A conversation with Tim Fielder, creator of 'Matty's Rocket'
Tim Fielder has led an interesting life. He's the creator of Matty's Rocket, an afrofuturist comic about a space pilot who overcomes racism and creates a space shipping company in mid-20th century Manhattan.
The release of Black Panther in 2018 helped push afrofuturism into the mainstream, but the genre is hardly new. Fielder came up with the idea for Matty's Rocket in the early 2000s, after working more than a decade in the comics industry. I recently spoke with him about his childhood in Mississippi, how he got into sci-fi and comics, and the story behind Matty's Rocket. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Jason Davis: When you were growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, was it mostly comics that you were into? When did you get into science fiction? I read that Samuel Delaney, Steven Barnes and Octavia Butler influenced some of your work.
Tim Fielder: We grew up on Marvel Comics and DC Comics. I was the youngest brother. When you're the youngest, you don't really have any control over what the entertainment is going to be. So I grew up listening to music that was a little bit older. I grew up reading the Kirby / Lee books from Marvel, but then there was also Howard Chaykin's Cody Starbuck series — that kind of stuff because my older brothers were into underground comics. So here I was, six or eight years old, reading Spain Rodriguez's Trashman, which is completely inappropriate, and we would get stuff shipped in from Bud Plant, who was based in San Francisco. We would get that stuff via UPS in the middle of a cotton field.
And, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey — here I am, six years old, watching the Star Child sequence when he's going down that light tunnel, and just as David Bowie was having the reaction where he's clearly going insane watching it, and I'm watching it myself, going, 'What the hell is this?'
Davis: Did you see any of the original Star Wars movies in the theater when they came out?
Fielder: I saw Star Wars when I was 10 years old. It was me, all my brothers and my Dad at the theater. I came out of that thinking, 'That's the greatest film I've ever seen in my life!' So here I am in the summer of 1977, and by the summer of 1978, I'm heavily into Starlog magazine, and Fantastic Films, the magazine that studied the process of how these films were made. I still have my copy right here next to me of The Art of Star Wars. Ralph McQuarrie, Joe Johnson — who's one of the greatest artists who ever lived — completely transformed my life, and it became not just about engaging in science fiction, but how you create it.
Davis: How did you get access to some of that stuff? I grew up in a small town in West Virginia in the 80s, and it was hard to find sci-fi, and I imagine it might have been the same for you.
Fielder: Clarksdale has never been a progressive town. Tupelo (Mississippi, about two hours east of Clarksdale), in comparison, was progressive. So you would have comics there, you would have magazines there. Back then, I don't know if anyone remembers Waldenbooks —
Davis: I remember it!
Fielder: They had a mall in Tupelo, which we freaked out on: 'Oh man, there's this thing called a mall!' In the mall we would get most of the Heavy Metal magazines, and that type of stuff. But they still sold comics in convenience stores, like Jr. Food Mart, and pharmacy shops, where you had the spinner racks, and that was a common thing up until the 80s. But in '79 or '80 Clarksdale stopped selling comic books, which I couldn't understand. Why would you not sell comic books?
I saw Star Wars a grand total of eight times, which was insane because most people (in my town) didn't see Star Wars at all. If they did, they saw it once or twice. It wasn't until later that I understood in cities there were people who were seeing it 300 times. But for that area, where the entire town is like 10,000 people, that's crazy. And, of course the one thing you notice that's not necessarily present in any of that, is you don't have a lot of characters of color.
Davis: What was that experience like, that these people didn't really look like you — that they weren't representative of you?
Fielder: When we were represented, it was very noticeable. Nichelle Nichols, God bless her, playing Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, was a huge, huge deal. Herb Jefferson, who played Boomer on Battlestar Galactica, was a huge deal — he was the only black character. Star Trek was a little bit more liberal with that — you'd have occasional black actors come through, and you'd be like 'Oh, man, look at that! We're still going to be alive in 200 or 300 years!'
I've said this before in interviews: My older brother went to Howard University, where they had dudes like Bradford Young, the DP (director of photography) for Arrival, and Solo. That film program is all about black aesthetic. So my brother came back (from college), and basically lit into me because I had created this character who was a white swordsman who carried two swords and was dressed in this kind of military gear, and I called him 'The Master.' My brother lit into me: 'Do you understand what you're saying?' And I didn't understand, because I wasn't thinking master as in master of slaves, I was thinking Jedi master, or a swordmaster.
Davis: How old were you? Were you just drawing this for fun?
Fielder: I'd say 12, 13. I started drawing comics for myself around three, four or five years old. Thunderstar was my character. I had another one called Stingray.
Davis: Did that change your thinking? Did it happen all at once or did it take a while for you to embrace non-white characters?
Fielder: It had a radical change. All of a sudden, everything became black, and I have paid dearly for it to this day.
Davis: What do you mean?
