When Black Mask Studios released Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3, Jamal Igle, and Khary Randolph’s Black, they unleashed a political comics force on the often homogeneous landscape of our local comic shop. The book imagined a world where only Black people have superpowers, introducing a network of corrupt officials and shady government agents desperate to oppress anyone who happens to be born with a gift. The series was a massive success for the burgeoning publisher and has already been optioned for adaptation on the small screen. So we were really excited when we heard Kwanza Osajyefo was back with a new Blackverse story focusing on the first Black superhero, a young woman named Eli. I got to sit down with the artist behind Black [AF]: America’s Sweetheart to talk about creating representation in art, political storytelling, and making her very first comic.
Johnson is a full-time game artist and illustrator from Toronto with a penchant for sci-fi, comics, and film. As a concept artist, she produces illustrations that help game designers realize their vision, determining the overall look and feel of the game. In the past few years she’s also provided art direction and illustration on numerous media projects. She became involved with Black [AF]: America’s Sweetheart after the creative team reached out to her. “I was very fortunate to be approached by the incredibly talented team of America’s Sweetheart. I adored the character of Eli, and I knew right away that I wanted to be involved in this project,” Johnson told me.
I’ve read Osajyefo and Johnson’s new OGN and it’s an utter pleasure. A rare comic that paints a teen hero as an actual teen, Johnson’s art is engaging and vibrant. Her design for Eli is almost instantly iconic. “I wanted to ensure that Eli was likeable, complex, and relatable. Most importantly, I wanted her to be believable as a young, naive teenage girl. To do this, I had to make design choices that reinforced Eli’s character. Her clothing style communicated her outgoing personality while her messy bedroom reinforced her youthful enthusiasm. Eli’s body language and warm demeanor are all indicative of her character. Conveying a personality through body language is just as integral as showing emotion through facial expression,” Johnson explained.
Black [AF]: America’s Sweetheart is Johnson’s first comic, not that you’d know from her exciting and experimental pages. “This project was an excellent learning experience for me. It allowed me to develop my artistic and technical skills, as well as my ability to communicate action scenes, emotional tones, and atmosphere. I also learned to consider the reader when drawing comics. When the artwork is communicating in harmony with the writing, then the reader will be immersed in the story. Every detail in the panels must work to push the story forward. Additionally, I learned the importance of sketching out different poses, angles, and characters while considering frames and composition. Overall, I’m grateful for the opportunity as a Black-Asian artist to express myself and develop my own artistic voice.”
There’s a famous Marvel saying that the company was always trying to create the new Spider-Man; a young ground level hero who’s relatable and authentic. I honestly feel like Osajyefo and Johnson have created that in Eli. For Johnson, it was an exercise in finding just the right inspiration and making it her own. “As a comic artist, I’m constantly drawing inspiration from TV, film, video games, art, photography, and comics. Teen superheroes such as Spider-Man and the Young Avengers were excellent references when developing Eli’s character.”
As a game designer and illustrator, Johnson brought her own unique vision to the process of creating America’s Sweetheart. “When penciling my comics, it’s important to consider motive, dialogue, and emotional beats. By watching movies and studying cinematography, it was important to study which angles suit the mood I was trying to convey. It’s also crucial that the page flow is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. After reading the script, I created thumbnail sketches of each page, allowing me to make decisions about how I wanted to lay out the panels and dialogue balloons.”
Black [AF]: America’s Sweetheart is a vividly political and unapologetic book. It feels monumental to see a young Black woman posed as the most powerful person on Earth. This radical choice was conscious and deliberate. “Eli is a headstrong character who relies on her wits and strength to help those in need, and this kind of representation is especially important to me. The story of America’s Sweetheart is unapologetically true and relatable. Given our current political climate, human morals are constantly at risk due to political expediency. I could easily understand Eli’s motivations and goals throughout the story. I loved that Eli finds the courage to defend the weak and innocent, not hesitating to stand up to authority or powerful beings. Eli is a true hero, more than willing to sacrifice herself to protect others,” Johnson expanded on her young protagonist.
As this was Johnson’s first foray into comics, I was excited to know what she’s planning to do next, and most importantly as a new fan if she intends to keep creating comics. “America’s Sweetheart has been an incredible journey for me. I’d love to continue telling stories that champion diversity, reduce many barriers, and challenge the way we view women and people of colour in comics. I hope to be making plenty more comics in the near future,” Johnson stated. “I’m very excited for readers to meet Eli’s character. I enjoy comic books as a new and evolving narrative form, but Black women are often stereotyped or invisible. I believe it’s important that young girls like Eli can see themselves represented in a positive light. I hope that readers will be able to recognize Eli’s courage and righteousness.”