In “BLACK,” Kwanza Osajyefo Created a World Where Only Black People Have Superpowers. The Sequel, “WHITE,” Is about What Happens When America Finds Out.
His experiences in the comics industry prompted him to imagine a world where only Black people have superpowers — and become an advocate for diversity and representation in comics.
Kwanza Osajyefo’s comic BLACK, and its sequel, WHITE — live on Kickstarter now — take on race and racism in the United States. But don’t call his work political. “I don’t like the experiences of marginalized people being dismissed as politics,” he says. “It’s not politics to ask you to treat me equal when you say that we are an equal nation. There’s nothing political about not wanting to get shot just because of the color of my skin. That’s not politics; that’s basic humanity.”
BLACK tells the story of a teenager who, after being shot by police, discovers that he’s part of a small faction of Black people who have superpowers, and have kept it secret for centuries. The second installment in what will be a trilogy, WHITE picks up three years later, when the super-cat is out of the bag.
The first comic was a sensation on Kickstarter, raising more than $91,000 from over 2,500 backers. And as a thank you to the community that supported him, Osajyefo has brought WHITE to Kickstarter as well, with exclusive rewards like variant covers by prominent comics artists. “We’re back on Kickstarter because we wouldn’t be here without Kickstarter,” he says.
When it comes to representation in media, you don’t know what you can’t see
Osajyefo’s awareness of the lack of characters of color in comics goes back almost as far as his love of the medium itself. “I started out with Peanuts and then Archie and then graduated to stuff like Power Pack and New Mutants, and just kind of made my way up toward the more advanced stuff,” he says.
He recalls two seminal moments that propelled him toward a career in the industry. The first was “when I finally paid attention and read the indicia and the credits” in comic books. “I was like, ‘Oh, these are made by people!’ I thought it was Keebler elves or something making comic books. You mean I can make money and this can be a living?”
“I thought it was Keebler elves or something making comic books. You mean I can make money and this can be a living?”
Then, in 1993, four African-American artists and writers — Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle — founded Milestone Media to address the underrepresentation of people of color in comics and other media. (Osajyefo tapped Cowan to create a variant cover for WHITE if the Kickstarter campaign reaches 6,500 backers.)
“That was the eye-opener,” Osajyefo says. For the first time, he saw comic book characters who looked like him. “It wasn’t until those characters showed up that I was like, ‘Wait a minute, there weren’t any brown people [before]!’”
An opportunity at Marvel opens new doors — and points to the limits of the industry
At 17, Osajyefo bluffed his way into an interview with Dwayne McDuffie at Milestone Comics. “He flipped through my portfolio, looked at some of my ideas, and then very graciously told me I was not ready for the big leagues,” Osajyefo recalls. But then, instead of ending the meeting, McDuffie gave him advice on how to navigate conventions and enter the comics industry as a person of color. “[He] kind of gave me the Green Book of navigating the comics industry,” he says. “It was life-changing. I wouldn’t have a career in comics at all if it wasn’t for him and that one hour.”
Milestone Media folded in 1997, but, buoyed by McDuffie’s advice, Osajyefo landed a post-college internship in Marvel’s online department, and soon became a full-time staffer. But he left Marvel feeling disillusioned by the lack of true creative freedom.
“Publishers and publishing houses tend to be like machines, in a way,” he says. “They have a brand to manage, they have characters that need to be on the shelves every month. We all love Spider-Man, we all love Thor. But being in a space where it’s like, ‘Well, I have to do it this way,’ it’s a little confining for something that seems creative.”
The lack of authentic representations of people of color also rankled. “There were these representations of African-American women and of queer folks that just were off because they were coming from this very limited perspective,” he says. (Though Marvel is doing a bit better these days, he says: “I was so happy recently with Spider-Man that they finally gave that boy a decent fade. Little things like that are important to represent culture accurately. It seems superficial, but it’s not.”)
With small imprint at DC, Osajyefo makes space for creators of color
In 2007, Osajyefo took a job at DC Comics and launched Zuda, a webcomics imprint. When he arrived, “the thing I noticed was still that lack of color, so to speak” — both in the comics themselves and among the writing staff.
At Zuda, he could finally reach out to writers and artists of color and tell the stories they wanted to tell. And working as a smaller imprint under the DC banner, he had more creative freedom than he would have working on DC’s blockbuster comics.
“I got away with so much stuff,” he says. “Our first book was this comic called Bayou, which was set in the segregated South of the 1930s. It was an Alice in Wonderland kind of story about this young Black girl whose father is accused of [kidnapping a White girl] and is jailed. She goes on this magical journey to save him.”
During its three-year run, Zuda earned critical acclaim and several industry awards. For a time, Zuda was second only to the main DC Comics website for web traffic on the DC network. But the comics didn’t make much money — “we were being a little too pure in our art; we didn’t run ads or anything” — and in 2010, DC shut Zuda down. “It was still a great opportunity to put out all of this stuff under the DC banner that they never would have done [otherwise] because of culture and the structure of publishers,” Osajyefo says.
The premise of Osajyefo’s first independently produced comic: What if only Black people had superpowers?
The idea for BLACK began percolating some 13 years ago, before he took the job at DC. But it was only after Zuda folded that he began to work on it in earnest.
“I grew up reading all of these characters who are [supposed to be] these analogies for the Black experience, like The X-Men,” Osajyefo says. (X-Men’s Professor X and Magneto, who are both White, have been viewed as ideological analogues for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.) “Why do we need a veneer of attractive White people [to talk about the Black experience]? There was just this disconnect for me. So I was like, ‘What if only Black people had superpowers?’”
