Kwanza Osajyefo has been working in and around comics for almost two decades, being an early part of Marvel's 1990s digital comics initiative to being a leading editor in DC's Zuda imprint. Now the New Yorker has segued from editor to creator, writing the well-received creator-owned title Black currently being serialized at Black Mask Studio.
But while Black is his current comic project on shelves, Osajyefo is much more than just one book. From his years as one of the earliest digital comics pioneers to his current position as director of creative strategy at one of the most prominent mainstream public relations firms in the world.
With those bona fides and Black on the shelves, Newsarama reached out to Osajyefo to pick his brain about his comics work and his views on the industry and the medium.
Newsarama: Kwanza, in your own words what are you doing in comic books right now?
Kwanza Osajyefo: Trying to expand the type of stories being told in comics by providing new perspectives. By that I mean viewpoints outside of the straight white male framework that dominates U.S. entertainment and culture.
Nrama: You have previously worked as an editor both at DC and Marvel, leaning heavily into digital comics and direct fan engagement. What do you think about the state of digital comics/webcomics now in 2017?
Osajyefo: Watching webcomics give way to digital comics but seeing neither medium usurping print, despite a huge shift in consumption habits, has been very surprising. That stated, the power of digital has clearly shifted industry behavior in terms of sourcing creative talent and engaging fans online and mobile.
Major publishers have improved their digital acumen, but most are still haven’t taken full advantage of this not-so-new media. It’s tough because comics is so mired in print and the direct market system. There’s a lack of expertise and willingness to invest in building outside of what comics has been the last 75 years.
Nrama: In the past year you have re-engaged with comic books via Black, on a creator level. What did your previous jobs do to help you prepare for that?
Osajyefo: Primarily, my experiences gave me a clear view of publishers’ weaknesses and, to me, evident whitespace to promote an idea in.
Nrama: What were you not prepared for, now looking back at the launch of Black?
Osajyefo: The positive response. I think I was much more prepared for resistance and more of an uphill battle to get the Kickstarter for it funded. Exceeding our goal in only three days was the beginning of a very humbling experience.
Nrama: Besides comics, you're also the director of creative strategy at one of the most prominent PR firms in the world – Weber Shandwick. From that perspective, what does comic books as a whole need, public relations-wise?
Osajyefo: Oddly, to become better storytellers. Great PR is essentially telling an engaging story. A lot of the success Black has had was in telling the story around the story. One of the major comics publishers has gotten good (if not addicted to) telling the story around each latest gimmick. It’s adds to their mentions in mainstream entertainment, but doesn’t seem to impact comics sales.
Nrama: What do you see as the attainable goals for comic books in the near future?
Osajyefo: To expand the reach and consumption of comics. They have always had cache in pop culture, but only recently are characters becoming household names in clear relation to their source material.
The problem is that’s not translating to increased sales of actual comics, so I think re-examining the format, delivery, and direct market are key to growing the comics’ audience.
The larger entertainment audience doesn’t have time to find our specialty shops, learn about monthly schedules (that we all have trouble keeping), and then being asked to plunk down damn near $5 for a floppy when they can buy a full video game for their smartphone.
I love comics but seriously - how do you validate that price point in the 21st century?
Nrama: In addition to that, what do you see as the big challenges comic books face right now?
Osajyefo: Stepping out of the shadow of the duopoly. They have undeniable brand identification but the industry doesn’t need many more derivatives of their catalog outside of a few key areas. They’ll always be this sort of beacon to cursory readers, but much like the U.S. political system, we need more contemporary and diverse industry leaders to foster healthy growth.
Yes, there is variety of content, but how is it that superheroes still dominate the comics market when they are only a growing fraction in other forms of entertainment? That’s the nut to crack.
Nrama: I'd argue that Zuda was greenlight by DC because it was overdue, but was killed because it was too far ahead of its time. Looking back now, how do you frame Zuda?
Osajyefo: I’d frame it as exactly that - ahead of its time but mostly not in the mental framework of how Dan [DiDio] and Jim [Lee] regard comics. These dudes are all the same entrenched professionals we’ve been following for decades. Lifers without vision or experience outside the industry to change course or evolve product.
Of course, that reads as dismissive of their contributions, in particular Jim, but with the few shifts of leadership in the duopoly over 30 years, neru collars and underwear on the inside aren’t’ groundbreaking – they are sales spikes.
There’ve been very few evolutionary leaps in comics that maintain the core appeal of sequential art storytelling while shifting the paradigm. Sadly, that leaves us stuck with the same people directing the course of content. It’s rather banal at this point.
Nrama: I see other publishers like Stelå and LINE Webtoon doing the Zuda model, with the latter seeing some major success it seems. But in many ways it’s disconnected from the core comic book audience in America. What do you think of that?
Osajyefo: Sweet. I love that my previous answer segways into this, because I think those two platforms are a great example of the dichotomy we’re dealing with. Stelå seem to struggle because it is applying U.S. comics principles to a booming Asian publishing paradigm.
That disconnect, in my opinion, comes from not understanding this mobile first, casual, freemuim audience that fuels LINE. It’s completely different from the Direct Market animal that comics leadership created and predicate. That Stan Lee hucksterism doesn’t fly with Millennials and definitely won’t with Gen Z.
Any mobile comics platform’s goal should be growing an audience at enough scale and diversity to serve robust, targeted advertisement. That was my biggest regret with Zuda – we had an opportunity to include ad capabilities and didn’t. I knew better, but didn’t push but I might have not had decisions powers anyway. Had we been bringing in ad revenue against our 1M monthly uniques, Dan and Jim would have had a real tough time killing the imprint.
Nrama: Would you like to see someone like Black Mask or Image engage creator-owned books online?
Osajyefo: I’m not sure what you mean. If you mean producing digital native content, that is a tricky matter. Digital publishing immediately obliterates the Direct Market’s two major strengths: distribution and logistics.
To my previous point about publishers being dilettante in the digital space, what can they offer online that a scrappy individual can’t develop on their own? Comics publishers would have to transform into platform developers and media agencies – that ain’t happening no time soon.
Nrama: What are you looking forward to as a comics creator and fan in the near future?
Osajyefo: Telling more stories. The response to Black has made it clear that I need to deliver more in that sphere, but I also want to tell other stories – I have other stories.
Per what we’ve discussed, I want to explore how to tell stories in ways that will appeal and engage broader audiences and tastes.
Nrama And what do you see that you are concerned about that could come in the near future?
Osajyefo: The commodification of diversity – I’ve thrown shade on pander before. It’s great that publishers are taking steps to change the ethnicities of their catalog characters, but having worked over a decade in comics, that staff are not internally diverse makes me cautious.
Growth among minority consumers means money in brown skin for sure, and hiring more women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ creatives is great, but without staff who have intrinsic motivation and personal perspective to champion certain content, that future is dubious.
I can tell you from experience DC is not an inherently welcoming environment to anyone who isn’t playing to the status quo of their office dynamic. They’d need to install a POC with rank, agency, and be invested in the cultural shifts it would create – regardless of discomfort and displacement.
We’ve seen the results of that lack of internal perspective in gaffes like Marvel’s VP of Sales talking sideways about diverse characters/content hurting their sales. That was amateur hour that industry pundits, and retailers who don’t serve homogenous areas, debunked in 24 hours.
He parroted a vocal minority, so they had to do damage control that the man who created Damage Control would have been woke to were he still with us and representing.