Honoring History: ‘Tuskegee Heirs’ Creators Talk Legendary Airmen, Big Robots and Kickstarter Success
It’s Black History Month! And what better way to celebrate than by looking at our past and using it to head into the future — even if that future is lifetimes away from now. That’s exactly what Greg Burnham and Marcus Williams’ plan to capture in Tuskegee Heirs. The forthcoming graphic novel pays homage to the Tuskegee Airmen as it follows five talented pilots in their teenage years on their journey to defend the world — eighty years from now. Oh, and there are big fighting robots involved too.
Comic book fans have been buzzing with excitement for the upcoming new series which was funded over Kickstarter within days of its start in January. Now, with four days to go, the duo has raised over five times the amount of their original goal of $10,000, gaining them enough funding to create six issues and a mobile game app. But they’re really eyeing a possible animated series — and we can already imagine some exciting scenes. (We mentioned the big fighting robots right?)
ComicsAlliance spoke with Burnham and Williams about the latest project, what scenes they’re looking forward to animating, the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, and what readers can expect in the first graphic novel.
ComicsAlliance: How did you two meet?
Marcus Williams: It was about 2000 and we met through a mutual friend. I was coming in to meet Greg. Greg was a writer on a comic that they were trying to do. They had looked at some other artists and we sat down and started meeting and I started drawing the characters that they were describing at the meeting. So I think again, it was kind of a fit and from there, it’s been kind of history ever since. We created a comic, back in 2001, called Starving Artists. It was kind of like a comedy parody about a character that was kind of poking fun at current day hip-hop.
Greg Burnham: Which was terrible back then, so we had good points of reference.
MW: I think No Limit came out about that time.
GB: No they were actually on their way down. Everything got R&B-ish. Rapping stopped being so important. I think it was about that time that we were doing it. I always knew how I wanted stuff to look, I just wasn’t able to make it look that way myself. So, Marcus was the first person who… it was almost like downloading files into a printer. You tell him what you want, and I try to be as descriptive as I can and he takes it and makes it look like that. But, then he also ends up making it look better. So, it started with that one little comic book concept and we keep working together. We’ve been working together ever since. It’s been awhile.
MW: And neither of us have shot the other one yet. (laughs)
CA: I know collaborations can be hard. How do you find compromise?
GB: Marcus is like my little brother, not little like a kid, but, he’s like my younger brother, and we’ve been working together so long and we established early on, say what you feel. Say what you think, be honest. If I come up with an idea that’s wack, please tell me. And I’m going to do the same thing with you.
CA: And now you have Tuskegee Heirs.
MW: Right, fast-forward fifteen years. At this point, it’s pretty easy. Usually some ideas take a bit of developing and we gotta go back and forth and figure out how it’s going to work and what’s the real heart and blood of it.
This one, I think we did in less than a couple of weeks. We pretty much defined the foundation of the story in like a night and a half. We came up with the name that night and everything. It was pretty quick to formulate. The rest is me drawing images.
CA: What made you decide to use the Tuskegee Airmen as inspiration?
MW: There’s a common thread that we’ve been pushing for the last couple of months — especially in my art. Greg has been doing it for awhile in his children’s books. You can see on the posts on my social networks and you’ll see a lot of young black characters whether superheroes or otherwise.
I’ve just been really really interested in showing young black children … allowing them to see themselves in powerful character roles. So, I basically coined the series Young Heroes. If it was any comic character, I just made a young version of that character and just tried to show them in a clean new fresh light for let’s say if it was a ten-year-old or younger seeing this character for the first time. It’s important, I think personally for young kids to see themselves in these roles.
That’s kind of like what Tuskegee Heirs is about. We could have made a Tuskegee Airmen part two and made them all adults. But having a young cast and putting them in that same situation where they’re flying planes and doing these great fantastic things seems to fit more in line with what we’re both passionate about right now. These young kids don’t see their potential a lot of times. They don’t understand that their history is rich with fantastic inventors, military, you name it. And it spans thousands and thousands of years of just really really great achievement. But young kids don’t see that. They don’t know that. It’s not even in the history books at school.
GB: I had a major epiphany today because we were meeting with an app game developer, and just explaining some of the stuff, and it made me just think we’ve been working towards the same goal for so long. I’m a history major, so I’m really deep into history. But there’s so much history that doesn’t get exposed to the kids. So we’re going to definitely do our part to make sure that we are getting the information to the kids. A lot of the lesser known stuff — we’re going to talk about Easter Island and Olmec Heads. So we’re going to cover a lot of different things.
