Dispatches from the virtuality–Prince as superhero–Chris Rock
I was fortunate to participate in another online symposium produced by De Angela Duff, my hero, a.k.a., Polished Solid. <–If you are interested in what’s happening in Prince scholarship, De Angela’s channel should be your first stop.
SexyMF30 celebrated and examined Prince’s 1992 Love Symbol album, stylized as the unpronounceable symbol which Prince would adopt as his name just one year later on his birthday, June 7, 1993. (More precisely, the album title is the symbol and Love Symbol is the “translation” or stylization, I suppose. I tried copy/pasting the symbol into the text here but WordPress defaults it to an image. If you’re unfamiliar with it, here’s the album cover.)
I was thrilled De Angela invited me to present at the symposium, partly because Love Symbol holds a unique place in my Prince-lovin’ heart. It probably doesn’t crack my Top Ten of Prince albums, and yet I loved it when it came out. I was a first-year student in college, freshly immersed in a foreign environment that intimidated me, and Love Symbol reassured me that Prince was, in some sense, along for the ride. I played Diamonds & Pearls on the reg, but Love Symbol was more adventurous, theatrical–I was intending to double-major in English and Theatre–and more successful, I thought, with its incorporation of rap. My appreciation waned over the years, for reasons I don’t totally understand, but lately I’ve been digging it again. Mercurial stuff.
Side Note: There’s also a connection between Love Symbol and the time I met Chris Rock when he came to perform at Ohio Wesleyan, which is actually kind of a poignant though brief story, and somewhat related to, shall we say, recent incidents. Maybe I’ll tell it.
I’ve spoken a lot at recent Prince symposiums about Prince and the Black American working class, and my essay in Black Magnolias, “How the Exodus Began: Prince and the Black Working Class Imagination” does discuss Love Symbol. But I realized this was my lone chance to combine my Prince scholarship with another one of my areas of study: comics. So that’s what I pitched, and that’s what I presented.
Because De Angela and the wonderful Arthur Turnbull believe in documenting these symposia, you can see my presentation, “Gemini and The Max: Prince’s Comic Book Alter Egos, 1991-1994,” below. The gist is that, in 1991 and 1994, Prince appeared in two one-shot (comics-speak for standalone issues) comic books, both published by DC imprint Piranha Press–and both written by the trailblazing comic book writer Dwayne McDuffie. One of the few Black creators in the “mainstream” comics industry, McDuffie wrote for both Marvel and DC before co-founding Milestone Comics in 1993. Milestone featured an all-Black or person-of-color cast in its four titles, Hardware, Icon, Blood Syndicate, and Static, and in its brief existence, it had a profound effect on the industry and culture. McDuffie, who died much too young in 2011, was an excellent writer; he never shied from the common tropes and even what some might call the “drawbacks” of comic-book writing, but he smartly reenergized what each of those could do from Black perspectives, whether it was his reimagining of Deathlok for Marvel or the wide variety of Milestone’s heroes.
Putting McDuffie into context with Prince, and vice versa, was too important to pass up. “Alter Ego,” published in 1991 (below, right), is a compelling psychological story and meditation on the power of music. Although its plot has elements of the Graffiti Bridge story (including, possibly, some of the original, abandoned story) and came out when Diamonds & Pearls was on the shelves, its depiction of a fictional Prince evokes important themes and contrasts a bit with Prince’s alter ego in “Three Chains of Gold” (below, left) the direct tie-in with the Love Symbol album and its plot. (And the saucy home video collection!) For the sake of context, I thought it was important to include “Alter Ego.”
I’ll leave it at that, mostly. If you’d like to watch the presentation, here you go:
I do want to provide some additional links and cite some sources. As the folks at The Shadow League point out, Prince appeared in comics well before “Alter Ego,” and that same year (1991) was the subject of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics one-shot that was straight biography.
Also, I quoted from Jeffrey Brown’s excellent book, Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans (University Press of Mississippi, 2000), including his citation of a quote from Kobena Mercer’s book, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (Routledge, 1994). Another key source I used was Marc Singer’s “‘Black Skins’ and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secrets of Race” (African American Review, 36:1, 2002). Finally, I quoted from an interview with the great comics artist Denys Cowan, another co-founder of Milestone Comics, published earlier this year at The Comics Journal.
Two of my fellow panelists, Zachary Hoskins and Edgar Kruize, did deep dives into Prince’s use of transmedia storytelling with Love Symbol. Here are their presentations, which visually just destroy my little Power Point chat!
