In the wake of all the hype for Black Panther, we’ve come to understand the importance of having creators of color and the impact their work has on making us feel valid – it isn’t enough for us to have diverse characters, we also need a diverse team of creators behind the characters. Kwanza Osajyefo‘s Black paints a perfect example of how a wonderful story centered around POC is able to transcend whatever genre it is and paint realistic representations of black people (we honestly just need more POC in speculative fiction).
FG: What were you going for when you made Eli?
K: I was trying to create a character that is just intrinsically altruistic; just an outright good person. At the same time, I wanted her to come from a different perspective than what people would expect – she grew up in the Midwest, she’s adopted and brought up with very conservative patriotic religious values. Eli believes in being the ideal American and being all the things that people aspire to be but sometimes don’t actually achieve and that’s her struggle in the story – it’s not just the superhero stuff, it’s her dealing with world cynicism and how people can take something as honest as just wanting to be a superhero and just turn it on its ear.
FG: I have a lot of feelings about Black AF because of its thought-provoking tagline, “What if black people were the only people with superpowers.” It really struck me considering all the negative feedback about the Black Lives Matter movement and how the Black Panthers vilified. In the storyline, was it originally that one black person was discovered with superpowers and then the government just started to essentially selectively “breed” black people to have superpowers or was it something that the government had willing created superpowers and genetically engineered black people to have them?
K: Well, I leave that open in the story but basically from the present to that future that is revealed in the story, it is definitely something where whatever the future controlling powers took people who had powers and started using them as weapons of war and controlling them.
FG: What inspired you to create this story because it’s so different and I love it so much, what was your “Aha!” moment?
K: I worked in comics for almost ten years (I worked at Marvel and DC as a digital editor) and one of the first things I noticed was that there weren’t a lot of people of color in the industry and, in particular, not a lot of people of color working on the content which meant that the comics we all know these companies for (e.g. Batman, Superman, X-Men, Iron Man, Thor) didn’t have any voices aside from white men guiding them. This singular voice was reflected in the material they were putting out which as they didn’t have people of color in them and the ones that did have them didn’t have the culture or the context, almost like they were superficial; you’re to telling these stories that are supposed to be fantastic but are grounded in reality.
These stories always had these metaphor characters for being the outsiders or being ostracized by society yet those characters were only ostracized because they wore outlandish costumes or some mild affliction whereas, in the real world, people are being discriminated against because of their skin color not because they happen to be telekinetic which if you’re a beautiful red-headed telekinetic woman that’s not really a detriment to your life I would think. Nobody’s pulling Wolverine over because he’s got a nice car, you know what I mean? So that’s where I had that “Aha!” moment where what if only black people had superpowers? Once I said that phrase in my head that’s when I knew that I could tell an awesome story.
FG: I’m glad you did, I’m so excited for people to hear about this and to read this because it’s so true. I remember reading a satirical comic about. It confuses how this industry is OK with the green Hulk but they honestly feel threatened by people of color. This comic is really bringing that to the forefront of my mind.
K: That’s great! That was my intent. Let’s scrape away the veneer of these stories that people are trying to make palatable for people and really tell a story where there is something at stake in a real way that people, in reality, have to deal with. And I don’t think that it’s [an editor asking an artist to lighten a character’s skin tone] malicious and the interesting thing to note is that when Ron wrote that article, he wasn’t painting anyone as Machiavellian or intentionally trying to cause harm, he was just highlighting that lack of perspective which is where a lot of these conflicts come from and is why I wrote Black and America’s Sweetheart – I want people to start seeing characters like this in a different light and also in the breadth and depth of people that actually live that life.
In Black we have characters that are a bit more urban and probably what people expect or are more familiar with, in America’s Sweetheart, we have Eli who is a conservative with a family that votes Republican which is what I wanted to show because all these spectrums are part of the black experience (there are black conservatives out there!) and it’s not a weird story to tell so you can still tell it in the context of what’s going on in the real world and not have to shy away from that or try to create some Pokémon version of it.
Me: How far do you want to take the story? I know it’s been optioned for film. Are there any more characters that are going to be introduced? Or is this Eli’s story?
