like-minded people. There was a community of black avant-garde thinkers. They call them afro punks now. I guess we called ourselves afro punks? It was really centered around the music industry. I did a lot of art in both the commercial space with publications like The Village Voice and then performance space with the Black Rock Coalition where I did a number of their early flyers. I used to think it was mostly just black rock, but it's amazing what happens when you see your work. I did one of the early illustrations of Queen Latifah when she first came out for The Village Voice. I totally forgot about that. In terms of comic book artists, we were there, and there was a more commercial group and then the self published group and I was not part of either. I was my own ronin, I guess.

DUEBEN: So back then people knew you because you were the artist-illustrator-designer-whatever in the scene.

FIELDER: I was the weird guy in the corner. [laughs] I didn’t do superheroes particularly well. Although I wanted to do them. The one time I met with Art Spiegelman, I didn’t understand because I was so young that he was offering me this opportunity to do work for Raw – and I turned him down! You idiot! Do what he tells you to do! But that’s what happens when you don’t have mentors at a young age. That’s another thing that I’m realizing. There are other guys who could be doing what I’m doing. But for whatever reason, they either didn’t, the systems didn’t allow them to do it, but I am being allowed to do it. That doesn't mean that I’m going to be allowed to do it for long. But for right now, I understand how precious it is to have the opportunity to do that.

I did not have a mentor, so I made a lot of mistakes in my career. I didn’t have anyone that understood the realities of the market I was in. To go, this is the way the world works, but I’m not just going to tell you that, I’m going to show you why. That I did not have. I’m burned out from teaching, but I’m not opposed to mentoring younger practicing Afrofuturists and particularly young Afrofuturists of color who focus on comics.

DUEBEN: You mentioned before that you were doing comics and then left and came back.

FIELDER: That’s because the industry crashed. I didn’t leave Afrofuturism. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again because I want it to be known: the most racist industry I’ve ever been in was the video game industry. I’ve never seen anything like it. The comic book industry has its issues like any other industry but I never seen anything like the video game industry. And it wasn’t localized in the United States. It was terrible. I learned a lot technically. It changed my life because I learned a lot that influences my work to this day. But my god.

DUEBEN: You returned to comics and you got back just before this new Afrofuturist wave seemed to hit.

FIELDER: In 2009 I went back to school to NYU. I resurrected my old concept which turned into Matty’s Rocket. I was originally doing it as animation and then in 2015 I released Matty’s Rocket Book One. I have four books already written. Reynaldo Anderson calls this Afrofuturism 2.0, but really it's just Afrofuturism now. It’s like an operating system upgrade. You can call it Afrofuturism 2.0. but it’s like Windows 11 going to Windows 12.

DUEBEN: It had been happening and people were putting out good work and then Black Panther came out.

FIELDER: Thank you, Ryan Coogler!

DUEBEN: I remember we talked after it came out and you said something like, as a story it’s a 7 but on a cultural level, it’s an 11.

FIELDER: It changed everything. First, it made it safe to come out. Two, it made it potentially financially rewarding to come out. Because it didn’t just connect to Black American audiences, it connected to worldwide audiences. Of course these are things that I and other people have been doing for decades. This showed the world that there’s this other way of working.

Keep in mind, I’m good, but my work qualitatively is no different than it was thirty years ago. There are differences because I’m older and mature. Thirty years ago I was doing it by hand with paint and gouache and now I do it digitally, but it’s the same thing. That movie was indirectly, and in certain ways directly, responsible for Infinitum existing.

DUEBEN: It’s been strange seeing afrofuturism take off like this. Maybe strange is the wrong word but now it’s almost everywhere and people know it.

FIELDER: You’re one of only two journalists who can ask that question to me with any context. You’re not just coming in now going, wow, Janelle Monae, Sun Ra. Strange is part of it, but it’s not adequate to describe what’s happened. It is an experience. It’s weird, strange, surreal, absolutely exhausting, absolutely exhilarating. I would say life altering is the word. My career, my life has been altered. Sure I could go and do something stupid and it would all come crashing down. [laughs] Who wants to run around in obscurity for multiple decades? Some people get off on that. I can tell you, I did not get off on that. [laughs] I hated that. Now it is nice to be a known quantity.

Tim Fielder

DUEBEN: As a fan it's been amazing to see things change over just a few years and I can’t imagine seeing the ground move under your feet the way you have.

FIELDER: It’s not seeing the ground move, it’s feeling it move under your feet. And I say that not to contradict what you’re saying, but because it is absolutely terrifying to have the ground shifting under your feet. Because I’ve felt that. I spent my childhood and my young adulthood becoming this comics professional – and then in the nineties the industry collapsed. I made a choice and went into animation. So I’m used to that feeling of impermanence. I’m used to the feeling of knowing that you’re doing something but it’s not guaranteed. Nothing is guaranteed. Afrofuturism could end tomorrow. I have no illusions about that. The only thing that I can say for sure is when you are in a system and you know that system is cranking, you ride it ’til the wheels fall off. That’s what I’m doing. And when the wheels fall off, I’m going to stick them back on, and keep riding some more. I have no illusions. The only time that truly matters is now.

DUEBEN: You keep telling these stories and doing this work. It’ll be huge or people ignore it or somewhere in between, but you have to keep doing this work.

