By Gary Moskowitz
Nov 30, 2006 - 3:29 AM
An interview with the creator of Pariah, an African American superhero fighting villains in The Town.
Orlando Harding did something nobody’s ever done before. The Bay Area native created a comic book superhero that fights evil in Oakland. In his book, an African American protagonist named Pariah is kicked out of Heaven and lands bare ass naked in the middle of Lake Meritt in Oakland, California. And so begins a comic book story that is cultural, fantastical, funny and violent – and, thankfully, not based in Gotham but in the inimitable and notorious Oaktown.
Pariah’s fourth issue is about to be released. The comic, which has a similar look and feel to Spawn, involves warlocks and demons from Hell and angels from Heaven engaged in a war over good and evil – with fallen angel Pariah stuck right in the middle.
On his social worker salary, Harding writes, conceptualizes and publishes his Pariah comic books. Artist David Miller and colorist Roderic Rodriguez do the rest. He produces 3,000 copies per issue for about $7,000. Some of his books were gathering dust on area comic book shelves until a recent San Francisco Chronicle article brought attention to Harding’s work. Available copies of his first three issues all but disappeared from local store shelves the next day.
Although Harding, his wife and young daughter moved to Arizona to avoid the Bay Area’s high living costs, his heart lies in the Bay. Its politics, cultural and ethnic diversity and style not only shape who Harding is, but shape who Pariah is.
We have seen the name Pariah before. Pariah was a fictional character from the DC Comics universe in 1985. Apparently a Pariah character appeared in Doctor Who comics also. And, Pariah is a first-person shooter computer game. But Harding’s Pariah, in his words, is complex, he’s believable and he’s doomed from the get-go.
Oh Dang! spoke with Harding by phone this week at his Arizona home. He was sealing up a package with copies of Pariah and a cover letter explaining why his comic would make for a great movie or animated feature. The recipient? Stephen Spielberg. Harding’s shooting for the moon right now. He’s gotten this far on his own, and he figures he’s got nothing to lose.
Oh Dang!: What is your comic book about exactly?
Orlando Harding: My character, Pariah, has been kicked out of heaven and sent back to Oakland. As soon as he gets back, he’s in trouble because he’s naked. People think he’s a deranged pervert. Police are chasing him. That’s what Hell wants. Life isn’t just black and white. With Pariah, we pick out the grey areas, life’s tough dilemmas. Like, is it wrong to kill people, if they’ve killed someone else? Circumstances, ideals, beliefs, exceptions to your beliefs. That’s what Hell uses to seduce my character.
OD: That’s a tall order for a comic book. Why did you choose to tackle that subject matter?
OH: These things define life. Right now, we have a country at war. Certain people believe we should have this war and some don’t. Some thought the war was right in beginning, but now it’s costly and American soldiers are dying. Now what do people think? In the Condoleeza Rice interview on 60 Minutes, they asked her how she felt now about [weapons of mass destruction] and she said hey, we went in based on the intelligence we had on Iraq at that time. But what if we had not decided to invade. It’s all about certain choices we make. That’s what happens to Pariah.
OD: And what exactly does happen to Pariah?
OH: I know where he ends up, and ultimately he will fail. He will turn. But through his failure, he will become victorious. That’s his destiny. Like Judas and Christ. Somebody had to betray Christ. That was his destiny, his job. This is pariah’s job: to fail. But through his failure he will save mankind. We got some pretty deep things going on here.
OD: So is your comic alluding to the Christ story?
OH: It’s not a metaphor to the Christ story. I wanted to do something different. How do you come up with a story that is truly unique. Marvel and DC have done everything. But how often do you hear about an angel kicked out of heaven and fell to Oakland? I had to get people’s attention. My guy’s not just fighting other superheroes. This is about what is good or evil.
OD: Why focus on Heaven and Hell? Are you a religious man?
OH: I am a religious guy. And I’ve always been interested in it. But I’m not taking a religious stance. If you want to hear Bible stories, Heaven itself has done some wicked things in addition to wonderful things. Angels destroying cities because of people’s sins. Heaven has done some wicked things to mankind. There’s that other side, with God as a jealous god, punishing mankind for transgressing against. That’s Pariah. He has sinned. They kick him out, and send him to Oakland.
OD: And does Pariah reflect who you are in any way?
