Superhero blockbusters have taken center stage on the pop-culture calendar, with movie adaptations of Marvel and DC properties redefining the course of the film industry over the last decade. Comic books remain at the center of this wave, but beyond the two most powerful comic publishing powerhouses, a whole world of innovative, risk-taking stories lies untapped.
“They have the big marketing machine behind them,” says JayDee Rosario, founder of Brooklyn-based independent publisher Unstoppable Comics. “We don’t; so we can take those chances when it comes to our storytelling. I think that’s what inhibits [Marvel and DC].”
Finding himself frustrated with the glaring lack of representation in the industry, JayDee Rosario started Unstoppable Comics in 2008 to give a space to perspectives we don’t usually see in mainstream comics. Tired of stories that centered wealthy playboys and infallible gods, JayDee’s characters were inspired by folklore and the people around him. Unstoppable’s flagship title Shield of the Interceptor is loosely based on Arthurian legend and pays tribute to David Flynn, one of JayDee’s best and oldest friends who lives with acromegaly, a hormonal growth disorder. Similarly, Starstriker – the formerly disgraced leader of Unstoppable’s team-up book Stormchasers – is a collision of JayDee’s cousin and Taíno mythology he discovered while in college.
“I found a myth on the cave of life,” he recounts, “and it said all of the birds, trees, air, water and people came from a cave that was guarded by the warrior Marocael. When one night when he fell asleep, he was punished by Mother Earth and turned into stone.” The story was short, but enough to propel JayDee in a direction that engaged his Puerto Rican heritage and questioned the lack of diversity in comics.
Born to Boricua parents and raised in Starrett City, Brooklyn, JayDee lost his father at a young age. Family outings to see Superman and Star Wars films impressed on him a life-long love for sci-fi and fantasy, as did inheriting his father’s modest but influential collection of Power Man and Iron Fist comics. He once even faked a book report by basing it on the Dark Phoenix saga from the X-Men comics, joking, “I think that’s the only A+ I ever got!”
When his mother went to work on the weekends, JayDee would get dropped off at his grandmother’s apartment in Bushwick. “She would let me stop at the bodega where the owner was reselling his son’s used comic books for fifty cents a pop,” he reminisces. “I’d go upstairs with two dollars worth of comic books and I was in my glory!” The formative value of comics for children of low-income families is not lost on JayDee. He adds, “comics were always in my life growing up, and they were affordable. As long as I was reading, I had family members who happily contributed to my supply.”
However, there were few characters a young kid of color could identify with in the comics Rosario devoured in his childhood. Even now, as conversations on representation and inclusion in entertainment spaces have become a hot topic, there remains much to be done. Comic book fans and critics have noted that thus far, efforts at adding female and racially diverse characters have been largely supplemental, focused on pre-established titles like Captain America, Thor and Iron Man. Instead, critics say, publishers should develop their own unique properties that center these types of characters and storylines.
This is a trend that Unstoppable’s pantheon of heroes actively counteracts, with characters like Mrs. Freedom, the brazen leader who comes out of retirement to assemble a new group of Stormchasers after a mission goes awry, and Quetzalcoatl, the winged Aztec snake deity bringing ancient wisdom and gravitas to the team.
JayDee’s voice and experiences echo through Unstoppable’s various titles. “When I began to read the comics, after we started working together, I got the impression the characters were real,” says Andrés Barrero, the artist currently illustrating Shield of The Interceptor. “When he told me the characters were based on his friends I said “Yeah, that’s it! That’s where they come from.” Barrero, who is based in Bogotá, also works with JayDee on Unstoppable Origins, New York Vs. the World – Unstoppable’s dystopian zombie horror series – and is helping redux the original releases of Stormchasers with an updated art style.
Andrés Barrero has illustrated for Zenescope and Unstoppable Comics, carving a path that is not easily accessible in his native Colombia. Latin America boasts a proud tradition of satirical comic strips like the iconic works of Mexican illustrator Rius and the existential meditations of Mafalda, but Barrero was always most attracted to the glitzy escapist fantasy of superhero epics. “I’ve loved comics since I was a child,” he explains. “My dream was to become a comic artist, so I came here with my portfolio and started meeting people. Back in my country there is no movement within the comic scene. It’s more about strips, not books.”
Despite nearly a decade in the game, Unstoppable’s roster of stand-alone titles is still small. The financial challenges of running an independent publisher keep exciting heroes like Phantomhawk and Dragonstorm with few annual releases. Regardless, JayDee Rosario remains hopeful for the future of independent comic publishing.
“[The industry] is more accessible now than ever through things like crowdfunding and geek culture rising to the level it has,” he says. “You even get more chances to expose your product at smaller [comic] cons, making it more affordable for people just starting out.” Adding with a chuckle, “I think I’ve leaned more on ignorance and stubbornness to get me this far.”
Visit the Unstoppable Comics website to buy physical and digital copies of all titles.