FIELDER: The internet is an insidious creation, but for a person like me, the internet is miraculous. It has allowed a person like me who not only could not but did not get through the mainstream system all those many years ago to now effectively create my own ecosystem. Now I’m a known quantity virtually on my own. I have a mainstream relationship with a publisher but now I have an independent relationship with the public that’s in many ways as prominent. More prominent.

I have had to learn to become comfortable with being an unabashed self-promoter because that is the world we are in. And I prefer that world! Because in that world, you can do an end run around most systems in this world because there aren’t five people who are gatekeeping. Now literally there are two thousand gates and only one hundred of them are really being guarded. If a thing like this festival existed ten years ago, I would have been completely ignored. But now, my company Dieselfunk Studios is an official festival partner.

DUEBEN: Talk about the festival because the gallery show Black Metropolis has been exhibited before this.

FIELDER: This is the third time that the show has existed. Each show had a different objective, if that makes sense. The first show I was asked to do and I thought, I’ve never shown my work like this, this will be fun. And then by the end of it, I knew, I have to do this again. The second thing I realized was that I have done a lot of work. Thousands and thousands of drawings. With the second show, I was a bit more focused. I wanted the show to travel and I was hoping that I could get a book deal from it which resulted in Infinitum getting signed. Now here we are with this big thing during the Carnegie Hall Afrofuturism Festival, which is the first festival of its size and kind in history. Everything that I’m doing now with the festival was part of a defined plan. My twin brother Jim finished editing the film project. It was my job to remount the show and handle most of all the media and the promotion, which – knock on wood – has been incredibly incredibly effective thus far.

DUEBEN: The exhibit is decades of your work and many projects and you’re one of those artists who keeps all their artwork?

FIELDER: I didn’t mean to! That’s one of the effects of not being published. [laughs] So I have all of my early work, with the exception of a few things that I think were stolen. But I never sold my originals.

Tim Fielder

DUEBEN: Do you want to put on the exhibit again?

FIELDER: I’ve been approached by other galleries about this Black Metropolis show and I want the show to travel. I want to go international. I’ve been asked by professional archivists, what are you going to do with your archives? The worst thing in the world that could happen, in my estimation, is that the work not be seen. The entire purpose of doing the work and creating this show where the work is assembled in one place is so that it be seen by the general public. But specifically young afrofuturists who can say, okay, he’s good, but I’m going to show the world that I can do better and blow him out of the water. That’s the objective.

DUEBEN: You want people to say, this is okay, but I could make something great.

FIELDER: Or, I hate that, and I’m going to show you how it's done. If you’re going to be in the game, then be in the game. Dr J. was great, and Michael Jordan was probably better, but he wouldn’t be where he is without Dr J. But then you go to Steph Curry, who is not from that line. He changed the system and the way the game is played. I would be okay if I could do that. I don’t know if I am doing it. I would be okay if I didn’t do it. I would be fine if I influenced a person who did. I don’t know, but I feel very, very relieved that the opportunity is there to do that.

DUEBEN: Speaking of Steph Curry, his book club Underrated picked Matty’s Rocket for February 2022. Which combined with the festival has probably helped your book sales and is something of a big deal.

FIELDER: I reissued Matty’s Rocket thanks to Steph Curry. [laughs]

I’m self publishing it. I desperately wanted a book deal. Oh man, I tried! Only a few people had seen the floppies and when I first printed the full graphic novel, I only printed six hundred of them. I wanted to get the book out for this festival but either publishers weren’t interested or I was told, that’s not enough time. And there was a point where I said, okay, maybe this won’t work, I’ll just focus on the art show. But then Steph Curry – and we tried for months to get the book club to take Infinitum – he says he wants Matty’s Rocket. What am I going to do, say no? [laughs] So I’ve been pulled back into self publishing. I’m like Pacino. Once I’m out, they pull me back in. [laughs]

Tim Fielder

DUEBEN: You’re back to self-publishing Matty’s Rocket, which is how we first met, but it’s a different world from back then.

FIELDER: A very different world, my friend

That’s really what it is. I’ve always had plans, but at this point there’s a sense of urgency to these plans measured in days and hours and not years. That’s the difference. There are pitch decks for films and TV shows and scripts and overtures I have to make. Matty’s Rocket wasn’t picked up by a traditional publisher, but Infinitum was. I will continue to do things –perhaps aggressively so – that in my opinion are required as an author to sell a book. But when you’re an independent publisher, that takes on an entirely different spectrum. Every independent person on planet Earth who writes books or graphic novels is looking at Brandon Sanderson. Self publishing is different today than it was in 2010.

DUEBEN: It is. And Afrofuturism is a very different place. This festival is incredible and I’ve found new people and new work and new ways to think about older work and the connections between them. It’s exciting to see what might come next.

FIELDER: The question is whether it will become a brief phenomenon or will it have a long life? Will it be like blaxploitation films? Or will it be like hip hop? I think afrofuturism has the possibility to last, but we’ll see what happens. The only thing that determines that is the quality of the work. People will say that what determines it are commercial interests, but I think the quality of the work can influence the commercial interests. So we will see. My job is to do my part. To be an ethical publisher and a productive and ethical film producer. To be an ambassador for afrofuturism. To be a creator.

Alex Dueben has written for The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, The Comics Journal, The Paris Review, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, and many other publications. More of his work can be found at alex-dueben.com and @alexdueben.