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'White' is the 'Empire Strikes Back' of the 'Black' comic universe, says co-creator Kwanza Osajyefo
I'm usually loathe to label any pop culture work "important" because I think it reeks of pretentious, lazy writing.
But if I were the type to call something important, White would certainly fit the bill. Because how else would you describe the sequel to Black, a book that came out at the launch of the Trump era that posed the question: What if the only superpowered beings on Earth are Black?
The long-awaited sequel to Black finally reached some customers' hands this week as White hits comics shops (though in limited form; more on that down below). The creator-owned book is the newest chapter of a saga that quickly morphed from a Kickstarter success story to a straight-up phenom, one with sold-out print runs, tons of media coverage, and a movie deal with Warner Bros. to create a cinematic Black universe.
The story that Kwanza Osajyefo and his co-creators — including co-writer Tim Smith 3 and artists Jamal Igle and Khary Randolph — put together for White follows the natural progression from the events of Black. Namely, how far would the white establishment go to protect its place in society in a world with Black supers?
When Osajyefo hopped on a Zoom call with SYFY WIRE recently, he explained how the current story arc came together, with the main antagonist Theodore Mann occupying a prominent new position. And as it does with a lot of nerds, it all came down to Star Wars.
"In my wildest dreams before Black ever actually landed on paper, I had always imagined it being like sort of a trilogy with a definite arc to it," Osajyefo says. "And something very Star Wars. And with White, we're in The Empire Strikes Back section of the story right now."
As such, Osajyefo wanted White to challenge the initial concept of Black, and see where it takes us.
"Okay, well, what if only Black people had super powers? And then, how would the world react to that? So White is essentially how the world reacts to that once it becomes public knowledge. And so you have the character of Theodore Mann, he becomes elected as President of the United States, which, believe it or not, was the intent way before the former guy came into office."
Osajyefo is of course referring to former president Donald Trump, who took over the White House in 2017. But while Mann's fictional election may have proceeded Trump's actual one, Osajyefo admits to using Trump's time in office as a source of material for the new project.
"I actually took particular interest in [Trump's] children, because that's a next generation of people like him," Osajyefo says. "I thought, what creates a person like the former guy, what creates his children?"
The writer says he saw the conflict between Theodore Mann's son, Thaddeus, and the leader of the resistance movement, X, as crucial to the evolution of the larger storyline. X was once known as Kareem Jenkins, who in Black was the young man who is killed by police only to return with superpowers.
"In White, we really set the tension up between X… and Mann's son Thaddeus, who's essentially trying to pick up the family business in some respect. He's very much a product of entitlement. He sees the world through a very limited and curated lens," Osajyefo says. "When you take someone like that, who thinks the world is his oyster and belongs to him, and then you create a segment of people who have actual physical power, it kind of puts him on his heels a bit. And he's very determined to show dominance throughout the story. And it becomes this interesting conflict of these two young people who are basically trying to survive in different ways. One is more survival of ego and the other one is like, literal survival."
It's not hard to see parallels between the push by Theodore Mann's presidency in White trying to clamp down on superpowered Black people and alleged voter-restriction efforts currently happening in states all around the U.S. When asked about the relevance and timeliness of this story, Osajyefo argues that neither the first book or its sequel are timely; that the story is simply following the arc of history for Blacks in America.
"We're not looking forward in order to tell the story; we're looking at past history, because the current voter restriction acts are no different than those that existed after the Civil War, where all of these laws were put into place in order to suppress Black people," he says. "That's not new. So there's this looking back at that stuff and saying, 'Okay, if America hasn't learned anything, how would they react to a supernatural version of what we're experiencing right now?' And the answer is, it's pretty self-evident. It's really about looking at a country that has yet to come to terms in a real way with its past behavior. And so it continues to simply repeat it."
Osajyefo admits that working on White took a similar emotional toll on him and his fellow co-creators as did Black.
"I definitely took a big, long break after writing it," Osajyefo says. "But I think it was a little less taxing than when we were doing Black. Following that arc of the hero's journey, but also the path of Black struggles in America in Black definitely took a little bit more out of us. I think with White, we were operating more in a present mindset. So we were speaking more to things that are, that are going on, with also a hope for the future, and leading into the third act of this [trilogy]."
Osajyefo is not one to hold back from speaking his mind. When asked if he has seen a discernible improvement in how the comics industry approaches representation in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, he replied in predictably blunt fashion.
"I'm gonna say not particularly, no. I think that we had some reflection from a lot of corporations and stuff like that, you know, following like George Floyd's murder where there's a lot of charity, there's a lot of surface changes, but systemic? That hasn't really changed that much. And I don't know that the people who could make those changes actually have the lens to truly recognize or the motivation to really change it, and that's not a dig at anybody," Osajyefo says.
"I've seen more change in terms of indie comics and independent publishers, where you're seeing more of those changes happen in terms of equity and representation and, you know, inclusion of women and people of color and LGBTQ," he continues. "But I think when it comes to the major publishers, there's still very much a lot of, 'Hey, we'll tap you when we have a story that we want to get some PR for.' And that's fine. I can't be mad at that, there's still the system in place that favors people who favor the system itself, that favors straight white men. And it's one of those things where it's like, you wish you could have more honest conversations about that with people, without them feeling that you're attacking them."
As a longtime comics fan — he's especially fond of the X-Men — Osajyefo seems to think he won't be getting a call from the House of Ideas for a project anytime soon. "I've not been, ever offered an opportunity to do any work with them, but I don't know that with my style and approach that that would ever be in their comfort zone anyway," he admits. "And that's fine. It doesn't mean that I can't enjoy them or that they can never call me. It's just more like, 'Hey, you know who I am and you know what I'm going to do if I [go there].' But I'm fine to watch and read, you know, Jonathan Hickman really evolve the X-Men into something, because I'm a huge fan."
Being a proud comics geek, Osajyefo knew he wanted to make the release of White something special. And as someone who came of age as a fan in the '90s, the Golden Age of collectible comics, he made sure fans got a comic that was cool, and collectible. The Kickstarter supporters, who gave more than $40,000 to the White campaign, received a special printing of all six issues of White printed with a special card stock cover and no ads.
Through the book's publisher, Black Mask Studios, a limited run of White (about 2,500 copies) were printed of its main cover and sent to comics shops this week. "What we wanted to do for people who are collectors and big fans of the book is just do a limited run. So if you get it, you have something that you can legitimately call a collector's item," Osajyefo says.
However, because demand for the book was off the charts, it sold out at the distributor's level. More than 40,000 orders were reportedly put in. Which means a second printing of White is coming later this month. So anyone interested in seeing the next chapter of the Black saga play out will have that chance.
As for the in-the-works theatrical adaptation of Black, Osajyefo could only offer a vague but optimistic update. "There is some very great movement, and I am super excited about it, but I can't talk about it," he says. "But I will say that I'm pretty happy with it. I've always had the approach of, don't try to replicate the comic in the film. That's not gonna work, so just make a movie. Pick the elements that have meaning and make a movie, because I think that's what has been Marvel's secret sauce. They didn't really go into like, Iron Man and say, 'We're going to literally tell this exact story from the comics.' No, they just took these elements, like, who is Tony Stark? And what's his struggle, what's he going through? Then modernize it and make it fun. And I think that's definitely what's going on with Black."
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.