What If Only Black People Had Superpowers? Real Issues of Race Ground New Series

"Black" graphic
Credit: Various
Credit: Various

Some people say that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby patterned the plight and persecution of the X-Men and mutantkind to the struggles African-Americans have – and continue – to face in America. But what if someone cut through the metaphor?

A new series titled Black explores the science fiction superhero paradigm and delves headlong into issues of race and also simply being an everyday person. Created by former DC editor Kwanza Osajyefo and artist/designer Tim Smith III, Black will be a six-issue series beginning later this year illustrated by Jamal Igle with covers by Khary Randolph.

The quartet of comic pros are currently raising capital to produce Black on Kickstarter, and with two weeks still remaining they’ve already surpassed their $29,999 goal – and in fact, have almost doubled it.

Newsarama spoke with all four individuals about this series, going from the high concept to the core characters of Kareem, Juncture and the mysterious O.

Nrama: Guys, what can you tell us about Black?

Kwanza Osajyefo: I think the logline on our Kickstarter sums it up — what if only Black people had superpowers?

I asked myself that question over 10 years ago, but in pursuing my editorial career, I had to put that idea aside.  

It is a question has a lot of implications. I think that’s why Black has had such an overwhelming response. The sci-fi superheroics are there and outcast trope is there, but everything is grounded in the very real issue of race that humanity struggles with.

Nrama: So in this world, only black people are superheroes -- is that in terms of superpowers, or even broader in terms of non-powered superheroes like Batman not being permitted to exist?

Credit: Kwanza Osajyefo

Osajyefo: See, implications! You’re already working to grasp in your mind how the concept would play out.

I consider Black sci-fi before superhero. The capes and tights are done to death in comics. That isn’t to say such characters are off the table, but I think this story is grounded in a reality where someone swinging around on a wire might seem odd.

But it is fiction, so anything is possible.

Khary Randolph: These are the questions that ultimately drove me to jump on board. A good premise asks the question, and we're here to provide (hopefully) entertaining answers. It's part of the fun. How black does someone have to be to have superpowers? What if you're mixed? Does it matter if it comes from your father or your mother's side? We've all worked in other people's universes for most of our careers, so the opportunity to create a brand new fiction and new set of rules is an intriguing prospect.

Nrama: In this I feel like it could be akin to some of the resistance by a segment of sports fans who are white who expressed anger, in the past and some today, of how African American athletes dominate many major sports. Sports stars and superheroes aren't too far apart -- but what are your real life touchstones you're looking to as influence for creating Black?

Osajyefo: That’s an interesting perspective, but I don’t know that it parallels. It’s easy to imagine Black as something one-dimensional -- an us versus them idea. I mean that is a symptom of sports -- tribalism, politics, etc. right?

The influence behind Black is that in real life Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and hundreds of other people are not free to walk, stand, or live as they please without fear of persecution, persecution, violence, and death because of the color of their skin.

That is real.

Meanwhile, we read comics about characters lamenting their fringe status yet can take off their masks, not use their powers and walk around unassailed.

No one is pulling Wolverine over because he drives a nice car.

Credit: Various

Randolph: I think like many people, I can identify with being an outsider. I'm a black man from Boston who grew up liking comic books, science fiction, and anime. I was born and raised in the inner city yet I was bussed to the suburbs every day from 3rd grade through high school. I know what it feels like to be different. It's a familiar thing to a lot of people, which is why so many people gravitate to the concept of the X-Men in general. Our project just takes that to the next level, the 2016 version. The best comic books to me were always the ones that were fantastical, but still grounded in reality. And if they make you stop and think or question things, they are that much better for it.

Jamal Igle: For myself, I grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn during the 1980s and early 1990s. I grew up around gang violence, police actions, the Korean grocery store boycotts, and the Tawana Brawley case. I've been pulled aside by the police on a few occasions for "fitting the profile" and subjected to pat downs. I lost my best childhood friend to gun violence, a retribution killing that was solved quickly but left a gaping hole in my life. So there are a lot of elements that, from my own life, will shape my approach to Black.

Tim Smith III: “Black,” for me, is a way to answer some questions I have wondered about from my childhood reading comics, and then walking out my front door to come face-to-face with the reality of my identity. I lived in an all-black “hood.” I saw stuff kids should not see. But it was the norm, it was life as I knew it. But reading comics seemed to be this outlet where anything could happen, yet... I still did not see a trace of what I thought was the norm compared to the norm in the books. A book like Black can give me, as a creator, the freedom to express another aspect of a world with another possibility to what could be the norm in a non-normal setting.

