A three-time Hugo Award winner for her Broken Earth series, N.K. Jemisin is one of the most exciting and celebrated authors working in speculative fiction today. For the first time ever, Jemisin is working in the comic book medium, collaborating with artist Jamal Campbell on a new Green Lantern story that’s part of Gerard Way’s revived Young Animal imprint for DC Comics.
The new series is called Far Sector, and it follows Sojourner “Jo” Mullen, a member of the Green Lantern Corps who is the sole protector of the City Enduring, a massive metropolis of 20 billion people countless lightyears from Earth.
The City Enduring has maintained peace for over 500 years by stripping its citizens of of their ability to feel emotion. Therefore, murder and other forms of violent crime are virtually non-existent… until now.
We had the chance to catch up with Jemisin earlier this month at New York Comic Con. Here’s what she had to tell us about diving into the world of Green Lantern…
Den of Geek: What your familiarity with Green Lantern before taking on the project?
Jemisin: Almost none. I watched the Justice League cartoon back in the day that had John Stewart as the main Green Lantern. And I mean I knew that Green Lantern was a popular superhero, but beyond that I really didn’t understand very much about it. I knew there had been a movie; I didn’t see the movie. I rode the Green Lantern ride at Six Flags. That’s about all I knew.
That was the limit of it. So when Gerard Way asked me if I would be willing to write the Green Lantern comic, I said, “Look, I need to do some boning up on the lore and the literature,” and so the first thing that they did was send me the big Geoff Johns compilations. I don’t know if you’ve seen them, but it’s like this big. All hardcover, and the first few years of the original Green Lantern storylines. Not the original, but of some of the most iconic Green Lantern storylines.
And so I was able to read through those. Of course I was able to jump on the various Wikis that exist out there, and then I began to realize that I was drowning in information, because Green Lantern continuity is like any other comic book continuity: there had been retcons, there are contradictions, and I had to try and find ways to resolve that. So, fortunately, with the the Far Sector comic, because it takes place outside of the normal Lantern system, so far away from Earth and all the other Lanterns. In some ways, I was in an isolated space where I can make things happen.
What kind of freedom did you have? Were there things that you did that they were like, “No, actually this contradicts something that already exists in canon,” or did you really have pretty much free range to tell your story?
I mean, yeah, I had free range, but I wanted to fit within canon. I mean, there’s no value for me in taking these stories so far away from its fanbase.
So the challenge is to make it fit into the continuity, even if it’s not directly related. So,at some point, if this character proves popular, if the book proves popular, at some point, she may want to come back and meet the other Guardians … the other Lanterns. She may move back to Earth, so I need that to be able to work if I do.
I’m curious if your background and presence as a fanfic author helped you in that process of diving into an already-existing narrative universe?
Yeah, effectively, I was writing fanfic—I love it!—except that I wasn’t already a fan of this. So I mean it’s professional fanfic, but we’ve seen that out there before. There’s a long history of, effectively, fan works insisting within the literary fiction sphere.
Sherlock Holmes story, for example, or the Cthulhu Mythos, all of that is effectively fanfic. The challenge of it is you read the history, you make sure that you’ve got the canon down pat, and then once you’ve got that down pat, then you can riff on it.
So that was the idea.
Tell me about working with Jamal Campbell. What did it look like logistically, in terms of your process?
Well, logistically what it means is I gave him a phone call at the beginning of it and I haven’t met him in person. So we’re doing everything electronically. I write the scripts, we send the scripts to Jamal, Jamal sends us pages.
That’s how it’s been working, and then we talk back and forth about … For example, I wanted to convey in this one particular scene that she feels like she’s being disrespected. Can we add a little panel where she looks at a thing and gives it a side eye? Something like that.
Cool, and I don’t know how much experience you have collaborating in that way while writing a story.
None. This is my first collaboration.
What’s that been like?
I’m loving it, I really am. This is the first time, outside of fan art, this is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone put my stories or characters or anything that I’ve created to a visual form. I’m used to being able to see it in my head, but I’ve never had other people try and see it for me.
