Artwork by Jim 'Seitu' Dyson

ArtBooks

This forgotten comic artist from the Black Power movement was a true revolutionary

July 5, 2018
By L.E.J. Rachell, AFROPUNK contributor

The success of the recent Black Panther movie has put a spotlight on the history of Blacks in American comics. Rarely discussed, though, is the work of Jim ‘Seitu’ Dyson, one of the most significant graphic artists of the Black Power movement. Perhaps better than anyone else, his work epitomizes the aims, philosophy, and culture of Black Power in comic form. Like Emory Douglas of the Black Panther Party, Seitu was the epitome of a revolutionary artist. Just as Douglas’ illustrations were featured in the Panther’s newspaper, Seitu’s artwork was featured in the Black News, the newspaper of the Brooklyn based Black Power group the EAST (1969-1986).

Whereas Douglas’ work was inspired by third world poster art, the influence of American comics on Seitu’s work is obvious. One can see, for example, in his covers for Black News the sensationalism of EC Comics. Illustrations shift from comedic to realistic to psychedelic in a style that reflected the grit and rawness of the urban environment. His characters, which were straight from the hood if not the ghetto were portrayed in a heroic form, something rare in the history of the Black image in the American mass media at the time.

 

While Seitu’s characters do not come before Marvel Comics’ Black Panther and the Falcon, they do predate Marvel’s Blade, DC Comics’ Black Lightning, Cyborg and the Green Lantern John Stewart. They also come before Marvel’s Luke Cage, a character based off of Blaxploitation movies like Shaft which were a direct response to the Black Power movement. Seitu’s characters predate the Blaxploitation era as well as the antiheroes of 1970’s Black pulp fiction such as Donald Goines’ Kenyatta series.

These Black Marvel and DC characters, which were all created by White men, are also agents of Empire. Being members of such groups as the Avengers or the Justice League, they most often fight on behalf of the Western powers, to defend and maintain the “American way of life”(1) . Seitu’s characters instead fought against the Empire not just for Black people but for third world people across the globe, including Arabs, Latinos, and Asians. His characters as representative of what was going on in the movement fought against White supremacy and its agents.

In fighting against “the Powers that be”, Seitu’s characters turned the idea of what a hero is upside down. His heroes are people portrayed in the mainstream as the villains. The niggas are the good guys and the bad guys are the police and all the President’s men. As such Seitu’s characters were absolutely empowering. They were not about what the White imagination is comfortable with (2) .

These are more than just comics. His work is an early example of what KRS-One referred to as “edutainment” in that his work was entertaining but specifically meant to be educational. The foundation of the EAST was its school, the Uhuru Sasa Shule. Many of the same illustrations from Black News appeared in the school’s self-published textbooks. Seitu’s art was designed to create positive Black images to defeat feelings of inferiority and “to counteract low self-esteem”(3) .

To paraphrase Dr. Adilifu Nama, Superhero comics are a projection of this society’s desires and fears. Art in general is a reflection of a groups morals, philosophy, and lifestyle. If, as he argues in his book Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, comics say much about the values trying to impart on young people, then the overall message of the EAST was self-determination. “Agitate, educate and organize” was the motto of the Black News. As part of a crew that was both defining and redefining what it meant to be Black, Seitu’s work helped to conceptualize what Black is and can be(4) .

Much of the inspiration for his characters came from the EAST. In their activist mode, the members were real-life crime fighters taking on corrupt cops and drug dealers, crooked politicians and the evil mind control of the Public Education System. Seitu was part of a posse of ghetto Jedi knights with their own superhero aliases (Swahili names) and costumes (dashikis, mud cloth). Even the name of the EAST was done as a superhero logo. He himself was like a real-life Black Dynamite without the foolishness – ex-soldier, martial artist, 6’5 basketball player… ladies loved him, girls adored him.

Unlike the Panthers who portrayed themselves more as street soldiers, the EAST members could be seen more as spiritual warriors. The metaphysical is as important as the martial.

This mentality is embodied in what is perhaps Seitu’s most well-known work – the cover for the Last Poets’ 1972 album ‘Chastisement’.

An Afrofuturistic scene that looks like it could have been taken from an Xmen comic book depicting the Xmen versus the villain Apocalypse shows a coming battle, part of a cosmic war between good and evil. It is filled with political and religious symbolism.

America is cast as a modern day Babylon. In its center is a golden calf, i.e. a false god, symbolizing a false belief system is at the core of America. This false idol is worshipped by citizens offering a tribute of money. To the side is a cross attached to chains symbolizing Christianity as slavery.

Anthropomorphic characters are lined up as soldiers. They are animalistic like jackals, carrion who feed off the dead. Each has a little devil on their shoulders. The soldiers are made to look like Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife, lord of the underworld, protector of the graves and cemeteries, god of the necropolis. This America is the Egypt of evil Pharaoh who enslaved Moses’ people. If these soldiers can also be interpreted as protectors of the underworld, America then is hell.

But here comes the B-side… Black men crested with the colors of the Black nationalist flag, red black, and green (RBG), swooping down to do battle. The wings and halos signify they are on the side of God as if they were avenging angels. America then is not just the enemy, it is the epitome of evil. The Black men who are most often portrayed as evil are instead doing God’s work. The fact that these angels are specifically Black men speaks to the belief that this war of righteousness requires a masculine response but one that is still spiritual. While it is Black men who must lead the way they are servants of a higher power.

This is just one of the many non-EAST pieces Seitu was known for. He did any number of posters, flyers, and art for other Black Power groups, events, and projects in the New York area. The EAST was representative of a larger Black counterculture, an earlier version of the “conscious community”. In that sense, Seitu’s work could be discussed more in the context of the underground commix such as Zap Comix, the East Village Other and that of artists like Spain Rodriguez. These were also works that were usually self-published and creator-owned, a Do It Yourself (D.I.Y.) aesthetic with similarities to the EAST’s ideas of self-determination. However, whereas the anti-establishment theme of the underground commix was anarchic, Seitu’s work was more life-affirming. Seitu’s work was about the idea of teaching Black people to save themselves, to be their own heroes. He lived his art.

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