“Why do we need a veneer of attractive White people [to talk about the Black experience]?”
That idea — what if only Black people had superpowers? — never left him. So he brought it to longtime collaborator and co-creator Tim Smith III. Together they honed the story and recruited artists Jamal Igle and Khary Randolph to work on it, and in 2016, the team launched a Kickstarter campaign to print the comic.
Using Kickstarter “made lot of sense to me because it was very similar to what we had done with Zuda, which was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to put this content out there and we’re going to let the internet decide if they like it or not,’” Osajyefo says. “I felt like it would be a validator, because I didn’t know if people would like the idea.”
Turns out, plenty of people did. The Kickstarter campaign reached its funding goal in three days, and it ended with over $90,000 and more than 2,700 backers. They also received an offer to option the comic for a film on the first day of the campaign; after debating several offers, they decided to go with the production company Studio 8, where it’s still in development.
“I didn’t know that it would resonate with people the way that it did,” Osajyefo says. “It was really validating [because] it’s something that, if I had brought it to a publisher, they probably would have hemmed and hawed or not really gotten it.”
BLACK is an all too familiar story, with an unfamiliar outcome
BLACK follows 15-year-old Kareem Jenkins, who in the early pages of the comic is shot and killed by police. But that’s just the beginning of his story: Kareem comes back to life in an ambulance and discovers he has superpowers. He soon finds out he is among a small number of “empowered” Black people, who have kept their powers secret from the rest of the world for centuries because, as Osajyefo puts it, “if people knew Black people have powers… that would not really work out.” There’s also, naturally, a global conspiracy of government agents determined to keep these “empowered Blacks” under wraps and under their thumbs.
The narrative centers in part on Kareem’s inner conflict: whether to use his secret powers for good or for ill, and whether these powers should be kept secret at all. Spoiler alert: At the end of BLACK, he decides to go public.
“I think that’s a real challenge, especially for a person of color in a place like America,” Osajyefo says. “If that [experience of violence] happens, what are you supposed to do? Are you really supposed to become this superhero? Are you supposed to turn the other cheek? [For some people] it’s like, ‘No, I have a different path.’
“It’s why I ended up naming the book BLACK,” he adds. “That wasn’t the original title. But as we were working on it, I thought, if we’re really going to cut down to the bone, if we’re going to scrape the veneer off of this kind of story, we need to just be upfront with what it is.”
The absence of an allegorical veneer made a lot of people uncomfortable — to put it mildly. As soon as the project launched, Osajyefo was deluged by accusations of racism for giving superpowers only to Black people. “That was pretty jarring,” he says. After all, comic books have featured only White characters with superpowers for decades. “But the minute I poke a hole in that and say, ‘Okay, well, what if only Black people have superpowers?’ you’re like, ‘Ah! I don’t feel good about that.’ The immediate question I have is, why don’t you feel comfortable with that? Because that shouldn’t be your reaction. It shouldn’t.”
“WHITE” adds a new layer to the world of “BLACK”
WHITE picks up three years after the events of BLACK. Now the world knows that empowered Black people exist, and the response is predictably reactionary. In WHITE, the powerful scion of the Mann Company, Theodore Mann — “I describe him as an evil Iron Man,” Osajyefo says — has become President of the United States. The Mann Company has been profiting off of the exploitation and oppression of empowered Black people for decades, and now Mann is stoking public fears of empowered Blacks to promote “Mann First,” a program of cybernetically enhanced soldiers.
“Believe it or not, despite current events, [this] was always my intention with the story,” well before the current U.S. administration, Osajyefo says. “We’re writing a fiction, but it’s a fiction that’s definitely related to reality. Part of the reason that I called the second book ‘WHITE’ is because I really wanted to address that context.”
The transition from a narrative about Blackness to one that includes narratives of Whiteness might feel unsettling, Osajyefo acknowledges. “But it’s like, they coexist. You literally can’t talk about one without the other. You have to discuss these things, you have to be uncomfortable, you have to really work through them.”
“You have to discuss these things, you have to be uncomfortable, you have to really work through them.”
Osajyefo hopes to see many more stories like “BLACK” and “WHITE”
Comics can be a venue for grappling with issues that are complex, painful, and make people profoundly uncomfortable, Osajyefo says. “It tends to be through works of fiction that you can get ideas across to people. That’s when they’re willing to accept a little more because you’ve actually engaged them.”
He hopes that his work can help catalyze the growth of a market for comics that explore Blackness and Black culture in more realistic, nuanced ways. “It was important for me to create narratives that reflect this experience, this culture, this perspective,” he says. “I’m not going to get it 100 percent right, but if I inspire a lot of people to be like, ‘Let me go and write some Black AF comic books, and let me show you what’s really good,’ that will make my day. That’s the future of what I want to do. I want to create this playground for everyone to tell these stories and make some people uncomfortable and make them happy — both.”
As for what’s in store for the final installment in the BLACK trilogy, Osajyefo says only that he plans to answer the question of why only Black people have superpowers in his world; all he can tell us is it has nothing to do with melanin.
Interview by Zakiya Gibbons and Camilla Zhang; story by Rebecca Hiscott.
A version of this interview appears on Kickstarter’s podcast, Just the Beginning, in the episode “Science Fiction Gets Real.” Listen to it now.