Kwanza Osajyefo on 'White,' and Why It Isn't What You Think

When it was first released, Black from Black Mask Studios, Kwanza Osajyefo and Tim Smith 3, [...]

When it was first released, Black from Black Mask Studios, Kwanza Osajyefo and Tim Smith 3, Inkpot-Award winning artist Jamal Igle, and cover artist Khary Randolph asked the question, "What if only black people got super powers?" In its follow-up, White, the team is reuniting to ask, "How does a nation struggling with a history of racial inequality cope in a world where only black people have superpowers?"

It is a high concept that is loaded with interesting ideas and baked-in controversy, especially at a time where tribalism is running rampant in the U.S. and for a healthy chunk of comic book readers, anything featuring a hero of color and a white antagonist will be an immediate lightning rod.

The first volume was incredibly well-received, though, and has already been optioned for a live-action adaptation. White is a little less than halfway through its crowdfunding campaign, with about 2/3 of the money already pledged to get the series out the door on time, which is both good, and bad: on the one hand, White seems like a safe bet to hit its goal soon, but on the other, Black blew away expectations and there was never really any question that was going to succeed.

Osajyefo joined to discuss the series, which you can pre-order on Kickstarter now.

When you are doing a book like this, which clearly has commentary and allegory baked into it, how do you avoid making it feel too polemical?

The story we began in Black isn't a critique so much as an observation that there is a lack of black characters and stories that reflect black experiences in comics.

Black starts with Kareem Jenkins being shot by the police and coming back to life to find out he has superpowers. A young black man being wrongly shot by cops is not fictitious, but neither was fans excitement for an all-black team of creators to produce a comic where only black people have superpowers.

I didn't write White with any disdain for the characters, it is an exploration of what drives institutional racism and the mindsets that yields. How does a country that struggles with dealing with a minority deal with an empowered minority within that group?

It's been an interesting exercise to get into the varied thinking that can exist within prejudice: fear, denial, anger – it's not just the two-dimensional boogeyman that people find easy to vilify now.

The narrative around Black was mostly very positive. Do you worry that crowdfunding will be more of an uphill slog with WHITE, since there are a lot of white folks who don't mind being allies as long as they don't feel like "part of the problem?"

This is an amazing question and it astutely articulates the difference between the two campaigns. I think most crowdfunding campaigns are a marathon, not a sprint. It's easy to get attention around zeitgeist but once you peel back the layers to the deeper matters, that can be difficult for some people. I have a number of friends who won't watch The Handmaid's Tale because the topics are hard to digest.

One of the key points I read in White Fragility, by Robin Diangelo, is that people don't want to feel as though something they think is innocuous is problematic or contributes to the larger institution of racism, but those are the building blocks for it to function.

To your point about allyship, yes, that could be a factor in our current pace, but I'd challenge anyone struggling with that, who has read the first book, to push past that. This is a trilogy and we are headed toward a larger point than any discomfort someone may feel about White.

It does feel to me like there is a little bit of Lex Luthor's mentality to Mann, right? This idea that you can justify bigotry by classifying the Other as a potential living weapon?

Yes, I'd align Theodore Mann more with Luthor than the cartoonishly evil bigot non-readers may assume he is. I actually conceived of him as a sociopathic Richard Bronson, but I specifically wrote Theodore Mann as not particularly racist, so much as someone who knows racism works to his benefit.

His motivation is power – super power, specifically. He already has status, access, wealth – the Presidency of the United States. But what is that in the face of a growing population of superhumans within a marginalized minority? That's walking a tightrope.

Given that oft-repeated joke that you can't actually parody President Trump, how do you go about making a larger-than-life, right-wing populist figure into a cautionary tale without making it "About Trump?"

We came up with the idea for White in tandem with Black, not because of the election. I can't deny this current White House has provided an endless source of material, but Theodore Mann becoming POTUS is based off panicked societies historically relinquishing power to some figure who claims to have all the answers to restore their sense of identity, safety, etc.

Our books have always pulled from these truths. That these truths happen to repeat themselves is something we address in our books, and I think people should read them to get some perspective on this.

How has the world of the Black universe changed in between volumes?

Now the world at large knows that only black people have superpowers, and despite it being a relatively small amount of black people, at that – fear has understandably set in. Characters like X (Kareem Jenkins) have become public figures in resisting policies and over-policing which resulted from parts of the public being terrified of empowered blacks.

This puts more pressure on all factions in a conflict that is now out in the open. An administration under pressure from its base, protesters, and other nations. A resistance now having to protect not only the empowered, but regular black people, from an incited populace.

The stakes are way higher in White.

How important is it to have crowdfunding preorders in place as you dive into making WHITE a reality?

It's vital. I think, like many people, I did not really think about the resources needed to make the content we consume, but for us, this crowdfund is necessary for the talent to make the book happen.

We've brought back the original team of Jamal Igle, Khary Randolph, Sarah Litt, Derwin Roberson, and Dave Sharpe, and we have been joined by Juan Castro on inks. Tim and I don't take a fee, but these are all comics professionals who are dedicated to the project, andwho also have to make ends meet. The creative is where the bulk of funding goes, but there is also fulfilment of rewards, taxes, and fees.

Crowdfunding allows us to tell our stories honestly, without being beholden to anyone but the readers who support us. It's tougher being scrappy, but also more rewarding when we know that we didn't have to compromise anything to suit a company.

Given that you guys have signed on with Hollywood types to explore the idea of bringing this universe to the screen, how much attention are you paying to other TV shows and movies in the space -- especially something like Black Lightning where they actually had an episode about a kid whose powers manifested after being shot by cops?

I'm enjoying all of this new content. We're in an era where the public is hungry for new perspectives. We've all had the entire history of media fed to us through one filter, one perspective, and it honestly got boring. Now we're seeing that people want to consume concepts that aren't drawn from the same sources, and that creates something fresh and new – there's huge value in that for consumers and creators.

Is putting together compelling pre-order rewards for crowdfunding a challenge, given that your main distribution channel is still the direct market and you need to make sure that nothing you do in the crowdfunding space eats significantly into comic shops?

That's a precarious question because I think I speak for all comics readers in saying that we love comic shops. Honestly, I'd love to have a more direct relationship with retailers, but logistics is always an issue.

There are 2,000 comic shops across the United States alone; if every store just backed our reward for one set of White issues 1 to 6 – we'd be fully funded and they'd still only be serving one customer in their store, to whom they'd be offering a rather significant collector's item. Just one customer in your store can get the whole series, first printing, variant covers, before anyone else. The crowdfunded variants won't be available in stores.

That's the scale of what we're doing when you think of backers eating into shops. We're a small band of creators with a project that wouldn't really put a dent in the larger economics of comics. We don't have corporate investors, and we wouldn't want them – so we can remain autonomous – but we are dependent on backers and that is what our campaign White is for.

How much of the delay between volumes was to prep White, versus how much is because everyone involved with this book seems to be in high demand?

Both. Jamal Igle took some time to do some groundbreaking work on The Wrong Earth over at Ahoy Comics and Khary Randolph just hit us with his new Image book from Skybound, called Excellence. And I've been building a new universe for Humanoids, called H1, and writing the launch book with Mark Waid.

Sometimes is it good to take a break, grow, and come back to a project with fresh eyes, ideas, and techniques. Everyone on the team is bringing something new to the table that is dialing up White to be a great apex in the trilogy. We think people will be surprised by how things in the story turn out.