Ignored by publishing industry, R. Alan Brooks writes his own destiny

Denver author and comics artist R. Alan Brooks meets a lot of people at the city’s top-tier art openings and cultural events, from the Denver Art Museum — which weeks ago opened its second exhibit featuring his work — to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, where he’s readying the release of Season 2 of his “How Art Is Born” podcast.

Despite that, Brooks is a relative newcomer to the elite tiers of the art world, having been ignored by the mainstream publishing industry for years. Even with a flurry of new projects, and growing acclaim from recent ones, he doesn’t always know who the power players are.

They, on the other hand, are often fans of his.

“When the latest [Denver Art Museum exhibition] opened, my girlfriend was watching people look at it and was like, ‘Hey, he’s the one who drew that!’” said Brooks, 47, via phone from his Denver home. “And a few people were like, ‘Oh, don’t you write that What’d I Miss? comic from the Colorado Sun? I read that, and I send it to my mom!’”

He does. The 4-year-old strip, illustrated by Cori Redford, recently won its second Society of Professional Journalists award and enjoyed its first hardcover anthology, collecting the first 100 comics from a series that deals thoughtfully and head-on with racism, bigotry, corrupt power structures, and personal accountability (it’s also, at times, laugh-out-loud funny).

That joins Brooks’ provocative TEDx Mile High talk, “When the world is burning, is art a waste of time?” that’s been viewed 2.3 million times since 2021; graphic novels and comic books; professorship at Regis University’s MFA program (teaching comics) and instructor job at Lighthouse Writers Workshop; screenwriting; and stage-hosting gigs for visiting artists.

It’s a lot. At one point during the October opening reception for the Denver Art Museum’s (DAM) “Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools: Flemish Masterworks: 300 Years of Flemish Masterworks,” Brooks also failed to recognize museum director Christoph Heinrich — even though he definitely knew who Brooks was.

“He came up to me and was really nice. He said, ‘Did you know you’re the only living artist in this exhibition?’” Brooks remembered. “And I said no. It had never even occurred to me to think of it that way.”

Despite being a Flemish historical survey, Lauren Fretz Thompson, DAM’s senior interpretive specialist, reached out to Brooks for the exhibit after his first DAM piece — a comic about Black cowboy Nat Love — was received so well that it’s still on display on the 7th floor in the Martin Building.

His contribution this time? A luxuriant and meticulously designed graphic novel about Biblical figure Balthazar, one of three wise men who visited newborn Jesus on the night of his birth. From a historical perspective Balthazar was thought to be Black, but he’s also traditionally been depicted as white, with a Black servant, Brooks said.

“Lauren said, ‘Hey, some of the art in this exhibit is the first time he was ever portrayed as Black,’ ” Brooks said. “So I thought it would be interesting to write it from Balthazar’s perspective, of meeting an infant Jesus Christ, and also what it would be like for him to observe the centuries of art that have depicted him as a white person.”

Brooks’ nuanced, deeply personal take on thorny and fast-evolving subjects helps traditional art and media gatekeepers look fresh and relevant, but it’s kept him on the margins of mainstream pop culture. Dozens of publishers have passed on his fully formed projects, often telling him that they needed to see depictions of Black pain to be saleable, or that they were only interested in the ways white people had been mean to him.

“I think it’s a passive sort of racism,” Brooks said, relating the story of legendary director and writer Melvin Van Peebles, a Black man who early in his career was forced to move to France to be taken seriously.

After writing and making films in France in the 1960s, Van Peebles returned to America with a reputation, even though he still had to fight for projects in an industry dominated by white people.

“There’s this TV interview where a French journalist asks him essentially: ‘Why don’t you publish in America?’ ” Brooks said. “And Melvin basically says, ‘I’m interested in experiencing the whole of my humanity, and America is only interested in the suffering of the negro.’ ”

Brooks has not found his traction through traditional means. The second book in his graphic novel series, “Anguish Garden,” was published in early November thanks to dogged crowdfunding efforts and affordable local and overseas publishers. The series presents a sci-fi allegory about white supremacy, and the first entry netted him racist death threats. Book II, funded in part with a $25,000 grant from Colorado Creative Industries, takes on white-supremacy recruitment tactics via a bracing sci-fi allegory that mixes westerns and aliens.

“One of the benefits of doing a whole bunch of stuff is that I can make a living being creative,” said Brooks, who’s also the art manager for the nonprofit Pop Culture Classroom. “But it means always having this litany of things to do on my calendar when I wake up each morning.”

Up next: Brooks hopes to break into Webtoon, the industry-standard digital comics app designed just for smartphones; it’s where the majority of the world’s newly minted comics fans are getting their fix. He’s writing the script to the comeback film in the 1984 “Breakin’ ” franchise, having jumped into screenwriting the last couple of years, and prepping a reprint of his comics series The Burning Metronome, an acclaimed supernatural murder-mystery that’s frequently requested at the comics conventions Brooks attends around the country (he always pays his own way, he said).

Given his projects of late, Brooks, a former musician who grew up in Atlanta, has helped expand the boundaries of Black art in Denver. The more he follows his personal compass, the more success he seems to have, he said. And he’s finished trying to convince national publishers to care about a growing, multimedia body of work that has consistently engaged diverse audiences.

“It’s a really cool thing,” he said of his career, which he never could have planned. “When I was a kid I didn’t really feel comfortable in museums and academic settings. And now these places are coming to me and embracing the stuff I’m creating. It’s surreal, but now, I’m also one of the people at these institutions trying to get new generations interested in art and writing.”

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