Some months ago, I had an opportunity to speak with Kwanza Osajyefo about his new—at the time—comic book series Black. The story follows Kareem Jenkins as he navigates a world in which only black people have superpowers.
I have not been able to publish this interview until now for various reasons, but with the recent events in the USA, I realized I needed to get this interview out there.
Interview with Kwanza Osajyefo
Mr. Kwanza Osajyefo,
Thank you for agreeing to speak with me today. First off, congratulations on the rousing success of BLACK.
Thank you. And thank you for setting this up.
Considering how successful the Kickstarter campaign was, were you surprised by the reception of the book?
I was very surprised by the response to BLACK. Kickstarter was to be the pressure test for whether the idea had any merit. People responded so positively – it was, and still is, a bit overwhelming.
Inspiration for Black
I’ve been going through my personal comic book collection and I found my STATIC #1 from June 1993. I understandit was seeing Static for the first time that helped you realize how underrepresented Black people were in media and was a transformative moment in your life.
It was seeing the whole Milestone launch that made me aware of how underrepresented both non-white characters and creatives are in comics.
Comics like STATIC inspired me to reach out and meet Dwayne McDuffie. He gave me the inside on comics and how a person of color needs to maneuver in the field.
Tell me more about the emotions you experienced as you were reading STATIC.
I think growing up black and nerdy made a character like Virgil Hawkins very appealing. He reflected more of my identity than Luke Cage, John Stewart, Black Panther, or Cyborg did.
Perhaps because those characters were not as important to the publishers as Static was to Milestone. The authenticity and investment was clear.
The Response to Black
BLACK focuses on racism, yet it speaks to any marginalized group. How are readers responding to BLACK? Were there responses that caught you off guard?
I don’t think BLACK focuses on racism so much as it more accurately reflects issues of inequality and bias, instead of paying those things shallow lip service. There are stakes in the book related to race that direct the characters’ choices.
The overall response has been positive. That probably caught me off guard the most. For the most part, I expect BLACK to be whatever the reader brings to the story.
It must be affirming for you and your partners that the response has been mostly positive. Surely, you have received some blowback. How have you dealt with it?
We ignore it for the most part. Genuine critiques offer opinions on where the story could improve structurally or for the reviewer. I think people expect BLACK to be one thing or the other for them. It’s impossible to meet all expectations, many aren’t aligned with our goal as storytellers.
I do personally engage in discussion around the book. Hearing people’s different interpretation of the material is always interesting and I’m not afraid to challenge anyone who wants to engage. Some people love it and some are taken aback that I’ll jump in with them.
There have been some racist responses, but those are generally restricted to the echo chamber sites bigots circle — we see you, though.
Generally, biased responses are overt. One review presented assumptions about IP ownership of BLACK as something negative—what does that have to do with the story? Bias like that sometimes you have to ignore it, work past it, where a direct challenge will only feed a detractor.
Kwanza Osejyefo and His Drive to Continue Black
I would imagine that emboldens you to continue telling Kareem’s story.
The positive response to BLACK is what drives us to continue. I’m personally antagonistic, but being contrary just for the sake of being contrary that gets tired real quick.
People want to read more stories from BLACK so that is something I need to figure out for the audience, not the haters.
BLACK comes at an interesting time in the USA. As a comic book creator of color, how do you see the arts playing a role in combating systemic racism?
Art and life have a symbiotic relationship. They feed of each other in that we express our frustrations or hopes for real life through art. They can’t exist without each other.
Literature in particular catches people when they are most inclined to receive information.
How they interpret it and what they do with it depends on individual perspectives, but my personal intention with BLACK is presence. Existing begins the conversation around this absence of voices in comics.
There is severe lack of inclusion at major publishers, and austerity tends to preserve the stewardship of mainstream comics among straight white males.
Add to that the cultural and civil regression that Trump’s presidency will likely bring, and the current commodification of color, gender, and sex may not stand against the disingenuous position of capitalism.
Well, It certainly will be interesting to see how people, particularly artists, stand up and let their voices be heard over the din.
Thanks and Upcoming Projects for Kwanza Osajyefo
Kwanza, I want to thank you for taking time to speak with me; it has been a great experience. Here’s to your future success and I hope we can do this again sometime.
With the success of Black, the team of Kwanza Osajyefo and Jennifer Johnson will release a new graphic novel in November 2017: Black AF – America’s Sweetheart. Be sure you don’t miss it!
Also, don’t forgot to watch for BLACK: Remastered due in October of 2017.