Comic Creators Denys Cowan, L.L. McKinney, and Kwanza Osajyefo on What the Future Holds for the Rise of the Black Superhero

From L-R: L.L McKinney, Denys Cowan, Kwanza Osajyefo
From L-R: L.L McKinney, Denys Cowan, Kwanza Osajyefo
Photo: Other

Editor’s Note: The Rise of the Black Superhero is a three-part series breaking down the past, present and future of Black superheroes across comics, film, and tv. This is part 3. Read part 1 and part 2.

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Welcome back, true believers! Our journey so far has taken us across decades, from the bell-bottomed ’70s to the lit af present. As much as I would like to bend the fabric of space-time, and tell you exactly what the future holds, I’m going to keep it a buck: I ain’t got that kind of power, b. I’m just a man on a laptop who spends an inordinate amount of time reading comics.

If I have any kind of superpower it’s having a job that makes people open to talking with a weirdo like me. I’ve decided to use that power to ask some of the best and Blackest minds working in comics about the current state of the Black superhero, and where they see things going.

So get in loser, we’re going to...the future! (Just kidding. You’re not a loser, I love y’all.)

Kwanza Osajyefo is an author and the co-creator of Black, an independently-produced comic book about a world where only Black people have superpowers. He’s also got mad jokes.

The Root: What do you see as a promising sign about the growth of Black superheroes and more inclusive storytelling in comics?

Kwanza Osajyefo: I think it’s definitely yielding more opportunities for people of color to direct their own narratives because they’ve been able to essentially demonstrate that there is a value in that, that it’s yielding a monetary gain. I think films like Get Out and Black Panther really proved the point that authenticity means profit. I know, that’s a horrible thing to put a capitalist spin on it but it’s like, in America that’s kind of what you need. Before it was like “Hey, it’s the right thing to do.” Now it’s like, “Hey, do you like money?”

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TR: Where do you think the industry can still improve with regard to inclusivity?

KO: I think there is still a lack of representation, with agency, in the areas where people are driving the larger industry. For comics, that’d be in terms of publishing. I know over at DC there have been some recent changes, so now the general manager is of color, the head of DC and Warners is of color, and I was like “ayyyy, I see you.”

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You know, that’s great. But still, day-to-day in terms of the industry as a whole you still have a lack of representation in those in-between parts. So it’s like great, now we’re at the top, but that might just be an outlier. And now there’s this great middle where there’s a whole lot of assistants but not enough directors, not enough VP’s, those people who can really have some influence in terms of the dynamic of how things work.

TR: What advice would you give for any young up and coming storyteller who wants to work in comics?

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KO: I think the internet and social media have created so much more of an opportunity for people of color to be storytellers on their own terms, that it’s almost a wonder that any publisher is able to garner talent. To come and work for them on a freelancer advance model or what have you because it’s just like, I don’t know, put it on TikTok. Get your following and then just spring it on people, “Oh by the way, if you like my dance moves I also wrote this comic.”

You’d probably have a bigger audience than people who’ve worked ten years in the industry. Me? I ain’t got it like that, I’m not gonna be on TikTok doing any of that, but I do think that these online platforms, Kickstarter, Indie GoGo, are really a place where you can connect with your people. Tell a story from your perspective, and through a narrative lens that’s reflective of your views or other people’s views without going through a publisher who might chop it up.

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L.L. McKinney is a 2020 The Root 100 honoree, the writer of Future State: Nubia, Nubia: Real One, and a real one in her own right.

TR: What do you see as a promising sign about the growth of Black superheroes and more inclusive storytelling in comics?

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L.L. McKinney: I think it’s great, but as with representation in general, I think it’s long overdue. I think that as long as people are genuine in wanting to tell these authentic stories and they tell them with the communities they’re about, instead of just telling them about the communities, I think there is much more positive on the horizon than negative. I hope.

I’m really excited to see a new take on a lot of these heroes that harkens to their origins and whatnot, but adjusts for a modern reader audience. Readers are smarter than people give them credit for and they can tell when somebody is trying to placate them. So I’m hoping it comes through and we get more authentic representation on all sides.

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TR: Where do you think the industry can still improve with regards to inclusivity, particularly with Black women?

L.L.: For one, get them involved at all levels. Not just for the stories themselves, but for the people telling those stories so that they can continue telling those stories. One aspect of things is that if the process of telling these stories is difficult, then you start weighing whether or not the outcome is worth the trouble to get to. If it’s an antagonistic process for the person to tell the story, then it defeats the purpose of the story coming out to begin with, right? The whole point is stories with empathy, but at the same time you want people from those communities to just be able to enjoy those stories. Not everything has to be a lesson all the time.

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I know in Nubia: Real One, a lot of things happen in the story that could be a teachable moment, but something that could be a teachable moment versus something that is created to be a teachable moment, I think there’s a difference. If you’re being curtailed into trying to tell a specific thing and it becomes cumbersome, as opposed to you wanting to bring attention to something and people let you, there’s a difference there.

