Smash Pages Q&A: Robert Garrett and N. Steven Harris on ‘Ajala’

“A Change in Perspective” marks a different approach to the Glyph Comics award-winning series.

Ajala is a comic series written by Robert Garrett with art by N Steven Harris, and colors by Walt Msonza Barna. It’s a comic that they have been working on in between other projects. Harris is still remembered for drawing the Grant Morrison and Mark Millar series Aztek from years back, but recently he’s been busy drawing The Wild Storm: Michael Cray for DC.

The two are now crowdfunding the next two issues of the comic, which they’re calling “A Change in Perspective.” The title has a lot of meanings, from the young protagonist who, like all teenagers, starts to question and push against what she’s been taught, to the ways that the book wants to grow, to be not just about her, but her family, her community and ways to depict them in all their complexity.

I’ve interviewed Garrett and Harris in the past and reached out to ask them a few questions about the Kickstarter and where Ajala is going from here.

For people who don’t, what is Ajala?

N. Steven Harris: Ajala is a young teen that found out her parents were part of a secret organization called the C.S.C., which was founded by her great-great-grandfather in the 1920’s in an alternate reality of current day Harlem. She joins and we follow her as she’s in training. As she’s training, we find out about her, her family, the organization, and the community. We find out that the C.S.C. is there to protect, uplift and educate the community. We find out that there’s a rival organization which is there to destabilize and exploit the community. These two groups go head to head. It’s a coming of age story. A story about history and culture, and action and adventure.

You’re crowdfunding the next two issues. Why?

Robert Garrett: We got such a great response from people who have read the books and really enjoyed them. With Steve’s schedule and me trying to get back into the game because this past year was really hectic, we wanted to give fans more than just another book. It’s about the growth of Ajala and the growth of what the concept really means.

You’re calling issues #5 and 6 “A Change in Perspective.”

Harris: Rob could say it better but she’s going to have some challenges that will change her life. It’s going to turn up the heat in this book. I don’t want to spoil too much but we want to go to a point where her decisions have consequences, her actions have consequences, and we’ll see the form those take in these chapters.

Garrett: It’s about the maturation of the character. Before she wanted to become this hero and from this point on she starts to realize the heritage of her family in Harlem and she’s becoming a different person. As you become older, you become aware of what the world really is and what’s going on around you. Our book is going to be different now than before when she was younger.

In the early issues, Ajala has this mentor who’s training her and he comes from a militaristic background and she’s pushing against the discipline he’s trying to instill.

Harris: She’s trying to assert herself more. It’s the classic relationship between a mentor and a teenager. They want to get out there and make their mark. They want to prove themselves and show off what they’ve learned. She’s an extremely talented girl who wants to express that and put that to use.

And as you suggested one of the main themes isn’t just her growing up, but this is a family story.

Garrett: Exactly and hopefully the writing and Steve’s great artwork will show that it’s not just about her putting on a costume. It’s not just about Ajala anymore but about the C.S.C. and her family. It’s an expansion. I wanted it to be a different perspective, not just hers, but from her family’s perspective.

Ajala’s mother has a complicated relationship with the C.S.C.

Harris: There’s tension with the organization. Her mother was an agent and we touched on some of her backstory when she was 16. We’re going to touch on more about her mother in the future.

Garrett: It’s not just that her family was involved with the C.S.C. from the beginning, but how it’s changed her family. It’s about the choices that you make in the long run. Hopefully we can do something with the C.S.C. going back to 1920’s Harlem and we can see the effects of how one individual changed the course of history for a community.

This is an alternate history of Harlem, but you’re very interested in showing the community in all of its complexity.

Harris: I lived in Harlem for about 10 years in the ’90s, and I was involved with community groups trying to make a difference in the community. There are things I want to add to the look of people, to their personalities, and really make the book reflect the people and things that I’ve known. I want to make it relatable and familiar as possible even though it’s another reality.

Garrett: I think it’s something that we need to focus more on in a lot of different books. It’s nice to have action and adventure but having characters that are looking towards building something. Especially now, we need more socially active individuals and not just people running around.

You guys have been doing this in between other projects. What have you been up to lately?

Harris: Recently I finished a 12-issue run on DC’s The Wild Storm: Michael Cray. Before that was Solarman from Scout Comics. Before that was Watson and Holmes. Before that I did Voltron for Dynamite comics.

Garrett: I had to take off a while because of health issues. I’m working on some of my other concepts like Galtow. I’m working with MMA fighting team The Global Proving Ground and building their concept of Legendary Martial Arts fighters. I made a fantasy world based on these characters, and we’re working on the second and third books. That should be coming out in March. I’m working with my business partner on an all-ages book, which is a really different storytelling concept.

Steven, as you mentioned, you’ve been making a lot of comics in recent years and you’re busy. What is about Ajala that keeps you returning to it?

Harris: Going back to when I was drawing Aztek for DC, I envisioned an African-American character with some connection to the community. I just wasn’t a writer. I started to write my own book but Rob came along with Ajala. We always wanted to do a book featuring a young person putting some of our influences on the page and infusing that with our culture. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.

How much do you want to say or can you say about issues #5 and 6?

Harris: We open up with Ajala’s parents getting something in the mail that shakes them. Then we go on to a rally where Ajala and her crew from the C.S.C. are doing security. A young person was killed by the police so we touch on police brutality and housing. There’s been an issue of agent provocateurs, like people saw during the Ferguson demonstrations where people at the rallies would cause trouble and some of them would be undercover policemen. We touch on that. We introduce some new characters. I’m trying not to say too much because we really want people to come fresh to this.

The Kickstarter ends this week. What are you offering, what should people know?

Harris: We’re offering quite a few things. You can get your name printed on the book. You can get the PDF and the book. You can get not only the comics but a novella that’s written by Rob. We offer what’s called the 1-2-5 special where I’ll draw you as a background character in the book. We have a writer and portfolio review.

Garrett: We have these two issues of course, but we also have posters and T-shirts. The Ajala t-shirt is going to be debuted at the upcoming Schomburg Center Festival. We have calendars. We’re looking at different ways to make the books come out and stand out. It’s all about using Steve’s amazing artwork and making people go, “I should pick that up.”

I’ve met so many young people who love the concept. At one comic con, we had a group of young ladies come and she brought her friends there and made them buy the books so they would stop taking her copies. It’s great seeing that from an audience. Hopefully if we keep doing that going forward, we can really make a statement in the creative community.

The Ajala Kickstarter “A Change in Perspective” ends this week. More information can be found here.

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