Black and white and read all over

Meet Marlon du Bois, cartoon Buppie and thoroughly new black man: he owns an ad agency, wears Armani and thinks the Black Panthers are a US football team. Betty Lowenthal talks to his creator
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The Independent Culture
if you think most black men are hung like horses, drink Red Stripe, and plant their seed far and wide while simultaneously dumping on the sisters, you may be amused by Marlon du Bois - the new black man. Marlon is an advertising entrepreneur, a wearer of Armani suits, owner of the Palm Tree Advertising Agency, many mobile phones, and a Saab convertible - with aspirations to win the Conservative Party advertising contract. He also has a sister, a conscious trainee barrister who thinks he's sold out, an Anglo-Saxon Laura Ashley-loving girlfriend who thrills to men that talk jive in bed, and an Afro-sporting, John Taylor lookalike cousin, Ronald, who just happens to be an unsuccessful Conservative candidate.

Launched in a book of 50-odd strips at the Comedy Store, this capricious, upwardly mobile lampoon is the creation of black broadsheet The Weekly Journal's regular cartoonist Gary Coley, or Gaz. Since his inception, there has been a uniform chortle of agreement from the readers within the black community and outside it. Seven thousand copies were sold before it even hit the bookshops. They love Marlon because he offers a refreshing new perspective far beyond the Delroy and Yardie prescriptions we have come to expect of black men. As the first British Buppie to be cartoonised he blusters through the pages wining and dining with bleeding- heart liberals, confusing the Black Panthers with an American football team, and taking a Patois for Beginners handbook with him into deepest Peckham to order a pattie.

Loveable, affable and affectionate though he may appear to be, Marlon du Bois is one confused man. Where his identity is concerned he is more coconut than conscious. When it comes to politics he yearns to belong to a club that doesn't want him as their member and, as regards his sexual life, ditching his black wife for a white Sloane (who thinks Malcolm X is a rap artiste) hardly makes him a new black man. Marlon is here to mirror the contradictions, stresses and strains of the black British male in a white man's world, his relationship with his brothers and sisters, and most of all with himself. So how much of him is Gaz?

"Everything I do requires some kind of recognition," says Coley (whose reiterating motto throughout the strip is "Black by nature - proud by choice"). "Part of any kind of creation, if it is going to be effective and truthful, has to come from your own experience. You have to have a certain passion with it. Being a successful black cartoonist and making a living doing what I like most is some kind of proof of my attempt to try to break away from the stereotyped image of how I should be. So in some way Marlon is an extension of me." Eleven years ago, Gaz's cartooning found its niche at the Voice Communications empire (Voice, The Weekly Journal and women's glossy, Pride) after Coley rang up threatening to usurp their regular cartoonist. "He was a care in the community case... they were just doing him a favour giving him voluntary work, so I asked them to let me draw!" They reciprocated and, after a trial run, have been nurturing Coley's talent ever since on both newspaper titles, a job which "has given me an enormous sense of responsibility..."

Although our eponymous hero appears to be the flipside of the stereotypical black male - "The one thing about Marlon is that you see him doing something different. He's not boxing, or selling weed, or mugging old ladies and raping young ones!" He does have to undergo a lot of ignorant assumptions based on his libido. Most of the obvious sexual stereotypes and myths about black men are readily reclaimed and enjoyed by du Bois and Coley alike. "Is it true what they say about black men?" Marlon is asked in one of his cartoon strips by a white woman colleague, to which he replies smugly: "Sex athletes, black stallions, hung like horses?" - "No," she retorts, "that they are all total bastards!"

"People are quick to dis the black man, the way they're talking about us at the moment, about our relationships not working, blacks in disarray. I don't think black men have lost their way," says Coley. "If anything, the character of Marlon when he was first created was a warning to say 'Don't lose your way!'... but I do think black men deal with a lot more pressures that never come out in newspaper articles. Nobody talks about the fact that, in London alone, eight out of ten are unemployed. They never talk about the amount of times we get stopped by the police."

Equally, as regards male/female relations, and the ever-raging issue of interracial sex, du Bois is actually swimming against the tide of contemporary life, while opening up can after can of worms. He does respect women and is faithful. The problem is Emelia is an upper-class white woman, and it is with her, and not his black ex-wife, that he is comfortable (even though she gets him to dress up as Shaft). Will we see him in a few years ditching Emelia and having a black partner? A common gripe within the black community for years is that in the past the only way to get on was to acquire all the trappings of white society. Du Bois' s mixed relationship opens up old wounds, especially in a climate when finally some successful black men do appear to be choosing their own women.

Before Marlon du Bois, Coley depicted far crasser images often with a savagery and irony as yet unseen in any black cartoon strips. Coley believes in hitting the jugular and fighting fire with fire. He smiles. "I can be very nasty," and even shows a grudging respect for Bernard Manning because "at least you know where he is coming from."

Coley's greatest gift is in presenting crude white sterotypes - the Millwall supporter, the community policeman, the Monday Club Colonel who dresses up as the Ku Klux Clan - in much the same way that blacks have been portrayed in the mainstream over the years. It could be construed as counter-productive, although both white and black are intended to share the joke. But more significantly both communities need his cartoons to balance out some of the absurdities of racism, and possibly for some whites to see with a degree of discomfort how they are perceived by the black community.

Comedy also has to have bite, and be anti-establishment if it is to be effective - even if the establishment is the black one. If you dole it out, you have to be able to make jokes against yourself. Which is what Marlon du Bois is all about. In the end it is Coley's own interface with the multi-racial society around him, his life experience day-to-day that make the cartoons more pertinent than any number of black ads on TV. Because, ironically, the Marlon du Bois dilemma is that making money might help you forget who you are in a hostile society, but as in Coley's case, even if he wants to forget who he is (which of course he doesn't), having to live with the twice-weekly humiliation of being stopped by the police while parking his own car outside his own front door makes that impossible.

So how would Marlon du Bois have reacted to that? Would he have given the officers a free invitation to his next press launch at the Palm Tree Agency?

Coley says both men would probably grin and bear it. But there the similarity ends. Marlon du Bois embraces what Coley cannot tolerate. He is compromised, and in the end is there more as a caution to the brothers that go astray, than as an affectionate portrayal of a Buppie. "Marlon is me in some way. The me that's always been a bit confused about my role as a black man in this country, in my relationship with this country and how it perceives me to be. The difference between me and Marlon is that I am ultimately comfortable with who I am."

'Marlon du Bois: the New Black Man', by Gary Coley (Weekly Journal) pounds 5.95