You look at history books that they’re giving to kids and it’s always that we started from being slaves. They never talk about how Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt does. There’s all kind of stuff that we can really get into in the world that we’re creating that will cause you to fact check that.
Then when you fact check certain things, you’ll be learning as you’re being entertained. So teaching and exposing people to history is big. We’ve already had people reaching out to us saying, “I didn’t know anything about the Tuskegee Airmen. I’m sorry but I didn’t until I saw your project. Now I’m reading everything I can, watching the movies because I wanna know.” I’m sad that they’re people — especially in America — that don’t know anything about them.
CA: What would you say is one common misconception about the Tuskegee Airmen?
MW: I can say… going to the museum, the biggest misconception I had for me personally, I didn’t know that it was more than just the pilots. I didn’t know there was a huge support system that they had. They had cooks, people sewing their parachutes, they had a whole crew of women that were working in the factories putting together the parts. They had nurses and everything else. All these different facets. I don’t know if that’s a misconception, I just didn’t know it. It was my misconception.
CA: Were they all black as well?
MW: Yes. Well, if they weren’t all black, that’s what they showed at the photos at the museum. (laughs)
CA: I noticed in the book, a lot of the characters are women as well. What made you decide to show diversity?
GB: Yeah. We both have a son and a daughter a piece. (laughs) Everything that we do, there has to be that balance. I was frustrated with the Star Wars thing. You know, you go into the stores and you’re looking at the Star Wars action figures and the dolls and everything and they don’t have Rey. I was bugging out because I was going to get the set and it was like fifty bucks! They had Kylo Ren, Finn, Poe… and I was like, where’s Rey? I don’t get that. So, they finally decided to make a young lady the star of the most humongous franchise ever and you’re not promoting or selling her merchandise? That’s weird to me.
We’re definitely not trying to go that route. We have young ladies that are pilots. The mechanic — one of the smartest people in the whole thing — is also a female. They’re not just eye candy or anything like that. One of them is actually the leader of the whole team. The other one is the person that makes everything tick, so to speak. We definitely wanted to show love, and being that it’s eighty years in the future, they’re not military. I think that’s one of the things people think, that they’re working for the government. They’re totally not working for the government, so they’re freed up.
MW: If you look back there was a dozen really awesome black female pilots, they just obviously couldn’t be in the military at the time. This was years ago and they were all very known as amazing pilots and they did amazing things. They just couldn’t be in the military.
CA: So these are independent kids who are really good at flying?
GB: We don’t want to give everything away. They are kind of grouped together. They are going to be led by one person. They’re not even going to understand what they’re being groomed for until the poo hits the fan.
CA: Who are the characters? What are their personalities like? From the pictures, it seems like they all have distinctive personalities.
GB: They do. We have Ayanna, she’s the leader. They all have extra stuff to help them be a part of a team. So she’s really into nutrition. She’ll be like the physical trainer of the group who’s always doing extra.
We have Genesis, who’s going to be absolutely cute and adorable. Keep in mind they’re all ranging from age 13 to 19. So Genesis is going to be adorable, but she’s also like really really intelligent. She knows maps, she knows geography. So she’s very useful in the mission.
We have Slip, he’s the little guy but he’s the spark plug. He’s like the weapons expert and he doesn’t really like to turn away from a fight. He also likes to start fights — but he’s brilliant. I think Marcus said it best. He’s that kid that would be talking in class and the teacher will ask him a question trying to catch him off guard, and he’ll turn around and give him the answer. Then turn back around and keep talking. He’s that guy.
Omar, who’s analytical, he’s like a field technician. He’s not the main mechanic, but if there’s any issues while they’re out on missions and stuff, he’s the guy that can put stuff back together. Kind of like a Macgyver kind of dude.
Then Able, he’s new to the group. Where we’re starting off with the story, he’s just coming in, so he doesn’t even know half of what they know. But he’s naturally the most talented pilot of the group, like freakish even. He’s the Steph Curry of the crew. It’s like, “How did you do that? What made you even think about doing that?” He’s that guy.
When we start off, he gonna struggle a little bit to find his place because everybody else is used to each other and kind of spent some time together so he’s gonna struggle with that and some stuff from his past. The story kind of centers around him. You’ll see the story kind of through his eyes — or from his perspective, I should say. Not always through his eyes.
MW: They’ll function as a tight knit group as the story progresses. The crew, before Able gets there is already kind of brother and sisters. They’re very tight knit. Ayanna runs a tight ship. It’s a kind of thing where it’s not military. I think me and Greg decided this right away that it’s not military so there’s no “sir yes sir” kind of thing.
