Ayize Jama-Everett made a splash a few years go with the publication of his novel The Liminal People. Since then he’s published two more novels, The Entropy of Bones and The Liminal War, but his new project is the graphic novel Box of Bones. Currently being kickstarted, the book is the result of a conversations with Jama-Everett and his friend John Jennings, the writer-artist-editor-publisher-scholar-festival organizer, who Jama-Everett interviewed recently for The Believer.
Box of Bones is described as “Tales from the Crypt meets Black History” and involves an anthropologist searching for evidence of a box which has appeared throughout history in the Africa diaspora. It is that rare project that manages to be both a deeply researched historical work, and an entertaining horror ride. We spoke recently about writing comics, working with multiple artists and a winning formula for horror.
To start, how did you come to comics?
I’ve been reading comics since I was a kid. My life goal is still to one day have a Claremont run on X-Men. I’ve been into comics forever. I worked at a comic book store for a long time. I actually started writing fiction because it was easier for me to do that on my own than to find an artist. I linked up with John, who drew the covers for two of my books. Knowing how dope he is, it was a no-brainer to do a graphic novel.
John is a giant – he would probably say otherwise but the rest of us can say he’s a giant. How did you two connect and talk about working together?
We have a mutual friend who teaches at the African-American studies department at UC Berkeley. She said, “You guys have to meet,” and the first time we just geeked out on stuff for like two hours. The Liminal People was out and we shared books. We talked about this idea about how the whole damn South is haunted, and how race and ethnicity can be viewed through the lens of horror. He had an idea for the Box of Bones, and it was loose. He had the concept and he had the creatures in the box and he was looking for a plot structure and I said, “That’s what I do.” So I put together what ended up being 10 issues with a narrative arc that would explore the ways that graphic horror and race intersect. I brought in not just locating it in the U.S. but looking at the African diaspora as a whole and other places where the box shows up so instead of it being so linear and have it be like track the box, it’s about tracking history and the places where those horrors come up. That allowed the box to be in Haiti and Brazil and Vietnam. It allowed the box to travel a little more.
From reading your fiction you seem to have spent time outside the U.S. and you push against this American-centric idea of the world.
I guess so. It’s not something I do consciously. It’s a big world out there. Going back to comics and the all-new, all-different X-Men, what they were doing differently was they were from all over the world. That’s one of the great things about comics – something set in America costs the same as something set in Nigeria which costs the same as something set in Siberia. If we have that much range, why not use it.
How did you end up deciding to work with multiple artists working on the different stories?
John’s original idea was that he was going to draw the entire thing. I was like, “John, that’s crazy. You don’t have time to do that. You’re a professor” — and doing all this, and then he got married and had a baby, and then he got a chair at Harvard for a year, and I was like, “Dude, come on.” He’s worked with so many amazing students and knows so many amazing artists, and they’re hungry to put stuff out there. He called up the best of the best, and it was amazing. Each script that I gave them came back radically different and energized. John does all the colors for all of them, but the styles are just so different, it’s impossible to be bored by this book. Every issue is stunning in a unique and different way.
How was the transition from comics to prose? Was there a learning curve?
This wasn’t my first comics script, but there is a difference. With prose fiction, once you’ve created a scene and written the characters, the project is done. But when it comes to comics, there are multiple iterations. Some artists wanted full scripts with “Page 1 Panel 1” and I wrote that, but with others I was looser. I wrote this is what’s happening on the page, make sure this happens here, and when they sent it back, I wrote the dialogue. It’s about being flexible and about being open and giving people enough freedom to play on the page, but at the same time making sure that the essential plot is there. Comics writing is so much more collaborative than prose writing. You have to really trust your collaborators and hope they understand what you’re trying to get done.
It sounds like it was really collaborative. Asking artists what they need and want is very different than just writing a script and giving the artists pages.
I remember reading about Alan Moore who, whenever he would get a new artist, would ask them what they liked drawing, and then he would try to incorporate that into his scripts. So I tried something similar. It goes the other way too. David Brame drew stuff that we hadn’t thought of, but it totally worked and so I had to adapt the script. That’s how you get really good stuff, by letting creators play.
So he drew everything in your script but then added so much that it ended up as something else to the point where it required you to rewrite the script.
Pretty much. [laughs]
That sounds like a lot of fun, and I can hear the excitement in your voice, but it’s also a lot of work.
Yeah, but we’re doing it for the love. When you’re not under a deadline it allows more of that stuff to happen. This is the most fun project I’ve done
This is Box of Bones: Volume 1. What’s in volume one and how big is this project overall?
Box of Bones: Volume 1 is five issues and it is more focused on the box and the stories connected with the box. Volume 2 is another five issues and that focused more on the character Lyndsey, who’s been trying to find this box the whole time. It could be one big fat graphic novel but broken up this way, people get a sense of what the box is doing and if they’re invested in Lyndsey they get to see what happens to her. Spoiler: It’s not pretty. [laughs]
You described the book as “Tales from the Crypt Meets Black History,” which does not suggest a lot of happiness in these pages .
[laughs] No. John and I would get together and go, “What’s the worst thing that could happen here?” Then we’d go, “You know what would be better – if we added rats.” [laughs]
[laughs] I feel like that’s a good horror formula, figure out the worst thing possible – then add rats. But as far as dealing history, I see this in your novels and a lot of John’s work as well, do you think that genre stories, telling allegories, lets you address a lot of these issues and this history in a way that a lot of readers might otherwise look away from?
The supernatural parts of the book are pretty clearly evident, but every single issue is launched from some historical reality that has happened. The third issue talks about the bombing of the MOVE building in Philadelphia, which not a lot of people know about. The city police dropped a bomb on a building in the middle of black Philadelphia. All the buildings around it caught fire, and the word from the official fire officer was, let the fire burn. To me that’s horrific. Most people don’t even know that history. Most people don’t realize how many slave rebellions there actually were. Not just in the U.S. but the Dominican Republic and Haiti and Brazil. I think we erase the horrors of slavery. The horror of rape as a form of cultural dominance in the South is something we don’t really talk about, but that’s in the first issue. There are all these ways in which what we consider to be horror is not the supernatural parts. The supernatural parts are, it would be great if after the bomb was dropped on this building, a supernatural force came out and murdered the people who dropped it. The horror part is what was done to those people. We try to give the audience a chance to truly emphasize and when you empathize it’s not about saying, oh isn’t that too bad. It’s about saying, damn, that’s fucked up. I wish something bad would happen to the people who did that. And then we have the creatures in the box.
You’re kickstarting this book, but what else are you working on? What’s keeping you busy?
A production company is interested in The Liminal People so I just finished a script for that. There’s another Liminal novel that is done and the publisher is looking at now. I’m working on another graphic novel for Abrams Press based on The Count of Monte Cristo that’s set in a post-climate change earth located on the coast of East Africa. Then I’m working on another novel which is about this failed golden child of a cult. So I’m busy.
Just as a final question, what’s your elevator pitch for Box of Bones?
Box of Bones is what happens when black creators get to explore the horror of black history without the censorship of dominant media. It’s an explosive, terrifying, but educational and thrilling ride through some of the best and worst parts of black history. It allows everyone to visualize what the horrors done to black people would look like if it was given form and voice. And it’s entertaining and creepy as all hell. So rush out and buy it!