‘Black’ Co-Creator Kwanza Osajyefo Talks Upcoming Graphic Novel, X-Men, and Milestone Media Influence
A few minutes after Kwanza Osajyefo hit his Kickstarter goal for Black, he was on the phone with ComicsAlliance. Needless to say, the former DC editor was hyped as thoughts of new possibilities were brought to fruition within days of the launch of his crowdfunding campaign.
Along with his own super-powered team, Tim Smith 3, Jamal Igle, Khary Randolph and Sarah Litt, Osajyefo's six part graphic novel will attempt to tackle one question: "In a world that already fears and hates them, what if only black people had superpowers?" The story follows Kareem Jenkins, a young black teenager who gets racially profiled and gunned down by police only to discover that he is one of many black people with superpowers.
Since reaching the $29,999 goal, the creators have tacked on additional enterprises, including a 20-page "climatic battle" at the end of Black, as well as some insider information via a webcomic to explain how the government has kept the secret of the super-powered individuals from the public for centuries. So far, Black has gained more than double the amount of its original goal, which unlocked the fight sequence. Now, with a little over a week left, the team is still accepting pledges as it sails past its stretch goals.
We caught up with Kwanza Osajyefo for an exclusive breakdown of some of the characters who have yet to be mentioned, an insightful story on meeting the late Dwayne McDuffie, and a celebration of the success of his Kickstarter campaign, which can be found here. You can also check out our first look at the upcoming series from earlier this month.
ComicsAlliance: How does it feel now that you've passed your goal in a matter of days?
Kwanza Osajyefo: That part feels really good. I'm definitely going to keep at it. There's a lot more that we can add to the project. I just kind of wanted to tell people the story that we were trying to put out --- give them at least one finished product, which is why I really focused the goals around the book itself. I mean, that's great if we can make other products now or do the things that will add to the story but at the end of the day the thing that's most important to me is the story and getting a book out there.
CA: So, what inspired you to create BLACK in the first place?
KO: I've been in the industry for a long time. I've been a fan even longer. So, like a lot of people grow up reading books like the X-Men and Fantastic Four, like really being exposed to characters who have kind of a fringe status --- in particularly with the X-Men. They're obviously an allegory in that sort of fictional universe, with bigotry and racism and stuff like that.
But, you know, as I got a bit older and actually started working in the industry, I looked at those characters and thought to myself, "Wolverine doesn't get pulled over because he has a nice car." (laughs) "Cyclops, he just goes around wearing red shades and no one's really going to bother you." People who have the worse problems are like Nightcrawler and Beast. Even then, it's like okay, "Beast, why don't you just shave or something. I don't know what color your skin is underneath there, but there's a lot of guys out there with hairy backs and they wax man. They wax."
I looked at it from that perspective and it loses its cheek after awhile when you try to tell a story like that in a world with, like, Thor and Captain America and Iron Man and the Hulk ... because while this one group is being ostracized, it really kind of makes no sense in that context that these people are bad or demonized by society. It just doesn't really hold water anymore.
In thinking that, I said the truth is in real life, for black people, this does happen. This is the reality, and loving science fiction and superhero stories, you're like, well, what if only black people have super powers? You know? How would that work? (laughs)
And the minute I said the question out loud, it essentially just started rolling in my mind, all the implications and how would people deal with this if this is something that suddenly happened or been happening for a long time. In the story of Black, this is something that's been going on for centuries and essentially being so pressed on all sides from public knowledge. And that's kind of where the lead character Kareem comes in.
CA: I'm glad you mentioned that. Who is Kareem? How does he fit in with other characters?
KO: He's just an average inner city kid who, due to racial profiling and mistaken identity gets gunned down by police. For him, he survives and wakes up in the back of an ambulance completely unscathed and terrified of course. (laughs) He just basically died and came back to life so he leaps from the ambulance while it's moving and pretty much hauls a--, just figuring out what's going on.
The police are chasing him down and he finds an abandoned factory and hides in there, and while he's in there, a mysterious guy is in there waiting for him essentially, Juncture, and tells him, "What's waiting for you outside is not a good deal." So you have two choices, you can get caught by these guys or you can come with me and take your chances.
So, he goes with him, and Juncture introduces him to his organization which is an underground global group that essentially finds people like himself and Kareem who have powers, and kind of gets them off the map because the world government is very aware of this phenomenon and essentially capture individuals like this. Depending on where they are in the world, it can end with experimentation, exploitation at the least, being used as government weapons or death.