The whole Black AF program is designed to explore a lot more characters because after we released Black, people responded well to it – they really enjoyed it which made me realize I introduced a lot of characters in that I think people would be interested in if we focused on and told stories about them specifically. America’s Sweetheart was just something special that I had in my heart and knew I wanted to do, especially right after Black because the Black AF story was originally to be a trilogy. We’re diving a little bit deeper into the other characters and they’ll pop up in each other’s stories throughout so this isn’t the end of Eli’s story, she’s definitely going to appear in other Black AF stories.
FG: Well I ask that because I’m sure there are aspiring comic book writers out there (myself included) who could all appreciate a little tidbit from someone who’s actually done it.
K: I Being an independent writer – if you’re writing something that’s really and exercise of telling a story that you want to tell that you think is important then that’s what you really need to focus on – what kind of storytelling are you going for, what are you trying to get across to people because on the other hand if you’re writing for a major publisher you’re not really doing that as much I mean you can try to put that in there but publishers have their own goals and bigger publishing initiatives they are trying to accomplish that don’t necessarily line up with what you want to do – if you want to tell a really cool though provoking story and you c, that’s not necessarily going to be the driver for them.
FG: What advice would you give to someone trying to get into the comic book industry as someone who wants control over their work?
K: In that case, do what we did with Black – we launched it via Kickstarter, people really liked the premise and I knew that that would be the litmus test for finding my audience and even knowing if the idea I had was good and worthwhile. The truth is you don’t really need publishers to tell a story that’s personal to you. There are a lot of tools out there now for you to get money to publish it yourself and then to actually sell it at conventions or put it on Amazon or sell it direct to bookstores. The key is using the internet to find people who will like what you’re doing.
FG: What do you foresee as the future of the comic book industry?
K: I think a lot of people tend to make these predictions and I lean more towards progressive and I’m more of a futurist but what I’ve found is that a lot of the core audience that’s been keeping comics afloat isn’t necessarily ready to move on to new things. I think the future lies in mobile comics (Line Webtoon) more graphic novels and fewer floppy periodical comics. It’s a tough business to sustain and its just getting tougher for everybody and it strikes me as odd considering we all are on our mobile phones all the time and people are willing to pay for content if you price it in a ways that’s fair. I mean, I love that people buy my books but the average comic book costs $3.99…
FG: Who inspired you to get into comics? I feel that the comics industry is lacking in people of color as forerunners in comic creation. Whenever I see a new black comic creator I get so excited, I just freak out because of excitement because it gives me hope and it inspires me that my stories are valid too. Who showed you that you too could do it?
K: That’s an interesting story. It happened when I was around 16, I was a comic book fan and I went to the store every month and was really into the culture. Then Milestone appeared and they had all these characters that looked like me (Icon, Hardware, and Static). Static was this nerdy black kid who lived in this multicultural neighborhood and he honestly reflected the sort of person that I was at the time. I’d never thought of it until I saw him that I wasn’t present or presented in the comics I was reading at the time. I was so inspired by all this that when I was about to go to college, I called up Milestone and I told them that I had all these great ideas and I wanted to work for them and their editor-in-chief (Dwayne McDuffie) was kind enough to let me come in and show my portfolio and it was complete garbage! He told me that in a nice perceptive way and then for an hour he explained to me how I could be a part of the industry and how the industry actually works. That was how I found out about the Marvel internship program and how I got my first job in comic books. Dwayne McDuffie showed me that I have a place in comics and here was this big 6 foot 5 tall man running his own comic book publishing company in partnership with DC. That was when I realized that I can do this, I can do this well, and I can be like this guy. He’s always been my north star, and the other one was Christopher Priest who wrote Black Panther (he basically defined what we’re going to see in the movie). That’s when I finally knew that I could write comics too.
FG: Black AF is a very powerful story with a powerful premise. It’s the story that will make people think and stories like that will get certain people who are upset about it. Have you gotten any rabidly angered people upset about Black and how do you deal with that?
K: Absolutely. I expected that there’d be people like that but what do you do with that? You already know what that type of person is and they’re going to be upset by the fact that the comic exists and not even try to understand the story but will immediately see it as divisive and racist. There is nothing political about wanting freedom; it’s a basic human right. What is political about not wanting to be judged based on the color of your skin or to be judged just because you called your book Black? So the person who immediately has a visceral reaction to that is pretty much showing how they judge and interact with people in life and I’m not saying there’s no discourse to be had with them because I have had discourses with them, they’re generally not invested in taking in other people’s perspectives and that sort of reaction is always very myopic.
