At only 17, actress, musician and activist Amandla Stenberg is already emerging as one of the most outspoken and influential voices of her generation. And now that voice can be heard in the comic book medium.
Stenberg first made her mark on pop culture when she appeared as Rue in “The Hunger Games,” the first film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA sci-fi novel series. Since then, she gained even further prominence as a social media presence when a classroom video project on cultural appropriation she posted on Tumblr, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” became a viral sensation. The video featured an insightful, clear-eyed take on the diminishment of significant black culture components when co-opted by pop personalities for shallow reasons of fashion and cachet.
Now in her senior year of high school, Stenberg is turning her sharp perspective to the comics page, as the co-writer of Stranger Comics’ “Niobe: She Is Life.” Working alongside the company’s CEO Sebastian Jones and artist Ashley A. Woods, Stenberg helped flesh out the story of Niobe Ayutami, an orphaned, teenage half-elf and prophesized savior of the fantasy world of Asunda, which first debuted in Jones’ graphic novel “The Untamed: A Sinner’s Prayer.” At the series’ launch party at Hi-De-Ho Comics in Santa Monica, CA, Stenberg explained to CBR News how she found her path from Hollywood into the realm of comic book fantasy.
CBR News: What got you creatively excited to dive into this whole world of comic book creation?
Amandla Stenberg: I got really excited about the character Niobe when I first read her in “The Untamed” series, which Sebastian Jones created. I uniquely identified with her because she’s this really awesome black girl elf, and I’m a bit of a nerd, so to see myself represented that way in fantasy, which I really love. is really exciting.
Sebastian and I met, and we started talking about the project. He had the idea to elaborate on Niobe’s story and build more of her teenage years with me, since he felt like it was important to have an author who had the perspective of a Black teenage girl. So we started writing together, and it’s been a really amazing process just to see my story ideas turned into images. That’s what’s so cool about comic books.
Tell me a little bit more about the process, as you were figuring out the story and who you wanted Niobe to be from where Sebastian started.
Basically, after Sebastian and I started developing the series, we started a kind of mood-boarding where her backstory would start. We came up with the idea that it would start with her running away from something. Running away from her past and trying to find salvation and trying to really find her identity. We did lots of picking images from Tumblr and the Internet, putting them together to create a sort of vibe.
Then, we actually starting writing a novel. The novel was really fun to work on, but I was also like, “Wait, I don’t have time to write a novel right now — I’m trying to finish 11th Grade! Maybe after 11th Grade is over.” So we’ll see about that. That’s still a possibility.
After we did all that collaging, we started writing an outline of her story, up to the point where it kind of takes over in “The Untamed.” After that, Sebastian worked with Ashley Woods to do all of the artwork. He sent it to me, and we worked on the language together and the different text bubbles and everything. Now, it’s a real thing that you can hold in your hand, which is pretty crazy.
What did it mean to you that the primary creators involved are all Black women?
I think this is the first comic book that stars a Black girl, is written by a Black girl, and illustrated by a Black girl. So it’s really exciting because I know when I was younger and I was reading “Game of Thrones” and “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” and all of my favorite fantasy books, I really craved a lead that was a Black girl, and it was really difficult to find. I hope that by making this, we’re providing that for little girls just like me when I was younger.
You’re never shy about making a statement, making it clear what you think about things. What do you want to say with this project?
What I want to say with this project is that Black girls should never be afraid of being too loud and too big.
Do you have any artistic ability yourself?
I mean, I love to draw. I’m not nearly, even close to the level that Ashley, the illustrator, is at. But I definitely want to learn. Actually, Markus Prime, who did one of our alternative covers, is a really talented artist who makes lots of artwork featuring Black women and Black men, showing different components of their identity. He is actually starting to teach me how to draw Niobe. I think we’re going to spend some more time together working on that, because I’d really love to be able to draw her.
Were you fairly conversant in the comic book world beforehand? Or were you learning as you got involved?
Kind of both. I mean, when I was younger, I read more novels than I read comic books, and I still read novels. But this definitely got me more interested in comic books, and I really love them. I just hadn’t dedicated that much time to them. Now, I’m reading all kinds of stuff. It’s an amazing world. I think it’s such a really cool way to tell a story.
I know you have big aspirations to make films as well. Do you see this as something you might want to try to develop into a movie?
Yeah, absolutely. We’re already kind of in the process of that, scoping out the situation. So yeah, that’d be amazing.
You’re in the home stretch in high school, you’re busy with your Hollywood jobs. How’s managing it all been going?
I don’t get as much sleep as I probably should. But who needs sleep anyways, right?
“Niobe: She is Life” is on sale now from Stranger Comics.