Timed to launch with Black History Month, BLACK is one of the hottest comics out there and is currently raising funds through Kickstarter (it already has met its goal). The original science fiction graphic novel by Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith III, and Jamal Igle asks the question, “In a world that already fears and hates them – what if only Black people had superpowers?” BLACK follows the story of a young man, Kareem Jenkins, who, having miraculously survived being shot by police, learns that he is part of the biggest lie in history. Kareem must decide whether it’s safer to keep history’s secret, or if the truth will set him free.
Also contributing to the project is Khary Randolph, who will contribute covers and additional artwork, and editor Sarah Litt, formerly of Vertigo and DC Comics.
I got a chance to talk to Kwanza about the project, how it came about, why Kickstarter was the way to go, and a certain guerrilla marketing campaign at New York Comic Con.
Graphic Policy: You’re working on Black with Tim Smith III, Jamal Igle, Khary Randolph, and Sarah Litt. How did this series come about and everyone get involved?
Kwanza Osajyefo: I came up with the idea about 10 years ago, but shelved it while I pursued my editorial career at DC. Tim and I had worked together at Marvel and connected again at MoCCA, I pitched him the idea because I really like his approach to character design. We batted it around off and on for years, until I finally said, let’s just do this.
Jamal worked with me on a project at DC, I was already a fan but the speed and skill he showed during the process made me admire him all the more. I’d made up my mind back then to get him on board, but didn’t approach him until I was well out of the mainstream. Tim and I popped by his place, showed him designs and the story concept – he was in.
Khary and I bonded over being confused for each other by people in the comics industry for years – just gonna leave that there…
I love his work. So at NYCC this year, I showed him the BLACK mobile site. He glanced at the summary and said, “I’m in.” Honestly, I thought it was alcohol talking, and asked him several times after to confirm. I couldn’t believe the team we’d formed but his cover is the real thing and dope as hell.
Sarah and I worked at DC together in NY, and when I moved to LA, I invited her to come as my assistant editor. Knowing I could trust her editorial instincts, she was a natural for this project.
GP: You’re launching the comic through Kickstarter, was that always the plan? Did you approach any publishers with it?
KO: No. The permission-based publishing model would not work for BLACK. We’re open to publishing partners, but didn’t think anyone would greenlight internally. Proving that that project has appeal through Kickstarter was necessary.
Also the comics industry parallels the systematic and cultural biases that still exists in the US, and inspire this story. The comics industry remains heavily influenced by a White-male aesthetic – that has started to change very recently, but not fast enough for BLACK to come out through a traditional comics publisher.
That stated, I think many would be receptive to BLACK but don’t have the internal person who would have seen the opportunity.
GP: You’re taking a very straight on approach with the story of Black people with powers, getting rid of metaphors. While it might be a simple idea, you haven’t seen this too often. Why do you think that’s the case?
KO: Because there aren’t enough Black people working in comics with influential positions.
I don’t think many top publishers have a bench that could or would cultivate BLACK. I grouse about that a lot because it clearly impacts content.
Comics is already a small industry, but with output that influences media – how can the content appeal to a diverse audience when internal culture is not diverse.
Marvel has made recent efforts to address that, but got dinged in the press for cadging hip-hop album covers to sell comics. It highlighted that they hadn’t hired many Black creatives. I’ll keep it 100 – in my career I made a point to know as many Black creators as possible (as well as other ethnicities and women).
I did so partially because I’m Black, and partially because it was my job to find talent that will excite various audiences. It’s not difficult.
For the record, I don’t think it is intentional either. Just the result of having a homogenous, and at times exclusionary editorial culture – I lived it for a long time. In my decade-plus career, I never met another Black “full” editor.
I think it is part of why DC struggles with diversity among their core catalog, producing tone deaf characters like Simon Baz or elevating Black characters they’ve haven’t fleshed out enough to be engaging.
I know these are critical statements, but I don’t think they are untrue.
GP: From the release, the story kicks off with the character Kareem Jenkins surviving being shot by police. That by itself can be a story without the superhero aspect. What issues are you looking to tackle in the series?
KO: Quite a few issues arise in tackling a story like this. Police brutality is a catalyst for this story – a theme that reflects real life. Xenophobia is also drives the narrative. There is also the fear in being a minority. Trying to survive in a world where you’re immediately suspect and under the constant threat of harm.
