BLACK: Exploring A World Where Only Black People Have Superpowers

We sat down with the creative team behind BLACK to talk process, design, and how the world reflects back through their book.

The state of the world is such that the pace of history is on internet time, where news and current events, like memes, go from breaking to overanalyzed to precambrian in the space of three months. That’s why it is reasonable to ask the creative team behind Black Mask’s hit comic BLACK if the year that has passed since they launched their Kickstarter has changed their perspective on their work at all. No, said co-creator Kwanza Osajyefo, but “I feel like I’m going to have some new inspiration the next four years to work off of.”

Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3, Khary Randolph, Jamal Igle, and Sarah Litt actually started advertising their series at New York Comic Con 2015 with stealth ads greeting con-goers around the city. So they built up a considerable buzz for the launch of their Kickstarter the following February, where they announced that they were putting together a book that asked “what if only black people had super powers?” As proof that 2016 wasn’t entirely a swamp of despair, their proposal blew past and eventually tripled their original goal, enabling the team to add pages of just fight scenes (Editor’s note: yay!) and gaining the notice of Black Mask Studios, a punk rock comic company built with the express goal of screwing with the traditional model of comics production.

The comic was born from an idea Osajyefo had, but came together at MoCCA Festival in Brooklyn, where as he found Smith’s table and started looking through his art, and noted that Smith’s art “had a very unique silhouette to all of his characters,” which enabled him to see Smith’s that it came from a different place and that “there was a unique take to it.” Smith joined Osajyefo as the lead designer; Randolph was brought in as the cover artist; and Igle came on board to draw the issues.

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Everything about BLACK is deliberate: from character design, to how the abnormally large team works together, to cover design, to the pacing and art within the issues, every aspect of the comic has been thought through thoroughly. Smith’s character design is rooted in fashion and pragmatism. No one would wake up with super powers one day and say to herself, “Oh, the first thing I have to do is get the tightest underwear I can possibly find,” said Smith. “That’s not the most important thing if you found out you can shoot lasers out of your eyes.”

His design principles followed function, with a hint of flair and personality mixed in: “What would a character feel comfortable wearing if they had the abilities they had, as well as [what is] a stylish look where they’re really still hardcore?” One example that came up was Kareem’s gauntlet, which has a certain Cammy-from-Street-Fighter influence – it is certainly stylish and hardcore (“It looks like that thing should weigh 30 pounds,” said Smith) but it’s there to draw the reader’s attention to him, to give Kareem a little flair and individuality.

Smith would then do a couple of sketches and send them off to Osajyefo, who would almost never touch the designs from there. Osajyefo would then work up a loose plot to send to Igle, with beats and rough pacing set out, and Jamal would come back with penciled pages. The choice to be black and white was intentional from the start and presented little challenge to a polished professional like Igle. “You don’t have the luxury of the same kinds of shortcuts that you would have in a full color book,” he said. However, “the only thing i think that changes my thinking is how it balances against light and shadow.” Making the comic in black and white challenges readers more, said Smith. “If [the reader]can just put aside thinking about what color the jacket is going to be, and just focus on the action and the words, sometimes you make it more of a story.”

The covers are every bit as deliberate and important to BLACK’s success, not just because they are attention grabbing, evocative images, but because compositionally and as matters of comic book theory, they’re just really good. “[Khary Randolph] is our curb appeal,” said Osajyefo. Each cover reflects the action inside the issue, from issue 1 where Kareem is seemingly killed by police (an act directly reflected on the cover) to issue 4, which is posted below as part of the preview. If a gamer was asked to describe the fourth issue, she would likely call it an “action platformer,” and the cover to that comic, in Randolph’s own sharp, hilarious style, is Kareem cast as Mario in Donkey Kong, with Donald Trump as Kong himself at the top of the vertical maze tossing cash down at the player.

The most significant thing about BLACK is how it uses the familiar to present valuable themes to a wider audience. Typical superhero comics address issues like identity, politics, and class underneath a layer of metaphor that sometimes makes it difficult to discern the true message – as much as the X-Men are representative of the struggles of oppressed groups, they’re still five good-looking white kids who aren’t going to get pulled over for driving while winged. BLACK strips away that top layer of analogy, allowing for a deeper examination of issues like gender as a social construct, or the diversity of black experience often ignored in even books touted as “diverse.”

“I really wanted the freedom of having this black cast, so I could show all these different characters and not have anybody just represent one thing,” said Osajyefo. That allowed the story to include Juncture, the head of the project that brings Kareem in after his resurrection and someone coded with respectability politics; or Swerve, a transgender singer; or Bizzy Bass, a thick woman who despite the obvious joke opportunity will NOT, Den of Geek has learned, turn on the team so someone can shout at her “BASS! How low can you go?” (“She’s a down-ass chick,” Osajyefo said, though Igle admitted he was disappointed that the team didn’t get there first.)

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Black Mask has been incredibly supportive of the book. Very little about the comic changed from its conception as a Kickstarter project to a monthly publication on shelves in stores because Osajyefo always conceived it as happening in chapters – even when the Kickstarter hit its stretch goal adding another 20 pages of just fights, the pacing was structured in Osajyefo’s head such that they didn’t have to tweak it in the move from graphic novel to monthly. The stretch goal has excited the team, however. Smith admitted he can’t wait for the last issue, as he was going to “look at [Igle’s] hand now, and then I’m gonna look at his hand after issue 6 just to see how big and strong it’s gotten, because he’s gonna have to draw a million characters and I don’t know what kind of choreographed fight scene.”

Black Mask handles relationships with the retailers, something they didn’t necessarily originally have to plan for. But the retailer response has been strong, and that’s one reason why the creative team has felt comfortable living in this world a little while longer: Osajyefo originally planned for three books, but the public reception and expansiveness of the story now has him thinking about “interstitial, ‘Rogue One’[-type] books.” They haven’t finalized yet, but everyone is hoping Igle can continue as the penciler on the Chapter books (continuing the Star Wars analogy), and Black Mask is on board to stay in the BLACK universe until it ends.

BLACK #4 is out in shops on Wednesday, 2/8/2017, and we have a five page preview you can check out below. Be sure to check in with Den of Geek for more news about BLACK and all the other great comics hitting shelves every week.