As you can see, Edgar was also perhaps the best-dressed presenter, which becomes even more apparent during our panel discussion when we’re all on-screen together with our fellow panelist Steven G. Fullwood and moderator Monroe France.
I HIGHLY recommend you check out the SexyMF30 presentation videos on De Angela’s Polished Solid YouTube channel, including my fellow Columbusite Erica Thompson’s “Why All the Cosmic Talk?”, Scottish fashion scholar Casci Ritchie’s presentation, “The Chain Hat,” Harvard scholar Karen Turman’s “We Need to Talk About Things,” and the always spectacular C. Liegh McInnis’ “Love Symbol: A Story of Love,” among many, many others. Just go to the site already!
Special Bonus Content: Do I Think The Estate Should Package Diamonds & Pearls and Love Symbol Together In One Box Set?
Special Bonus Content: The Chris Rock Story
Freshman year, my college roommate and I volunteered to be on the College Programming Board, the student group responsible for booking the concerts at Ohio Wesleyan, ranging from small shows in a cafe to the big annual hoo-ha, usually a band. The year before, the band was Midnight Oil. We went a different direction–I don’t remember having much say in it, so I’m not taking credit–and booked Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. This was 1992-1993. Both were on Saturday Night Live. I’m guessing this was one of those brief tours SNL cast members do during the off-weeks.
So, my roommate and I were responsible for playing the pre-show, intermission, and post-show music, and we definitely played tracks from Love Symbol. I don’t remember what else we played. I may have snuck in some Fishbone. Now, the show was in Gray Chapel, an auditorium built in 1893 that once was the site of required religious services for all students. At the back of the stage is an enormous pipe organ–apparently the largest Klais organ in the U.S.–which was no doubt reverberating with the groove of “Sexy M.F.” that night.
Chris Rock opened for Sandler. I don’t know why. We thought Rock killed. The joke I vividly remember was about the White rapper Snow: “That shit’s gonna melt!” Ohio Wesleyan is a PWI–a predominately White institution, a term we use in higher ed–and the majority of the crowd was White. I remember Rock going over pretty well, but not nearly as well as Sandler’s goofy, innocent routine. And I remember wondering why.
After the show, both of the comedians signed autographs in the dank upper hallways, grim and Gothic, with Sandler in one spot and Rock in another farther down the hall. Sandler’s line was long, very long. Rock’s was not, though it was, I think, more diverse. My roommate and I lingered around Rock’s table, and I remember it slowly dawning on me that racialized tastes had probably influenced the college crowd’s response, i.e., the White kids–so many upper-class, legacy kids who drove SAABs–did not dig Chris Rock, didn’t know what to do with his routine, just didn’t get it, thought he was “too edgy,” whatever.
Well, fuck them, but thank you to them, too, because I got to hang out with Chris Rock a little. He looked through the CDs we’d played and asked if we were the ones who’d blasted Prince. We asked what he thought of the new album, and I think he said he liked a lot of the tracks, but it wasn’t as good as the old stuff. I wish I’d written it down at the time.
I’m not going to comment on the Oscars incident, but I will say this: I saw a lot of White folks swooping in afterwards with “easy speaking” about a complex moment, a horrific moment, really, with no thought given to what it really meant in 2022 to see a Black man assault another Black man live on television, to see it become, instantly, a meme, fodder for thinkpieces, and much worse. I doubt any of those folks thought about their reactions before they opened their mouths.
Several years after Rock performed at Ohio Wesleyan, I saw him on VH1 interviewing Prince, and I smiled at how excited he must have been for that opportunity. And it’s a good interview. An important interview.
More Special Bonus Content: Will No One Testify To “And God Created Woman”?
C’mon! This is a silky jam! One of Prince’s most tender melodies, definitely on Love Symbol if not his entire body of work, “And God Created Woman” does not get its due as a song, as an arrangement, as a performance. If you don’t come near to fainting when Prince stacks those harmonies on “And if I never see you again,” your soul may be lost.
Now, to be clear, Prince scholars like Erica Thompson and Patricia McGhee have discussed the biblical references in the song–again, check out Erica’s SexyMF30 presentation–but I would like to emphasize the music here. Cousin to “Money Don’t Matter 2 Nite,” another lowkey melody that’ll stay with you, “And God Created Woman” is a more subtle example of Prince’s reinvigorated use of horns on Love Symbol, and the way that middle-eight (the rising “oh’s”) foreshadows the high drama of “3 Chains O’ Gold” is delicious. Perhaps it gets lost in the shuffle of a packed album, or overshadowed by “7,” which precedes it, but if you want to impress someone with a deep track, especially from this era, “And God Created Woman” will do the job if that person has any damn sense.