But it’s kind of like a hierarchy where if you ever had brothers and sisters… I’m the youngest of four brothers and it was just a respect system. You knew who could beat your butt, you know if you try to fight — you can try — but you’ll probably get beat up anyway. But you still challenge here and there. Ultimately, if they told you to go do something, you’d go do it out of respect. They have a respect for each other.
We want to really highlight that, to say they care about each other. From there, the person that’s actually leading them, we want to infuse that comradery that really made the Tuskegee Airmen great. They had that support system with each other and they helped each other and they built each other up. But it’s going to be funny as well. We’re going to have a lot of good comedy in there and good sibling rivalry.
GB: The other thing I was saying … they’re all going to be proficient in some style of martial arts. But it’s all a different style. So one is jiu-jitsu, one is Muay Thai. So, there will be some hand-to-hand fighting going on as well. Not between the team.
MW: Well, they’re gonna spar.
GB: Yeah, they’re gonna spar.
CA: Interesting. I’m excited. Would you want to see this animated eventually?
MW: I really want to see this in the cartoon. Every time I hear about the characters and a lot of people don’t understand — we’ve gone through these scenes in the story and I’m closing my eyes just thinking about these characters and I see everything moving and it frustrates me. Like, “Man, I want to watch this on TV.”
GB: It’s really hard to write when you get to the action stuff because the regular parts are cool, but once you get to action, it’s like, “Man, you know how many panels it’s going to take?” (laughs) Certain scenes I feel like if you can hear it and we have some music going it’s just going to be kind of insane.
CA: Are there any specific scenes you have in mind?
GB: The first action sequence. One of our goals with the Kickstarter is to try to put together an animated short. I’m going to do whatever I can to convince Marcus that our first real action scene is what we need to animate. It’s just going to be insane because we got some good fighting — it’s just some really really good stuff happening.
MW: For me, it’s the first transformation from their futuristic plane. When they get their new planes — the one that actually transforms into the robots. That’s gonna be like Christmas all over again. If — not if — when we see that move in animation, we’re gonna animate it. We’re gonna have to win the lottery tickets or whatever.
GB: Sell aluminum cans… whatever needs to happen.
MW: Yeah, just showing that first transformation. I see it so clearly in my head. That’s going to be wonderful to see that happen.
CA: When I first read the concept, I immediately thought of Gundam Wing, Gurren Lagann, etc. Do either of you draw inspiration from anime?
MW: Oh yeah, and there’s no shame in saying that. We’ve had a couple people saying that, “Oh, so it’s basically a black Robotech, it’s like Gundam.” I’m like, “Yes, yes actually it is.”
The fact that you can say a black version of that is still — even if you say it’s a rip off — which it isn’t of course. But absolutely we were heavily influenced by them. Those are great concepts, but is there one version of it that has an all black cast? Absolutely not. And why is that? There’s no good reason. We have these great pilots, and I love big robots. Why not put those together and, yay, it works together just right because we’re not making up good pilots. The Tuskegee Airmen were great pilots of machines, so just add missions and good old fashion future technology.
So, absolutely, I love Robotech. I love Gundam. Big robots is a beautiful… the genre isn’t going anywhere. I don’t care how many years you look at it until people start driving them in real life, cartoons are gonna fade away then, maybe.
CA: How is it like to reach your Kickstarter goal?
GB: We felt extremely confident that we would get to the $10,000, which was the initial goal. We had no idea that we would hit that in like less than eight hours. We were kind of blown away by that immediate success and we’re blown away still. People are still dropping money. We’re doing a lot of work. I didn’t even think that it was this much work but it’s a lot of work behind the scenes going on.
CA: What can fans expect when they open up the first graphic novel and what are you most excited for them to see?
MW: I think there’s scenes in my mind even now as I’m talking. There I want to create scenes that are heroic. I want to create scenes that show vulnerability. I want to create scenes that excite young and old readers alike. And I want to do it with young black kids. I want to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that anyone that has ever thought about doing something like that should have done it. Me and Greg have asked each other from the beginning, “Dude, I don’t remember seeing anything like this. Are you sure?”
GB: I hope that people become immersed in this world that we’re creating. I hope that you feel like it’s a place that you want to be. I’m hoping that when they open up the book that they get that feel, because the way that we’re writing and the illustrations and everything, I personally want to be there.
I just hope that they can expect to be in a place where it’s like peaceful, and you can just sit down and go through this book and really feel the vibes that we’re trying to give off.
Tuskegee Heirs has already reached it’s Kickstarter goal of $10,000 but it’s running for four more days. The duo still needs about $25,000 more to bring the graphic novel to action. Check out their Kickstarter here.