All with a sci-fi twist, of course.
GP: You helped launch Zuda Comics which was a bit ahead of its time. Did your experience with that help guide this project? Did you consider doing it as a webcomic at all?
KO: I think Zuda was a bit ahead of DC Comics’ time. The reason I landed that role is because worked in online at Marvel, and then a number of other digital companies. Understanding how web content works helped me be a good partner among awesome colleagues in my department.
Webcomics are great but weren’t a consideration for BLACK. I think they’re reaching a similar level to print, where they need a revolution. My thought is that it is mobile, and I considered platforms like Web Toons as means of content distribution. It might still be a little early to explore mobile comics, but I admire companies like ComiXology for being at the right place and time and delivering top class digital service.
GP: In the release you also said you’re “challenging the pop culture status quo, which is dominated by a White male aesthetic.” Can you talk about that a bit?
KO: Sure. I worked between Marvel and DC over the course of a decade and never met another Black editor. Assistants yes, but never one with agency to influence the creative culture. The boys club values that pervades results in a limited and self-perpetuating view of content.
Dwayne McDuffie’s work writing Justice League cartoons DEFINED classic characters that DC continues to lean on. Yet, when they had the opportunity to have him write the comic, he was hamstrung by arbitrary decisions that superseded telling a great story.
He was public about his experience of dealing with the status quo.
BLACK goes into a territory publishers can’t touch without internalizing Black culture. Fully engaging that audience will remain out of reach because they lack Black experiences or must be cautious of producing something offensive.
I think Marvel’s efforts through Netflix may prove easier territory to tell those kinds of stories as the cinematic universe is less established and more palpable.
GP: There were some teasers for this series at New York Comic Con 2015 with text painted on sidewalks sending folks to a website. How long has this series been worked on and who came up with that marketing idea?
KO: Good eye. I originally intended to launch the campaign around NYCC, but after discussing it with Jamal, we thought February (Black History Month) 2016 made the most sense. We knew getting a head start on marketing would be beneficial, but wanted to be subtle in building an audience until then.
I wanted to do a little something during the convention, so I worked with a guerilla market agency to tag areas around the convention, and all the larger parties and events. Only ones I didn’t hit were Marvel’s and DC’s party locations.
GP: The launch of this has had a hell of a response. What’s your take on the reaction to it?
KO: A principle I lived by as an editor, and still do as an author: sincerity is better than pandering.
Be sincere and people will reciprocate ten-fold. I was a popular enough editor at DC because from my core I believed in the talent of people I worked with, told them the truth, and tried to help them bring forth their truths in the stories they wanted to tell.
BLACK has truth in it – that’s part of the secret sauce.
GP: Why do you think we don’t see more projects like this at comic publishers?
KO: I think we touched on that in you previous question, but to reiterate, it’s a lack of diversity among staff. BLACK was created because I have a perspective and experiences that the average comic book editor does not.
That expresses itself as content that may not even register in the mind of the mainstream editors. If it does register, the research needed to accurately tell that story may be too daunting. For example, I have ideas about stories heavily influenced by Asian culture, but I can’t do it yet because I still have a lot of reading to do to get it right.
GP: The Kickstarter is for a graphic novel in six chapters, but have you thought about continuing the world either with more graphic novels or even a monthly ongoing series?
KO: Definitely have a plan for subsequent graphic novels. I’m rather contrary to the traditional approach of serialized periodicals. They had their time and place, are still are a good source of reach and income, but as a storytelling platform they can exhaust general readers by their nature.
It’s tedious to repeat the same plots over and over, or have to fill-in an issue because of publishing schedules. I’d rather tell stories in a way that allows the characters grow. I can’t see Kareem and Juncture dealing with the same opposition every other year when the smarter option is to eliminate a threat.
Waiting every month for the next chapter is also a lot to ask of a general audience. We have so many options for content now, it’s difficult to justify $3-$5 when I can buy and full video game on my phone for less, or read equally good stories for free on Web Toons.
GP: Any other projects you’d like to plug?
KO: Not at the moment. I like to take a Pixar approach to my work rather than distract attention with a whole line of things.
I want people to read BLACK, so that’s my focus. There will be plenty of themes, characters, and places to explore in this world we’ve created.
We’ve had such an amazing reaction to the campaign, and will share some fun stretch goals we’re aiming for.
Please be on the lookout for more from BLACK!