#S4MBlerds: My conversation with the creators of 'The Invention of EJ Whitaker'
March 01, 2016 at 2:24 am
I found the Gibbs sisters through their latest project, The Invention of EJ Whitaker.
And it all started with a tweet:
— EJ Whitaker (@iamEJWhitaker) February 24, 2016
After that I bugged them about all the ways we could do our interview. In retrospect, I assume that I came off way too overeager, but I was excited about their comic book. After my last interview with the creators of Tuskegee Heirs, which gave me the chance to give you a lot of insight into that project and the two creators who were responsible for it, I wanted people to have the same experience getting to know these two sisters, Shawneé and Shawnelle, and everything they’re about.
They did not disappoint.
Where are you from (and how do you think it’s influenced your sense of imagination)?
Shawneé: We’re from Oakland, California, which was a super diverse place to grow up back in the day. It was one of the few Chocolate Cities on the West Coast when we grew up there, so we had a strong sense of feeling like we grew up in a city where we belonged and felt supported by not only our family, but the community in our hopes and dreams. I also definitely credit growing up in Oakland with a deep appreciation for history, culture, and technology.
The San Francisco Bay Area is known for a lot of its political and cultural movements, the Black Panther Party started there and so did the Free Love movement of the 60s, so the Bay has a deep-rooted history of progressive thinking that still exists today. Although with so many people now moving in for San Francisco tech jobs, the culture in the bay is rapidly changing, for better or worse. But, growing up there when we did made us pretty comfortable in our own skin. Now with “Invention of E.J. Whitaker” we’re telling a historic story of innovation and adventure, with two young determined black leads that definitely have a lot of the characteristics of people we grew up around and the tribes we maintain today.
What made you fall in love with comics/sci-fi/fantasy growing up? What is your earliest impactful experience in that world?
Shawneé: Octavia Butler made us fall in love with sci-fi. Reading stories featuring characters who sounded and looked a whole lot like us just opened up a whole new world for what was possible in literature. She was telling stories of time travel, black people with awesome and unexplainable powers, and dystopian tales that legitimately felt immediate, real and that they could happen in our ‘hoods.
Octavia gave us a new perspective that there were absolutely no limits on the stories that we could craft. We’ve been telling stories that have elements of magic and sci-fi in them ever since. From a young black girl flying spaceships, to a girl who builds time machines in Fashion Forward, to a woman in 1901 America who builds flying machines.
When did you know that this was what you wanted to do for a living?
Shawnelle: For a very long time, we didn’t even know it was possible to make a career out of storytelling or drawing, it was just something we’d do to entertain ourselves and our friends. Growing up in Oakland there weren’t many role models for how to work in comics, animation or television. We knew that a legendary Oakland native Morrie Turner, of Wee Pals, had successfully managed to create a popular syndicated comic strip in the 1960s that we were fans of, so he served as an inspiration that art & storytelling as a career could be attainable.
Comic books, though, as young girls growing up in the 80s and 90s just didn’t appeal to us and we didn’t have an older brother or dad to guide us through the landscape, which was rather intimidating for girls at the time. From what we saw offered, a lot of the comic book work of the time was superhero, macho stuff with busty ladies who didn’t appear to like wearing many clothes.
We stuck to reading comic strips like Garfield, Hagar the Horrible, and the Far Side. And watching tons of animation on television, everything from Hanna Barbera and Warner Brothers classics (our Mom loved buying those VHS sets) to Disney and Nickelodeon (Hey Doug!). Comic book reading for us didn’t come until after college.
We were both film majors, and because technology was expanding access with Flash & After Effects, we began experimenting with animation ourselves. We started making cartoons out of our bedroom, realizing that there might be an actual career in what we’d loved to do as kids. As self-taught animators we created a few animations during and right after college, The Afro Puff Girls, Ravishing Raspberry, and Adopted By Aliens. We were lured to Los Angeles where we continued storytelling by producing for non fiction television and writing always on the side.
Some promo art from The Invention of EJ Whitaker:
Who is EJ Whitaker? What is the premise of your story, and where did the idea for this project come from?
Shawnelle: Whitaker is an alias created by Ada Turner who is a young woman and inventor who lived during an incredible time, the turn of the 20th century. It’s also a time that was pretty tough for women and African Americans. She wants to be taken seriously as an inventor, but 1901 was a year where as a woman, it would be hard to own property without having a husband. You couldn’t vote, and Jim Crow for African Americans was the law in many places. So in order to create patents – and the inventions Ada so wants to change the world – she has to do it using a man’s name.
E.J. Whitaker’s name starts generating a lot of heat in national newspapers, creating opportunities but, also really big problems for Ada. When a young business man from New Orleans, William, comes to town in search of Mr. Whitaker and finds no trace he takes on the persona of EJ Whitaker, complicating matters even further. Ada and William are now linked in a bond which begins as one of inconvenience, but they must find a way to work together to protect E.J.’s work against people interested in gaining the patents for their own use.
