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Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer is exactly what you hope it is
David Crownson knows how to hustle. When he first started out, the aspiring actor and writer was so committed to his comics series, Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer, that when he wasn’t going on auditions, he waited tables, babysat, delivered pizza, tutored, and did just about whatever it took to make rent and pay his original artist Courtland Ellis. But Crownson's grind has paid off, and after two successful Kickstarters, the fictional tale that turned the real-life conductor of the Underground Railroad into a demon-fighting superhero is now in stores.
As a child, Crownson wasn’t fond of reading, so his father used comics as a way of keeping his attention focused and teaching him to read. He loved DC Comics and would read anything his father collected. His favorites? The Death of Superman, Batman: Death in the Family, Batman: Broken Bat. (Pretty heavy fare for a 6-year-old!) Those early years had a strong effect on him. If he wasn’t reading comics, he was sitting down by himself making up stories on his own.
After a string of failed auditions, he took some time off to visit family in Ghana, West Africa. During that time, he was inspired to write Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer after watching a Harriet Tubman documentary. SYFY WIRE talked to Crownson about his love of comics, his heroes, and how he incorporated Tubman’s real-life narcolepsy into the story.
It sounds like you were extremely creative as a child.
I read all of the comics [laughs]. I also enjoyed theater, acting, soccer, movies, and writing. We were a 10-minute drive from a convenience store that carried comics, and my father bought them for me mainly because when they killed Superman in the comics, it was all over the news. My father thought if he could purchase comics and keep them in mint condition, he could use them to pay my college tuition one day. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. I read those comics every day. Let’s just say they’re thumbed through.
What was the first thing you wrote?
A comic strip called The Adventures of Thunder Boy. I was 9 and very proud. Thunder Boy was black and based off of me, but with powers of thunder, of course.
Who are your heroes in the genre?
The writers that inspire me are Dwayne McDuffie, Jeph Loeb, Robert Kirkman, David Walker, Kevin Smith, and Brian Michael Bendis. And for artists, I’d say Mark Bagley, Ryan Ottley, David Takos, Afua Richardson, and Jim Lee.
How did you develop the concept of Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer?
I had been living in NYC and working five jobs to pay my rent. I was also auditioning as an actor a lot. I had three big auditions back to back. While I was on the phone with my mother, she could hear unrest and stress in my voice. She made me promise if I didn't book anything soon, I would move to Ghana, West Africa (where my family is originally from), to rest and recover. I didn't get any gigs and I was heartbroken and exhausted. So I gave up my jobs and apartment, stuffed my things into cheap storage, and booked a flight to Ghana! It was an amazing experience! Great food, people, etc.!
On month three, I found myself watching a Harriet Tubman documentary (fun fact: Harriet Tubman's heritage traces back to Ghana!). After the documentary ended, I began to channel-surf and stumbled upon the ending of my favorite film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was the katana fight scene with Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi — a dope scene! When the movie ended, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters came on. I was excited! I thought that was a fun concept for a story.
Later that evening, I started writing in my journal. After about an hour of stream-of-consciousness writing, three things stuck out to me on the page: “Harriet Tubman,” “katana fight scene,” and “witch hunters." I paused for a minute then screamed out loud, “HARRIET TUBMAN: DEMON SLAYER." That’s when the concept was born.
Harriet is powerful; does she have superpowers in your story?
Yes, she is! She possesses superhuman strength, hand-to-hand combat skills, agility, speed, and precognition of dangerous events. She isn't all-powerful, though. Like the real-life Harriet Tubman, she suffers from a severe case of narcolepsy. This weakness will raise the stakes significantly in an upcoming issue.
How did you team up with your artists Courtland Ellis and Joey Vazquez?
I found their work on Facebook and Instagram!
What’s your process? Do you send full scripts of outlines to Joey or just outlines?
I always go full script. I reserve outlines for myself to work from as a reference/guide.
What is your favorite panel or page in this series and why?
In Issue #3, there's a two-spread panel with Harriet and Chip battling an army of vampires. I simply told artist Sylvain Repos in the script, "Chip & Harriet fight vampires. Sylvain, MAKE THIS EPIC AF." It made me laugh how succinct and pedestrian I was in the description, but he added so much detail and expression to it!
The second issue left us with quite a twist. When can we expect the third?
Thank you! That's what I love most about comics! The cliffhangers! We’ll find out why the Edgefields left their plantation, and you will meet the main villain of the series.
You currently aren’t signed with a publisher, so how do you fund and print the books?
Kickstarter and working double shifts.
What has been the most challenging thing about being an indie comic book creator?
Having the discipline to sit down and write for hours.
Are you writing other stories or just this one?
I am currently working on HTDS and my next book about a girl who decided to come out to her own family on Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, her coming-out party is interrupted by an alien invasion. It’s called Nightmare in Newark and I am having a blast writing it!