Harlem Has a Teenage Hero to Call its Own in "Ajala"

Robert Garrett and N. Steven Harris, both comic book veterans, have been working for many years on "Ajala," releasing new issues whenever possible in between other projects. The book tells the story of a 13 year old who balances school and home and basketball with working for the C.S.C., a covert organization her great-grandfather helped found.

Though the slow release of the book is less than ideal, the book and the lead character has struck a chord with readers, and they've won the Glyph Comic Award for best female character two years running. Now, the first four issues of the character's series have been collected into a single edition, and her creators have more planned for the teenage hero.

We spoke with Garrett and Harris about the genesis of Ajala, both the character and the comic, and the importance she carries to African-American fans. They explain that there are big plans in to works for her, in comics and, hopefully, other media, telling CBR that Ajala and her world are so full of potential that so far, they've been "just scratching the surface."

CBR News: Where did "Ajala" come from, and who is she?

N. Steven Harris: At first we were working with a gentleman in hopes of creating a series for his daughter to star in. Steve did some designs and invited me to sit in to develop a story around his concept art, but, long story short, things didn't work out. We took the designs, and I created a backstory for the character. We made some changes and added some details. The first show we had the book at was NYCC in 2009, and we've been showcasing her ever since.

Robert Garrett: The concept was something that stuck in our heads. Doing a positive African-American character and a teenager? There are not that many out there at this point in time -- or back then. We set it in Harlem for a lot of different reasons. We've gotten a lot of feedback from fans, and from schools and libraries also.

Ajala is a little like my daughter when she was 13. At thirteen, they think they know everything. They think that until they start hitting roadblocks and realize that you've got to listen and learn and expand on your experiences. She's very hyper and very smart but she's also very brash. I wanted to introduce an environment where we highlight a positive African-American family. No drugs, no hip-hop slang, just a place where it's about the community, its values and people taking a stand. The other major character in the book is Mr. Dennis, who's going to temper some of the things she's going through, because that's the only thing that's going to help her become a real agent and real force in the society. I try to keep the storyline a little slow as we introduce Ajala's world, but right from the start, it's apparent that there are a lot of folks watching and waiting with expectations from the Storms.

In this day and age, when we have so many negative portrayals of African-American characters, I felt it would be good to show the entire culture where people are standing up for themselves and building their community and being positive. Seeing it from the eyes of a 13-year-old girl makes it even better. We can grow with the character as she gets enlightened and becomes more mature, and see what's going on through her eyes. The character goes from, this is an adventure, to, there are serious matters that need to be taken up. This 13 year old is growing and hopefully going to adapt and grow with the storyline.

It's also important to realize that this is 13 year old girl who's expected to carry a legacy. There are things going on in her life that she has no idea are transpiring.

The character has clearly struck a chord, but more than just being about an interesting character, this is a book that depicts a black family and a black community.

Harris: Exactly.

Garrett: That's one of the things we wanted to emphasize. It's about the community through the eyes of this young lady, but the community is very prominent in everything that's going on, and the positivity of a family of professionals who work, live and breathe for the growth and change of their community and the people who live there. I know there are other books taking up the mantle, so we are trying to show the cultural integrity, while keeping the cinematic fun of a character that we hope readers can enjoy.

Creating a concept that has a positive attitude, but not preachy or locked into a specific market, we want "Ajala" to be a book that has multi-cultural appeal. I don't think that It's being done as much as it should be right now.

Harris: I think there are a lot of creators who focus on characters that happen to be black rather than characters that are black and have a history and a context within their community and their family. We don't want characters who happen to be black, where the character can be anything else just by changing their skin color. We wanted a culture behind her, a context, a family. The main goal of the book is to have a good story, but we wanted to have other elements in there.

Can you talk a little about Mr. Dennis? His voice and perspective are very prominent in these issues.

Garrett: Mr. Dennis was an orphan. His parents died in an accident when he was ten years old so at that time he was starting to run wild, he didn't have a real family environment. So for a while he was a child of the streets, no rules no obligation, not until the day he was finally adopted by a family named the Dennis's. They took him in and opened him up to so many things. To see families that were not just stuck in Harlem or their community where they spent their lives, seeing that there was more than just a single-minded direction where you just live in your own neighborhood. He's very strict. Everything he does is regimented because he went down that road and he understands what it takes to pull back from it. He wants Ajala to understand that you have to stick with your regimen. You can't do things without consequences. He's very, very strict disciplinarian.

He has a temperament and attitude that Ajala is bound to push against.