So the times are very close to what happens in our real world where you can be a Trayvon Martin who's just walking down the street like a normal average American but because he's black and has a hoodie up, he gets killed. And that's not a story that's fictional, that's not The Sentinels coming in and attacking Xavier's school for the 18th time. That's that boy's life and that's his family.
So, I wanted to tell a story that had grounding in that. That people could understand immediately. I think that's why Black has resonated so far, because it immediately touches on something that we all know to be true. It's not happy, it's not pretty. Hopefully through telling more stories like this we come to some understanding and acknowledge that it's a problem and something that we can work on. But in the framework of a superhero story, science fiction story, have a fun wild time while doing it. I definitely love science fiction and one of their two tropes that just seem to be a natural fit and really bring them together in a natural context.
CA: You mentioned the underground group, who else is in Juncture's crew?
KO: So Juncture, at least in the New York branch, has a small team of operatives who basically help to find people like Kareem and deal with Agent Washington and Agent Adams. He's got his own squad.
So Juncture's right hand man is Zero. He's albino. So people have asked me before, "Oh, well, when you say only black people... how black is black?" Zero is one of those characters that I throw in there to say that it's not just about skin color. He doesn't talk much, he's very methodical. He kind of holds the team together. He's like their field commander.
His partner-in-crime is Indigo, she's a pretty awesome character. She's bi-racial. So she's another sort of question mark in the series where, if you look at Zero and Kareem and Indigo, they don't fit the bill of how the log line fits in people's minds. These are definitely question marks. And they're supported by three other characters who are Bass, Hood Rat and Anansi. They're Juncture's go-to people. They know how to get stuff done. Highly effective, highly trained.
A little background on Juncture; he used to work for the U.S. government, hoping to locate people like himself and make sure that they stayed out of harm's way but as in any tragic story... had a differencing of opinion and decided to break ties with them and essentially became a fugitive, and runs his own operation. So, he's an old war horse, he's an old soldier, but he really keeps fighting towards peace. And [he] knows that since there's such a small amount of population that has these powers, having that knowledge doesn't just endanger them, but the entire global population of black people.
Because if you really think about it, if that sort of thing became public knowledge, in a way that happens now, people would be looking over their shoulder like, if you're brown they're just like "is this guy a mind reader? Is he going to shoot fire out of his behind?" That constant threat will be there and that's the thing that hangs over his head the most. That's the thing that keeps him awake at night, because he knows that he can train and protect his group, but he can't necessarily train and protect the entire global population of black people. There's a whole continent... (laughs). It's one of those things in the story that is constantly teetering on the edge. And how that's kept quiet is going to be an interesting reveal as well.
That's Juncture's whole team that Kareem is going to be rolling around with on these adventures.
CA: Would you say that Kareem is the hero of the story?
KO: He's definitely the point of view character. I wouldn't say that there's a villain per say in the story. The truth about race, especially in a country like the United States where racism is kind of systematic, it has so many levels and nuances to it that don't always stem from something as extreme as the KKK. It can be passive, it can be subtle. And that's kind of what I explore in the story. When put into a situation that's kind of fantastical like this, what choices do people make?
And that's what it's really about. What choices are these characters making in order to survive. So there's definitely opposing philosophies in the story and opposing forces in the story, but to call any of them bad guys or good guys, it doesn't really speak to who we are in life. Even though we love reading that sort of stuff in fiction, can any of us really say that we have enemies? (laughs) A nemesis? I think maybe everybody has like one --- like a frenemy. But, I wanted to keep the story in that realm of just people being people, dealing with some very strange situations.
Things that do oppose Kareem and Juncture in the story, though, are the U.S. government and their program to deal with the situation; Washington and Adams who work the East Coast beat, if I were to call it that. They're also liaisons for the Mann Company, which is led by Theodore Mann, a government contractor with a long legacy of working in this field.
His great great great great grandfather started the whole thing, and they basically have been the experts on dealing with this phenomenon and dissect them to try to figure out why it's happening, unsuccessfully. But, they've made a lot of money from it, and have figured out at least how to help the U.S. and keep things under wraps. But as the years pass, the numbers are increasing, still small, but it's getting to a point where the people are really at a breaking point when Kareem comes in. So, he's not coming in when everything's hunky dory. (laughs)
He's kind of unique in the story too; he's got a power or an ability that nobody has ever seen before, nobody understands, he's kind of like an unknown and that puts him in a equally precarious place.
