Sebastian A. Jones grew up in England a fan of Tolkien and jazz, with a dream of one day telling his own stories through graphic novels. He started Stranger Comics 10 years ago with an interesting concept. Instead of trying to write various standalone stories and promote the comics separately, why not create one shared universe for all of his characters to share? From there The Untamed was launched, which led to Stranger's most famous title, Niobe: She Is Life.
The first run was famously co-written with actress/activist Amandla Stenberg, was drawn by Ashley A. Woods, and went on to become a Diamond-distributed success. Jones’ plan of epic worldbuilding has commenced since then, and I sat down to talk to him about his plans a few weeks ago at Emerald City Comic Con.
What was your motivation to start Stranger Comics?
We started Stranger Comics about 10 years ago. I'm a big fan of Blue Note records and Taschen. My philosophy was to have a kind of branded kind of comic company that put forward comics that would represent a global audience. And we introduced our company with a world I spent 30 years creating. The world is called Asunda, and the first book that we put out was called The Untamed: A Sinner's Prayer, where we meet the face of our franchise, Niobe.
Niobe was the comic that you co-created with Amandla Stenberg in 2015, correct? Why did you decide to make that comic your flagship, so to speak?
Yeah, it was the end of 2015. I wanted Niobe to have her own story; I thought it was very, very important to have a teenage girl, a black teenage girl, represent Niobe, and in an authentic way. I really relate to her character. The origins of Niobe: She Is Life is really a kind of a Beauty and the Beast love story threaded with murder and mystery that leads to war about a young girl returning to her ancestors to find her faith, and what we find with Niobe being mixed is it really plays to the duality within us all.
You mentioned that you can relate to Niobe, a black female warrior, orphaned half-elf. How so?
I guess me being mixed and struggling and [dealing with] the growing pains as a young boy, I wanted Niobe to kind of be that "weeping Buddha" where I put all my fears and my hopes and my ambitions onto her winged shoulders.
But it was also very important for me that she was black and very important that she has dreadlocks and very important that she's a very unapologetic character, but she's also flawed and she has her own growing pains, so we can all grow with her. You know, like what was done with Harry Potter.
From what I can tell, it seems like all of Stranger Comics' offerings are from a shared universe, is that correct?
Right. DUSU: Path of the Ancients is a story about a human man and the spirit of the Jaguar deep within his soul. When the ancient spirit of the Wolf comes hunting him, he has to risk unleashing its own inner beast and risk destroying the tribe he loves just to save them. And it's actually a story of Niobe's tribe. She just doesn't know it yet.
From there we go into Niobe: She Is Death, when she becomes a badass bounty hunter hunting down sex traffickers, human traffickers, and slave traders, which reflects the global situation of girls that get abducted around the world. Then I'll follow that with Niobe: She Is Spirit, where she'll combine her faith and her fighting, and I'll close this series with Niobe: She Is God, where she fights against the hordes of the devil, her father, the Untamed.
How does Erathune fit into this universe?
Erathune is set a late much later on. And that's when Niobe is much older and is in the Scandinavian part of my world. Erathune is a story of a dwarf with a cursed axe and two souls to collect and he can be rid of that axe for good, one of which is his brother, the King who casts them out upon return of pain of death. The other is a big bad Orc who's been hunting Niobe since birth.
Right. Absolutely. So the Untamed sit in my, I guess Moroccan part of the world, in the Desert of the Dying Tree on the western borders of Ujoa, in a fictional portion of Africa. So Dusu and Niobe take place in the Ugoma jungle within Ujoa near the Utonomo. So there's a lot of great stuff that you discover, whereas Erathune is set in Herfang in the Scandinavian part of my world. So it was a very snowy, icy region to contrast with other things that we've done.
What’s your process like?
To start with -- make a hot cup of tea and put on a good record.
Usually, ideas come for stories at the most random times, in dreams, or in a good conversation. The process, once the idea has been formed takes shape through an outline loosely mapping out an entire story, with act breaks over the story. But before that, it is making sure I know the characters that inhabit the world. What their motivations are, their quirks, loves, and vulnerabilities. The more I can discover them, the easier they tell the story.
After getting to know the heroes and villains and in-betweens, for comic books, I break down each issue in a more defined outline. Once I am happy with it (and have had the team have a good look over), the fun begins of adding the dialogue and choosing the direction and panel breaks. I enjoy collaborating with my CCO Darrell May, who does all of the layouts, and my EIC Joshua Cozine to make sure I sound halfway intelligent. When working with a team of writers or co-authors, the circle widens. With Amandla Stenberg on NIOBE: She Is Life, for example, we spent a good deal of time getting to know Niobe. It really helped seeing Niobe through a teenager’s eyes. I think the process can only improve if you are open. Anyway, from then on it was building the story’s arc and ultimately her journey before putting pen to paper. After that I would write the first draft and she would make sure Niobe’s voice felt authentic.
Do you have a full team of creators at your disposal? Or do you have scripts ready to go and as you find the right artist you hire as you go?
I do have the aforementioned team of Darrell and Joshua working 24/7 on both my ideas and theirs. Also we have a new executive, Terrance Bouldin-Johnson, at Stranger Comics, who is a comic enthusiast and cosplay master who has been very helpful in finding talent. We do have other creators who we work very closely with, mostly artists who we have forged a great relationship with: Ashley A. Woods, Peter Bergting, Sheldon Mitchell, Jae Lee, James C. Webster, Caanan White, Ryan Caskey, and Hyoung Taek Nam, to name a few. Sometimes I have a script that has been sitting in a folder for a while, waiting for the right illustrator – for me the artist’s style has to match the story told.
How often do you drop comics?
Not as often as we would like, but we are a firm believer in quality over quantity! We are in the lab working away to make sure the books are as good as they can be.
Do you prefer 22-page floppies or TPBs?
I prefer the oversized coffee table hardcovers, although floppies will always be my first love.
Do you publish and distribute or just publish?
We publish [ourselves] and distribute through Diamond for comic shops and Ingram for book stores. Plus we distribute through all of the digital platforms: comixology, kindle, itunes, googleplay, and kobo.
To check out the world of Asunda and more of Sebastian’s work go to strangercomics.com.