Wu-Tang and comic books are a natural fit.

Their albums have a sense of comic book continuity, the way that Enter the Wu-Tang was succeeded by a slew of solo albums, and then Wu-Tang Forever opened with Reunited.

From the alter egos that the members assign themselves, such as Tony Starks and Johnny Blaze, to outright references to characters like Wolverine, Doctor Doom, and Riddler, comic books influence Wu-Tang from start to finish.  That makes this lecture review right at home on a comic book site.

RZA, lyricist, actor, composer, executive producer, and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, appeared in an intimate speaking engagement at the New Hazlett Theatre on Pittsburgh’s North Side.  In a brilliant addition to their series, Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures booked RZA as part of his Wisdom of the Word tour on Thursday, April 18, 2013.


The stage was set with two luxurious leather chairs and an elegant glass chess board between them.

Local poet and Carnegie Mellon University professor, Terrance Hayes, took the stage promptly at 7:30 to introduce the featured speaker.  Mr. Hayes stood while he read a piece of his own poetry, then rhythmically described RZA’s rich career as a bladed shuriken where each point represented an endeavor that RZA has taken on over the last twenty years.


RZA appeared from behind the stage and both he and Hayes took their seats.  Hayes opened the interview by moving a pawn forward on the chess board, stating he wasn’t an expert by any means.  RZA scoffed and described Hayes’ opener as a Sicilian move.  RZA told the poet he was watching him, as he’s heard chess players in the past describe themselves as beginners in order lull their opposition into a false sense of security.

the stage

RZA comments on Hayes’ “Sicilian move.”

With the chess match on, Hayes asked his first interview question.  The query related back to his introduction, where he detailed that, as a poet, he knows all poets want to be musicians.  He asked RZA about his venture into directing films and if rappers have an inner desire to be actors or directors.

Before his answer, RZA noted it was commonplace for actors to be aspiring emcees as well, with a prime example being the Joaquin Phoenix mockumentary I’m Still Here.


Joaquin Phoenix: Aspiring Emcee

RZA moved further into his answer.  When RZA composed soundtracks for Quentin Tarantino’s films, Tarantino saw similarities to directing in the way that RZA created music.  RZA wasn’t familiar with camera angles and other directing techniques, but Tarantino has mentored RZA in his film career, which reached a milestone with last year’s The Man with the Iron Fists.  RZA wrote, directed, and starred in it alongside Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu.

RZA’s directorial follow-up is set to be the film adaptation of Grant Morrison’s Image comic Happy.

RZA's next project as a director.

RZA’s next film project.

RZA discussed the time he spent in Steubenville, Ohio in his youth when his family moved there with his stepfather.  During the same timeframe, RZA’s father owned a convenience store in the Hill District in Pittsburgh, which led to many weekends spent in the area.  RZA enjoyed his time in Pittsburgh and noted that he had never seen anything like the Original Hot Dog Shop before coming here.

RZA noted that when an area is isolated by water, something special and unique has a chance to incubate there, independent of the outside world.  His examples were Staten Island, Pittsburgh, and Godzilla’s Monster Island.  When it leaves the island, or peninsula in Pittsburgh’s case, it spreads outward and inspires all it touches.

Hayes reminded the audience of Mr. Robert Fitzgerald Diggs’ many aliases besides RZA, including RZArector, Bobby Digital, The Abbot, Bobby Steels, Ruler Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, and Prince Rakeem.  Diggs explained that each alias represents a different facet of his own personality and the RZA is the sum of all of those facets combined.  Hayes pointed out that each alias has allowed RZA to experiment with a different rhyming style and the fans are still waiting for RZA’s long anticipated solo album to be released using his signature “RZA” name and style (All of his solo albums have been in a style that RZA debuted on his 1998 solo album, Bobby Digital in Stereo; on a comic book related side note, that album had cover art by Bill Sienkiewicz).


Bobby Digital Cover Art by Bill Sienkiewicz

This appearance was in promotion of RZA’s second book, The Tao of Wu.  RZA had been interested in writing a book that focused on wisdom since before writing his first book, The Wu-Tang Manual, which deconstructed Wu-Tang Clan lyrics and its mythos.  He signed the deal with the publishing company on the express condition that they allowed him to do a second book that would allow RZA to relay some of the wisdom he’s gained as he’s advanced in years.

The Tao of Wu is about the struggles that RZA has gone through in his life.  He wanted to write about something that would resonate with people and he wanted to create a map that people could use to navigate their own struggles.

The book is about RZA’s present goal to remain ”above the ruckus” as opposed to “bringing the ruckus” which characterized the militance of his youth.  The wisdom of age has taught RZA that coming in war and demanding peace is less effective than coming in peace and preparing for the eventuality of war.

