Feature story by Sarah Klein
Originally printed in Metrotimes
Reprinted in Straight No Chaser (UK)
*The article featured self-styled font treatments - gotta love it.
A tall, imposing figure cuts a path through the darkened hallway of a desolate public bathroom in Haiti. With his sharply cut suit and cornrowed hair, he exudes a smooth sex appeal that whispers of R&B crooner D'Angelo. However, the ominous stare beneath his horn-rimmed glasses speaks of a haunted man. Suddenly, a rotting corpse leaps from the shadows, the glint of steel in its hand. The man ducks and flees as gunshots follow his trail, sparking ceramic as they ricochet off the wall. The zombie creeps along, stalking its prey, which has seemingly dissolved into thin air.
With a lightening flash of speed and power, the hidden man bursts from behind a stall, kicking the door with crushing force as he flattens the zombie into a wall in an explosion of tile and blood and decaying flesh. The man's eyebrow raises in a Spock-like arch as he surveys the destruction. He casually brushes zombie brains from his crisp lapel, before turning and disappearing once again into the shadows of the steamy Haitian night.
The man is Dr. Jovan Carrington, the WitchDoctor, Protector of the People, and he's coming to Detroit - to a comic-book store near you. Jovan is the creation of Kenjji, a 26-year-old Detroit artist who is poised, pen in hand, to change the way comics are perceived. He plans to reorder the demographic of comic book readership and erase the boundaries of race, age and income.
Yes, Jovan is a black superhero, a distinctly rare breed within the realm of comics. But he is more than just a black superhero. He is an immensely complex, human and dense character, highly educated and blessed with the power to leap staggering prejudices in a single bound. Throughout his fantastic journeys, Jovan will unearth buried histories of ancient African ancestry, unravel misconceptions of Haitian culture, confront ugly stereotypes, and inspire and challenge his readers to think - all while he employs the power of voodoo to fight the forces of evil, kicks some zombie butt and looks damn suave while doing it.
PROJECT FOR THE PROJECTS
The debut of WitchDoctor came in March via Griot Enterprises, the company Kenjji co-founded with his old college buddies and fellow artists Michael Larson and Jiba Molei Anderson. "Griot" is the title given to African storytellers. Though they're all native Detroiters, Larson is currently living in Cleveland, while Anderson moved to Chicago a few years ago. The Griot trio had been collecting and creating comics for years, and decided to start their own company in 1998, to produce "independent comics for independent people." "I collected comics as a kid, but I was consistently disappointed, because I didn't find myself represented," says Kenjji (ken-gee).
After several years of assembling business plans and scraping up financing, Griot is now beginning to flourish. In addition to WitchDoctor, the company has just debuted the Horsemen, Anderson's series chronicling heroes possessed by the gods of ancient Africa, and the Unveiling, Larson's epic fantasy based on the characters of Islamic, Jewish and Christian mythology. "We didn't want to draw Batman or Superman," says Anderson. "We wanted to create our own stories, since we had our own stories to tell."
"I intend to make WitchDoctor a product for the disenfranchised people, a project for the projects, a story for the streets," Kenjji wrote in a grant proposal for the Xeric Foundation, which was started by the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the ultimate success story of a small independent comic book hitting the big time. Every year, Xeric grants a lump sum to a select few independent comic book artists who display extraordinary vision, innovation and promise. Not surprisingly, Kenjji won the grant - $5,000 - to cover production costs.
THE DOCTOR IS IN
As the story of WitchDoctor goes, Jovan was raised in Haiti, where he was first exposed to the elements of voodoo. Years later, after he's become a highly respected psychiatrist, Jovan's connection to the world of ancient spirits is suddenly rekindled by a collection of voodoo masks. He is plagued by hallucinations of voodoo priests and can't come to terms with his visions from the logic of his psychiatric background. Eventually, he travels to Haiti to seek out the meaning of his visions, which is where he discovers the true nature of his powers.
