‘BLACK’ creative team share their reactions, next steps and valuable insights into the comic book industry from the inside!
Timed to Black History Month, the highly anticipated ‘BLACK‘ graphic novel shattered it’s $30,000 Kickstarter goal in four days. The project is lead by a creative dream team. Written by Kwanza Osajyefo former DC Comics Digital Editor who launched DC’s ZUDA imprint and Tim Smith III (Iron Man, The Amazing Spiderman) Illustrated by Inkpot-Award winning artist Jamal Igle (Molly Danger, Supergirl) and Cover Artist Khary Randolph (TMNT, The Boondocks, Robin Wars) ‘BLACK’ is fueled by this ingenious premise—“In a world that already fears and hates them—what if only Black people had superpowers?”
KO: Kwanza Osajyefo
TS3: Tim Smith 3
JI: Jamal Igle
KR: Khary Randolph
-Having met your initial Kickstarter target of $30,000 in four days (congratulations on that remarkable achievement) were any of you surprised by the outpouring of support for BLACK?
KO: I think because of the truth within the fiction. The question BLACK asks is the premise of the story – what if only Black people had superpowers? That sets up the fantastic against issues we face in reality. We thought we would be grinding towards the funding goal for the entire month. That BLACK reached that amount in four days is pretty amazing. The response has been even more amazing, the idea really resonated with people.
KR: I was not surprised that we would make our goal, no. I always had faith in the vision, which is why I am a part of this in the first place. What surprised me was hitting in 4 days. That’s absolutely bonkers.
JI: Happily so. I’ve been involved in a few Kickstarters and while they’ve always done well, they never got funded as quickly. The outpouring of positive press, well wishes and general interest has been amazing.
TS3: I was extremely happy with the support people have given. As I write this now we have passed 45K!!!! I would say I am completely blown away!
-Why do you think the project resonated with so many people?
KO: The context and content of BLACK are intertwined without relying on allegories – it reflects actual issues, starting
with the lead character being killed by cops due to racial profiling. Somehow he survives and we’re along for the ride: how he learns about his own powers and the global suppression of this phenomenon. I think that presents a story that doesn’t serve readers through tokenism or ethnicity swaps — the characters have their own agency. BLACK is a reflection of systemic exclusion and oppression that exists in real life presented through the lens of sci-fi. It explores a largely untapped space in storytelling that, because of the very issues it highlights, most media outlets have not been able to consider. Consumers are hungry for new stories with different perspectives because what’s existed before has only served them the same content for decades from one group’s perspective.
TS3: I feel it’s something different enough to take notice, but familiar enough to be taken seriously. The cover image alone gets your attention. The concept also was something I think people wanted to see. In your mind, you can play the plot out all you want. But you really have to see for yourself just what this is going to be. It’s going to be awesome.
KR: I think it hit a sweet spot as far as timing, a cool premise, and faith in a bunch of guys that I pray we can live up to. We’re gonna do our best and hopefully make people proud they stood behind BLACK.
-The powerful iconography of the young black boy in a hoodie confronted by police is a theme we’ve seen recently echoed in popular culture, even in Beyonce’s new video. Why did you choose that particular visual for the cover?
KR: I understood from the jump that this first image was going to have to be super graphic and iconic, because it was going to get retweeted and seen over and over and over, and therefore I knew it had to have maximum impact. I always knew that I wanted to employ a Bansky-esque street art style for this book — that was locked in stone almost from day one. I just didn’t know what to draw. I wrestled with what to do for like a month, and eventually I asked myself what was the most iconic image of race relations in 2016, and the answer was obvious — a young black man in a hoodie with his hands up. From there I used myself as reference for the main character, which made the image that much more powerful when I realized what it truly represented. At one point I was even tearing up while drawing it, which in my mind sold why it was a good image.
KO: That was all Khary Randolph. Racial profiling and subsequent murder are catalysts in the story – he pretty much summed it up with that image. BLACK is not the kind of story where Kareem would be soaring through the air, in skin-tight long johns, punching some adversary in the face. I never thought BLACK would be in the same sentence as Beyoncé’s Formation. The truth is, many Black men and children have been targeted by police. Race is rarely a topic in comic stories.
TS3: To be honest, I had no clue what Khary (the cover artist) was going to cook up. So when I saw it, I most likely had the same reaction everyone else has. I immediately knew by the image the tone this was going to take.
– What are your new target goals and what kind of plans do you have for Black going forward? Is there perhaps YA novelizations or possible film plans in the works?
KO: I love that people are showing interest in additional BLACK content. I’m open to doing more stories in addition to the graphic novel. In fact, adding more story, more content, is part of our stretch goals.
