It’s a good time to be a fan of N.K. Jemisin. Coming off winning three Hugo Awards in a row for each book in her Broken Earth trilogy (the first author to ever pull off such a feat), Jemisin recently published a new short story collection How Long ’til Black Future Month. Now she’s ready to try something new: Writing comics.
On Wednesday, DC Comics announced that it is reviving its Young Animal publishing imprint. Headed by Umbrella Academy co-creator and former My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, Young Animal has presented eccentric superhero comics that were a little outside the typical DC mold, such as Shade the Changing Girl. Young Animal was shut down for a while, but now it’s coming back in a big way. So far, the lineup of the new and improved Young Animal finds Way and Shaun Simon co-writing a new Doom Patrol comic alongside a bevy of acclaimed artists (including James Harvey, Doc Shaner, Nick Pitarra, Becky Cloonan, and Nick Derington on covers), Simon and Mikey Way introducing a new series called Collapser (with artist Ilias Kyriazis), and Jemisin writing a new Green Lantern comic called Far Sector, alongside artist Jamal Campbell (Naomi).
Many characters have worn the Green Lantern ring throughout DC history, from Hal Jordan to Jessica Cruz. Far Sector introduces a new one: Sojourner “Jo” Mullein. Unlike the many human Green Lanterns who have split Earth-protection duties amongst themselves in the past, Jo is the singular Green Lantern assigned to a sector that includes the City Enduring, described as “a massive Dyson-Swarm metropolis of 20 billion people.” The reason Jo is the only space cop charged with protecting such a massive population is that the City Enduring has never experienced a murder, and almost no violent crime — until now. Jo soon discovers a brewing revolution in the City, aided and abetted by some of its most powerful citizens.
EW caught up with Jemisin to preview the new series and discuss her experience writing a comic for the first time. Check out the exclusive interview below. Far Sector is set to launch in late 2019.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s your relationship with comics? How long have you been reading them, and what inspired you to try writing them yourself?
N.K. JEMISIN: I’ve been reading comics on and off all my life, both American comics and Japanese manga (and occasionally Korean manga and other stuff). I read X-Men back as a teenager and in college, and then I had to quit because college students don’t have a lot of money. So I haven’t read American comics until relatively recently. Well, I should say American superhero comics. In that time I had gotten more into fantasy comics or avant-garde comics like The Wicked & Divine, Monstress, and Saga. The superhero thing has been the roundabout thing I’m coming back to at last.
What intrigued you about doing a Green Lantern story?
I got approached a few years ago by Gerard Way, who was talking about doing a Green Lantern title for the Young Animal line. He had an idea, and it was really just a one-paragraph idea about a Green Lantern who would be doing something kind of unique in this unique setting. It was just enough to spark a whole world in my head, so I took the idea and ran with it. I thought it would be a good chance to explore the cop nature of Green Lanterns. Honestly I had not been super familiar with Green Lanterns before this, so I took a crash course in old-school GL comics and also more recent ones. I consulted with some friends of mine who are GL friends. My cousin, W. Kamau Bell, is a raging Green Lantern fan, so he told me, “don’t screw this up.” So I did what I could to bone up, and the thing that kept striking me is the Green Lanterns are cops — magic space cops, but they’re cops. A lot of the other iterations of GL had explored the GL as part of the corps, as part of a larger force having to answer to the Guardians, having to fight the Guardians sometimes, and basically kind of defining their identity as a force of cops. But one of the things I missed was the idea of cops as lone sheriffs on the frontier. I was interested in doing something that would explore that idea. When Gerard suggested something, it all crystallized into this one thing. So that’s basically what Jo is: She is the cop on the frontier, standing against chaos. In her background she’s an NYPD cop, so she’s been on a large force. She knows the limitations of being part of a large force, so she was craving the chance to go out and do justice by herself. It’s really an exploration of the nature of cop-ness, if that makes sense.
I was very intrigued by the description of the City Enduring, where Jo finds herself. I had to look up what a Dyson Sphere is, but it sounds amazing. In so many of your books you build these intricate worlds and settings that beg readers to dive in headfirst. How is Jo going to help show us around this setting?
I’m sorry, I’m a giant science-fiction nerd. She’s the newcomer, she’s our viewpoint character. At the time the story begins, she’ll have been there for a few months, so she’s not super new. But it’s just like a newcomer to any city. She knows the basics of how to get where from day to day, but she’s still shocked by the uniqueness of what she’s experiencing. We’ll definitely have her narration to explain things to us, but the comics medium doesn’t work quite the same as the prose medium when it comes to immersing people in a secondary world setting. You can’t just lay things out in the same way as with prose. The great thing with the comics medium is you have the art to help you. I have to describe it to the artist, but I don’t have to do as much internal narration or blocking to try and explain to people to ignite their mental imagery because the imagery is right there on the page.
I’m really excited to see what kind of Green Lantern constructs you come up with, because they range depending on the writer and character. Hal Jordan typically goes with classic constructs like the big boxing glove, while Kyle Rayner gets more artsy with monsters and stuff. Are you thinking about that stuff already?
I feel like i did something a little more subtle with the constructs. Jo using the standard constructs of giant hand and things like that, but there’s something else going on with her ring that’s a little unique and I don’t want to get too deep into it.
