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Interview: Kwanza Osajyefo talks universe building, gun control, and empathy in ‘Ignited’

The new monthly series kicks off the all-new H1 imprint/universe from Humanoids.

Writer Kwanza Osajyefo clearly has it out for the status quo.

How else would you explain his tendency for universe- and sensibility-smashing titles. There’s the uber impactful BLACK, which imagined an alternate world where only black people gained superpowers. The sequel, WHITE, contends with the fallout of that massive socio-cultural revelation (it’s due out later this year). Now, Osajyefo has launched perhaps his most auspicious project to date: an all-new fictional universe.

Osajyefo is one of several architects for H1, the upcoming monthly, superhero-centric universe from Humanoids. In addition to co-planning the other two series – OMNI and Strangelands – he’s teamed with Mark Waid to co-write Ignited, H1’s first title, about six teens who survive a school shooting by gaining superpowers (with art from Phil Briones). It’s all part of a massive campaign to bring grit and reality back to comics, and it promises to be a massive shock to the system.

Ahead of the book’s debut on June 5, we spoke with Osajyefo via email, discussing the planning behind H1, the project’s collaborative nature, his hopes for Ignited, writing alongside Waid, and much more.

Scroll to the very end for an exclusive look at the cover of issue #2.

AiPT: What’s the appeal for you as a creator in tackling the planning and creation of an all-new fictional universe? Were their things you’d learned during the process that surprised you, or maybe elements you hadn’t considered?

Kwanza Osajyefo: Developing a universe from the ground up isn’t the same as additive writing. We had to establish the rules of the H1 universe in parallel with the characters who occupy it. Building this sort of sandbox required establishing it’s laws of physics.

I think my biggest learning was from not creating in a vacuum. Bouncing ideas between Yanick, Carla, and Fabrice was a great pressure test for what we were working to establish. So it was cool to watch how these ideas flowing from our heads could be refined in real time.

AiPT: If you were to give someone the elevator pitch for the H1 Universe, how would that go? From your perspective, were their goals you had in mind, or some kind of influences you were striving toward?

KO: What if superpowers had consequences?

I think we’ve all been trained to accept certain tropes in stories about superhumanity. Much of it follows a pattern that we’re used to. With H1, we’re aiming to break out of comfort zones and really explore the disruption that superpowers would bring to the world.

AiPT: What’s it been like working with Mark Waid so far? Was there some degree of pressure involved? Anything you’ve taken away so far from the experience? Similarly, how’s it been working so collaboratively with the other “Architects” of H1?

KO: Pretty amazing. It’s a real treat to work with a creator whose work I grew up reading. I’m learning a lot from Mark.

I suppose there is pressure, but not in working with such a seasoned comics pro, but more in finding more hours in the day for myself to produce at the same capacity as my peers. What I’ve taken away is that, for me at least, more opportunities means more time management – I’m often asked about when I sleep.

Working with all these creative minds is dope. What started with myself, Fabrice, Carla, and Yannick in a NYC Airbnb is now coming to fruition.

AiPT: It seems to me that the powers aren’t only “realistic” but they seem to fit with some of the (hinted upon or otherwise) personalities of the characters. Is it important that the powers stand out to help H1/Ignited also stand out? I feel like so much of the universe’s success hinges on how they’re received.

KO: That was the fun part for me. Coming up with abilities people have no seen before. I’m a big fan of manga, and one thing Japanese creators are great at is taking a mundane or strange ability and showing how formidable it can be. That was something I really wanted to explore, and I think across Ignited, OMNI, and Strangelands there are characters with some unique and interesting powers.

I don’t ever think about how something will be received – it’s art. People reading H1 comics will bring what they bring to it.

AiPT: Was there any hesitation in deciding to frame Ignited around a school shooting? The way it’s handled in issue #1, it’s respectful without negating any of the impact. How will the event, or our understanding of it, evolve throughout the series?

KO: No hesitation at all. That’s one aspect of Ignited that hasn’t changed from inception, because it is a very real problem in the US that is being politicized for profit while children at being murdered in school.

