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Indie Comics Spotlight: Alitha Martinez made two comics about genius black women
Every expanded superhero universe creates an origin story for their superpowers: For Marvel, it’s Mutants and Inhumans, DC has metahumans, and even Valiant has Psiots. And the gifted of the H1 universe are identified as "Ignited," including the heroine of Omni, the comic publisher's newest offering. Omni follows Cecilia Cobbina, a young Afro-Latina superhero. For artist Alitha Martinez (Black Panther: World of Wakanda, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur), it’s about damn time.
In Omni, which is written by Devin Grayson (Marvel Rising, User), Cecilia can’t fly or shoot lasers from her eyes, and that’s by design. Neither she nor any of the other "Ignited" wear capes or uniforms. They’re just everyday people, who woke up one day with abilities. Cecilia, who was a gifted surgeon before the Ignition event, has enhanced cognitive abilities, but her new powers don’t concern her as much as where they came from. And since the government is rounding up powered people without much explanation, she’s racing against time to figure out why their powers exist at all.
In a way, Cecilia isn't so different from another character Martinez has drawn — Marvel's resident genius little black girl Lunella Lafayette, aka Moon Girl. Both are characters that the veteran artist (she started as Joe Quesada’s assistant) never thought she would ever see in comics, much less draw. SYFY WIRE sat down with Alitha and talked to her about Omni, Moon Girl, and how her creator-owned work brings her peace.
H1’s shared universe rejects the "caped crusaders" philosophy. What's it been like working within those parameters?
Well, it was a little unusual for me. I was thinking, "So wait. Nobody's wearing tights? They know I draw superheroes, right?"
Who brought you into H1?
[Humanoids' Senior Editor] Fabrice Sapolsky. I’ve known him for a while and, you know, we’ve been trying to work together on something, but we never can seem to connect. Then one day he told me, "Hey, there's this book that we're starting called Omni and we'd love to have you work on it". I was actually supposed to come on in the second arc of the book but ended up working on [the launch].
It sounds like you had to learn about the universe pretty quickly.
Quite. You know, I love worldbuilding. That's like my favorite things to do. I've gotten the chance to build quite a few worlds over the years. But you know, when you have to do it so quickly, you're just trying to figure it out as you go along. It makes a pretty package when you're done. But while it's happening, it is a forest fire.
Cecilia is a medical doctor even before the Ignition event, right?
Yes, she's working with the Doctors Without Borders program when we meet her. Well, we meet her through a PTSD flashback when she worked for the program. So she's already brilliant and accomplished in her own right, and selfless.
What exactly are her powers?
She's able to activate her highest levels of intelligence, all nine levels. In fact, they sort of break out like separate personalities from her. So when something happens, her Ignition [reveals itself as] multiple consciousnesses working through a whole situation all at once in moments. Imagine being not just the smartest person in the room, but acquiring the ability to see every facet and every level of intelligence there is.
Was it hard for you to visualize how to illustrate that?
Luckily Devin has a very detailed script, though. It's really all there. When I read a script, a movie starts to play in my own head. So I'm trying to draw the pictures that race by. So after I read a script I'm just drawing the pictures that I see.
Had you worked with Devin before?
No, I hadn’t.
So a new company, a new character, and new writer. That’s challenging.
It is, but that's why my love is still there for comics, because I like the challenge of doing something I've never done before. On Moon Girl, I had to use a new inking style I’d never used before. So with this, with Omni, most definitely, I've learned a lot and I've grown a lot.
Cecilia seems to be on a quest to find the Ignited and help them. Is that correct?
Exactly. She's on a different sort of quest. It's not the usual superhero journey. She actually uses her brain to try to find other people like her. But she's also concerned about the big picture. What does this Ignition mean for the world? How is this really going to affect us? I guess that comes from her power and being activated by her intelligence, and she's more motivated to find out the truth. For me, that's a major departure.
I don't know if people truly understand what that means for women of color, to see a woman like Cecilia on the page looking back at them. A strong black woman who's intelligent. She doesn't have to put on a tight suit. Doesn't have to fight in heels. I feel so sad for Wonder Woman to this day.
What were you working on anything else while you drew Omni?
I was working on Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur as that book wound down. And I was also working on a book called Fearless for Marvel at that same time.
Was it tough jumping back and forth between the characters?
I actually don’t mind it, because I use one character to help me get through a block with another character. Sometimes I'm not in the mood to ink in a certain style or draw something in a certain style. I can quickly shift to a different style in a different universe, which is great. Sometimes a book like Omni can become very heavy because it's dealing with such a serious subject matter. It can become draining. So when something becomes too heavy, it's nice to be able to switch over and play in an entirely different universe.
Now, the only thing that really bothers me is the shorter time frames. If you're penciling and inking 20 pages a month, you're really doing 40 pages a month. So when I'm on two books, I'm doing 80 pages a month. That's a lot of work.
With that schedule, do you still make time for your creator-owned work like Foreign?
Of course I am! I finally got the money together and got books six and seven edited. Hopefully, we'll be able to print those up soon. Again, that's a whole other process. It's so weird. I so badly want to create and to tell stories. I'm still working on it.
Is that also an escape for you? From the heaviness that you mentioned?
Oh yeah. That's such an old story for me. It's been with me my entire life, so I've been writing Foreign since I was a child. I retreat to Foreign, and since it’s what I turn to when I’m [creatively tapped]. It's wonderful to be able to use that story as my "escape hatch."