Fielder: Man, come on! Prior to Black Panther? That's just that's not the norm, where you have black characters depicted in speculative scenarios. Sure, I love Billy Dee Williams, and the work he did in Star Wars, but that's just not the norm. And we're always dying. We either die early and give the white character justification for being a jerk, like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, or you die right at the end because somebody's gotta die, so it might as well be the black person. So, yeah, I went all in, and it was an interesting experience. I'm still doing it.
Fielder said from a young age, he knew he was either going to be a cartoonist or a toy maker. He studied commercial art for a year, got bored, and went back to live with his parents, who were then in Atlanta. He eventually moved to New York City, studied at the School of Visual Arts, and landed a gig with The Village Voice.
Fielder: I was working professionally already while I was in college, and made the dumb decision at that time to drop out of school. I started with The Village Voice as a freelance artist, and had other opportunities but was too young and dumb at the time. I cannot overemphasize to young artists how important it is to have mentors. If you don't, you are making decisions purely on passion and ego, and you end up missing opportunities because you're too young and dumb to know any different.
But I did work for Eclipse comics, for Marvel and Conan magazine, and I got my first graphic novel — unpublished, by the way — a 63-page fully painted graphic novel on Dr. Dre.
Davis: Whoa — has he seen it?
Fielder: I don't know, there was a lot of Suge Knight stuff going on at the time, so I don't know. It is showcased now in my traveling show Black Metropolis. As I finish the book that the show is based on, which is my memoirs, I will publish some of the pages, because it's archival and it's part of my career so I want to show that.
Davis: When you when you were working early on in the comic industry, was it your choice to do black characters? Or was that also foisted upon you — people just assumed you wanted to do that?
Fielder: It was something I chose to do myself, mostly. Sometimes it was put upon me, but I didn't mind, because that's what I did. But there's just certain things you're not going to be able to get past the editorial board of Vibe magazine — even though it looks good, they just aren't going to do certain stories. Why would they? They're playing the game, which was very much about the White Anglo Protestant system that was prominent at the time, and still prominent today.
I wasn't a loner but I certainly was operating as an independent. There were really two branches (of black cartoonists) that were prominent: There were the black cartoonists who were part of the black age, and they were all really pro-black. And then you had the Milestone group, who were independent as well but were like a quasi-subsidiary of DC. So you have this history of comics that were running both in the system and well outside of the system.
I've always kind of been alternative. It's sexy saying it now, it was sexy back then, but now I look back like, 'Yo, man.' It was a rough, rough road to hoe, because you're trying to do it, but there's not much of a financial structure to support you.
Davis: It sounds like there was some support there, but even in that ecosystem, there were limits to what you could do, at least if you wanted to be successful.
Fielder: And I was young. Like I said, it's very important to have a mentor. That's why sometimes when I have younger folks approach me, even if I can't give as much time as they need, I try to say something, even if sometimes the truth hurts. You know you don't want to go through what I went through.
Fielder worked in comics from the late 1980s through the end of the 90s. In 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy, and the comic book industry declined. Many artists moved on to other projects, and Tim landed an animation job in the videogame industry, in which he worked for about 12 years. Around 2013 he revisted Matty's Rocket, a story he began in the 90s, and produced more than 10 minutes of animation for it. He then worked with his friend Alex Simmons to do the art for one of Simmons' Blackjack novels.
Fielder: In that period (illustrating Blackjack) I got the bug again. My friends John Jennings and Stacey Robinson, who are both two prominent afrofuturists going now, came over to my studio. They saw my work. And Stacey said, "this stuff has to be published." And within two weeks I was converting Matty's Rocket over to comics. I was doing it with a small independent company, but thank God we went our separate ways creatively, and I ended up creating Dieselfunk Studios in 2014. By January of 2015, we published Matty's Rocket.
Davis: I saw you give a nod to Nichelle Nichols in one of the comics, and you also mentioned your grandmother?
Fielder: Matty Watty is named after my great-grandmother.
Davis: How much do you know about her?
Fielder: Very little. My Dad knows very little — he only met her once. That side of the family is interesting, I'll put it to you that way. We were nomadic, but always artisans and creators. So that's been an interesting thing to discover. But narratively speaking, Matty Watty's life is based on Bessie Coleman, with a little bit of Harriet Tubman. Visually speaking, she's influenced by Nichelle Nichols and my grandmother Ruby and my godmother. I wanted Matty to be a kind of amalgam of all the women I knew growing up, including my mother, who operated a certain way. They were able to carry themselves in a dignified manner in less-than-optimal conditions, and to prosper. That's not necessarily realistic, not necessarily idealistic, not necessarily raw — but she's a character who's able to weave all of those worlds and still maintain a level of dignity, and still have fun, and be adventurous, and romantic.
Davis: The way you've done the different time periods is really interesting. I like the way it switches around, from Mississippi to New York and to France.
