Kwanza Osajyefo is an outspoken comic book creator and ambassador for The Culture. He’s worked for the major aka DC and Marvel before betting on himself and leaving them to launch his own comics to tell the stories of characters that look like us. And with 2 successful and bold titles out now, he’s another creator for The Culture to keep an eye on. Check out our interview with Kwanza and #GetFamiliar.
What got you into creating comics and graphic novels?
I wanted to make comics most of my life and started reading them at a very young age. What truly inspired me to pursue it as a career was the debut of Milestone Media. That line of books made it clear to me that I could tell stories about characters who looked like me and the people I grew up with.
And how did you get into the business?
So, I cold-called Milestone in my senior year of high school claiming to be the next hottest creator. To my surprise, I was actually invited to come pitch at their offices – I’d no idea I would be meeting with Dwayne McDuffie himself. He was polite in letting me down easy. I was not ready, but then he took what seemed like an hour to ask me why I wanted to be in comics and how to break in — particularly as a person of color.
By my senior year of college I was interning at Marvel and hired right after I graduated.
You current projects are entitled BlackAF: America’s Sweetheart and BlackAF: Widows and Orphans, can you briefly describe them?
America’s Sweetheart is about a young black woman growing up with her adopted family in rural conservative Montana. She is the most person on the planet, but when she finds out other people who look like her also have powers she decides to become a star-spangled superhero to ease public fears. Unfortunately, because of cynicism her altruistic motivations are questioned.
Widows and Orphans is about empowered black children being taken from their parents and sold in global underground markets. This was how the protagonist, Anansi, was trained as an assassin. When he catches wind that his former captors may be up to their old ways – he sets out to breakup their trafficking ring.
Only black people having superpowers…in America…In today’s climate. What was the inspiration behind that?
I came up with the idea for BLACK over 10 years ago — today’s climate wasn’t the inspiration so much as the punctuation on a history of systemic racism.
Systemic in that, in over a decade of working between Marvel and DC, I was the only black editor (there were others but we were never there at the same time). It clarified to me why Milestone happened because the lack of representation and agency is why there are so few characters of color. I don’t think that is intentional or malicious, but when something is systemic the pervasiveness of makes it the accepted default.
Growing reading stories about superheroes who were outsiders resonated with me, but as allegory for discrimination — those comics fell flat for me. These characters all wore costumes they could take off and blend into mainstream society – we can’t take off blackness like some mask. These characters are not harrassed for how they looked (most look like Olympian gods), their job applications aren’t rejected because of their name, they aren’t pulled over for having nice cars, or murdered by police.
That caused me to think,what if only black people had superpowers?
What is the ultimate goal for the Black series?
Overall, the goal is to establish more black comic characters who represent the breadth and depth of our culture.
You’ve had an interesting career path working for both Marvel and DC before striking out on your own, what would you say is the biggest lesson you learned working for those two companies?
That both industry leaders need more women and people of color with agency and in upper management of their companies. But as that is not likely in the near future independent creators of color have an abundance of tools at their fingertips to tell the kind of stories they can’t.
Would you ever be interested leadership role again at Marvel or DC, either as an editor or someone supervising a line of comics or do you envision yourself forever doing your own thing from here on out?
No I wouldn’t, but if I did executive editor – at minimum. I don’t want some adjacent line of comics that may not receive enough budget and support. I’d want the core line superheroes so that there is some impactful and lucrative change in the catalog.
Are there any certain character archetypes you find yourself attracted to when creating characters?
I’ve never given it much thought so I’ll say, no. I like the challenge of writing different characters. I suppose exploration of personas is something that I am attracted to.
You’ve covered issues like race and patriotism, are there any stories or subject matter you have yet to write about that you would like to or plan on doing in the future?
The BLACK AF line is specifically for exploring the world and characters introduced in the first part of the trilogy. Each one will explore themes that relate to the black experience across the globe.
How do you feel technology has assisted in helping you make and distribute your own work?
Technology was key! The landscape has changed, and continues to change, drastically from when I first entered the comics industry – and that is a great thing. There is little logistical barrier between a creator and potential audiences.
Creating and distributing your own stories obviously helps you avoid being typecast as far as what you can write do you think most other writers of color in the industry are still facing that same problem?
Yes. But recently, I think words from icons like Christopher Priest, the work of Ta Nehisi Coates and publishers taking some public L’s have clarified that there is a difference between typecast and authenticity. Yes, black writers should be strongly considered for writing black characters but not only black characters. Any writer worth a damn will research their work, but depending on the subject matter of the story there is something only experience can convey.
You believe in people of color taking ownership of the stories they tell and with the success of Black Panther with its cast, director, and writers all being black there has been a lot of talk about a potential cultural shift for black superheroes towards the mainstream. What does Black Panther’ssuccess mean to you personally, if anything, as someone who is a creator in the comic book medium?
Black Panther’s success is proof that not only can an almost wholly black story be enormously engaging but financially successful – and driven by black creatives. The film was put a stake in that value proposition and is continually being prove now with content like Atlanta, Empire, Scandal and talents of Ava Duvernay, Donald Glover, Shonda Rhimes, The Carters, Ryan Coogler, Lena Waithe and Chance the Rapper – our bench is stronger than ever!
When you look at the current landscape of the industry as a whole, are you optimistic or pessimistic?
I’m pragmatic. BLACK exists in part because of the culture of comics that hadn’t changed in the 10 years I worked in it. That’s good for me, but comics are even slower to adapt than other entertainment. The major IP is part of pop culture, but once something like Spotify, Amazon, or Uber happens to comics it will be a huge shift for an industry that painted itself into a direct niche market.
Could you give us 5 artists that have influenced you and/or who you think are underrated?
What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a future comic book creator of color?
Learn the rules of the game so you can play on your own terms.
What does the term “The Culture” mean to you?
“The Culture” is quintessential blackness – articulating the world in a rhyme and rhythm that is unique to us and a taste made for the world.
And finally, what is the primary emotion you want people to feel reading your work?
It’s what the reader brings to it. Once you put art out there, the interpretation of it is subjective but the intent is always to show the diversity of blackness and not a monolith that can be represented by one token character.
Follow Kwanza on Twitter @Kwanzer.
* Also check out our interview with another comic book creator for The Culture Greg Anderson Elysee here.
Written by @TalentedMrFord