In between tutoring America on cultural appropriation and acting as Rue in “The Hunger Games,” 17-year-old actress Amandla Stenberg has crafted a fierce character sure to make a comic fan out of you.
Stenberg co-wrote “Niobe: She is Life” with Sebastian Jones, CEO of the L.A.-based Stranger Comics. The groundbreaking comic book series, featuring a teenaged female mixed-race warrior, launches Nov. 4.
“I was drawn to give voice to Niobe and co-write her story because her journey is my journey. I connect to her mixed racial background and quest to discover her innate powers and strengths, to learn who she truly is,” Stenberg said in a statement. “We need more badass girls!”
And we also need more publishers willing to give badass girls a chance. That’s where Jones, Stenberg’s co-writer and a successful comic book writer, comes in.
We caught up with Jones as he took a break from packing boxes, shipping off books and preparing the team’s table for the Comikaze convention in L.A.
The Tempest: Since you’ve announced the Niobe series, what reactions have really stood out to you?
It’s been amazing. I’ve been very humbled by the experience. Amandla is a big deal, you know. It’s very cool for me and the team I work with. The response, which is one that I thought we’d get but didn’t realize we’d get in such a wave, is “I’ve never bought a comic book before, but I’m going to buy this!” I’ve seen that a lot.
I remember a comic shop guy telling me once that when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” came out with a comic book, they had such an influx of new readers, because it was just fans of Buffy coming in. It was women and girls, specifically, coming to buy a Buffy comic book. They wanted to see a lady kicking butt, being on a cover and having her name out there.
You go into comic shops and you wonder, where are the women? What is going on? People are just missing the boat. These big corps, they just don’t get it. Not only are women a huge buying market, but it’s morally the right thing to do.
Now we see all these reactions, like, “Finally, someone of color! Finally, a girl! Finally, this or that, oh my god!” or “I’m going to support that because of Amandla, but also because…” That’s pretty empowering.
The Tempest: You’ve said previously that Niobe’s character has been brewing for several years. Can you give us a bit of the backstory?
So Niobe Ayutami is half-Galemren wild elf, half-human. She came to me when I was a teenager, and I used to read a lot of fantasy.
I always marveled at why there were very few people of color in that world, and why those that were of color seemed to be seduced by the dark side, and why the dark side is bad, and so on and so forth. I’m mixed, and I wanted to create somebody that I could relate to and others could relate to. It’s an underserved market and an underserved demographic.
That was just a hobby back then. A few years ago, I formed Stranger Comics, and during that time, I’ve been wanting to release these stories based on a world I’ve spent 25 years creating. Niobe Ayutami was always kind of the Luke Skywalker, if you will, of the franchise.
Now, I might be mixed, but I’m not a teenage black girl. I thought I’d be morally insensitive and a bit idiotic if I didn’t find somebody to help me write these tales of Niobe. I met a couple of girls and for whatever reason it never worked out. But then when I met Amandla at the Mixed Remixed Festival, it was the perfect match.
She was the same age, mixed, very conscious and socially aware, very brave – the parallels with Niobe were quite crazy as the I saw the two grow up. In my world, Niobe is born of not only two races of elven and human, but also mixed culturally and all sorts of ways. She’s the one that’s destined to go on and bind the nations against the devil and save the world as it were – you know, the Luke Skywalker. And then here’s Amandla the past couple years while we’ve been nurturing this character Niobe, putting the weight of our world on her shoulders. She’s been extremely brave and extremely conscientious and conscious and audacious and honest. And that’s pretty rare these days.
Niobe is actually’s first introduced in a graphic novel I wrote called “The Untamed: The Sinner’s Prayer.” I worked with artist Peter Bergting and our art director, Darrell May, on the book. The story follows a wicked man stuck in purgatory, bent on vengeance. The devil comes to him and says, “I’ll give you seven days to reap the seven souls that murdered you and your family.” And the man said, “Sign me up, I have nowhere else to be,” and travels to this one-horse town for this task. But as he’s on this path to save his family’s soul, he meets this little elven girl Niobe. In the story, she’s just a young orphan and she reminds him of his daughter. She gives him a second chance at redemption to be a good man, even becoming a sort of father figure to her. You ultimately find the kicker is that she’s one of the seven souls he has to collect. The devil set the whole thing up just to find her because of her importance to world.
So in “Untamed,” you’ve got that seed planted. And then from there we spin off into Niobe’s own tale, “Niobe: She is Life,” which is a beautiful coming of age story where Niobe grows into her own in the Ugoma Jungle, in kind of a West African culture.
The Tempest: There’s a lot of new characters of color springing out of the woodwork in the comic world. In the Marvel Universe, for example, we just got the Asian American superheroine Silk, Pakistani American Ms. Marvel and Afro-Latino Miles Morales. What sets Niobe apart from what some call the sort of trendy diversity cause?
It’s all good, you know, a rising tide raises all ships. I’m all for more and more diversity. I think the difference sometimes can be the teams behind it. A lot of times you would find new characters that come out that don’t necessarily have a creative source behind them who are of color or can represent these characters in an organic way. You have to be careful that, you know, it’s not Black History Month and it’s time to get out a black comic book to make a buck. A lot of times you see that in movies, TV – let’s make this one character a black guy, just to get a few more bucks and fill some seats. And it feels forced, it feels like pandering, and everybody can tell it’s pandering. Like Idris Elba being 007, I think it would be great – but I’d be more interested in seeing him be 006. Let’s create something new and visceral and cool.