OH: We’re totally separate, me and Pariah. This comic doesn’t reflect my own life. He will be tortured, abused by Hell and Heaven. In the end, he will be victorious….will lose battle to Heaven, but win battle of life. I had good life in bay area.
OD: Why did you set your comic in Oakland?
OH: I thought, where can I put him? Most heroes are in fake cities or New York. I’m Bay Area, born and raised in SF. How come the Bay Area doesn’t have a hero. Why not Oakland? Oakland gets a bad rap, with crime and everything. I said you know what, Oakland could use a cool superhero. And I knew nobody else would do it.
OD: Why do you think Oakland get a bad rap?
OH: There are a lot of stereotypes, and people just roll their eyes. Oakland has good, good people. But it’s always the negativity that gets publicized, like poor people getting shot. It’s been amazingly difficult trying to get local Oakland newspapers to give a damn about Pariah. After the Chronicle article, people in Oakland were saying it’s about time, we’re sick of this negative crap. They get so much negative stuff. People in Richmond, Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland all told me that. I got not one response from local papers. We sent out press releases and only one paper, in Sacramento, wrote back. I thought a cool superhero would be embraced.
OD: Who is your audience?
OH: My operation is quite a bit smaller than most. Most people don’t have any idea what it takes to publish a comic. My market is anybody who has any interest in the book. We have over 1500 fans. That I know of. I’m not totally sure how to measure it. Our Web site gets about 10,000 hits a month. But I don’t know who our fans are. I do know that after the Chronicle article on Pariah, every [copy of Pariah] in California sold out. I got 120 emails from folks saying they loved the book, saying it’s about damn time.
OD: Why did you choose to make your hero an African American male?
OH: Well first off, I thought it would be difficult to have a White superhero in Oakland (laughs). There are lots of minorities and Blacks in Oakland. Typically, the harsher stuff about Oakland, the bad news, typically has to do with African Americans. Selling dope, all of this stuff. I wanted to give people of Oakland some hope, and our Black children, Latinos and Whites. [Pariah] is a good guy. He’s Black, and he’s a good guy. I couldn’t pull off a White superhero in Oakland. I wanted him to fit his demographic.
I grew up in San Francisco. The Bay area made me who I am now. I have such love. I can’t afford to live in Bay right now, but the culture, the weather, the people…it’s a good place. I wanted to use all aspects of the Bay. I want to put Mexicans, Latin Americans, and put Gays also. Why not? They are part of culture of Bay Area. They’re part of the human race. That’s a real balance of life. Why not? Why not reflect that? The comic’s geared for youth and adults, but I’m keeping it pretty clean. There will be violence but no sex or blatant nudity. I’m trying to get a story told, trying to make it like every day reality. I’m not taking any political or religious stance, just trying to tell a cool story. Do people get high, and is there racism? Yes. That will all be in there. And the choices we make about them. All these things define us.
OD: Are you trying to make a political comic, or a good comic?
OH: A little bit of both. I wanted to make a statement. A superhero can be in Oakland, or Detroit, Washington D.C. Why cant they? Lets keep it real (laughs). Don’t you think cities like this need heroes? This is where need to be. New York has so many heroes that they have to fight each other.
OD: Did you set out to make a role model for African American youth with this comic?
OH: For all youth. Not just Black youth. Typically heroes are White. All youths need to see that heroes can be of any race. Not just White or Black. Any race. Why can’t we have an Asian hero? Hispanic?
OD: Is there a lot of humor in the comic?
OH: Heck yeah. A big sense of humor. He’s naked when he arrives, and has to jump a few backyards. A little girl sees him and her parents think they’ve got a child molester in their backyard (laughs). There’s a lot of comedy in there.
OD: You said that you’re about to mail off your comics to Stephen Spielberg. That’s ambitious, man.
OH: If I’m gonna get turned down, I might as well get turned down by the best. I’m sending letters to Steven Spielberg and some others. I went to LA two weeks ago and got a Star Map and now I’m going to see if he’s willing to help out a comic book hero. One thing he hasn’t done is a comic book movie. I know people out there want to see stuff like this. I got this far all by myself, and I’m gonna keep going. A lot of people have said you aint gonna get that far. I’m just trying to stay persistent and keep my hustle on.
Check out Pariah at: http://orlandohardingspariah.com/mainpage.html
Gary Moskowitz plays trumpet for the hip-hop/reggae band Bay Root. He likes to talk shit with other musicians on his blogsite, Blogowitz.