For Us By Us: Greg Anderson-Elysee On Creating Is'nana The Were-Spider And African Comics
Wouldn’t it be cool if Ananse, the mighty trickster god of Ashanti folklore was turned into a comic book hero? Cooler still if he was in a pickle and needed saving by one of his offspring; possibly Ntekumah or Anansewa? Or perhaps, a fictional Is’nana created by Greg Anderson-Elysee? (The second volume of is presently on Kickstarter and needs your support)
Ananse is a mischievous and cunning trickster-god. His stories have spun many children’s books, novels and animation. A less explored dynamic of the Ananse story, however, is his family comprising his wife, Okonore Yaa, daughter, Anansewa and sons, brilliant Ntikumah, big-stomached Furodowhedowhe, tinny legged Nnakronwhea and big-headed Tikenenkene.
This dynamic, if explored, can open the floodgates for amazing stories with complex, interesting and more relatable characters. Closest to it but with some disconnect from West African folklore is Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. Thankfully, Greg Anderson-Elysee has reimagined Ananse’s legend in his graphic novel, Is’nana: The Were-Spider. The first volume was successfully funded on Kickstarter and for good reason.
Is’nana is a “horror, fantasy, coming of age story about the son of Anansi, who strives to live up to his father’s legacy while hoping to be his own individual and find his place in the world.” The first volume of Isnana: The Were-Spider is a not-to-be-missed reading experience thanks to its compelling characters and a plot that readers will swoon over.
The synopsis for the second volume reads:
Accidentally breaking a barrier between our world and theirs (called THE MOTHER KINGDOM), Is’nana (the son of Anansi the Spider God of Stories) accepts the responsibility for releasing creatures of horror into our reality, villains who want nothing more but to cause chaos and mayhem to achieve their own diabolical or selfish goals. With guidance from his father, Is’nana not only strives to live up to his father’s name but to also reach his own potential while he seeks to discover his individuality and place in the world.
After defeating Osebo the Leopard, Is’nana must now face Queen Mmboro, her daughter Princess Kantite, and their family of hornets, wasps, and bees who unite and seek to inject themselves into human beings and take over our reality.
Squid Mag’s Kofi Asare knocked heads with Greg about his second Kickstarter and the journey creating Is’nana which bathes in fantasy, glorious African mythology and nerve-shattering art.
SM: There is a deliberate focus on African mysticism. Forgotten Stories, your first literal graphic book is hugely based on West African mythology and further proves the power of the African narrative. What drives this vision of yours?
GAE: What drives my vision is the need to see more Black folklore, mythology, and deities pertaining to Black spirituality showcased with the same level of respect as European folklore, myths, and even fairy tales. In many schools, we’re educated and need to have some knowledge of certain European stories and mythologies in order to pass; from elementary to college.
But to get any folklore of Black myths, usually, a teacher has to either go out of their way or you have to take elective courses that aren’t requirements. It got to me when I would ask other Black people if they ever heard of some figures of particular stories, like Anansi for example, and many would be lost. At the time I felt some knowledge of these characters in America dying out and disappearing so I created Is’nana as the child and legacy of Anansi to keep the traditional stories alive before they become passing knowledge.
SM: My first point of call will be the name Is’nana, which spelt backwards, is Anansi. The wordplay is ingenious but why Is’nana as the name of Anansi’s son, who is known as Ntekumah?
GAE: There were a few inspirations pertaining to Is’nana’s name. One of them, actually, was due to being a fan of Hellsing, the manga. Alucard, the name of the main character of the book, is Dracula’s name spelt backwards. So when I thought of a name for Is’nana, I already knew I wanted him to be the child of Anansi and when I spelt his name backwards, it sounded very cool and painted even more of a visual of the character for me. I also thought doing his name backwards can go into the contrast between both characters.
Is’nana is seen as a bit of the oddball in his family and never really spent much time with his father due to his many siblings and all of Anansi’s other adventures and responsibilities. Also, while Anansi is traditionally a bit of a jerk and a troublemaker, Is’nana would be his opposite as a kind and polite little kid, a bit of a pacifist as opposed to Anansi’s fight ready stance.
As for Ntekumah, don’t rule him out entirely. I’ve established, like many spiders that, Anansi has many children, some who you see in Volume 1. I have some plans for some siblings, so maybe Ntekumah may make some sort of appearance. We’ll see how far I can take this series, but of course, that’s all due to how much support I can get to keep going.