The story came to us nearly five years ago while we were writing a story about an African American circus performer of the era. We just fell in love with the period, the end of the Victorian period. The country was coming into its own as a super-power, the Age of Invention was well underway–such a ripe time for stories. We also realized during the research period that we rarely see stories about African Americans during this time.
In the re-imagining of history it’s tough to find stories outside of slavery and the civil rights era. We thought it would be the perfect setting to weave elements we love: science fiction, adventure, technology, romance, and historical fiction into a story we’d not only love to write, but read over and over.
When you think about the finished product, what is the one thing that makes you most proud?
Shawneé: Looking ahead, what makes me most proud is knowing that with the help of people who believe in the message of E.J. Whitaker, we will be able to tell the kind of story we’ve been dreaming for years to see. A story where two young African Americans—man and woman—dare to tackle the world, and against all odds succeed in using innovation to help change the landscape.
Shawnelle: I would really be proud of the fact that despite our deep hesitations about getting out there and crowd funding (it’s a scary undertaking and took us more than a year to do), we were able to conquer a fear and make a dream come true at the same time.
What was the last comic book you purchased?
Shawneé: The last comic I purchased was The Pack by Paul Louise-Julie. It’s set in Egypt and is a story about a group of warrior werewolves during a time of upheaval in ancient Egypt. It’s visually delightful and so dope to see portrayals of an African presence in Egypt. I read the first issue and can’t wait to see more of where Paul Louise-Julie goes with the series.
Last year, Shawnelle and I worked on a short story for Graham Cracker Comics’ Ladies Night Anthology, called Tati. It was set in the ancient African Kush Kingdom and brought two ancient Kingdoms—The Kush Kingdom and China’s Qin Dynasty together through Tati, a very special little girl. So I was geeked to see a story set in Ancient Africa with black Africans at its center. I love ancient time periods.
Shawnelle: The last comic I purchased was The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, a historical fiction graphic novel about two real-life Mathematicians in Victorian era London. It’s written and illustrated by Sydney Padua and not only is it hilarious, but a testament to the never-ending power of black and white illustration as well.
If you could live as any fictional character for a day, who would it be?
Shawneé: Probably Anyanwu from Octavia Butler’s novel, Wildseed. She has the power to heal and can transform herself into any human or animal. Those are some pretty dope powers. I could theoretically heal sick kids at Children’s Hospital, transform into Beyonce for an hour for my own personal amusement, and probably cop a free caramel latte at Starbucks with my newfound pop star charm. Then I’d transform into a bird and fly somewhere pretty and remote, and come back to the city about a week later and do it all again. I like kids and free Starbucks.
Shawnelle: Can I just hang out with two fictional characters for a day? It would definitely be Doro of Octavia Butler’s Patternist Series and Dawit of Tananarive Due’s My Soul To Keep. They’re both African immortals who have roamed the earth for an immeasurable amount of years combined. I’d just sit at their feet documenting history and soaking up game – but not too close bc those are some dangerous dudes.
Out of personal curiosity, because you’re twin sisters, have you ever communicated telepathically in any way, or at least thought you did?
Shawneé: Communicating telepathically is the only way to communicate! I don’t think we have had a big telepathic moment but there are little things that happen like calling each other right at the moment the other was holding a phone, or thinking the same things at the same time. That seems to happen a lot with folks who spend a lot of time together—and with sharing a womb and all—we’ve spent a whole lotta time around each other. Maybe if we can figure this telepathic thing out, we’d create something ten times better than text messaging. But you might be on to something…cracking the code to telepathic communication might be our next big undertaking!
The Invention of EJ Whitaker is still in the funding process on Kickstarter. The support so far, has been amazing. In just a few days, they’ve passed the halfway mark to their goal. If you are a fan of science-fiction, really cool, mind blowing, art, and stories about people that look like us please support this project (because as soon as I get a free coin in my pocket, I definitely am). If you can help out, do it. If you know someone who might be interested, share. The fact that this interview is being posted on the first day of Women’s History Month was not something I planned by design, but it’s a perfect fit all the same. There is something in the air telling me that this is not a project you want to miss out on. The Gibbs sisters are the definition of Black Girl Magic.
Thanks for reading Strictly 4 My Blerds.
I do this because I love the culture and the community. Did you enjoy this post? Let me know on Twitter and share it with the homies on Facebook. This Women’s History Month I’ll be giving you guys some history and not-so-well-known facts about our favorite PoC women characters in comics. If there’s a character you really think I should cover, you want to chat directly with me, or just share hilarious gifs add #S4MBlerds to your tweet to me.