– I recently wrote about the late Dwayne McDuffie Award (co-founder of Milestone Media) for Diversity in Comics. Do you feel it’s more impactful for people of color to create and consume our own content or do you think the answer lies in breaking into the mainstream comic business that is still dominated by white males?
KO: I think it’s impactful that young people see others like themselves in creative roles. That is exactly impact Dwayne personally had on my career. He reviewed my portfolio at the Milestone offices when I was 17. I wasn’t ready for a profession at the time, but he spent an hour with me, telling me how comics work – how to pursue a career in the industry. If not for Dwayne McDuffie’s presence and generosity with his time, I’d not have known that a Black person could lead comics, have influence, or that it was possible – necessary – that I follow the path he carved out. BLACK is not a story for only one group of people, but I want it to have the same ethos he passed on to me. Everyone has a voice, our stories are one story. We are not accurate about our humanity if we only tell our story from one perspective. BLACK is told from a particular perspective and covers topical matters not in the purview of many publishing institutions. It doesn’t need to go through the permission-based model to reach people. It’s an underserved area, so I think BLACK is speaking to a modern, multicultural audience who don’t want more of the same. Genuine stories are the most impactful. Comics are a commercial business and so often the onus is on publishers to prop up a brand. That doesn’t always mesh with the ethos of telling a purposeful story.
KR: I personally think that it is important to create content for everybody. Race and racism is a big part of what BLACK is. Racism isn’t only a black issue, it’s an everybody issue. If you only make content for one group, then there will always be a limit to how far you can go with your message. That’s not to disparage anyone else that has that goal in mind, more power to you. But for me, I have always believed that being out here, being seen by the biggest audience possible, and being a positive force is what maximizes impact.
TS3: I would say both. Today, with the power of the internet, you can reach the mass market without the help of mainstream companies. I also feel that breaking into the mainstream is good, too. Where would we be as a people if we did not push to be treated equal. Yes the fight is hard, your competition is everyone all around the planet. But you must be seen to be heard, whether that means going it on your own or to the mainstream — you have to do something.
JI: Absolutely, but I also feel that it’s something that everyone who is part of the great mosaic of America needs. We’re all in need of a sense of agency and empowerment, and it’s made more difficult because we are in the midst of societal revolution. Everything is changing, from self-identification to orientation, we are changing what it means to be an individual every single day.
-Though created by white talent I enjoyed Black Panther growing up. I particularly loved the Black Panther vs. The Ku Klux Klan storyline. What were your favorite heroes of color growing up?
KO: Power Pack? I was a very young reader, so I gravitated to more innocent concepts that reflected who most of us are in adolescence. I never felt drawn to token characters or ethnic swaps, the characters often felt hollow. Kids are naive but innately perspicacious – they see through falsehood. Honestly, it wasn’t until Milestone emerged (I was in my late teens then) that I realized how under represented Blacks were in content and the comics industry. Before the internet, we all had far less choice in what we consumed. That’s definitely a motivation behind BLACK. I’ve loved Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther. I was working at Marvel when that book arrived. I even wrote the jacket copy for the trade of volume one. He and Luke Cage have the most agency as Black characters. Marvel can elevate Iron Man from B-list status but didn’t think those two are strong enough to lead their diversity initiatives.
TS3: I always liked Storm from The X-Men. I never understood why she had to have blue eyes, but I guess that did not matter too much. She can control the weather and she was the leader of a badass team. She would even switch outfits too. Iota from Shadow Cabinet. I thought she was so complicated. She would steal stuff but was one of the good guys.
JI: I was always a fan of Luke Cage, and while his origins are iffy at best, he’s evolved as a character over the decades. I also really grew to love Static when Milestone first came around.
KR: It truthfully wasn’t something I thought about all that much. I was a child of the 80s, so all of my favorite characters were not even human. Transformers, Voltron, TMNT, Thundercats, these were my heroes. Hmmm, now that I think about it, I wonder if there’s a correlation there….
-What do you think is the biggest impediment to inclusivity and authentic voices being tapped as talent in mainstream comics? How do underrepresented groups garner more of our share of the multi billion dollar comic industry?
KO: Actual inclusion. Marvel can purchase legitimacy through Black freelance talent, and I’m sure DC is scrambling again to course correct in that regard. The internet has yet again caught the old guard with their pants down, but it speaks to the real issue.