A lot of your books, like the Inheritance trilogy and the Broken Earth trilogy, seem to be more in the “fantasy” realm of magic and gods and kingdoms. Obviously the line between “fantasy” and “science fiction” is blurry, but what are you looking forward to about playing with the more hard sci-fi elements of the Green Lantern mythos?
I do write science fiction more in short fiction, I just haven’t had time to do it in a novel yet. I might one day! But I’ve never been very wedded to the line between science-fiction and fantasy. My Broken Earth series deliberately played with the concept of whether what was happening was magic, or super advanced science. I always love to joke about Clarke’s Law, that any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable magic, and also any sufficiently complex magic is indistinguishable from science. That’s kind of what I’m playing with a little bit. We know from canon that the GL constructs and powers are really just super advanced science, so I wanted to play a little more with that. We keep seeing this super advanced science used in settings where the Guardians’ technology is paramount, but the City Enduring is a super advanced, technologically powerful society. That’s why Jo can’t come in just swinging to fix problems. At the end of the day, this is not going to be a matter of superior technology trumping whatever she’s seeing. She’s going to have to use her brain, which all good cops do and all good Green Lanterns do.
The premise is that the City Enduring has existed for a long time without any violent crime, but suddenly there’s an uptick as Jo starts her job, and this violence might have a revolutionary tinge to it. Can you tease what’s going on there?
Yeah basically the City Enduring pulled a Vulcan a few centuries ago. They’d had a pretty volatile history up to that point, and they decided emotions were the problem. So they designed a technological block to cut off their emotions. They consider themselves a society of pure rationalists. They try to downplay the value of emotion. The catch is, meanwhile quietly a drug epidemic has been brewing with a drug that allows people to shut off the thing that’s blocking their emotions. There’s a drug epidemic of, effectively, emotion running through the city. People have ability with this drug to shut off the the thing that’s stopping their emotion, and suddenly they start feeling. But, people who don’t know how to cope with their emotions don’t handle it well. So, yeah. Without any prior practice, suddenly feeling all the feels is not exactly a happy thing to do. That’s what Jo is up against: A bunch of people suddenly busting out with feelings. She, being someone from a society with emotions where people know how to feel them, has been granted an exception so she can continue to operate in the way she’s used to. But she’s also one of the lone people in this society who actually knows how to cope with her feelings. As we humans know, coping with feelings is a running process. She’s there to be a role model, but also she’s human. So it should be interesting.
You just came from winning the Hugo three years in a row, and your short story collection a few months ago, now you’re writing your first comic. Are you just flexing your creative muscles right now?
Basically, yeah! When else are you gonna do it if not when you win three Hugos? It gives me the freedom to try new things. The Hugo has translated a little bit into a degree of financial security, that allows me to try new things and explore a little bit. I’ve always been curious about comic writing so I thought this was a good chance to dip my toe in it. Honestly I hadn’t really been prepared for it at the time Gerard approached me, but when he mentioned that idea it just bloomed in my head and I was like alright, I’m on board! I’ve also tried dipping a toe in video games. I’m interested in many things, but they all come back to storytelling. I’m always fascinated by the way changes in medium change the way storytelling works. To me it feels like you’re trying to get in shape but you’re only doing aerobics, and then you discover strength training. A holistic take on storytelling is something I’m looking to master, and the only way to do that is to actually do it.
Did Gerard or anyone else give you advice about moving to comics from a different medium?
I’ve been working with the folks at DC, as well as Gerard, about how comics do. There’s a structure to it that I’ve had to teach myself, and I’ve needed that advice. Editors Andy Khouri and Mark Doyle have been super helpful to me. There’s something as simple as I like to end on dramatic notes, and then switch over to a new page. Well, you kind of want to end that dramatic note on an even-numbered page, because it’s gonna fall a certain way in the book as opposed to an odd-numbered page. I never would’ve thought of anything like that, so they’ve explained to me. I’m making adjustments for my own storytelling pace to match the pace that comics demand. It’s little things like that. I’m used to internal narration with prose, and you can’t do that. You have to focus on facial expression and things like that. That’s also a new thing for me, which is collaboration with artist. Jamal Campbell’s art is amazing, I’m super excited to have the chance to work with him, but I’ve never collaborated with anyone before. Understanding what he’s capable of, and not overstepping my bounds. I don’t need to tell him how to do his art. Trying to draw enough of an outline that he can then take it from there is a new thing to me, and it’s been a process, but so far it’s interesting.
Any final thoughts on Jo? She shares a name with Sojourner Truth, one of the foremost revolutionary figures in American history. Does that tie in to the quasi-revolution blooming in the City Enduring?
I’ll go ahead and mention it because people are gonna notice it anyway: Jo is my personal nod to Afrofuturism. I probably not unconsciously — nah, it was deliberate — wanted her to look like Janelle Monae. You’ll probably notice that when you get a chance to see her.
The name connection will become clear over the course of the story. I’m drawing on my own background, and I’m drawing on American history as a source of how societies change and how rebellions occur and how people who consider themselves oppressed get free. There’s some obvious linkages there, but you’ll have to see the whole story to see how that works out.