Smash Pages Q&A: Van Jensen + Amber Bellerjeau on ‘Walk Together’

Jensen and Bellerjeau discuss making a comic book about Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor of Georgia.

Stacey Abrams is running for governor of Georgia in November. Abrams’ campaign is historic and notable for many reasons, but her campaign did something really dynamic and interesting – they made a comic book. It’s not the first time someone has used comics for a campaign or for educational purposes, but Walk Together was a striking project and I reached out to writer Van Jensen and artist Amber Bellerjeau to talk a little about the project.

Van Jensen is perhaps best known to comics readers as the writer of Flash, Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer, and the new publisher of the website ArtsATL. Bellerjeau is an artist and illustrator. Both are Georgia residents and were kind enough to answer a few questions about the project.

What is Walk Together?

Van Jensen: It’s a biography comic book for the Stacey Abrams gubernatorial campaign. Stacey is a progressive former statehouse minority leader, and she just scored a resounding win in the Georgia primaries, meaning she’ll be the Democratic candidate for governor in November. The comic tells two stories. First, it’s a flashback to the time that Stacey, as a teenager, was invited along with other students to the Georgia governor’s mansion, but a security guard stopped her, because she rode the bus. The comic also shows Stacey’s journey as a professional and politician, working her way toward this run for governor.

Amber Bellerjeau: Walk Together provides a way to reach out to people and not only grab their attention, but tell them a story about Stacey Abrams.

How did you get involved with Stacey Abrams’ campaign?

Van Jensen: It was a bit random. I happen to go to church with a campaign staffer, and she introduced me to the communications team. We started talking about different types of narrative projects.

Amber Bellerjeau: This is kind of wild, but someone from my DnD group actually recommended me to Van. This project fell right out of the clouds and as soon as I got the script, I knew this was going to be something special.

Why a comic book?

Van Jensen: There’s a great legacy of comic books being used for progressive causes, going back to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery Story, which was used to spread the word about the civil rights movement. More recently, of course, there’s the March trilogy, which are created by my pals Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell (and of course my congressman, John Lewis).

But the simple answer is that I’m known for writing comics, and the campaign wanted to try creating one. We all wanted to push the idea of using storytelling in campaigning, rather than the typical liberal route, which is to shout information at people. I think we’ve all seen that that doesn’t change hearts and minds.

Amber Bellerjeau: Comics are pretty great about getting an idea across quickly The fact is, people remember stories. They’re sticky. And nothing tells stories better and faster than when images and writing work together. Now more than ever, it’s important to convey stories quickly in a world of Twitter and Facebook.

How did the two of you connect and how did you work on this?

Van Jensen: When I started working with the campaign, their request for the creative team was to make it all local and as diverse as possible. I hadn’t known Amber’s work, but she was recommended very early on, and I feel like I won the lottery in getting connected with her. She’s so strong as an artist, designer and storyteller. The rest of the team – colorist Darrin Chavis II and letterer Matty Ryan – also are locals.

As far as work flow, I worked with the campaign on fine-tuning the story, then I wrote the script, and the art team brought it to life. Pretty much the normal comics assembly line, though it’s a very different end product.

Amber Bellerjeau: By the time I came onboard, the script was mostly written. The first time I read it, I pretty much knew how I wanted to draw what Van had written because it was all so clearly set out. The trick was to connect the image I had of Stacey to the script, but when you’re working with great storytelling, that connection happens pretty quickly. From there, it was full speed ahead to get the pages done in time for Election Day. Another blessing Darrin, our colorist, and I had worked on another project together, so he was already familiar with how to color my line art and he always does a great job.

What do you think you were able to do in a comic that a flyer or a TV ad couldn’t?

Van Jensen: I always say, comic books exist at an exact midpoint between film and prose. They supply visuals, but you still have to fill in a lot of the gaps with your imagination. Something about that combination of text, story, design and art is just magic. Comics are also fun. By now, people see campaign ads and they just tune them out. But this is extremely novel, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Amber Bellerjeau: Comics deliver a more complete message in a tighter space while, at the same time, keeping people engaged for longer. People have told me that they opened the comic to see my art but ended up reading the entire thing. This even came from a family member who was so unfamiliar with the medium, that I had to teach her how to read a comic a couple years ago. Comics have a weird magnetism to them that I don’t think you can catch with an ad. We all see so many commercials on TV that they start to wash over us. Short of having a Super Bowl ad budget, I just don’t think you can do enough to keep people engaged long enough to hear a whole story on TV. In comics, I can draw to the moon and back with just a pencil and a piece of paper, and that allows us to show a story as it happens, not just tell one.

This is pretty unusual but it’s not the first time that someone has made a comic book as a part of a campaign.

Van Jensen: I had tried to find previous samples and couldn’t, but a friend tracked down a comic that George Wallace created for a campaign in 1960 or 1961. That one is basically a pro-segregation pamphlet. So I guess we’ll say we think ours is the first non-evil campaign comic. Beyond campaigns specifically, there are definitely some other examples of advocacy or political comics.

Amber Bellerjeau: I saw the older comic Van mentioned on Twitter a day or two after our comic launched. Comics are a really great way to communicate ideas, sometimes even poisonous ideas. I’m just glad we can put a positive message about Stacy and her history making campaign out there. The more positivity we put out in the world at this point, the better.

If someone else reached out about making a comic for another campaign, would you be interested, or is this a one off project?

Van Jensen: Actually, I’m having some of those conversations already, so I guess the answer is yes. I hope this encourages people to use storytelling more, so I want to push it as the start of a movement.

Amber Bellerjeau: I’m very open to it. With the glut of information we’re being bombarded with, I see comics as a medium that can break through the racket. I always have my eyes open for good stories. Whether that’s a space western on Mars or a little girl being turned away from an opportunity she deserves, it all comes down to if I feel I can connect with it and if I feel I can add something to what’s there.

I know that you’re both doing a lot of other projects, working on different things. Would you like to talk a little about what else you’re working on?

Van Jensen: My next book is a graphic novel with Nate Powell that’ll be out hopefully next year from Simon & Schuster, then a couple more comics in the works, plus a TV show, and I’ve been directing some music videos.

Amber Bellerjeau: I have several things in the works. I’m a part of a great comic team which includes Darin Chavis II who did the colors on this project. We’ll be launching at Heroes Con in Charlotte in June, and we’re all really excited about that. There are also a few illustration projects in the works that are turning out nicely.

So people who are curious, where they can read it, where they can learn more?

Van Jensen: You can read the comic here. If you’re interested in Stacey’s campaign, there’s lots more information at her site. I’m pretty much only online on Twitter, so that’s your best bet for tracking me down.

Amber Bellerjeau: The comic is free to read. Take a minute to read what she’s about, I think you’ll be entirely charmed. As for where to find me, I’m always posting new content on Instagram from works in progress to full blown illustrations. Sometimes, I make nonsense jokes, talk about film, invent new band names, or just generally do what I can to make Twitter a little more fun and positive, so give me a shout.

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