I’ve repeated that in my decade between Marvel and DC Comics I never met another full editor who was Black. This industry is a small, and revolving door, so it’s even tougher to get in than most businesses and part of why I carved my path in their digital divisions. Without internal insight, publishers’ perception of race will remain insubstantial without extensive research. How will their editorial staff manage creatives of other ethnic perspectives when they only represent one. Even with an ambassador of color they’ll only have that one person’s viewpoint to draw on. I’d be better equipped in that position, but still enormously challenged to convey the nuances of being Asian, Native American, or a woman. So in an age of push button publishing, why bother with that route? We didn’t need Black Iron Man, we had Hardware. We didn’t need Black Spider-Man, we had Static. We can’t accept John Stewart as Green Lantern only when it is convenient for DC/Warner Bros, and we can’t entertain the X-Men as metaphors for bigotry when, outside of costume, they can walk the streets undeterred. Neither company has or can establish race in the fantastic universes they’ve created, where people engage alien species, inhumans, metahumans, and the like daily.
JI: I always used to say that I would have gotten further along in my career if my name was James Ingram and I had lighter skin, but I don’t know if that’s true. There are some people who just aren’t aware, or even think that it’s possible to make a living in comics. I think there’s also a money game involved as well. Editors like to work with people they know, people that reflect themselves. They don’t feel comfortable hiring a person of color, or a woman, or someone who is gay or transgendered because they don’t know if they can relate to them. It can be a challenge to try to change their minds and while I don’t think it’s always malicious, let’s be frank, sometimes it has been. So then, what do you do? You carve out your own niche and give the public something different than what they’re being offered and not worry about playing the game by anyone else’s rules.
TS3: I was asked this question some years ago at a comic convention. My answer changes when I sit back and think about it over my years being in the comic business. When I was in high school, I went to an all-Black school in an all-Black neighborhood. There were only a handful of kids that wanted to be comics artists and from that few only one or two who had their minds 100% on breaking into the comics industry. Same with college; the numbers of people wanting to get into comics art who were Black was not as big as the other races. But at the comics conventions there are plenty of Black artists walking around trying to break in or doing it for themselves. I said all that because I know that anyone who wants to be successful has to be taken seriously with the craft they want to do. Going to art school is not better than learning at home, but you have to go all out and take this comics industry seriously. People can tell when a person is putting 100% in. That’s the first step in a long road to achieving the success of being seen and heard and getting that piece of the pie. To have a voice in this comics arena, to get a slice of that million dollar check, Black creators may have to create their own lane and not wait for someone to hand it to them.
KR: I wrestle with this question every day and if I knew the answer to this maybe I’d be a rich man, haha. But at the end of the day I think it has to start at the top. There has to be a genuine effort to want to change. And it can’t be like “oh, this didn’t work so let’s go back to what we were doing before.” It has to be sustained, long term change. Diversity is not a fad.
-If you could articulate one idea to non black readers of BLACK for them to walk away with about the African American experience as it stands today, what would it be?
KO: Issues around race are simply a veneer over human beings’ struggle for power and control.
KR: If living in New York City for 20 years has taught me anything, it’s this — we all come from different places, but we are all the same deep down. All you have to do is make an effort to understand where someone is coming from.
TS3: Open you minds to new things. That’s what I would say. Take a second to consider that life and all its experiences may have more than one way of being.
-Building upon your on point critique of the recent Marvel attempts at being inclusive, what in your estimation is needed for more authenticity and progress in the comic book industry moving forward?
KO: To be blunt, Marvel is not being inclusive, they are marketing. The fastest growing consumer demographic is Latino, but “diversity” is easier to sell via darker skin. Most of Marvel’s diversity characters are written by White writers. That’s due, in part, to the systemic issues in the comics industry, and I don’t think it is intentional. It does represent that lack of perspective on race that we’ve discussed. I don’t think there is value in changing bureaucracy for the profit of those who are ignorant of others’ views. Today, creators have the ability to serve these areas without the establishment.
JI: Original concepts, stop slapping a new coat of paint on an old house. Spend the time, invest in creating a new character and legacy.
KR: I think there have been some great strides at Marvel and DC in the last couple of years, but more can always be done. The old characters are great, but new characters and new blood are what are needed to sustain these companies going forward. More voices can only benefit everyone.
-What comics are you all reading right now?
KO: Books that I look forward to each month are Saga, Paper Girls, Southern Cross, Zodiac Starforce, and Plutonia.
JI: Saga, East of West, Invincible, Cyrus Perkins and the Haunted Taxi Cab, Injection, Manhattan Projects , Black Magick.
KR: I buy a lot of comics, but truthfully I’m not reading anything at the moment. It’s weird, I try to stay abreast of what’s going on out there, but I’m more concerned with what I’m doing right now. I’m self-involved like that.
You can support BLACK stretch goals at the kickstarter page here.
Art Credit – Igle/Randolph