Nrama: In the Kickstarter description, Black’s primary character is Kareem Jenkins. So who is Kareem, and what is his story?

Osajyefo: Kareem is an average Black kid growing up in a poor area of New York City. He’s not a bad kid, but growing up in his environment has exposed him to certain things that have significant impact on his character.

When he survives being gunned down by police, his life very much changes. The knowledge that only Blacks have superpowers and why it’s been suppressed from public knowledge weighs heavily on him.

He and other characters make choices that might not be black or white.

Credit: Various

Nrama: There's other characters listed on the Kickstarter -- Juncture, Theodore Mann, Agent Adams, Agent Washington, and O. Can you tell us about the other major characters in this series?

Smith: I am going to let Kwanza speak on this one. But I’ll say that I love drawing and creating all the characters in Black! Each have such a unique feel and play their own role in the pages you will read.

Osajyefo: Juncture is head of a global organization that acts as a sort of underground railroad for Blacks with superpowers. Governments of the world all keep an eye out for any expression of powers so they can secure the individual(s) before anyone knows. Some governments experiment on them, others use them for covert ops, others just kill them. Juncture saves them, trains them, and tries to keep the peace because only a small fraction of Black people have powers. Yet the fear of only one group of people expressing powers would likely spark conflict across the planet.

Adams and Washington work for the U.S. government to capture empowered Blacks and as liaisons to Theodore Mann, head of a billion dollar mega-company on contract with the FBI, U.S. military, and CIA. His company is a family business that has benefitted from empowered Blacks for centuries – trying to understand, dissect, and replicate the phenomenon.

O is a mystery. He’s a terrorist operating deep in the shadows, toppling governments and taking a far more extreme approach than Juncture’s operation.

Nrama: Several of you have worked, or are working at comic book publishers, and have done creator-owned work in the past. What led you to pursue this as a Kickstarter project?

Osajyefo: I felt it was time and reached out to some talented colleagues I made over my years at Marvel and DC.

Randolph: I believed in Kwanza's vision, to put it plainly. He's a smart dude and knows how to sell an idea. [Laughs]

Plus, with age comes an increasing need to do things that matter. This isn't the kind of story you could tell at a major publisher. So instead of complaining about the status quo, I've always believed that actions speak louder than words. This book won't change the world but the idea of being a part of something bigger than yourself was powerful and important. In hip-hop terms, "we do this for the culture."

Igle: Kickstarters allow you to retain control over the project and make it easier from a financial standpoint to do a level of work that you feel comfortable with.

Credit: Jamal Igle

Smith: Kickstarter is a dream come true for a creator. I can work freely and directly with my audience. This will allow us to bring something that is from the heart, something we will stand behind 100%.

Nrama: Have you begun work on the actual book itself? If so, how far along are you?

Osajyefo: The characters are designed, the story is plotted – I would say, in the “Marvel way” in scripts. Very loose so I can collaborate with Jamal on pacing and plot points.

Nrama: How did the four of you connect first, and then come together for this project specifically?

Randolph: All black people comics know each other. [Laughs] I'm joking. Sort of.

But naw, these are people I've known for years and have tremendous respect for. And at the end of the day you want to do good work with good people. Kwanza and I have specifically talked about working together for years. Now seemed as good a time as any.

Igle: Khary and I have known each other for years, his studio is about a block from my house. I met Tim years ago at a convention and Kwanza and I worked together when he was my editor on Smallville for DC Digital.

Smith: I met Khary at a comic convention. I stopped and looked at his work as it caught my eye instantly. I don’t even think we introduced ourselves. Just me looking on as a fan. As time went by we would get to know each other more from the comic cons. I met Jamal at a show years ago. I loved his work and knew it from buying it in the stores! When I saw him at a table drawing, I was so excited to put a face to the art I had admired for so long. I even showed him my portfolio. He was so nice and professional. I made sure to talk to him as much as I could every chance I got. I have known Kwanza for years also! Doing work in the comic industry together made us grow as friends and professionals.

Osajyefo: I reached out to Tim a long time ago and we sat on this. Once I put my mind to actually producing this, I approached Jamal. Working with him at DC, he blew me away with his speed, detail, and storytelling skills. Jamal’s thumbnails are better than a lot of people’s finished pencils.

Khary… I’ve just always been a huge fan. His work has so much kinetic energy that I had to have him do covers. Thankfully he liked the concept and jumped right on. The result is that first piece we’ve been circulating around.

It speaks volumes.

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