Support Is’nana the Were-Spider Volume 2 on Kickstarter today so Greg, and other African and POC creators can tell diverse and more inclusive stories.
SM: You mention a “black comic renaissance” in your interview with Bleeding Cool. That’s a sumptuous topic to dissect, what’s your take on developing such a trend?
Greg: Ha! Man, you are digging deep in my backstory! So at the time when I mentioned that, so many wonderful books created by Black comic book creators were being made and being announced. Lately, in the comic world, diversity has been blowing up the bubble more than usual. It’s a constant debate and discussion, many leading to articles and even online fights. Does it work, yes it’s important, no it doesn’t work, blah blah, yadda yadda.
Also a lot of angry feelings. It comes to the point that a lot of readers, Black readers mainly to my point, are starting to look elsewhere for better representation and fresher story ideas and many creators are finally finding the ways and means to get their product out just in time for those readers looking for something.
Despite the awesome quality works coming out from the Black indie scene, there’s still a lot that can be done. Message boards and social media groups have come a long way, pushing out materials to be supported, but a HUGE majority of POC fans are still preaching and complaining about Marvel and DC’s usage of some of their Black characters yet they still won’t put their money where their mouth is and try out some critically acclaimed or fan favorite Black indie books. And the crappy thing is, we can’t get more of our stuff out without all the support that would actually help us produce and represent us in a better light.
So while things are getting better, there’s still so much to do concerning the ideas of having a Black Comic Renaissance. Many books to check out, from BLACK to Kindred, books released from Lion Forge to Rosarium Publishing. Sometimes all you gotta do is visit a convention like the Black Comic Fest in Schomburg and see how strong the movement has gotten.
SM: It seems like a jolly ride with your first successful Kickstarter campaign. what obstacles have you met and why are you embarking on a second?
GAE: Ha! It was anything but jolly. Nah, I’ve had MANY great experiences with my book. The publishing and printing were defining moments for me. The support the book has received has been heartwarming and it made me happy when the first volume sold out, telling me there’s a demand for it. I also had many people contacting me directly to ask for more copies, which is why my Kickstarter is also allowing new readers to get both volumes.
As I stated earlier, it can be difficult trying to push your work out to the general audience. I’m still a newb when it comes to the comic scene. I’m not a name and Is’nana is my first book. So many are taking a chance with my product. That’s already one obstacle.
Then there’s the obstacle being that it’s a book with a Black lead. Already there’s a mentality that a Black book is inferior to the generally straight, white male audience who love and mostly read straight, white male led books. THEN there’s the belief that indie comics AND comics CREATED by Black creators are inferior and not as good or worth looking at unless it’s Marvel and DC.
But probably the biggest obstacle for me is money. This is still my first book and I wouldn’t say profit has been made. I’m still hustling to get so much out there and spending damn near every penny on producing pages and paying my team. I don’t really have much money to spend on myself, so that’s been the reality behind the scenes. All that said, I have NO regrets. This is what I signed up for and I’ll take this as far as I can and I have been enjoying the ride. As to why a part 2? I’m addicted and there’s more to tell and people have been asking me for more, so I’ll give them more.
SM: “For us by us” is the mantra, owning our stories and breaking loose the sickening attitude of Africa being a ghostwriter, to avoid our stories being told from a different perspective. Matters of cultural misappropriation, owning our stories came up when Marvel’s Black Panther showed up. How are you going to beat this dispute?
GAE: Hmm. That’s quite a topic there. See, as first and foremost a fan of comic books, I look at comic books, especially ones of Black characters in the mainstream, in a very critical way. I’ve been a Black Panther fan since the Priest run. Before Priest’s run, the usage of the character has been very hot and cold. The huge success of the character now, though, goes back to Priest’s run, a Black man writing a Black superhero.
One thing I have also noticed is that when Storm and T’Challa were paired up to be together, it was mainly the Black writers at Marvel who wrote them in a loving way, Priest, Hudlin, and McDuffie. Having a Black superpower couple the level T’challa and Storm were at meant A LOT to many Black readers. Not every one of them approved, but for many, that was a DREAM and the Black writers really went in to try to make it work and showcase them in a positive light as if they took ownership of that romance.
Unless your name was Yost or Liss, good luck getting a positive representation of their romance from their non-Black writers. Usually, when you get a creator of color or other orientation working on a character with a similar background, you’ll get a stronger and more authentic version of the character. Not ALWAYS the case, but usually.
