A conversation with Darryl McDaniels is as fast-paced and layered as a good comic book, and that makes sense. Most people know McDaniels as the tracksuit-wearing, Adidas-sporting "D.M.C." half of rap legends Run-D.M.C. But comic book fans know him differently, as a teacher turned superhero in critically acclaimed graphic novels and as the founder of Darryl Makes Comics, the company behind those stories.
This weekend, McDaniels comes to Raleigh for NC Comicon: Oak City at the Raleigh Convention Center, which features two days of comics dealers, panels, cosplay contests, an eighties cartoon-themed gala, and much more, with guests including industry legends such as Larry Hama and Neal Adams. McDaniels will participate in a panel on diversity in the industry, "Black Heroes Matter," at 1:45 Saturday afternoon with Afua Richardson, Tabitha Stark, and Eddie Newsome. He'll discuss his career at another panel at 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
McDaniels has been an avid comics fan since childhood, and his enthusiasm surges through the phone. Despite his busy schedule—he has an upcoming trip to work on a music video with Canadian metal band Slaves on Dope and Public Enemy's Chuck D—McDaniels clearly relishes talking comics.
"Every time you go to a comic con you discover something new. That's where the fun of it is," he says. "When I first started going, I would see these old issues I had as a kid and be like, 'Oh man, that's dope!' It's always a great experience to relive whatever you've been into since you were first infected by it. It's nostalgic but it's really educational for me."
McDaniels is a true comics geek, not a dabbling dilettante. His conversation darts from the comics of his youth to Marvel's controversial hip-hop variant covers project and then to characters on today's pages, noting where diversity is lacking and where it's present.
"If you grew up in the sixties and seventies, you knew about Black Panther and Falcon," he says. "But growing up, I loved Peter Parker. I went to Catholic school my whole life, and the Catholic school kids were always picked on because we had to wear uniforms every day. That's why I related to Peter Parker. I liked that he was smart. When he got bit by the spider, that's when he became a badass. I was this little Catholic school kid who liked rhyming, and then Run-D.M.C. happened."
Teaming with Joseph Simmons (Run) and Jason Mizell (Jam Master Jay) may have been the radioactive-spider moment that propelled D.M.C. to rap superhero status, but he was still a shy teen. So he drew upon what he knew best: comics.
"It all came from me pretending to be a DJ or MC. I thought, 'I'm going to pretend to be the most powerful force in the universe.' I would hear a beat and say to myself, 'What would Hulk do on this?' or 'What would Spider-Man do?' I was really getting into Thor when 'King of Rock' came along," he says. "Thor was the God of Thunder, the son of Odin. I thought about what I would tell Thor if I was fighting him." His cadence changes, and his volume increases: "'I'm the King of Rock/ there is none higher,' and I'd hold the mic up like it was Thor's hammer."
He goes on to describe how the lines "Now we crash through walls/cut through floors/bust through ceilings/and knock down doors" is pure comic book imagery. Then he segues into "Son of Byford": "I was born son of Byford, brother of Al/Bad as my mama and Run's my pal/It's McDaniels, not McDonald's/These rhymes are Darryl's, those burgers are Ronald's."
"It all came from that comic book imagination, that make-believe," he says. "I always tell kids, don't be afraid of imagination and make-believe. Just look at those words, 'make-believe.' You've got to make people believe it and it will come true, like it all came true for me. Reading, drawing, and writing every day gave me an imagination, an edge. That's why Run wanted me in the group."
For McDaniels, turning that imagination from comics to hip-hop and back again has been seamless.
"People were getting mad about the Marvel hip-hop covers," he says of a project that saluted iconic album art but earned criticism from people who said it smacked of cultural appropriation. "What the hell you mad at? It's not a thing where you had to force diversity down our throats. Hip-hop and comics have always had a relationship. Look at Wu-Tang Clan."
Still, some attempts at diversity, whether well-intentioned or blatant efforts at quelling backlash over the lack of it, can come across awkwardly.
"You don't have to make Thor black," McDaniels says. "Miles Morales as Spider-Man was great. But why can't you just make a new hero who's black or Latin? Why not introduce a new superhero that's Muslim who all the other heroes respect? Show people that everyone is cool."