‘The Grip Of Fear Vs. The Power Of Hope’ – BLACK Is Back With Kwanza Osajyefo

by Hannah Means Shannon

The comic series BLACK debuted as a project crowdfunded on Kickstarter among a group of friends and peers in the comics community, aware that the comic might prove too challenging for publishers to approve, because it addressed police brutality against young African American men, but also because it was about the racial tension that arises in a world where only people of color have super powers.

Written by Kwanza Osajyefo, who was already a veteran of the comic industry, with art by Jamal Igle and Tim Smith 3, with inks by Robin Riggs, and with covers created by Khary Randolph, the project not only gained widespread support and reached its funding goal, but was picked up for distribution by Black Mask Studios.

The first trade volume of BLACK containing six issues of the series, is not the end of a story, however, but rather the opening up of a world where new avenues and even bigger questions remain to be explored. The first collection is currently available in comic shops, and arrives in book stores today, November 14th 2017.

An original graphic novella set in the same world as BLACK is also underway, this time geared toward young adult readers, and will be arriving in comic shops on November 29th and in book stores this December. BLACK [AF] America’s Sweetheart is written by Kwanza Osajyefo, with art by Jennifer Johnson and cover art by Sho Murase, and focuses on the life of a super-powered 15 year old girl living in a rural community in Montana. As the most powerful person on the planet, and in the face of fear and mistrust, she makes it her goal to change perceptions and find acceptance.

Kwanza Osajyefo joins us here on Comicon.com to talk about BLACK Vol. 1 and BLACK [AF] America’s Sweetheart.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Was the original reasoning behind launching a Kickstarter for BLACK the assumption that publishers would consider it too challenging? That route of testing out publishers on a creator-owned work can take months or years to reach its negative conclusion, too, whereas Kickstarter has an immediacy, as well.

Kwanza Osajyefo: Absolutely. Ten years working in the comics industry, between the top two publishers, gave me a clear sense of tastes and comfort levels of leadership. I think the real challenge would have them “getting it” as both companies are dominated by the straight white male perspective. I felt the culture wouldn’t respond with “no”, but instead with “why” because the context is outside the echo chamber.

Kickstarter is a better litmus test than any publisher. Instead of your hurdles being a few gatekeepers’ tastes against a P&L sheet, you can see if your concept is valid by how much of a response and audience you earn.

HMS: Can you tell us a little about Kareem Jenkins, and what aspects of his personality and experience were essential to make him the right central character for BLACK? Do you see any of yourself in Kareem?

KO: All of the characters are aspects of my psyche that I explored while writing BLACK. Kareem was named after a cousin I grew up with. I was bookish and meek, but he was bold and always up for getting us into something. Too often for black boys, being bold or dauntless is considered dangerous. He wasn’t always well behaved but he wasn’t bad, and that’s what I wanted Kareem to be: an average teenager who is regarded differently by circumstance of being black.

HMS: There are several major themes at work in BLACK, but a huge one is the role of fear and this pattern that fear causes where a reaction to fear in one group (tending toward violence and aggression) forces the other group into fear also (of that aggression). Do you think fear is the biggest obstacle to change in the way human beings relate to each other? In the universe of BLACK, are there any real tools to break down fear?

KO: Fear is the mind-killer, right?

Without a doubt. There was a thought experiment showing that liberals could accept more conservative values by making them afraid. Results from a follow up experiment show conservatives would adopt more liberal positions when they feel safe.

Considering the fear historically attributed to blackness, adding superpowers to the mix is akin to a zombie apocalypse in terms of perceived threat to humanity, and by that I mean the ability to continue acting humanely. If people feel threatened, wrapped in fear–rationale is out the window.

Part of what our first interstitial book BLACK [AF] America’s Sweetheart is precisely about is the grip of fear versus the power of hope.

HMS: What kind of mood or atmosphere for the artwork (whether interior art or covers) did you have in mind at the inception of the project, and how did that develop into what we see now in this trade edition of BLACK?