It’s a catalyst for our protagonists because they’ve survived something horrible, while some of their classmates have not. That alone is something monumental to overcome, but the cast of Ignited now have these wild abilities to contend with.

They are as confused and scared as anyone would be, but throw superpowers into it and they

AiPT: In my review of H1’s FCBD title, I raised concerns about Ignited over-politicizing instead of commentating. Which isn’t to say politics don’t belong in comics, but that maybe the medium’s better for larger social issues and not the minutiae of political issues and affiliations. Is that a distinction you make, or even one worth making? Are we at a point now with issues – like gun control – where comics need to be more radical than ever before?

KO: Every single comic book superperson you’ve ever read is a radical. Dispensing vigilante justice or villainy based on their personal moral arc and the convenience of having powers others do not.

I think propagandists have bastardized the word ‘politics’ to mean “anything they disagree with” in order to shout-down others. Our entire existence is political from free market capitalism to free healthcare. I don’t think it’s a genuine and good faith position to argue about what should be in media that no one is obligated to buy and engage with – it’s a ridiculous position to have.

Comics are like all other stories in that they relate to real human problems, explored from specific angles. Ignited isn’t about gun control so much as a lack of gun control is the impetus for the story. We don’t have sensible gun laws and schools are shot up almost weekly now – that’s not political that is reality.

AiPT: Do you see any part of Ignited or the H1 Universe in general as a continuation of some things that you’re tackling/addressing in BLACK or WHITE?

KO: Not particularly. I think we’re definitely contributing to more representation of women, people of color, and LGBTQIA. I’m on my Jordan Peele where I think there are more than enough platforms and opportunities to tell stories about straight white guys – so like any smart business folk we’re not looking to compete in that crowded market.

AiPT: Without spoiling too much, what’s the aim of issue #1? It seems like you’re easing people into a big universe and something truly complicated (emotionally, politically, etc.) How does this issue really kick off the series or set the pace?

KO: We start in the aftermath of what end the previous year at Phoenix Academy. It’s a changed place, with changed faculty, and a changed student body – some more than others. People don’t come back from something like that and remain the same.

So our protags are returning to a point of personal horror, and what an unimaginably difficult thing for the average survivor. The lead characters in Ignited were changed even more than their classmates, and now the school board is debating how to keep them safe. Metal detectors, guards, gates, armed teachers. This is all real stuff people are struggling with and people are sure of what to do – except for our cast.

They’re taking their lives and the future of their school into their own hands.

AiPT: What kind of interplay can we expect between Ignited and the rest of the H1 titles? Aside from it being a shared universe, do you as creators want everything to eventually combine, or perhaps keep things more distinct?

KO: As I’ve said, there are consequences in this world and nothing happens in a vacuum. We’re introducing you to these characters first arcs but the things they do aren’t just going to be forgotten or go unnoticed.

AiPT: Is it difficult trying to write about kids these young? Is there some element of this generation that makes them so compelling as heroes/protagonists?

KO: I think teens are often a muse for storytelling because they are on the verge of adulthood but still see the world with less jaded eyes. Also, considering what teens today are dealing with, it’s not a stretch to write stories about schools under domestic terror, social media, sexuality, and a previous generation not understanding how growing up in the midst of all this affects them.

AiPT: In the Ignition comic, Anouk’s powers are described as dealing with empathy and uniting people. Does that make her a perfect “leader,” and is that something necessary for either organization and dealing with so many personalities?

AiPT: In another interview, you’d mentioned some European influences and Francophile vibes for H1/Ignited. What specifically about Euro-centric comics is influencing the series or the larger universe? Do you think American fans are ready for a change in pace or aesthetics or the like?

I think the way we are approaching storytelling. We’re more focused on telling the bigger story than chapter breaks.

KO: Anouk would say no. She wouldn’t even acknowledge the idea of being a leader. Who talks like that? She’s really embarrassed now.

Empathy may not be the best way to describe her ability, there are certainly empathic elements to it. We all have the capacity for empathy but Anouk’s power might be better described as emotional alchemy.

Feelings can be strong, complex, but also be mercurial, so navigating your own and others, even if that is your superpower, isn’t easily done.

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