Infinitum: An Afrofuturist Tale: Illustrator-Author Tim Fielder Looks to the Future With a Modern Epic

Illustration for article titled Infinitum: An Afrofuturist Tale: Illustrator-Author Tim Fielder Looks to the Future With a Modern Epic
Image: HarperCollins, Photo: Maximilius Fielder

Tim Fielder is a force of nature. His enthusiasm for life is evident in his consistent booming laughter and the kinetic energy of his 6’4 frame as it grabs you in the friendliest bear hug. He’s the type of guy who remembers meeting your mama at a conference for five minutes and then shows her love the next time he sees her gliding through the New Orleans Airport. (I know, because it was my mama.)

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Fielder refers to himself as an Afrofuturist, an illustrator, or even an author. To me he is a dreamer, seeing the potential of Afrofuturism as a ‘70s kid in Mississippi and then slogging away, for decades, creating Afrofuturistic art, comics, and stories long before these ideas were considered noteworthy or possessing investment potential. Tim has always been on the cusp of breaking through into the larger pop culture conversation.

In fact, Fielder’s breakthrough was expected almost 30 years ago; it was in the mid-’90s that all of his hard work was supposed to come to fruition. Marvel Music commissioned him to do a full graphic novel on the hottest hip-hop producer at the time: Dr. Dre: Man With a Cold, Cold Heart. The novel was finished, ready for production...and Marvel declared bankruptcy. The heartbreak pushed Fielder out of the comics industry, for good—or so he thought.

Dr. Dre: Man With a Cold, Cold Heart
Dr. Dre: Man With a Cold, Cold Heart
Illustration: Tim Fielder

It was 2014 when Fielder was visited by two of his biggest fans, John Jennings and Stacey Robinson, who make up the Afrofuturist duo Black Kirby. Black Kirby’s star was rising as they were providing the visual art helping to redefine contemporary Afrofuturism—and they were committed to ensuring that the artists who influenced them were given their due. That meeting brought about Fielder’s return to comics and the resurrection of what would become Infinitum as he began to workshop the story at various events affiliated with the Black Speculative Arts Movement.

Infinitum: An Afrofuturist Tale, is the first Afrofuturist graphic novel published by one of the “Big 5” publishers—in this case, HarperCollins, via their Amistad imprint. It is a testament to the perseverance of Tim Fielder, the enduring love and care of his community, and an inspiring reminder to never give up on your wildest dreams because you just might find yourself featured in a Microsoft commercial about your work!

I had the opportunity to congratulate Tim on his latest success, and to speak with him about Infinitum: An Afrofuturist Tale on behalf of The Root a few days ago.

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The Root: Good morning, Tim! Thank you for taking a bit of time out of your day to speak with me. I’m so happy to see Infinitum published and being so successful. I remember you talking about King Oba, who could never die and showing those of us attending Planet Deep South at Jackson State University the preliminary drawings almost six years ago. How did the idea for Infinitum come about and how has it evolved over the years into what it is now?

Tim Fielder: Thank you for your kind words. That’s what’s so fascinating in that the creation of this book has been very much iterative in its process. In its core, Infinitum is a story about aspiration, failure and ultimately, redemption. The format of the book initially was more stereotypically a comic book. But I knew, to pull off the complexity of the visual and written narrative would require courage to embrace alternatives. As a result, I would not be able to physically do a 9-paneled page comic and finish before I turn 80; the solution being, do a book that is fully painted, with prose and word balloon captions, that paid homage to picture books and film storyboards. From a practical point, how could I ask someone to pay $25 for a book that wasn’t fully rendered—specifically, people of color? Sure, I could have done it in simple black-and-white and called it a day; [it] certainly would have been easier to produce and would be fine within its own right. However, I wanted to create an epic. Once I accepted that reality, the direction was simple; it had to read and look like an EPIC.

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TR: “Epic” is the right word for this tale. We move through time, through space, through millennia—there is a lot going on, even as it feels like an intensely personal journey. Please, introduce the readers to King Oba and share why it was necessary to tell his particular story.

TF: Aja Oba is an ancient African warlord who makes the dreaded mistake of crossing a jilted lover and is cursed with ‘the gift of immortality’. Oba is then doomed to walk endlessly through time while everyone he loves and the world around him pass away over the millennia into the farthest reaches of space. I was most interested in telling a story about a Black male character that takes on many of the archetypal traits of comic and pulp characters seen in high adventure and science fiction stories. Barnes’ Aubrey Knight [series], Besters’ Gully Foyle and Samuel R Delany’s Lorq VonRay come to mind. Then, I would proceed to put Oba through an ongoing emotional gauntlet that drives him to the fringe of madness, forcing those traits to bend to the will of progressive thought. Using the often employed ‘immortality’ tool as a narrative device, I could then dynamically observe all of the different variants of Afrofuturism racing from ancient Africa, contemporary neo-urban dystopias, to ethereal far-futurescapes. But, at its core, Infinitum is a tale about the essential need to reach for redemption.

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TR: Redemption is an interesting concept and I want to come back to that, but let’s meditate on immortality for a moment. It would appear that immortality would be a gift at the beginning; the realities of the curse it truly is don’t come until King Oba outlives his first family. As I continued to read, I began to feel parts of the plot become a classic horror tale. Would you mind talking a bit about the elements of horror that can be found in Infinitum?

TF: Yes, immortality is the paradox that, should we discover the key, will essentially doom us to the loss of morality, which is driven by the fear of mortality. Essentially, as I told my editor upon questioning why Oba suffers as he does, “We are not meant to live forever. We are meant to decay and rot, providing sustenance to those that come after us.’

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TR: I enjoy your use of the word “sustenance.” This is a story that feeds our imaginations as well as our soul. To that end, there is a palpable influence of traditional African religions interwoven throughout the story, in characters’ names as well as in the visuals that are so stunning, I audibly gasped a few times turning the page. Please, tell us about this particular influence in the story and how it reflects some of your own spiritual journeys.

TF: Yes, that question follows me eternally. My experience in the African based religious ecosphere has, for light or dark, colored my entire spectrum on how my stories play out, in that there is always a deeper meaning I try to impart to my audience, my family, children, and ultimately, to myself. I believe it is our fate as people of color in the diaspora to seek out that meaning; sometimes fruitlessly, as we interact with the rest of the world. The disconnect is real and the desire to connect the larger cosmology drives us even when we don’t actively practice. In my case, I look to the inspiration of Carybé, the late famous Brazilian artist, whom, although a master of painted depictions of Orisha, he himself was not an official initiate. In effect, my belief right now is that the highest form of worship, prayer, meditation, ceremony, is for me to make the best ART I can.

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TR: Art has become your act of worship. I like how you have come to that knowledge of self. I would like to end by circling back to the theme of redemption. You have been in the arts, comics, graphic novels scene since the 1980s—becoming well known among other artists and Afrofuturists—while remaining unknown to the public at large. How has Infinitum served as a redemption for you as both an artist and as a man?

TF: It is not an easy thing to toil away in obscurity. There were times when I felt the world was perpetually closed to my passions as a visual Afrofuturist. With that, I’ve only just now begun to reconcile that matter. To that end, I am enormously grateful to the community of Afrofuturist scholars out there, such as yourself, that extended a lifeline of interest to me. That interest essentially allowed me to workshop my process, akin to a playwright with a play, until I found a format that I was passionate about. The moment I finished my work, this enabled that work to activate the opportunities that have now resulted in the history-making book the world now has before it. The sweet irony: Immortality achieved.

Kinitra Brooks is a New Orleans native who writes about conjure women, monsters...and Beyoncé.

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