There's also a sort of a third opposition with a character called O, who's a global terrorist of sorts who essentially is a very "by any means necessary" sort of character operating behind the shadows and really going to extremes that don't sit well with Juncture and puts the fear of God in the government. So, he's kind of the character where you don't really know what he's doing. So you don't really have like a good guy bad guy thing, you just got these factions who are trying to deal with this situation in a way that makes sense to them.
CA: You really have a wide set of characters...
KO: Some of the depictions of black characters in the medium have been very sort of two dimensional and one tone, and that's not to say that there haven't been really great efforts or things that I enjoy; Black Panther, Static and Milestone characters and all that.
But when I look at what's out there right now, even the efforts that are being made, I sort of say, "Well, what's the difference between this character and the other character?" When you stack them up on a team where they have such depth of character and who they are and there there's just "black guy."
And it still happens. I rarely think that it's intentional so much as systematic, where, let's take the Avengers cartoon that's on, and their depiction of Falcon is just sort of ... he's just there as a black guy. And that's been going on for like the short history of black characters in television, toys and media. It's almost like... "and here's the version for this group." There's your guy. And I'm like, "Nah, he's not my guy. He kind of sucks."
And I don't think Falcon sucks, but it's just kind of like, "Really, is that's all I get? I'm not really a fan of the John Stewart guy, I'm just gonna like Batman, just like everybody else, okay? I hope you don't think I have to like him because he's the brown one."
So in creating a story like this, where it's the cast, and the focus is on all these black characters, I think it's going to expose people to a lot more to choose from. That was one of the things that I really admired about Milestone when it came out; you just had this breadth and depth where they were a little more across the board in terms of inclusion. At least in terms of who can fly or shoot things out of their eyes and who can't. They really shows what can be done if you were just a little bit more open-minded and gave it a little bit more thought in creating characters. It doesn't really take much.
CA: Was Milestone a big influence on you?
KO: Milestone is definitely a huge influence on my career. Dwayne McDuffie in particular, he really set the pace and showed me at a very young age, when I was thinking about crossing over from fan to professional, that someone like me could have status and effect in this industry.
I'll tell you a little story about it. I'm 17 years old, getting ready to go to college, and Milestone just launched. And I was like, "This is amazing," like I wouldn't have even thought this [was possible], because when something's systematic, you don't know that there's other options. So for me, the entire comic world was Marvel, DC until Milestone came out ... it was almost like The Matrix. There's another world out here, dude.
So, I found the number in their comics, I called them up and spoke to Dwayne on the phone and he brought me in for an interview. So I went in there with my s---- portfolio (laughs) and shared some of my ideas with him, and he was so gracious as to look through it. And let me down easy.
But he then kept me in his office for another hour or so and asked me what I wanted to do in comics and in my life. Obviously told me, at 17, bring your a-- to college, come back when you're fully grown. But he told me how the industry works, who the movers and shakers were, and how to really get into the business and how it works. I walked away from that still thinking that I could do it, and that's pretty much what drove me to apply to Marvel's internship program, and I got hired right after that summer fresh out of college. That was pretty much it. That really defined who I wanted to be. So, once I got to DC and had the opportunity to work on [digital comcis platform] Zuda as their editor, I really put in a lot of effort to bring in fresh new faces and different perspectives to that program.
CA: Also, I'm just curious...why did you set the goal at $29,999 instead of $30,000?
KO: (laughs) I work in marketing and one of the things I've always admired in the history of advertising is the invention of 99 cents. (laughs) It's something so ridiculous that it works as a marketing tactic. It really is ridiculous, because you'll look at something and you're like that's 99 cents, okay. It's a dollar. Your brain tricks you into thinking it's a little bit less. I definitely wanted to present this in a way to seem like it was achievable and that I wasn't gouging anybody.
The team has been so gracious and believes so much in the project. I'm not keeping any of this money, this is going all towards the production and finishing of the book. Telling a story like that, to me, just has so much value and that's sort of why I was a little bit cautious at first about even bringing this to the public. I want to think of Black as something that's not just like a throwaway. It's not something that's like here today, gone tomorrow. This is a book that I'd like people to read for years to come.
They've just been gracious enough to do it for a lot less money than they would probably be making at a Marvel or a DC. And it's because it's important to them as well. That's what's so great about the project; it means something to people. Telling a story like that just has so much value, and that's sort of why I was a little bit cautious at first about even bringing this to the public. Things like this have meaning, and when I approach any sort of story, I want it to have meaning and effect. That's what literature means to me. Even though I'm a lover of comic books, I want to think of Black as something that's not just like a throwaway. It's not something that's like here today, gone tomorrow. This is a book that I'd like people to read for years to come.