FG: I saw a tweet you posted (When your haters still buy your book) and I think that’s the most awesome reaction GIF I’ve ever seen and perfect for a lot of black creatives nowadays. There’s just that fear of putting something out because people are going to say you’re being too political but sometimes, just being black and existing a certain space is considered political!
K: It’s a way that people dismiss what you’re trying to say and it’s being clarified by the Black Lives Matter movement. I was an English major and if you understand sentence structure and the words that are key in that phrase, the only thing that would make that a more clarifying rallying cry is “Black Lives Matter Too” yet people have railed against it because they already have invested themselves in the idea that black people are other or Middle Eastern people are terrorist, they’re essentially bigoted. I think it’s strange because what’s inherent on that phrase isn’t anything strange, it’s simply saying – these people’s lives matter and it’s odd because you often hear people who are against Black Lives Matter will be someone who’s’ pro-life. So what you’re saying is the life of an unborn child or embryo matters more than a living breathing person? The thing that’s political is their reaction to it. Asking for equality and freedom is not political, what’s political is when people hear you say that and have a visceral reaction.
— Wakwanza Osajyefo (@kwanzer) February 1, 2018
It’s something that I came to a conclusion in doing this book and seeing people’s reactions on Twitter because there are so many people who aren’t really invested in other perspectives or being a part of dialogue or exchange, what they’re really into is just being stuck in their own worldview and we’re disrupting that and basically trying to convey the fact that there’s actually a greater reality than the one that they’ve been immersed in. We have to understand that when that happens, there will be a reaction but then there’s the type of person that doesn’t want to change or grow and we need to understand that they are basically just reveling in stupidity. Some people are like, “I really like being dumb and I’m going to stick to that.” It seems like a really impossible way to live.
FG: I have a lot of mixed feelings about Zion – I see and understand her pain and struggle to prevent the devastation that comes to her people yet she’s going about it in a very cynical evil “there is no hope” way. Did you create her to show what happens to black people when they lose hope in any sort of help in achieving any equality? She sort of reminds me of Daisy Fitzroy from Bioshock Infinite.
K: It’s funny because when I created Zion, I was trying to create a character that had real reasons for doing what they were doing because I don’t believe in that binary idea of the good guys and villains, it’s mostly just people with different perspectives. She comes from a perspective where she’s seen the end result of a world where black people have superpowers and what can happen to them and I think of her as this symbol of black pragmatism where we’re cautiously optimistic – we want what’s best but we know what we see happening and it’s a difficult thing to reconcile those two things happening in our lives because you want people to treat you fairly but you also know what they’re capable of and I think that’s where Zion is fighting. She’s saying to herself, “I’m not going to hedge my bet at this time, I know that I’m powerful enough to make the world better through force and not try to work together with people or win them over because that’s ridiculous – they do not like me, they are scared of me, they’re scared of you, we don’t have to be scared of them, we’re essentially the most powerful people on the planet, let’s just take it over.”
FG: She got really dark. She started to scare me.
K: I think if you look at her prior to that when she talked about her earlier life and how she wants peace you know she’s in a world that reflects our own and it wasn’t until people found out that black people had superpowers that things started to get ugly really quickly. She’s somebody who wants peace that’s worth living but up until that moment that fear that all the devastation she witnessed before could all happen again is overwhelming and just knowing that her sister is in this world as well, she has someone that she desperately needs to protect and that reflects how a lot of people feel about themselves and their family – what would you do for younger sibling? For your mom? For your dad?
FG: I guess the thing is people shouldn’t root for or against her.
K: The call is on the individual, honestly. Whether or not you think she’s right might be based on how you think or how you would behave in this situation because when I write these characters I always take a little piece of myself. Each of these characters kind of represents the different views that I might have if I had grown up in a different way.
FG: That’s what I really like – your comic doesn’t have the ugly bad guy and here’s the handsome/beautiful good guy to come defeat them. It’s more of, this is the situation, people are fighting for their lives, this isn’t a kiddy Saturday morning cartoon where the good guy punches the bad guy and declares “Oh I saved the day,” this is people saying, “Oh my gosh, I need to save my day because no-one’s saving my day for me.” I think that’s awesome.