RZA asked the audience to imagine what 2-Pac and Notorious B.I.G. would have been like had they made it to their 40s, his age now.  He reminded us that we lost both Pac and Biggie before either were even 25.  Furthermore, neither Jesus Christ nor Martin Luther King, Jr. made it to age 40.  RZA challenged us to imagine what sort of wisdom they could have gained and imparted on the rest of us had they lived longer.

rza reads

RZA reads a passage from The Tao of Wu.

When asked about A$AP Rocky using the lyrics Shimmy Shimmy Ya, a signature ODB line, in his song Long.Live.A$AP, released in stores this past January, RZA replied that he didn’t feel as though A$AP was stealing from Ol’ Dirty Bastard.  Instead, he remarked on how an acknowledgement like this will lead new fans to ODB’s work.

The chess game went unfinished, but RZA ended the show by noting that life itself inspires his creative drive.  If he had the chance to go back in time and talk to Prince Rakeem, the alias he used in his youth, he would recommend following ideologies that would help him obtain the Twelve Jewels: Knowledge, wisdom, understanding, freedom, justice equality, food, clothing, shelter, love, peace, and happiness.

Neil Gaiman in Pittsburgh

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Sandman author Neil Gaiman appeared in Pittsburgh to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of Stardust and commemorate the story’s new edition.  This was not a stop on a tour, dear reader.  Gaiman chose this as his one and only appearance promoting the new edition of the book!

Stardust, a modern day fairy tale love story, was originally released in a heavily illustrated version across multiple volumes by DC Comics with drawings by A-List artist Charles Vess.  It was subsequently made into a movie starring Claire Danes and released as one volume in paperback.

Now in its first hardcover release, Neil read a passage from Stardust, and spoke about its inception.  The idea for Stardust came to him while he and Vess were accepting the award for Best Short Story in the Fantasy Genre for Sandman #19, the first and only time a comic book won.  It was Vess’ idea to do the story in prose with illustrations rather than in comic book format.

Stardust was also the first time Gaiman used the writing method that he maintains to this day.  Neil writes every story’s first draft longhand with a fountain pen in a notebook.  When Neil first sent his notes to Mr. Vess so that Charles could begin drawing, Vess could not read Gaiman’s writing.  Neil then transcribed the story to a tape recorder so that Vess could listen to the story.

Neil also read a passage from his upcoming book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, to be released in June of next year, which captivated the audience.  He followed by taking questions from the audience which added a personal twist to an already intimate experience.

The first question asked was in regards to the role of women in modern fantasy storytelling.  Gaiman’s response detailed how women are now main characters instead of the traditional damsel in distress.  Rather than being used as a plot device, women are made into heroines.  He reminded the audience that “You could take a machine gun to Lord of the Rings and you wouldn’t hit a female character.”  He cited the reason for the shift being that women are now authors and decided they weren’t going to allow their gender to continue taking a secondary role.

The second question was simply one word, “Kimota?”  Gaiman immediately identified it as a question about Miracleman.  He said that after Marvel Comics’ very public purchase of the rights to the character; they’ve been working behind the scenes for the past few years to make certain that they own Miracleman outright along with the rights to the Moore and Gaiman stories.  Now that the legalities are no longer in question, Neil plans to finish the story that he began all those years ago.

pittsburgh sandman graphic novel

The third question came from a young girl that inquired about Gaiman’s upcoming Dr. Who episode.  The episode will air in early 2013 and will feature the Cybermen.

Another question asked how Gaiman decides what stories are best suited for children or which are for mature readers as an earlier statement revealed that he sometimes waits until a story is finished to decide.  His answer was that the stories dubbed as children’s books all share the quality that the characters never lose hope, no matter how bleak things appear.

The final question was long-winded about where to find adventure in everyday life.  The show’s moderator had continually directed the audience to keep the questions short and succinct, so the open-ended question elicited a few eye rolls from other audience members.  No one anticipated the thoughtful and insightful answer we heard, which may have been the highlight of the evening.  Gaiman spoke about recently visiting the birthplace of Jules Verne and seeing the original manuscript of Around the World in Eighty Days.  Nearby is a huge workshop in an abandoned ship building facility where craftsmen have assembled a 30 ft. high elephant made of wood and leather that moves and people can ride inside.  Similarly, Neil rode on their 100 ft. high carousel surrounded by giant wooden sea creatures.  Their new project is a tree the size of the concert hall where one can navigate branch to branch on the back of giant insects.  His advice to the audience member, summed up in short, was to go out and find adventure, that he should create it for himself and for other people.