Fielder: Bessie Coleman got her license as a pilot in France because she couldn't get it in the States — she was not only black, but she was a woman. The only way she could do it was to make enough money working in hair salons, stuff like that, to pay her way to France. And that's how she got her license.
So I took elements and anecdotes of all these different things, how Harriet Tubman operated in situations where she would be in town, and the people who owned her would be not far away, but she would be in disguise, rescuing the slaves. I wanted to take all that and throw in huge dollops of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and that's how you get Matty's Rocket.
Davis: I love the retro-alternate style, with the airships and everything, it's really cool.
Fielder: I don't know if you're familiar with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, starring Cicely Tyson, who was a great actress. It jumps in time periods where she is an old woman who was a slave, and is now narrating her life. I decided to use that motif as a homage to Cicely Tyson. I used to have problems with homage, like, 'well, that's not original.' Over the decades, particularly in the 2000s, when I was in the game industry and animation industry, I began to learn concept design. So I taught concept design for years at the School of Visual Arts, and New York University. And as I was teaching more and more concept design, I began to understand — you know the phrase, 'there's nothing new under the sun?'
Fielder: Actually not true!
Davis: Oh! I was going to agree with you, that nothing is truly original.
Fielder: It's the combination of things that is new. That's how you create new things. Cell phones are just a combination of wireless technology, of old-fashioned cellular technology, mixed together in computer-based digital technology. That's all it is. When you look at Star Trek and you see a communicator, it's not that far from what we have today. I tell my students: 'How do you create something new? You take two things that have never been connected together, and you blend them, and that's how you create.'
I'm not the first person to do retro-futuristic stuff. I think we can all agree that Jules Verne and Fritz Lang did it a long while ago. Martin Delaney did it in his book, Blake: Or the Huts of America. So you always had speculative stuff that dealt with kind of retro-environments, or retro-histories, if you will. But what I wanted to do, to go back to the idea of homage, or sentimentality, was to merge Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon with Harriet Tubman and Bessie Coleman, and I'm going to embed into it my childhood growing up in Mississippi. My mother, my grandmother, my godmother, and I wanted to blend in Star Wars, and Jackie Robinson. And I love Dave Stevens and The Rocketeer, and I want to blend all those things together. I'm not so arrogant as to say something like Matty's Rocket hasn't been done before, but I'm trying to make it as authentic as possible.
Davis: It's jarring to see futuristic scenes with historical references to racism, like where Matty is on the airship at the end of the third comic, but she's sitting in the rear because of Jim Crow laws. Can you tell me about your decision to blend those two aspects?
Fielder: Myrna Bain, who was a mentor who helped me — she died in 2007 — always told me, 'Timmy, whatever concept you create, always remember to embed something that is familiar, so the audience can have something to hold on to.'
Davis: Even when it's something bad.
Fielder: Yes. If I'm going to be authentic and base a science fiction story in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, then you cannot avoid the fact that there was Jim Crow. There just was. There was Jim Crow, there was racism, there were white bathrooms and black bathrooms, there were lynchings.
I love the Captain America movies. The only thing I don't like is one scene — and it's one of my favorite sequences out of the first movie — where Steve Rogers (Captain America) becomes a Broadway performer. And you see the dancers, like Rockettes on stage with him, and he's doing his performance raising bonds for the war effort. And there's one black performer. And I'm looking at that, and I'm kind of torn. On one hand, I'm like, 'I'm really happy that sister got that job.' But on the other hand, I'm like, 'That's not how it works, because they didn't have black Broadway performers like that.' You only had them in certain segregated environments. So, there are going to be certain things. I mean hell, I'm doing a story about rocketships in the 1930s and 1940s — that obviously didn't exist, so, whatever.
Davis: That has actually occurred to me, not in that movie in particular, but in other settings where you see a portrayal of the past, and you're like, 'Wait a minute, it actually wouldn't be like that.'
Fielder: Now, you have to allow an artist to take some liberties. I understand that — I'm an artist, and I don't want anyone telling me what I can and can't do. But the same time, to create something new sometimes means embracing the unpleasant. You cannot portray accurate black life in the western world without some form of racism. And we, the United States, remained an apartheid environment up until the 1960s and 1970s. That's just a fact. And I wanted to portray what a science fiction adventure would be like in that environment.
Davis: What next for Matty's Rocket, and what other projects are you working on?
Fielder: Matty's Rocket book two is already underway — I'm actively searching for a book deal. It's going a little slower at the moment because I'm trying to finish out Infinitum. Infinitum is an Afrofuturist epic, 260-page digitally painted graphic novel. It will probably be done about June, and hopefully out sometime before the year's out. It initially started as a futuristic story for The New York Times. I came up with the story 15 years ago, in the early 2000s. It went from 20 or 30 pages long to 260.
Davis: Cool, I can't wait to read it!
Fielder: Neither can I.