And he’s got a good eye. He’s been able to capture what I’ve been thinking, for the most part.
This story takes place in a city where people no longer have the ability to feel emotion. There are a lot of mainstream, especially female-centric superhero stories that have been commenting on emotion as power, or trying to do that in ways that I feel haven’t been super nuanced or complex. I’m curious about that setting and what, if anything, you wanted to say about the strengths or limitations of emotionality or emotional intelligence.
Well, remember that Jo is a black woman, so there is a different nuance or a different variation on that problem that I feel like black women often have to deal with, which is them being treated as too angry, as if anger is dangerous or problematic in some way.
Even when we aren’t angry, we’re perceived as angry sometimes, and it gets to be a problem, and so Jo is in some cases going to have to deal with being the only emotional person in the room, and she can’t get too emotional in her reactions to what she’s seeing and what she’s having to deal with.
When she starts working through bureaucracy and she expresses frustration with it, she’s not going to be perceived as just an emotional woman. She’s going to be perceived as a primitive human being. She’s going to be perceived as a poor representation of her species, a poor representation of the Lanterns.
She can’t get too emotional, so she’s got to be able to solve these problems as the lone person in the room that’s allowed to be this way, but also judged for being this way. And there’s definitely commentary in it.
You’re telling a frontier science fiction story of sorts…
A super high tech space society with near omniscient power. I don’t know if that qualifies.
It is a high tech story, but Jo is the only Lantern there. She is the only person, as I said, who has emotions. She has to work with the local cops. She’s got to form alliances and relationships with her local community and earn their respect in order to have any real power, cause even one person, no matter how powerful, is not going to be able to solve the problems of 20 billion people unless she gets some buy in from them.
Where there other graphic novels or comics that you looked to during this process?
Well, learning how to write, yes. I read The 2000 A.D. Script Book, which has art rendered pages alongside the script agents so you can see how the writer communicated with the artist or how the writer framed the scene and the artist chose to interpret that scene. So that helped me figure out comic writing format and how to do it.
Of course, I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which was really helpful for helping me understand how storytelling changes in this medium. I’ve been a comics fan for quite some time, ranging across different media. I did superhero comics a lot when I was back in college, but it got super expensive and I was a poor college student, so I quit around that time.
I read a lot of Japanese manga for awhile. Lately, I have read more indie comics, like Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Monstress by a Sana Takeda and Marjorie Liu. I’m a big fan of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s work, so I’ve read a lot of comics more recently … I mean I enjoy the format, I enjoy good storytelling in all of its forms, but lately I’ve been reading more superhero stuff.
I did already bring up fanfiction, but I have been asking the authors I’m talking to, especially after Archive of Our Own’s Hugo win this summer, that fanfic has meant to them, if anything, both professionally and personally.
I mean, I’m not going to say I started out as a fanfic writer, cause I didn’t, but fanfic helped me, I think, develop in a lot of ways, my storytelling. I’ve been writing fanfic basically since grad school, when I started writing it for stress relief, and really when I got access to the internet. That was back in the AOL days. I’m dating myself, and I continue to write it to this day.
It’s a place, like a playground, where I can go and sort of write things that I feel like writing without having to worry about my professional fiction readers coming to scrutinize what I do, and I’m not going to tell anybody what fanfic write or what pseudonyms I use or any of that.
Yeah. What else are you working on that you can talk about?
Oh, well I’ve got a new novel coming out next year. It’s called The City We Became. It is based on a short summary of mine in which the city of New York comes to life and develops an avatar, a human being, one single person who represents the spirit of the city.
Well, in the book, all of the boroughs come to life too, and so there’s an avatar in Brooklyn, an avatar in Manhattan, and they all have basically magic powers that grant them the ability to protect the city, and they’re protecting the city from basically Cthulhu.
It’s not really Lovecraftian, and it’s not really a Lovecraftian story, although I’d say it’s in conversation with Lovecraft, but yes, there is a giant eldritch abomination that is not happy with New York right now and is trying its damndest to destroy the city, and that comes out in March.