Do childhood dreams ever fade?
Not for Eric Dean Seaton, not even after he’d already accomplished one of his childhood dreams: establishing himself as an LA director and producer. By his early 40s, he had under his belt 175 television episodes, 18 music videos, Nickelodeon pilots. He’d been nominated for the NAACP Image Awards for his work on That’s So Raven and Mighty Med.
But another childhood dream still beckoned. And so here he is on a muggy July afternoon, wife in tow, manning a booth at the San Diego Comic-Con and promoting his forthcoming graphic novel, Legend of the Mantamaji.
For the most part, African-Americans are only added to an already existing universe that is otherwise devoid of color.
“Before I went to Ohio State, there were two things I always wanted to be: a director and create my own graphic novel,” says Seaton, sleepy eyed but smiling and clean-shaven. A handful of convention attendees have gathered at the Small Press Pavilion to get a glimpse of his book, and him.
Seaton got his first taste of the superhero universe from his father. Dad worked out of town, but every weekend he’d come home and take his young, only child to a nearby comic shop in Cleveland. There, the little boy would lose himself in Batman, Superman and Iron Man while his father made his daily runs around the city.
Seaton’s desire to become a storyteller was born in that shop, and in front of the living-room television, too.
“I was always looking at how things were made, and I loved movies, TV and comic books so much that telling the story became just as important as watching the story,” says Seaton, who now lives in Toluca Lake, California. “I would watch the credits and always know directors’ and writers’ names, and I always wanted to make a story of my own.”
It didn’t take long for Seaton to decide that he would one day create his own story where he, an African-American, could be a hero.
“It was important to me that my character be a minority, because people of all nationalities are around us in the real world,” Seaton says. “And even though the book is multicultural, since I didn’t see a lot of characters that looked like me growing up, he had to be an African-American.”
To be sure, there’s more diversity in the comic universe today than when Seaton was a boy. Marvel recently appointed an African-American as the new Captain America, a black Hispanic as Spider-Man and a female as the new Thor. It also cast actor Michael B. Jordan in the role of the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot film.
Superman didn’t start off with the ability to fly, or an archnemesis, or a kryptonite weakness.
Still, for the most part, African-Americans are only added to an already existing universe that is otherwise devoid of color.
Seaton began imagining Legend of the Mantamaji nearly a decade ago. What started as an admittedly unoriginal African-American version of Batman has evolved into an entire universe, a backstory, richly drawn characters.
Legend of the Mantamaji concerns Elijah Alexander, a pompous district attorney who finds out that he is the last of the Mantamaji, a mythical race of knights who once protected mankind. When an ancient evil is resurrected, Alexander has to turn his back on all that he has worked for in order to defend humankind. Aside from being challenged by the malevolent sorcerer Sirach, Alexander struggles internally, too: He must transcend himself and his self-absorption for the good of the world.
“It’s so hard to tell an original story,” Seaton says. Superman didn’t start off with the ability to fly, or an arch nemesis, or a kryptonite weakness; that evolution took decades. To build Mantamaji’s universe quickly, Seaton immersed himself in Egyptian and African history. He pulled from those chronicles — and his years of visual storytelling as a TV director — to nail down a rich backstory.
He sees parallels between his children’s TV work and the graphic novel.
“Even though the stories are built for kids, the basis of a story is still the same,” he says. Some of their features, too: a flawed main character, for instance, and an adventure or quest. Both TV and comics require storyboarding, too, so the transition didn’t much jar Seaton: “To be honest, working on the book actually helped me become a better director,” he says.
Seaton already had practice breaking into a white-dominated field, of course. He got his start in television by sending a letter to Bill Cosby, who was so impressed by Seaton’s ambition that he invited him to intern on The Cosby Show’s last season, which itself broke new ground in entertainment. “The scarcity of minorities in comic books parallels the film industry,” Seaton says.
But as he worked his way up the TV ladder, Seaton kept looking back at his other dream — to create his own comic. As a production assistant on the ’90s sitcom Living Single, Seaton discovered that one of the show’s directors was married to a Marvel Comics executive. Between shoots, Seaton would soak up everything he could about the comic book world and used that knowledge to begin working secretly on his own graphic novel.
Instead of shopping Mantamaji to Marvel or DC Comics, Seaton decided to self-publish it, through his “And… Action!” Entertainment Co. Of course, the mountain becomes more difficult to climb. From his modest booth at Comic-Con, you can’t help glimpse the colossal installations of the industry’s biggest publishers. He’s had to set up distribution streams, control his inventory, make a million phone calls. “The work has become very hard and time-consuming,” he says. But the payoff — creative control, ownership — may be worth the risk. That is, if Mantamaji sells big.
By the end of Comic-Con, Seaton had sold 288 advance copies of Mantamaji. Not an overwhelming success, but not a bad start either. Seaton is now preparing for the official release date of Oct. 8 for the first installment of the three-book trilogy. It may be, too, that sales are secondary. Creating something he fully owns and that could inspire more minority superheroes — just as the The Cosby Show inspired him — might be enough for Seaton.
“Now that I have two children, I can’t wait until they’re old enough to read my book and, instead of Batman or Superman, they want to be the Mantamaji.”