As the WitchDoctor, he is blessed by the ancient spirits and channels their wisdom and warrior skills to battle the forces of evil. His crusade is to protect the people, uncover the truth and kick the crap out of those pesky zombies. Jovan possesses a powerful and aptly larger-than-life persona, an ultra-smooth operator fueled with a hefty dose of badass. Although he shares many traits with his creator - inquisitiveness, razor-sharp intelligence, true compassion - the artist and the character still bear a striking contrast.
Kenjji is one of those rare, undeniably likable people who immediately puts one at ease in his presence. He animatedly describes his passion for kung fu movies as he pads barefoot around the sunny flat near the Wayne State campus which he shares with his girlfriend Kito Jumanne. A perky and bright-eyed Lauren Hill lookalike, Jumanne is Kenjji's full-time manager, and also owns her own company, Nia Communications, which provides strategic marketing and promotions for Detroit musicians and artists.
Throughout the photo shoot with Metro Times, Kenjji jokes and fidgets as he absentmindedly grasps his pen, visibly uncomfortable under the stare of the camera. He has the infectious grin of a goofy class clown, yet when the subject matter turns weighty, he speaks with articulate passion and frankness. He is inherently political, yet he will never ascend a soap box and subject his readers to blistering tirades. Instead, Kenjji surreptitiously plants ideas and concepts, raising questions and leaving them dangling in the air unanswered, inviting readers to mull and ponder and reach a conclusion on their own terms.
He grew up in Detroit's Rosedale Park neighborhood, went to Catholic school for eight years, and later attended University of Detroit Mercy and Western Michigan University, where he studied art. Kenjji dropped his surname because of its connection to slavery and its consequent "unpretty history." He was first inspired to create comics after reading Brotherman, one of the first independent comic books featuring a black superhero, which was published in the late '80s and early '90s. "I decided it was time to reinstate books like Brotherman, which I found so influential and appealing, and the first thing I had to do was create a character that was just as cool as Brotherman," he explains. "I wanted to do a character with cornrows - that was the look. Around the time I was working this out, D'Angelo [noted for his cornrows] came out with his album Voodoo, which gave me the inspiration to start researching voodoo as a background for this character."
Hence the birth of his protagonist, who was named after a "super-suave friend" by the name of Jovan who lived on Carrington Street. Kenjji is a stickler for detail, and wanted his book to paint an authentic picture of voodoo. He extensively researched the history of the misunderstood practice, devouring books and studying under a voodoo priestess who runs an informational Web site about the practice and history of voodoo. "I was making sure I wasn't overstepping the bounds of the faith," Kenjji says. "There's a major misconception about everything that's involved in voodoo. Spells and zombies and voodoo dolls - that's a very small portion of what the faith is really about. Voodoo is more or less a registry of ancient spirits and ancestors which African people can supposedly contact through ritual sacrifice."
He traveled to New Orleans for his research to flesh out a scene in the series where a possessed Jovan envisions the ancestors of slaves. "I was in this major tourist area looking for some of the darkest spots in American history," Kenjji says. "Although the French Quarter has been very much overcome with tourist attractions, I swear that the sense of depression and pain was still very much prevalent." Kenjji located and photographed several former slave houses, which are now mostly restaurants. "I had to eat in one, and quite frankly, I lost my appetite," he says with a wry expression. He also visited one of the quintessential tourist traps in the Quarter, Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo. Despite his in-depth research into voodoo, Kenjji wasn't offended by the blatant display of commercialism in the store. "When I see the House of Voodoo, I see a clever woman who intends to take advantage of people's misconceptions. I didn't buy it ... but I think it's more charming than malicious."
The story of the black superhero is a convoluted web of buried history and struggling emergence, sprinkled with ugly racial smears and moments of triumphant breakthroughs. The online Museum of Black Superheroes, at www.blacksuperhero.com, is dedicated to chronicling the history of all these elements, and paving the way for new superheroes like Jovan, who has earned his own place on the site. There are black superheroes out there, and they date as far back as the 1940s - but the early images are hardly flattering, and most of the black characters served as comic relief, such as "Whiteface" (the name says it all), who was bumbling, helpless and oafish.