K: Yeah, and I also think the most interesting characters (which we classify as the villains or what have you) are the ones that think that they’re right. I think that’s where a majority of our conflict in the real world comes from the fact that people think that they’re right and they are so strong in that conviction that people end up fighting.
FG: So now that I think about it, your comic has basically shown why people are unable to agree on stuff.
K: Yeah, that’s pretty much the truth of it. I think true evil is doing something wrong and knowing its wrong but if you ask your average American, even if they had an idea that something was wrong, I don’t think they’re think it was absolutely wrong because if they did they wouldn’t do it and maybe that’s a little naive because I think that even in delusion people see themselves as the good guy.
FG: That’s the problem, everyone sees themselves as the good guy! Well, I really find it interesting that you went down the route of the main character being a black girl adopted by white parents and the funniest panel in that whole comic is where Eli’s mom is doing her hair with a pair of pliers.
K: That’s one of my favorite parts too and it’s part geek and it’s also part of the real black experience. I’ve seen these stories online where white parents who’ve adopted black children really had to learn a lot about black hair (how to style and manage it) and me being a geek and thinking this is a super version of black hair where you can’t even braid her hair because it’s literally steel and trying to think of her poor mother who’s thinking to herself, “OK, this is my child and I’m not just going to let her roll around with an 18 foot afro that could literally knock over a bus, what am I going to do?” and that’s how I set it up for why she has a natural cropped and short hair style and part of that was inspired by the fact that we based her off of Lupita Nyongo and the other part was that I wanted to have that moment in the story, I wanted to show that because that’s part of black person’s lives – our hair.
FG: I feel like black hair is very essential to the black experience and even with rallying cries such as “Don’t Touch My Hair.” It feels like with Black you touched on almost everything that a black person goes through. This just goes to show the importance of having different content creators because maybe a non-black creator wouldn’t have realized the severe hilarity of just that lone panel and wouldn’t have known to include that. I hope that people read it and pick up on it and have a conversation about it.
K: I think they will and it’s interesting when you hear people talking about what diversity in comics is and I think that’s exactly what you’re saying and why I did it. These are the things that are missing when major publishers make these characters of color – they keep missing the context. For example, there’s no context really to Miles Morales being Spiderman, it doesn’t matter in the story, it matters to people who read it, the readers care but nobody in his world cares at all, it’s not important but if that sort of character existed you’d be telling different stories about his experience, like what we’re reading right now.
FG: You definitely have a sense of humor. Just the image of the guy wiping his tears with money was too much, I couldn’t take it.
K: It was inspired by the fact that one of my bigger detractors went out and bought my book and made a whole video on it. You just gave me money, you really showed me! You don’t like me personally, you’re trying to berate my work but then you gave me money?! How does that make sense? Then somebody else was like, “We just bootlegged it,” but you still read it! So where am I losing here? You’ve been exposed to my work, you gave me money. It’s ridiculous.
I did have one guy in particular that had me really cracking up because the day that America’s Sweetheart came out, he was live tweeting and trying to find the book at his local comic shop. I don’t know if I have fans that dedicated to my work! The kind of legwork that you’re doing! After leaving a hard day of work to pick up the book! Wow man, I don’t know what to tell you.
FG: Thank you for making me laugh with that one! On a lighter note, have you had any fans reach out to you to say thank you for making Black, it’s really inspired me, when are you going to make more? Any really positive reactions that make you feel wow this means I’m doing a really good job, this is what I want.
K: Absolutely, I pay attention, I’m listening and also people come up to me and shake my hand and take p[pictures with me and say they bought it for their daughter, brother, or their friend. They bought two copies and they have all the different variant covers and that means a lot to me and just going back to the story with Dwayne and how he was so kind to do something like that for me and that’s what I think Black is, I do it for people like that who say “I never saw myself reflected in a comic and I didn’t think about myself in the context of superheroes or science fiction and now it’s changed my perspective,” and I felt that necessary to do. My hope is that Black can become a platform of its own and other writers can tell stories that they want to tell because I can’t write any of it, I need to pass the reigns and let other people have some fun.