The following is an interview with Kwanza Osajyefo (writer) and Jennifer Johnson (artist) on their recently released graphic novel, BLACK [AF]: America’s Sweetheart, from Black Mask Comics. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Osajyefo and Johnson about the inspiration behind the graphic novel, their shared creative process in designing their protagonist and her surroundings, their hopes for the future of the comic book industry, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the upcoming release of your original graphic novel, BLACK [AF]: America’s Sweetheart! For our readers who may be unfamiliar with the title, what inspired you to tell this story, and what was the genesis of your collaboration?
Kwanza Osajyefo: Thank you! The premise of the BLACK universe is, what if only black people had superpowers.
America’s Sweetheart is about how a young woman, Eli Franklin, in the wake of the public dealing with this phenomenon, decides to become a patriotic-themed superhero to try to inspire hope and quell fears of empowered black people.
Jennifer Johnson: Thank you! Eli’s character immediately drew me into the universe of Black. Although she is a the most powerful being on Earth, Eli is just a 15-year-old child. After reading the story, I was eager to convey Eli’s uncertainty and naivety, but also her courage and selflessness.
BD: What do you hope that readers will take away from this project, and how do you hope that it will impact the comic book industry as a whole?
KO: Regardless of my intent, these stories are subject to what the reader brings to them. My aim is to expand on how a world where only black people have superpowers would impact a girl raised with conservative, religious, and patriotic values.
As for the industry, there is still a lack of black female characters in mainstream comics, especially as the main protagonist. There’s also a lack of perspective as the scramble to diversify doesn’t address the lack of inclusion for black voices. So, I hope America’s Sweetheart inspires young black women and shows them they can forge a place for themselves and create characters who reflect them.
JJ: Comic books have been increasingly tackling issues of racial and gender diversity. America’s Sweetheart provides a new platform for recognition and representation in comics. Eli represents the change that I hope many young girls can identify with.
BD: What are you able to share with us regarding your combined creative process, and what were some of your creative influences?
KO: For America’s Sweetheart I was inspired by characters like Icon from Milestone. He was a superhero archetype who also held conservative values. The black experience isn’t monolithic, so I wanted to tell a story that exposed a different area of the BLACK universe.
JJ: I was heavily inspired by young superhero icons like Spider-Man and Riri Williams. My design choices came from everyday activities. I watch films or walk on the street, observe fashion, and imagine how Eli would dress in that specific world. I also had to consider how Eli might react to our current political climate, as well as her goals and motivations.
BD: Kwanza, do you feel that your previous work on the graphic novel, BLACK (2016), influenced or furthered your interest to create within the superhero genre?
KO: Reader response to BLACK made it clear that there was room to expand and tell more stories than I’d intended.
I think of BLACK more sci-fi as stories, but America’s Sweetheart definitely uses more traditional superhero tropes.
BD: Jennifer, as America’s Sweetheart is your debut graphic novel, what was your greatest takeaway from your creative experience, and what do you look forward to on future projects?
JJ: Inspiration was a huge benefactor in the development of this novel. I found ways to nurture creativity, through reading other comics, to watching films. I will draw inspiration from wherever I can find it – sometimes in nature, friends or world news. On future projects, I look forward to more opportunities to express myself and promote diverse voices in comics, games, and illustration.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find out more about Black [AF]: America’s Sweetheart and your other work?
KO: People can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @blacksuprpowrs or blacksuperpowers.com — comics are available on Amazon, ComiXology, and through our publisher, Black Mask.