Welcome to the Indie Comics Spotlight, a weekly column where I interview indie comic book creators and talk about their work and their process.
My first guest is Kwanza Osajyefo, who is best known for writing and collaborating with Khary Randolph, Tim Smith 3 and Jamal Igle on the critically acclaimed comic book series Black (Black Mask Studios). Kwanza is a creative and businessperson; he's worked at both Marvel and DC, and his experience in marketing helped him write, promote and fund (remember that epic Kickstarter?) his work.
The next installment of the series Black [AF]: America’s Sweetheart dropped digitally on February 2. It's about a young black girl named Eli (prounounced "Ellie") with incredible superpowers... raised by a white family in Montana. I sat down with Kwanza talked about his choice for this story, troll management and how Black is being made into a feature film.
Kwanza, your writing became well-known in 2016 with the comic book series Black. Tell us about the premise.
Black's premise is basically, "What if only black people had superpowers?" and the story follows Kareem Jenkins. He was shot and killed by the police only to come back to life and discover that he has these powers and he's part of a small group of black people who have had superpowers for centuries. Those powers have been kept a secret, because they would be disruptive to society.
Black looks at the "outsider" trope, the characters that are outside of society and not accepted even in their secret identity. Like the X-Men characters who are palatable examples of what discrimination looks like. I wanted to kind of scrape away at that trope like icing on a cake and cut into the real issues using science fiction as vehicle.
How did you team up with Khary Randolph, Jamal Igle, Tim Smith III and of course your editor Sarah Litt?
I worked in comic books between Marvel and DC, mostly digital content for 10 years as an editor and these were people I met and admired. I worked with Sarah at DC when she was at Vertigo and she was my assistant editor when we went out to Burbank. Jamal, I worked with him on The Ray and I've always been an admirer of his work. The same with Khary, and Tim I actually met when I was an intern at Marvel. I got hired at Marvel like right out of college. So, I did my internship there and then after graduating, there happened to be openings and I jumped on that, because that was always on my checklist. That's what created the seeds of working online and thinking of future mediums as opposed to just print.
I became disenchanted and left comics after Marvel for a few years and went into online media. Then I saw there was an opening in the online division at DC and they were launching their new web imprint for comics called Zuda. We created some amazing work back then. We had Bayou (Jeremy Love), a fantasy adventure that takes place in 1930’s Jim Crow South. And then there was David Gallagher and Steve Ellis’ High Moon, which is like this cowboy/werewolf/hard detective story.
Before you signed with Black Mask, you had this amazing kickstarter that took off on social media. Did any of your experience working with comics and digital space help you in promoting it?
Absolutely. The thing that I noticed from working at both of those companies is that editorial, print and publishing led and digital and online were sort of an afterthought. But the way I saw it at the time, digital is low-cost, no-cost marketing where you can reach your audience, serve them content and really engage with them. And I think a lot of my experience from working online gave me a much broader perspective on what was possible.
Can you explain in layman's terms the pros and cons of promoting your comic with a crowdfunding platform?
The big plus is that Kickstarter is a litmus test and when I was thinking of Black and decided to go on that platform, it was a trial by fire because I didn't know whether or not people would like the idea. I had it all written, but I went to Kickstarter to secure the time and effort of talented artists like Jamal and Khary, I needed to get the money to pay them. And I was perfectly ready to give up Black if we didn't fund. This was like just our pet project that we thought that will make 500 copies and send it to like maybe like people who like this kind of stuff. That's literally what we thought.
But then you sold 3,000.
Yes! Which we did not anticipate, we're still sending them out and folks out there, please forgive us we’re working on it. I think one of the biggest things is to not get over excited or overextend what you are rewarding people with. It's a weird thing to consider a negative because you're essentially complaining about success. There's so many things I would've done differently to fulfill things faster but hindsight is 20/20.
A lot of people came after you when this comic dropped, calling it divisive and racist. So how did you handle that on social media?
