While growing up in Senegal and spending summers in France in the ’90s, Juni Ba found lots of time to feed his active imagination with the likes of Xena, Beyoncé, manga, bande dessinées, and the Cartoon Network. When not busy watching or reading of the exciting adventures of any number of his favourite characters, he was busy telling his own stories with action figures, bought or made. The elaborate continuities he concocted were always intended to become comics, but it wasn’t until he became a young adult that he began diving into theories on how to craft narratives. Djeliya is the culmination of his passions, hobbies, and learning, but only the beginning of his journey as a masterful storyteller.
At its simplest, Djeliya is a tale of a prince, a djeli, and an apocalypse. But of course, it is so much more than that — read my review to find out. Djeliya is Africanfuturism and Africanjujuism at its finest, smoothly blending West African lore and imagery, with futuristic vibes, all wrapped up in the frenetic artistry that pays homage to the influences to the media that fueled Ba’s imagination as a child.
The story of a prince seeking redemption, and his djeli who clings to the history and knowledge long passed down to her, the pair must make their way to the ivory tower to discover why the wizard Soumaoro destroyed the world, and how they can mend it. Over the ten years since the apocalypse occurred, the world has sunk into survival mode, with many strong, but often corrupt leaders vying for dominance. Mansour, the prince, must prove himself worthy to take up his father’s throne, with Awa at his side to guide him. Ba skillfully weaves a story that often takes unexpected turns and offers a powerful message for all of us.
You mention being raised on the Cartoon Network, manga, and a few other television series. What were the titles that really stood out for you? Do you revisit them now?
The list is extremely long! I would say big ones are Samurai Jack (and other Tartakovsky productions), the Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Lab, Teen Titans, Full Metal Alchemist, Shaman King…
It could go on for a very long time and I forgot to mention some very big ones that I could talk about for hours!
And I revisit them! Either to see if they hold up, or out of pure desire to see something I enjoy. Most of it does hold up, which is nice.
In what ways were West African folktales incorporated into your life as you grew up? What made you decide to meld them with the other media influences to create Djeliya?
I decided to do it because it would be fun! I think it’s because they’re just part of my background. I would read stories with them, or get told a story in the middle of a conversation, and so the usefulness of stories as a tool to teach and spread information was a clear thing to me. So when it came time to think of what kind of project I’d like to do, I just thought about how Japanese creators make fantasy out of their folklore all the time. So why not do the same with west African stuff? And it all merged together with the media influences because I grew up with all of it on equal footing with my culture. I’m mixed in more ways than genetically.
Your skill and love of art have been with you since childhood. What educational path did you take to grow your skills? How has your artistic style evolved over time?
I went to a French art school for four years. But following the advice of my uncle about how 70% of the work has to be done yourself, I read books, listened to podcasts, watched YouTube videos about storytelling. A lot of it about cinema (there is a serious lack of easily accessible content about comics that analyses the form. Strip Panel Naked is a godsend in that regard).
I just followed whatever thought process made me feel like I was happy to make things. I gravitated towards a cartoony style very quickly and even noticed that some typically west African design sensibilities mixed in with the classic Cartoon Network influence.
How did you develop your skills as a storyteller?
Lots of reading! Staring at pages or films or even audio stories, wondering simply “what is achieved here in terms of emotion and information, and how do they do it?” You learn a lot by simply observing how other people have told a story, solved a problem.
A lot of storytelling is problem-solving. Mainly how to convey what you need in the best way possible with the medium, space, and time you have at your disposal.
Djeliya is a fantasy adventure with a strong message. Why is it important to you to share this message, particularly in this format?
I didn’t set out to make anything important. What’s funny is I was simply imagining a story, and what kind of themes would resonate with these characters. And by the time I got to the end, I realized the messages were manifesting themselves. I almost feel like I can’t take credit for something that manifested almost independently. I just made sure it was a message I agreed with and thought would help make the world a bit better.
Tell us about the main characters. Who are Mansour and Awa and what do they mean to you?
It’s gonna sound cliché but they’re me. They’re both based on some aspects of myself that I don’t like very much. Awa is bossy and stubborn, and Mansour is insecure and vain. But the whole point of the story is to see them grow and harness the qualities they do have. Awa is driven and well-intentioned at all times, and Mansour is sensitive and capable of great craft and humility.
What is the biggest thing you hope readers will take away from this story?
Each chapter has a bit of a singular message that I think is pretty clear by itself and I don’t want to tell people what to think of it, so I will just say that a very good takeaway to have is to stay away from giant warthogs!
Djeliya is a very impressive graphic novel debut! What else can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I’m working on my first miniseries set in an island owned by a mega-corporation that manufactures monkey meat in cans!
It’s actually a lot of fun to read. A melting pot of fantasy and sci-fi tropes that I put a bit of a spin on.
But if people are excited to get something soon, my first story on a DC character is coming out this July in Truth and Justice #6 on à Robin story by Andrew Aydin. It’s a very fun and heartwarming story about where Damian Wayne belongs.