A New Destiny for Top Cow’s Genius
In 2008, Top Cow’s Pilot Season introduced us to Adam Freeman and Marc Bernardin’s Genius. Fueled by Afua Richardson’s artwork, it seemed we were getting a harsh look at life in South Central LA from the eyes of a 17-year-old girl orphaned by gang violence. But there was so much more to Destiny Ayaje.
The character was born from Bernardin’s “idle thoughts about revolution,” as he told Newsarama. Military history–brilliant strategists like Ghengis Khan, Alexander the Great, and Hannibal–and a documentary on people training themselves for the “inevitable race war” against gangbangers whom these militia men believe are already primed to handle combat due to their life of violence in the streets. These elements stirred the spark that would go on to become an extremely timely story. Genius Volume 1: Siege, for various reasons, did not arrive until six years later, but the timing couldn’t have been more poignant, with the death of Mike Brown and the events of Ferguson on everyone’s mind.
Destiny’s siege of South Central LA was a frightening depiction of life imitating art imitating life, and for this reason, many publishing companies avoided the story. But Top Cow embraced it and now Destiny returns in another five-part series, this time drawn by Rosi Kampe.
“Seventeen-year-old Destiny Ajaye took on the LAPD in her South Central Siege and paid for it—not with her life, but with her freedom. Now, Destiny is sequestered in the Madrasa Institute, a government school for prodigies. But will she use her gifts to wage war at the military’s behest—or is she already planning another revolution?”
I had the opportunity to ask a few questions about Genius: Cartel to learn a little bit more about Destiny’s future.
Siege’s relevance was heightened by the events taking place in Ferguson. Now, “Black Lives Matter” has grown in its momentum and finds its way into the pages of Cartel. How has this movement shaped this chapter in Destiny’s story?
Bernardin: Siege was following Destiny as she waged a war for her neighborhood. It was personal for her; these were people she knew and ground she loved. As we open Cartel, we find her in a place where she’s trying to wrestle with what that event meant for her as well as deciding for herself what she will (and won’t) fight for.
Freeman: I think, for Destiny, it is a matter of finding a cause she can believe in. Finding a people that need her prodigious talents. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of them. Destiny has seen her family, friends and community destroyed by drugs. Now, she’s going to the source and cut off its head.
Destiny’s chess game with the people of her neighbourhood versus the police led her to her current status as a Madrasa Institute prodigy, learning to strategize for the will of the government. Is this where you always intended Destiny’s path to lead? How has the story concept evolved since the 2008 pilot one-shot?
Freeman: Just as Destiny entered the “Battle of Los Angeles” knowing that she would not, could not win, we initially did not imagine the story beyond either her capture or death. But as the story developed we began to realize that someone like Destiny would be much more valuable alive than dead. That got us thinking of, to who, why and what would they use her for?
Bernardin: Absolutely. And as we started thinking about a larger story for Destiny, part of the challenge was taking her to a place that was foreign to her — and stripping her of some of that agency she has at the end of Siege felt like a natural progression.
As we often see in stories about people with minds as incredible as Destiny, there seems to be an equal lack of empathy, as well as other antisocial behaviours, which becomes more evident in Cartel. How much research went into shaping her personality on a psychological level?
Freeman: During our initial research into prodigies we learned about the challenges often coupled with their gifts. Destiny is a special case because she wouldn’t be as effective without those “negative” challenges. Lack of empathy? Anti-social behavior? Terrible things to deal with if you are trying to fit in at school, but they are nothing but assets to someone who specializes in the art of war.
Bernardin: Heroes, by their very nature, can’t be part of the community they are heroes to. They are unique, exceptional people, and the unique and exceptional can’t also be “one of the guys.” She was always going to have to stand apart from those she fought for and with. Now, by giving her the kinds of intellectual gifts that make her who she is was also a lever to separate her from her peers. It all ended up harmonizing really well to paint a psychological portrait of someone who could order people into harm’s way and shoulder that burden.
Rosi, you are stepping into an existing project that Afua Richardson helped bring to life. How did you come to be involved? Did you seek any advice from Richardson during the process? In what ways have you used your own particular artistic style to make Destiny your own?
Kampe: A mutual friend noticed Adam and Marc were looking for a new artist and I had just a day or two before shown him my portfolio, so he pointed me out to them. I did a few test pages and luckily got the job! It was pretty intimidating to follow an amazing artist like Afua Richardson, but Marc and Adam didn’t want me to imitate her style so I got free reins to draw the sequel in my own hand. The art change fits the story nicely, as this sequel has Destiny in a completely new and different setting compared to the first story. I have a pretty stark and angular but fluid drawing style, so you get Destiny’s cold brutality while retaining her youth. And then we have Brad Simpson bringing in the fire with his colors!
Will Cartel be the final arc in Destiny’s story? Or does she have more greatness to be revealed?
Freeman: Destiny lives! We pitched this story we were passionate about all over the comic town and Top Cow was the only one that got it. Matt Hawkins and the Top Cow family present and past (Rob Levin, Filip Sablik and more) were and have been amazing supporters of the story. So much so, the next arc of Genius has already been greenlit.
Bernardin: Absolutely. There are more stories to tell with Destiny, but not an infinite number of them. We know where Destiny’s story ends and we can’t wait to (eventually) tell it.
Considering your involvement with television, have you considered where Destiny’s story might lead if she were to appear in another medium?
Freeman: Marc and I have had various production companies develop “Genius” for television over the years. People are immediately attracted to the high-concept premise but inevitably the same thing happens. As they dig deeper they realize, “How are we going to sell a TV show that features police being killed?” It becomes about ad sales and bad press and so on, which we completely understand. They have businesses to run. So, next would come the bending of the concept (“Set in a dystopian future!” “Attacking a privatized security force in a police state post earthquake!” I wish we were making any of those up) and so on. Each time the process ended the same, with Marc and I saying, “That sounds cool, but you don’t need our comic to tell that story. So why don’t you go make that and we’ll keep Genius over here.” Only last year did we begin development with someone that truly got the material, but–as talented people are wont to do–a pilot he wrote and directed got a greenlight, so he is now showrunning, which took him out of the equation. Marc and I know how we would adapt it. We just need someone with balls to buy it.
Bernardin: When we first came up with the idea, it was only ever going to be a comic book. Because who would put THIS on television? But the world has caught up with us in ways that can feel horrifying. And now, the time couldn’t be more right to see a story like this on the screen.