In an era of #BLACKLIVESMATTER and campus protest around identity, a new Kickstarter project called BLACK is likely to strike a chord with its central premise. Simply put, “What if black people were the only people in the world with superpowers?” Provocative for sure, the project has garnered buzz. I suspect the collective logic is primed for a particular story, but if their responses to my questions are an indication, the creative team of Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3, Jamal Igle, and Khary Randolph has an engaged art practice mixed with pragmatism that may surprise the reader on multiple levels. BLACK offers a familiar, yet different take on the superhero narrative.
How much of this story is a response to frustration associated with mainstream comics?
Jamal Igle: I think it would be difficult to ignore the frustration involved with the structure of corporate comics, but I don’t think of it as that. You need to understand that mainstream comics exist as a vehicle for synergistic branding. They aren’t primarily story-driven endeavors, they’re products. You can occasionally get something special out of it, art can come through and carve a place in the hearts and minds of readers but in the end they fill a specific need. I recently listened to an interview Marc Maron did with Crispin Glover and I was amazed at how close the parallel between independent film and independent comics really is. I’m at a place in my career where I’m more willing to take chances to create new stories and new concepts. As with Molly Danger, where I’m exploring the concept of a hero who is essentially a child star trapped by her own celebrity, BLACK has some similarities to The X-Men or Heroes — it’s coming from an angle that I found to be obvious, yet unique at the same time.
Kwanza Osajyefo: A lot? Mainstream comics are a permission-based, oligarchical, and myopic system. Pitching for a branded idea is a steep climb, so soliciting interest in an idea like BLACK within the homogeneous culture of mainstream publishers… I don’t believe it would happen. Then there are the issues of a mainstream publisher owning the property. No IP scales without making deals, but the big leagues are not conducive to bringing an idea like BLACK to life. I think you can look at both of the top two publishers and clearly see where their limitations lie. The lack of inclusion among the stewards of the brands people think of when they think of comics permeates the culture still. That is shifting, but not at a rate where I feel BLACK could exist at the majors.
Khary Randolph: It’s not a frustration thing for me. Mainstream comics are exactly what they say they are — mainstream. I don’t have a problem with media that is meant for a wide audience. I’ve spent my entire career making content that is meant for a mainstream audience. I enjoy it. This is something left of that. It’s a unique take, it’s a trope with a twist that might not be a good fit for what is already established. So instead of bemoaning what is not, better to just do it yourself.
Tim Smith: Frustration certainly is a bit strong for my understanding. Nonetheless, I do feel that the mainstream comics are lacking a type of storytelling when it comes to touching certain diversity in comics. I have not read every book under the sun, but when I do find some diversity in a book, I would like to see some focus on how that character would feel being alone in a group of the majority. It doesn’t have to be controversial. Regardless, that character is in the book or on the team for a reason. It would be interesting to see that character react in a way where the reader would be aware that the creative team has placed them there for a reason and is willing to say it.
The premise of black people as a superpowered underclass offers a powerful metaphor for contemporary society. How much of this race and power debate is driving your story?
Tim Smith: I feel that readers would like to see another take on just who wields power. Mainstream comics have become used to giving readers certain stories, and those readers have come to expect them. Before you even open the book, one can just about guess what the characters are going to do with the power they have. I think that’s because for years we have read so many stories where the characters act and react in the same manner. That’s not a bad thing. It’s what we expect of them to do. The majority of society does not question it too much. I don’t even think we as readers even ask for an answer to it. As a kid I never asked. It was what it was. I read these stories and loved them. However, I took more notice and asked more questions when I read a book that featured a diverse character, or a Black character. Why did I see that book in such a different way than when that same exact character was not the main focus of the issue or behaved the same way when blended with a team? In “BLACK,” we aim to flip what the reader has become used too. For me, it’s what plays to the strongest points in the story. Breaking the norm and bringing some of the questions we as Black readers may ask each other, or talk about and not see played out to in such a way and to such a degree.
Khary Randolph: It’s a central part of the narrative. We don’t live in a color blind world. You don’t resolve issues by not talking about them and hoping they’ll just go away, you confront them headlong and engage in discussion. Sometimes it’s messy and uncomfortable, but it’s needed. Superhero comics and science fiction always ask the “What if?” question. This is our What If.
Kwanza Osajyefo: The premise of BLACK is undeniably on the nose. I don’t think there is as much metaphor as we see in fictional minorities like mutants, evos, and metahumans. Race is something real in the human condition; it doesn’t take much for the idea to resonate. I think that’s why BLACK is resonating with people. In the story, it really is about what being a minority means and I align that with the most widely known marginalized group on Earth. The implications of an oppressed people suddenly having these powers may seem advantageous, but attaching it to race makes it not that simple – which is the point of the story.
Jamal Igle: It’s the central theme. This isn’t a case of trying to dance around the edges because it’s less allegory and more based in a firm reality that we all live with everyday. The idea of a Black man or woman with any level of power, whether it be financial, societal, or political, scares a lot of people. We like to believe that we live in a post-racial society but anyone who spends any amount of time online will quickly tell you otherwise. So imagine what would happen when you’re a person who thinks of Black people as being less intelligent or capable than Whites. I honestly had an argument with a Jewish man who was a friend of a friend and adamant in his belief that black people were less intelligent because we had smaller brains. I’m not kidding. He apparently read it online as took it as bible truth. So now, suddenly you discover that not only are there Black people who have superpowers, but are the only ones capable of developing them. What would your reaction be? If you’re the person who thinks the average Black person is going to mug you and you clutch your purse as you walk down the street, the knowledge that a Black person could also electrocute you with a wave of their hand would freak you out. There’s already a large number of people who believe there’s a race war coming. This would be like going from bows and arrows to suddenly finding out that your opponent could obliterate you in the blink of an eye.