Garrett: Right. He comes from a very militaristic background. Ajala's mother was an agent, and she has more of her mother's individuality, which makes her a different bag. He's saying, "Do it this way," but she's not going to be, "Okay, sir." It's not that she is being disrespectful; Ajala isn't composed like that,. Her manners and self-worth are enforced by Adele Storm. But you can't learn anything or become your own person just by following orders. She's going to question him. She's going to break rules, to a certain extent, but she still respects him and she knows that she needs to learn from this man to get it done.

Harris: Her momma's a piece of work.

Talk a little about that, because there is a history to the book.

Garrett: Ajala and her mother are Storms, and the C.S.C. -- a covert group who operate out of community centers across the United States -- started with the Storms. Ajala's great-grandfather was a leading member of the C.S.C. when it first started. He was their muscle. Really in the early days he kept the C.S.C. together strictly from his force of character and strength. Cecil Storm was a proud man who loved his community. In the 1920's Harlem was a wild but growing economic and creative sanctum for artists, and there was crime and the outer influences corrupting from all sides. The original C.S.C. was formed in the 1920's by concerned educators and business owners.

Adele Storm, Ajala's mother, was diehard -- she was like Ajala. She was a stone cold fanatic, wanting to be in the C.S.C. She wanted to do everything that they did, to uphold the tradition of her family. Then, something tragic happens and she pulls away. She realizes that this isn't the same organization her grandfather was involved with, so she hesitates to a certain extent to even let her daughter be involved. There's going to be conflict there. Ajala's mother questioned a lot as the C.S.C. went from what our standards were back then to the standards of people in politics in today's era. We are going to be some interesting places with this strong woman and her daughter. They have a certain amount of power and stability in the community, and it will be very interesting to see how it goes.

What's included in the first collection?

Harris: The first four books and some extras, like sketches and a new cover

Garrett: There will be another chapter from the novella that I'm developing for next year based on the Ajala series. Also I am including an eight-page story of her mother when she was a member of the C.S.C.

What else do you have planned for "Ajala?"

Garrett: We've been approached by different people about animation or live action versions of "Ajala." When we were creating it, it was really thinking, we are hoping to get media groups to take a look at the property, we believe this could be a film, this could be animation. There's not really anything out there right now that hits all those points like "Ajala" does. I just think that it would convert so well into animation or get it out there and see actors play them and have another audience be represented. There's so much animation out there, but there isn't really representation of down to earth, regular characters who are not being characterized in a certain way. We have communities of doctors and lawyers and regular people who go to work just like everyone else, and you want to have representation of the communities.

Harris: We want to do a live action trailer short, hopefully not too long from now.

Garrett: I did a live action trailer based on my "Inheritors" concept, and it got received quite well. It would so cool to do that with "Ajala," but finding a dynamic, gymnastic, African-American actress who knows martial arts will be an interesting hunt.

It really felt like you were just scratching the surface of this world in these first four issues.

Garrett: We want to build a fan base and get the book into the hands of more people, and then show all the nuances of the concept. I want to make the C.S.C. a global organization. Ajala is the star of this particular series, but it can also be expanded for more serious concepts, where characters are older and more experienced, or focused upon people's problems that are more every day. There's so many ideas we can use this with. We are just scratching the surface.

She's a positive character, and you really seem interested in targeting a teenage audience, a YA audience, with the book.

Garrett: YA is one of the biggest markets out there. I don't believe we've got enough representation of diverse concepts, especially with African-American characters. It's a good niche to get into.

We're at a very political moment in this country right now, and "Ajala" really seems to fit in with this moment of telling African-American stories. Not just in the sense of taking advantage of this, but the character and her attitude and the book's politics really fit in with this moment.

Garrett: Oh, yeah. It is a very volatile state right now. We hope by portraying a positive society of African-Americans, we can be received by a larger audience. There are so many books on the market to represent the different fractions of communities, it's a good time to have a fun character to show our youth that we have a responsibility to help our own, embrace change but be aware that there are so many more stories that need to be told. We hope "Ajala" opens the door for more creative works.

Harris: In addition to what's been happening in the mainstream for years, comic conventions have paid attention to what we do. Whether black conventions, independent comic conventions, conventions open to different and diverse characters. That's been happening for years. We have a home there, whether it's ECBACC in Philly, MeccaCon in Detroit, Onyx Con in Atlanta, The Black Age in Chicago, etc. A number of them are popping up. The week before NYCC is SOL-Con, a new con that John Jennings (The Hole, Blue Hand Mojo, and is a professor at SUNY Buffalo) is helping to get off the ground. The mainstream is paying attention to the need for characters of color and diverse backgrounds, so it's a good time right now. We need to move on it. Hopefully it will outlast Obama being in office -- I hope it goes on further than that. We have to create it for ourselves. We can't rely on the mainstream to recognize us. We have to recognize ourselves and support ourselves and create it and give it legitimacy and money behind it. It's a good time right now, full of hope and full of possibilities.

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