KO: The intention was to always have the interior of the book in graytone as a metaphor for the reader bringing their own impression of color, or race, to the book. Regardless of what I wrote, I knew people would filter it through their core beliefs. As for the covers, Khary [Randoph] set the tone with that first iconic cover and it became the inspiration for the rest.

HMS: Following the announcement for BLACK [AF] America’s Sweetheart, did you find that people were surprised the project would be an original graphic novel, young adult, and feature a female hero? That’s three factors that make it quite different from the original BLACK series. What prompted those choices?

KO: Categorization is an intrinsic human approach to understanding our world. I think a precedent was set with BLACK as a disruptive piece of art. I’m progressive to my core, so for me the only constant in this project is not to be pigeonholed.

I wanted to do an OGN, because honestly I’m over periodicals. There’s the economics of the direct market, but I’ve seen the shift coming for a while and don’t want to fight for attention against statistical attrition. Telling a story through a YA lens was also part of exploring this world from more than one angle. My friends sometimes compare my tastes to that of a teenager, so I wanted to explore that naïve and unspoiled perspective that a child has.

Ultimately, I’ve just wanted to tell this story since the beginning of this project. Because BLACK isn’t some monolithic perspective but a multitude–to quote my muse, Ava DuVernay, “The truth of us is complicated.”

HMS: Creating a character like Eli Franklin, who is not only young, but from a rural area, must have taken some careful thought. She’s going to be up against a huge amount of change in her identity and role, taking on a world ready to spark off into crazy conflict, in a situation that would destroy most people, frankly. What do we need to know about Eli to understand where she’s coming from?

KO: I think people often like to fall on on the adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”–it’s a cynical perspective, especially in superhero fantasy. Eli, in part, was inspired by Grant Morrison’s exploration of Clark Kent in All Star Superman. The thought that someone who can’t be hurt is in some respect alleviated of base human fears that steer us to disregard others for self-preservation.

Eli was adopted and raised by a rather archetypical, Christian, Midwestern family with that aspirational Americana identity that people wrap themselves in to seem like good people, but she’s actually good–through-and-through.

The conflict for her is being who she is, a red-white-and-blue superhero, who happens to be black, and the context around that. Is sincerely wrapping herself in the flag, upholding good values, and saving people enough for people overlook bias–is it even worth it if they can’t?

HMS: The new OGN is going to bring in some plot elements relating to both patriotism and terrorism. Those are two topics that stand so closely adjacent to fear, actually, that they are bold moves for any protagonist to address. It seems like both can be used by parties with vested interests in controlling the masses. What influence do they have on Eli Franklin and the plot of America’s Sweetheart?

KO: To me, Eli represents who we say we are as U.S. Americans, and the rest of the story is who we actually are. Those concepts are in conflict in this, like the way the public starts to see Eli versus the way she sees herself, which is essentially fear versus hope.

What happens to idealism on a personal and public level in the face of reality. Does hope help push over that hurdle or is it forever changed in the effort? Terrorism’s fundamental purpose is to instill fear, but as we know, people can confuse patriotism and terrorism, so it’s interesting to explore the fine line between them in BLACK [AF] America’s Sweetheart.

HMS: Do you think, within the world of BLACK, there’s a difference between being a good person and being a good super-powered person? If they are the same, would they look different when acted out in daily life?

KO: I think it’s the same as a person with any sort of power, there’s a responsibility that comes with it. Those who abuse it are by definition villains, so being a good super-powered person is being a responsible person. If shouting, for you, would bust out all the windows on your block, a responsible person would become soft-spoken and cognizant of their temper.

A villain wouldn’t care.

Thanks so much to Kwanza Osajyefo for sharing his thoughts with us here at Comicon.com.

BLACK Volume 1 is available in comic shops and arrives in book stores today, November 14th. BLACK [AF] America’s Sweetheart arrives in comic shops November 29th, 2017 and in book stores in December 2017