I mean that was kind of expected for the most part. The real surprising thing is like, I can say in all honesty, it's been 90 percent love for Black from, you know, people who come across the idea and that was very much black people.
But not just black people.
I mean in all honesty, we have a lot of a Caucasian, Asian and Latinx fans. We have fans across the board. We, even have one fan who I met who was a Trump supporter. No lie. That was an interesting conversation to have. I think Jamal and Khary’s mouths were hanging open.
Now, Black AF: America’s Sweetheart just dropped digitally. This story seems to loosely tie into the universe of original Black, but unlike Kareem, Eli was raised/adopted by a white family and she has a different worldview.
Exactly. I wanted to go to a different segment of the black experience and tell the story through the eyes of a young 15-year-old girl living in Helena, Montana where they have the least black people in United States, raised by a white family, because that's also the black experience.
It’s a story that I wanted to tell because the idea of black conservatism intrigues me. The Colin Powells of the world. I wanted to have someone who really represented the ideals that we stand for in America. Being raised in that sort of like, (and I say this sort of tongue in cheek), this sort of like all-American family.
I think about it in terms of that statement that James Baldwin made "I can't believe the things you say, because I see what you do." That's sort of the through line in the story for me. You can make a superhero archetype and if it's a white male he's going to have a different experience trying to be that like iconic superhero versus a young black girl. How, especially in today's society, is the world going to react to that?
Besides her upbringing, her powers are different than Kareem’s. His manifested as a result of a qualifying event but hers seem to have manifested as a child.
Yes, she's been super from birth. And Kareem has a lot of infinite potential, but he stil doesn't know the extent of what he can do. Whereas Eli has grown up with these abilities and had to exert a lot of control, because she's been homeschooled her entire life out in rural Montana.
She reminds me of an omega-level mutant that’s trying to hone in her powers.
Yeah. And it's only honed in the sense that she's had to learn restraint. So the conservatism isn't just a political view or upbringing. It's something she's had to exercise her entire life.
This time you didn’t use Jamal or Khary. Who was the artist and colorist on this comic?
They are the same person. Jennifer Johnson is a mega talent that we found online. I believe this is her first full-length comic book. She’s a young black woman from Canada whose art I fell in love with and who expressed what I wanted to bring forth in America's Sweetheart.
This is a big book. I was expecting to read 22 pages and it’s 84. So you're dropping a TPB from the jump. Why not put out six separate issues like you did before?
If I'm going to do a book that's kind of like YA, which is what America's Sweetheart is, I'm not necessarily writing the story for the direct market, for the periodical fans and people coming in like month after month. I'm looking at that young woman who is going to walk into a bookstore or a comic shop and just want one full story. That's something that I lean a lot more towards and thankfully Black Mask was willing to like let me go that route.
So you're not going to put out an 88-page book every month?
No, the next book that's coming out, Widows and Orphans, is four issues. And part of the reason for that is because it's more character focused, I don't need as many issues. But the other part of it is understanding that the direct market has a fall off after a certain point. You know? You're really fighting for attention.
It has been announced that Black is going to be a film produced by Studio Eight. Can you give us some details?
From the day that we started the Kickstarter, we've had studios with offers coming at us. The good fortune we've had working on Black is that we've worked with people who really are invested in the story. So we ended up going with a Studio Eight and we signed a deal with them to make a feature film.
What is one thing that you've learned as an indie comic book writer that you would tell anybody trying to get their writing out there in comics?
I would tell them that the internet is your strongest tool for reaching the audience that you want to reach. It’s going to be your proof of concept for whether or not you want to go with an indie publisher or a major publisher. I struggle with like the idea of these big publishers, but there's so much opportunity out there with smaller ones. And the fact that we were able to put a book like this out on our own, shows that the playing field has been evened out.
The collected edition of Black is out now and Black AF: America's Sweetheart can be purchased at Comixology. Want to hear more from Kwanza? Check out his visit to the Who Won the Week podcast #113 with myself, Dany Roth and Adam Swiderski.