TR: What would you tell any Black girl who has aspirations of getting into comics? 

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L.L.: I would say first and foremost: cultivate a general feeling of “you belong here,” before you even get here. The idea of you even being in this room is not a fantasy. No matter what anyone says. You have every right to walk right through that door the same as anyone else, send that email as well as anyone, audition for that piece as well as anyone. There are already people who are going to tell you you don’t belong there, don’t be one of them. You absolutely deserve to be here, and not only do you deserve to be here, you are needed.

The whole issue with diversity is that we have received decades of particular stories, they’re not needed anymore. The stories that need to be told are with these characters, and you are how that happens little Black girl. Whether you want to make comics, or read comics, it can’t happen the way it needs to happen without you.

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Denys Cowan is an artist, one of the co-founders of Milestone Media, and an all around legend in the game.

TR: What’s been the difference between launching Milestone back in the early ‘90s compared to relaunching it today?

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Denys Cowan: It’s a different time in comics and in the world. In some ways the world is the same but worse in terms of race relations, in terms of Black Lives Matters, in terms of everything that is going on in the world. Things have not gotten better in 30 years, and it feels like we’ve taken a step back in some cases. A step forward in terms of awareness, but a step backwards in terms of actual, physical, doing things.

You can be aware of a problem, but now you have an equal and opposing force that’s also aware of it, who want to keep things exactly the same, and are vocal about it. So you’re dealing with that kind of situation in the world now. It’s different circumstances, so the problems are more pronounced, more vocal, bigger, broader, but they still need to be talked about. Whereas before those problems were there, but we didn’t have the social media connections, we didn’t have the internet to connect us in that way. It seemed like it was a smaller issue. Now it seems like it’s a much bigger global issue, but it was always the same issue. Which is why Milestone was born, actually.

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Our very existence at Milestone was in a way pointing out that there was an issue, that there was something going on in comics that wasn’t right and needed to be addressed. Which is why we caused such a stir.

TR: Over your decades in the industry how have you seen it evolve in terms of Black characters and inclusion of Black creatives?

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DC: There are more Black characters, and there are excellent series now like Excellence, Black, Bitter Root is awesome. Those are just brilliant examples of Black books out right now. That being said, the fact that there is such a reaction to Milestone coming back indicates to me that there is still a need for really solid, original superheroes that reflect the world we live in, for real. That reflect people of color, trans people, gay people, and all the mainstream “outliers” of society. I think it’s more important than ever.

TR: What advice would you give for the next generation of Black talent that wants to break into the industry?

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DC: It’s funny because I’m dealing with emerging Black talent that’s breaking into the industry, so I’m giving advice all day. I think the thing for young talent is one, master the fundamentals, the fundamentals of storytelling, perspective, drawing, all those things. There are no shortcuts, only hard work will get you there. And that’s okay, because you don’t mind hard work.

Social media is a tool, but it is not your life. So many young artists spend all their time on social media thinking that that’s the truth of life, that all the responses you get, all the likes you get, is the real thing. Most people who are buying our books, who are reading our product are not posting on social media about how much they like it. Some are, but most are not.

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So it’s important to do your job, focus on your creativity, and not focus on the internet. Use it as a tool but not as your life. Your life is your family, and after that it’s your work. Keep your priorities straight.

Last thing I would say: don’t give up.


So, where does the future of the Black superhero ultimately lie? Well, haven’t you been listening?

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With you, silly.

If you’re a fan of these heroes, the only way they’re going to keep making these books is if you show up and support them. If you’re an aspiring writer, penciler, or colorist, then the only way these books are going to get made the right way is with you.

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The future is only as bright as we allow it to be, and the work that artists and writers like Kwanza, Denys, L.L., N.K. Jemisin, Robyn Smith, John Ridley, Brandon Thomas, Afua Richardson, Nicholas Draper-Ivey, and countless others are doing right now is making sure that light stays shining.

There’s going to come a time when someone has to pick up the baton, though. Why not you? You already have everything you need to shape your own origin story. So get to it. And I mean that for everyone, whether you’re in your late teens or if you’re pushing middle age. If you have something to say, say it. The world needs heroes that truly reflect it now more than ever, and I know that you, that all of us, can continue to make that happen.

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The future is bright, y’all. Because the future is ours.

The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

The stylin', profilin', limousine riding, jet flying, wheelin' and dealin' nerd of The Root.

DISCUSSION

Wonderful 3 part series. I’m blessed to now be living in an age where not only are my childhood nerd hobbies being appreciated, but the exploration of themes, culture, and representation are all coming together as well.
Oscar Isaac is about to be Moon Knight, and I’m just about ready to back flip to see someone of my culture in Star Wars and Marvel cinema.