There are a few notable black superheroes of the comic genre today, including Spawn, Storm from the X-Men, and Blade, a somewhat forgotten Marvel character recently catapulted to higher visibility by the success of the Wesley Snipes movies. However, almost every big-name black superhero in mainstream comics was created by a white artist. "There's a certain lack of intimacy," Anderson says of the phenomenon. "But on the flip side, I also believe a lot of black creators who tried to address this went to the other extreme, and ended up creating another stereotype. They forgot to make the character feel and seem real."
Kenjji believes that books featuring black heroes created by white artists often fail to strike a chord with black audiences because "you get the superhero, but you don't get any incidents of black history and culture." WITCHDOCTOR, on the other hand, is a vehicle for sifting through African history. Kenjji believes the subject matter will be of interest to everyone, regardless of race. "I'm delving into those things because they haven't been presented effectively. People will find appeal in it because it's something new and innovative."
Creative control is at the heart of Griot, and that means remaining independent. Which of course comes with a price: money, and lots of it. Kenjji was unable to find big-dollar backers to fit his time frame of issue releases, so to make his dream a reality, he organized a comprehensive, grassroots campaign among friends and associates. One of those supporters is Detroit techno music legend Carl Craig, who signed on as a major financial backer of the WitchDoctor project. "I became interested in WitchDoctor because I hadn't seen any superhero presented in relation to voodoo," says Craig. "Christianity is dominant in our culture, and any type of religious reference to ancient African religions are never touched on because of connections to the occult, or it just being seen as ignorant - (like) a man in a big stewpot in the middle of the jungle." "WitchDoctor will give us, especially in Detroit, the exposure to other worlds beyond America's borders - or just beyond Eight Mile."
Kenjji has also developed a strategy to distribute the book. While he describes his target audience as "people who are willing to appreciate diversity," a large segment of his intended readers - young blacks - will be difficult to reach. "The target audience is disinterested. They're more interested in hip hop, so we're going to use hip-hop tactics to get this book out," Kenjji says. "We're going to do some guerilla marketing and street marketing - I want to ride the bus on all the major high-school circuits and just pass the book out." "There are virtually no comic-book stores in urban and ethnic areas. The only comic-book store around Detroit is in Dearborn, and it all goes back to a lack of interest."
Kenjji hopes to stimulate a new interest in comics among young black readers. "We need to make sure this book goes 20, 30 issues deep before we even think about doing something else. We need to leave a lasting impression on whoever is reading these books. Ten years from now, there needs to be an impression of WitchDoctor, just as much as Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman. These are characters that are not going to be forgotten, and that's what we're trying to establish. We want your kids, and your kids' kids to learn about WitchDoctor, and for each generation to have a different understanding of the character."
BLURRING THE LINES
The principals of Griot Enterprises firmly believe that their dedication to fine art, compelling stories and provocative subject matter will mean success. The Underworld Comics and Games store in Ann Arbor draws a large and diverse crowd of customers. Clerk Alison Bodie says she sees a wide cross section of people enter the store on a daily basis, and thinks there's a distinct market for black comics which just needs to be properly tapped. "A while ago, we had a couple of books in the store about black superheroes, but they weren't particularly good," she said. "What people are looking for is good writing and good art. That's what gets the reader, and keeps them."
Frances Gateward teaches at the Center for African and African-American Studies at the University of Michigan, and has collected comics since childhood. She says the demographic of comic book readership is definitely not limited to the stereotypical pimply faced, white, middle-class teen. "It's extremely diverse, from what I see at comic book conventions," she says. "From what I see in the books, the characters are becoming much more diverse, and we're seeing more participation from women and minorities in the actual production of the books. We're also starting to see a lot more Asian-American participation in the field, from the influence of anime. "It's nice to see books that are delving into a lot of African mythology, and recently there's been more exploration of cultures other than Christianity. These books can deal with issues of race in a direct manner, whereas a lot of other books only deal with it in a veiled way. This issue of discrimination against mutants in the X-Men - that's just a metaphor for racial discrimination."
Jovan is certainly direct, as is his creator. On the opening page of the first book, Jovan's sleek stretch PT Cruiser pulls up to a curb, next to a garbage can emblazoned with the phrase "Race is a Lie." Is it? Ask the WitchDoctor.