As a whole, I have no issue with people of a different race or background writing a character of a different race or background, or someone of a different sexual orientation doing the same. But if you’re to do that, you need to do it with respect and research. Befriend people who may have something in common with that character. Not just one person, more than two and see what is working, what is problematic and may possibly be offensive. Research is an important part of writing and creating. It’s not that difficult.
SM: With such a seamless cohesion between you and your sect of creators, how and what is it like having diverse talents on this project and not missing the essence of a fantasy tale as Is’nana.
GAE: Aww man! A chance to talk up my team?! Every member of my team is amazing and fun to work with. Each member, from the artists to letterer and to my cover artist, are from different backgrounds and I truly believe we all work well together and are very supportive of each other and the book. Given that only Walt Msonza Barna, my cover artist, is Black, hailing from Zimbabwe, while my two main illustrators, Walter Ostlie and Daryl Toh, are Asian, they know how important it is for me to reflect diversity in my pages, especially concerning a book highlighting Black families.
They each bring something to the table and they know how much care I put into producing the story so they really go above and beyond to help me produce a great product. I’m also hoping I challenge my team that way we can all grow together as comic creators and storytellers. Lee Milweski does an amazing job on colors and really has been knocking it out the park this volume and bringing Daryl’s pages to life, giving them, even more, dimensions and depth while Joshua provides the letters and really helps create the tone and voice of the characters.
I got lucky with my team.
SM: African comics, what are your thoughts in terms of a unison in creating the next wave of authentic and full-fledged stories, deep characters, keeping it fresh and its sustainable future? Who are some of your favourite artists?
GAE: Peeping the appreciation of the comic scene in Lagos, Nigeria, has been eye-opening for me. That’s an area I really want to tap into soon and I’ve been hearing that the comic scene has been growing more and more in a few different countries in Africa.
I’ve been seeing a few books like E.XO., Yohance, Chronicles of the New Born, and Kwezi and they all look so different from each other and so beautiful. We, as Black creators, aren’t a monolith so we all have our own diverse ideas and of course, it’s the same when it comes to African creators making their own comic books with their own themes and individual characters and stories.
At least here in America, I can say there is a sense of community with a lot of Black creators. Many of us know each other and support each other and a lot of us want the same thing: to push forth and grow our books and make progress when it comes to better representation of our people. I think if we keep on doing that, we keep on supporting and breaking down doors, we’re bound to keep proving people wrong. It’s great to see the same thing happening with some of the African comics that I’ve seen.
I have SOOO much love and respect for Dewunmi Roye Okupe, the writer and creator of YouNeek Studios where he’s produced E.X.O and Malika: Warrior Queen, my new Nubian warrior love. This man hustles and hustles and goes above and beyond Heaven and Hell to push and produce and release his products. If he had hair, they’d be gray. Hell, he probably ripped them out himself, I can only imagine. I’ve been seeing Peter Daniel on that grind as well with New Born, and Paul Louise-Julie’s work is absolutely spell bounding in Yohance and his world building.
SM: Here’s a trivial question for you. did you ever send a copy of Is’nana: The Were Spider to Orlando Jones. His portrayal of Anansi in American Gods was dope. ‘’Anger always gets $h*t done.”
GAE: Maaaaan, I’ve been TRYING!! I absolutely LOVED Jones’ portrayal of Anansi on American Gods and I’m so glad his performance has led more people in learning about Anansi. I’ve been shouting Jones out in some interviews and social media all because I want him to have a copy, haha. Maaaaybe I’m close, maybe he has a copy. I can only cross my fingers.
SM: What’s a day in the life of Greg like?
GAE: It changes every couple of months. Right now, it’s wake up and get ready for work, which is teaching film production to a class of rowdy middle schoolers and a class of dope high schoolers. I’ll try to wake a little earlier to get some writing or class work done. I try to set aside some time to focus on my writing or spreading the word out concerning Is’nana. There’s also being consistent in the gym and spending time with important loved ones. I started going back to school to finally finish up my Bachelor’s. Sometimes I’ll have an event or take a modelling gig, that money will go straight to my comic book production. As I said, though, give me a couple of months and I’ll be involved in so many different things with a completely different time schedule.
Love what Greg is doing? Show Is’nana The Were-Spider some of those hearts by visiting the project’s Kickstarter page.
Interview by Kofi Sydney Asare.
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