Music and fashion mogul Russell Simmons says he has October’s New York Comic-Con circled on his calendar for the first big reveal of The Harlem Shadow, a new animated online superhero series that will be set in the Jazz Age and features hip-hop star Common in the title voice role.
The series is an adaptation of the indie small-press series of the same name from RavenHammer Comics and the creative team of Brian Williams and Christian Colbert. (That version of the hero is shown in the poster image above.) After the Javitts Center debut, some early content will be online by year’s end at All Def Digital, the YouTube channel from Simmons and Brian Robbins of Awesomeness TV.
To Simmons, who built empires with both Def Jam and Phat Farm, the animated series presents a heroic opportunity to meld the influence of classic superhero stylists like Will Eisner and the Fleischer Brothers and the cultural backdrop of “a timeless New York era” that echoes louder than ever in pop culture.
“The Harlem Shadow not only brings to life the rich culture, art, fashion, music and creativity of the Harlem Renaissance through the first black superhero of the era – but it also exposes the same grittiness and glamour that heavily influences the modern-day hip-hop community, ” Simmons says. “The Harlem Renaissance scene set the style with the music clubs, cars, all of it from that era – and the fashion, absolutely.”
Simmons adds that he can’t wait to hear the final soundtrack: “The music of that era and the music of this era, there are so many connections that can be made in interesting ways.”
Simmons also perceives a “white-out” when it comes to black heroes in the animation sector that should be as varied in its heritage and hue as its audience. “There has been a lack of cultural diversity in the world of animated heroes,” Simmons says, “but we’re about to change that.”
That lack falls short of being a complete void, however. There have been some notable successes for black heroes in animation led by the remarkable 1990s adaptation of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn and (for a younger and more mainstream audience) the Justice League cartoons from 2001-2006 that established Jon Stewart as the definitive Green Lantern iteration for a generation of television viewers (many of whom were put-off when they saw a white hero on the posters for the live-action feature film).
Also, the possibilities of melding music and animation was a backbeat of Samuel L. Jackson’s collaboration with RZA on adapting Takashi Okazaki’s Afro-Samurai into ambitious cartoon movies and a brand success. Reginald Hudlin’s Black Panther series for BET (with Djimon Hounsou, Kerry Washinton and Jill Scott) was vexed by business matters but it shared the Simmons aim of connecting the dots in black culture with a noble hero in a fresh setting. There was also four seasons of Men in Black: The Animated Series which featured a black character as the co-title character.
Simmons said a foundation presence in the new venture is Common, the Chicago-born music star and now-veteran actor after roles in Wanted, Terminator: Salvation, American Gangster, and Street Kings. Simmons said Common has the talent, gravitas and sense of history to connect to his character battling the underworld in the era of Duke Ellington and Paul Robeson.
“Common and I have a long history together,” Simmons says. “There couldn’t have been a better person to embody the voice and energy of The Harlem Shadow.”
Executive producer David Uslan says the property has enough range to carry it beyond the YouTube endeavor: “We are working with a great property that has a very unique world, characters, and history that goes along with it. What we are doing is building a franchise – one that will translate through publishing, animation, music, fashion, and film.”
Time will tell. Live-action films such as The Shadow, The Spirit, and The Phantom have failed to connect with audiences with pre-WWII mystery men (as did the odious 2009 television mini-series version of The Phantom). On the flip side, DC animation projects such as Batman: The Animated Series had milestone success with Art Deco and film noir sensibilities that Uslan says fit with Jazz Age urban-crime storytelling.