Maybe Niobe’s advantage is that she’s been in my head and heart for 25 years, and with Amandla we’ve been actually talking about bringing her to the forefront for at least a year and a half. This isn’t something that’s a quick flash in the pan.
I’ll tell you what a big difference is with us: You have Spiderman and Captain America already with Marvel as the face of the franchise, and Superman and Batman for D.C. Niobe is the face of our franchise. It is not a white male protagonist. It is a female person of color with dreadlocks. She is unapologetic. We are unapologetic in our approach to having people know that this is the face of our franchise.
I’ve been told now and again by the odd producer I’ve met, back when the concept of Niobe was first introduced in “Untamed,” if I had considered making Niobe a boy. And if, okay, she’s a girl, but can we make her blonde? Because that would play well against the darkness of the tale, blah blah blah. So I’ve turned down a lot of them, keeping true to who Niobe Ayutami is. This is a girl, to become a woman, as the face of the franchise. I think we’re breaking a few barriers. This isn’t just “oh, let’s get some chicks out there, let’s get some people of color out there to show them we’re diverse.” Well, we are diverse, look.
But I don’t want to naysay anybody’s honest efforts. The more, the merrier. I find that can be a bit silly sometimes, in the community of people of color, like, “Oh, you did it? I was gonna do it.” Come on, dude, let’s all raise each other up a little bit.
The Tempest: We were also looking at artist Ashley Wood’s illustrations for Niobe. They’re incredibly gorgeous. How did she get involved?
Yeah, she’s great. I was invited to an event called the Black Comix Art Festival at the beginning of this year, and her table was really close to ours. I’d seen her stuff before online and thought she was super dope and her artwork was beautiful. It was a natural fit with Amandla and I met her.
Actually, Amandla and I were originally talking about creating Niobe short stories and prose, and we were working with this artist Hyoung Taek Nam, who does a lot of our covers. But then we realized Amandla and I didn’t necessarily have time to write books on Niobe, and we realized that we are a comic company, for goodness’ sake. We can just write a comic! Then when Ashley’s sample page came in, the whole team just went, “That’s it. That has to be it.”
Our title is also “She is Life,” so to have another brilliant young black creator on the project was fitting. Then we did a bit of research and found out, my goodness, we might be the only comic ever nationally distributed that has a black female author and a black female artist. Now and again a person does only the writing or only the illustration, but we couldn’t find any with both.
The Tempest: Wow, that really says something.
You often hear that thing where two people come into a room, one’s black and one’s white, and you just go with whoever is better. You know, “I don’t look at color, I look at the story,” and so on forth. Anyone who says that shit is just lying.
Everyone looks at color. We all prejudge and we’re all predetermined to do that. It’s making sure you make the effort, because there are fantastic women, women of color, people of color – there are all sorts of creators out there that just aren’t given a shake but are as good, if not better, than the working people today. They have their own perspectives and journeys, and they’ve always been out there. Let’s get some of that in the mix. That’s probably the reason we started Stranger Comics, putting out books with all sorts of moral and cultural values. Even if we’re doing crass “South Park”-type stuff, there’s going to be some kind of moral undertone, and hopefully readers can find that, too.
COF: Can you also talk a little about Stranger’s other projects right now?
I do a book series for kids about 4-9 years old with actress Garcelle Beauvais. The first one is called “I Am Mixed,” which is a celebration of all cultures. Sometimes people don’t like that word, mixed. I’m mixed and I think it’s kind of fun. Calling it “I Am Multiracial,” would have sounded like you’re filling a form out at the doctor’s office. It’s a celebration of black culture, Asian culture – it’s just a concept that what makes you different also makes you rad. Like, “oh, you’re into this? I can also enjoy that.” Again, back to the idea that when people say they don’t see color and we all bleed red – well, no, we’re not all the same, and thank God for that. And in places like America, we’re lucky enough to be able to experience different cultures.
Then I came out with “I Am Living in Two Homes,” to help kids that deal with separation or divorce navigate the complexities of those things. We had Halle Berry do the forward for “I Am Mixed” and child psychiatrist Dr. Charles Sophy write it for “I Am Living in Two Homes.” Making sure I wasn’t messing anyone up, I guess.
And then we just came out with “I Am Awesome,” which I’m really proud of. Actress Angie Harmon did the foreward in that. It celebrates how to be a good friend, how to not give up, how to be brave, use your imagination to be you and celebrate what makes you being awesome.
We have a ton more coming out next year. We’ll be releasing “Dusu,” set in the same world as “Niobe” and “Untamed,” officially. You can download single issues now on your site. It’s a story about a man with the spirit of a jaguar within his soul, and when the ancient spirit of the wolf comes hunting him, he has to risk releasing his own inner beast and destroying the tribe he loves. And then we have “Erathune” coming out, which features Niobe as an infant.
The Tempest: And “Niobe: She is Life” is launching in the next few days. Any plans to start making the comic con rounds or working on a sequel?
Absolutely, Amandla and I will definitely do a sequel to follow the “She is Life.” Stranger will be at Comikaze in L.A. this weekend, and Amandla will be there on Halloween day. If you come dressed as Niobe in cosplay, we’ll give you a free book.
On Nov. 4, the official launch day, we’re going to be signing at Cool Cats Comics signing. And then on Nov. 7, we have a huge launch party planned at Hi De Ho Comics in Santa Monica. Definitely come down! We’ll have a DJ spinning cool tunes and it will be an amazing event.
Order “Niobe: She is Life” at Stranger Comics now. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.