Kickstart This!: Is The World Ready For a Nigerian Superhero?

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Like many of my readers this week, I am enormously excited about the ground-breaking success of the Kickstarter campaign to get Veronica Mars into production as a feature film and what this means about the future relations between fans and producers of cult media. Next week, I am planning to run a extended conversation with some key thinking partners placing the Veronica Mars campaign (and Netflix’s venture into original television content) into some perspective.

But I don’t want us to forget that Kickstarter has been as powerful if not more so in helping to provide seed funds for independent artists of all kinds and as such, it has become a key vehicle for increasing the diversity of cultural production. My co-authors Sam Ford, Joshua Green, and I discuss Kickstarter in our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, alongside a range of other developments which are creating stronger bonds between independent artists and their supporters — from pre-production through release.

Today, I want to put my weight behind an independent media property — Spider Stories — which was brought to my attention by a USC undergraduate, Charles Agbaje. The Agbaje Brothers (Charles and John) have been publishing independent comics under the Central City Tower label for several years now, and they are seeking funds to take their efforts to the next level — developing a cartoon series which has its roots in traditional African folktales and myths, but which speaks to the genre expectations of our current pop cosmopolitan generation.

Here’s how they describe the basic premise:

Spider Stories follows the tale of Princess Zahara who is thrown into hiding after the royal family is overthrown by a corrupt neighboring kingdom. While traveling with a misfit caravan of merchants she meets a wandering drummer griot who introduces her to the spirit world. Armed with a mystical staff, the fearless princess embarks on quest to reconnect with the spirits, reunite her homeland, and reclaim the throne.

We are developing an 11 minute animated pilot for a fantasy adventure series called Spider Stories. Your pledges will go towards funding a team of animators to get it done at a professional level of quality.

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 They argue that fans of superhero comics have grown up on Norse myths (Thor) and Greek myths (Hercules); we are starting to see Japanese and Chinese folktales making their way into anime and manga, but that comics and animation have so far done  little to tap into the rich cultural traditions of Africa (with the possible exception of the recent revamp of The Black Panther at Marvel). The Agbaje Brothers have expressed concern with the fact that African-American youth are often cut off from their own cultural traditions and all of us receive a single-dimensional understanding of Africa (which many westerners see as a country rather than a continent with many diverse national traditions). However, they are also concerned that so often stories by and for African-Americans get cut off from the cultural mainstream and thus do not reach the largest possible audience. So they very much want to create something that speaks across racial and cultural divides.

If the art work and proof of concept videos they share on their Kickstarter page are any indication, this has the potential to be a spectacular project, and it is precisely the kind of production that Kickstarter was designed to support — one which is unlikely to get very far with mainstream animation or comics producers unless they can demonstrate a broad range of support and can show the world what they can do. Let’s see if we can give them their chance.

In some of their promotional materials, the brothers talk about how their experiences growing up together had shaped the kinds of stories they want to share through their work. I asked Charles to tell me more about these formative influences on their work:

The stories we made growing up span all kinds of sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero tales. We were first inspired by the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, and you can see early on we invented several mutant animals of our own. Later we were influenced by the wide variety of anime that hit in the late 90s, particularly shows that made their way onto Toonami. Dragonball Z, Gundam Wing, Tenchi and more were among our favorites. As video games became more sophisticated RPGs and Adventure game story-lines such as The Legend of Zelda also influenced our style. Throughout, the complexity and action in the DCAU such as Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League also contributed to our sensibilities.

We have our fair share of costumed superheroes such as the Storm Surfers, mutant animals like The Frogs, and classic swords and sorcery in Crimson Knight. Even though a lot of these characters started off fairly simple, some we’ve had in our minds literally since we were 5 years old, and the stories have since grown and matured.

Starting with Project 0 in 2010, we moved away from our old ideas and began to synthesize them into new properties that couldn’t be so easily labeled. This also helped us as story tellers. In creating new stories we were able to critique them objectively without the nostalgia lens that would only really make sense to us. Project 0 is a mix of fantasy, sci-fi and adventure taking cues from a lot of our previous original properties, to as diverse sources of inspiration as Digimon and The Matrix.

Though we still plan to revist several of our age old stories, we are now moving forward with another new series called Spider Stories.

Spider too takes cues from a lot of our old ideas, and then more modern fantasies such as Avatar The Last Airbender or Nintendo’s Fire Emblem. It takes the same grand scale epic appraoch to world building and story telling that fans around the world love to see. But it does it in an African inspired backdrop which, while there are a few out there, have never really been acknowledged by mainstream audiences. We’re doing a lot of homework on African mythology and history. And we are always sure to consult our cultural experts, our parents, to make sure it stays authentic.

So often the depiction of blacks and Africans in the media is one of poverty, corruption, or ignorance. At its most positive, black characters are often sidekicks or best friends to the lead, and black culture is typically framed through an other-ed lens. Even when it isn’t, such shows and movies are often relegated to niche markets and targeted so narrowly as ‘black entertainment’ that it may be alienating to non-black audiences.

We want Spider to really be a universal story. While it takes on African aesthetics and sensibilities, it is written to be accessible to all audiences regardless of ethnicity. It’s pure fantasy, not historical fiction or an adaptation of an existing myth. We hope audiences will be able to relate to the characters as people first. The nods to culture and history should spark interest in fans to seek out and learn more about Africa on their own. Art is often a launching point for cultural exposure, and the more it’s seen, the more normalized it becomes.