Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with John and Charles Agbaje, the two brothers behind The Elite Comics & Art Studio at Central City Tower. Their now concluded and wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of an 11-minute pilot episode of Spider Stories, the duo’s new ‘action cartoon set in a[n] African inspired fantasy world,’ has been the subject of growing buzz in a variety of internet circles. Through Spider Stories, the two Nigerian-American brothers hope to bring a unique African cultural perspective to the universal narratives found in cartoons, comics and animation – a world where such perspectives have been defined primarily in terms of their glaring absence.According to the synopsis provided on their Kickstarter page, the series tells the tale of Princess Zahara ‘who is thrown into hiding after the royal family is overthrown by a corrupt neighboring kingdom. While traveling with a misfit caravan of merchants she meets a wandering drummer griot who introduces her to the spirit world. Armed with a mystical staff, the fearless princess embarks on quest to reconnect with the spirits, reunite her homeland, and reclaim the throne.’ Influenced by both Nigerian folktales and modern animated fantasy epics such as Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Zelda and Fire Emblem alike, Spider Stories promises to be a unique and interesting project worth following.
Prior to Spider Stories, John and Charles Agbaje honed their skills as artists and storytellers with their first graphic novel, Project Zero (available to read online here). An innovative take on a classic sci-fi narrative, Project Zero follows the story of a group of orphans who fell from the sky and discover that they have the ability to manipulate the world around them. Their special talents soon lead them to be recruited to fight in an ongoing war, but the orphans quickly realize that their powers are changing the world around them in more ways than one. If their first graphic novel is any indication, we are in for a treat with the eventual release Spider Stories.
And with that, let us jump right into our interview with John and Charles Agbaje, which will hopefully provide readers with a better sense of who the Agbaje brothers are and what to expect from Spider Stories…
First off, tell us a bit more about yourselves: your personal backgrounds/stories, where you grew up, do you have day jobs, how you got involved in the world of art and comics, your upbringing and connection to Nigeria, etc.
John: I’m John, the older brother and serve as primarily the visual director and business mind of the duo. Currently, I’m getting my MBA at Harvard, but I worked in the consulting world in DC and studied at Wharton undergrad as well.
Charles: My name is Charles. I do most of the writing and creative development. I’m getting a Master’s at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication after graduating from Northwestern University’s film program.
John: There isn’t a turning point that got us into animation and storytelling, it’s more that we never grew out of it. Our parents would also tell us folktales from Nigeria as children and many are likely how we got interested and that has been kept up through reading, watching movies, and trying our hands at the creative process.
Are you the children of Nigerian immigrants to the US (i.e. first generation Americans)? If so, what was this experience like for you and how has this experience of being an intermediary between two worlds, so to speak, affected your work and worldviews?
John: Yes, both of our parents moved to US from Nigeria in the 1970s. Growing up in America in an immigrant household certainly broadens your perspective on the world. You have a direct exposure to a culture that is different from many of your peers or the mainstream experience in terms of big things like values and tradition, as well as smaller nuances like food and music. It is a bit of a stretch to say that we are “intermediaries” between these two experiences, but we are certainly able to appreciate the differences more because of how we were raised.
This dovetails into our mission for Spider Stories. We’d like to share some of our “African” experience, that is so different from what you usually see depicted in the media, with the US and the rest of the world.
What were some of your favorite TV shows, cartoons, comics, movies, and video games growing up? What favorites have been added to this list since growing up?
John: Easily, my favorite movie is The Lion King. It was fun and exciting, but also one of the first films I saw that dealt with deeper themes of responsibility, guilt, and wasn’t afraid to go dark with a powerful message. Beyond that, the artwork was beautiful.
Charles: But probably the series that really kicked us off into this love for cartoons was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There was just something about it that was perfect for it’s time. It’s kind of a ridiculous concept, but its fun to watch, has great action and, especially with more recent iterations, deals a lot with themes of brotherhood and family.
John: That is really the trend as far as the content we enjoy: distinct visuals with some emotional depth. We could go on for days about our favorite films: Star Wars, The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix and so on. In terms of television, what comes to mind are shows such as Batman: The Animated Series, Samurai Jack, Avatar: The Last Airbender and just about anything that made it’s way onto Toonami. As we’ve grown up, that trend has continued with shows such as LOST, The Legend of Korra, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Young Justice. Now we’ve also been impressed by the comic book movie movement in the past decade.
Charles: In terms of video games, just their ability to totally immerse an audience in another world that is so rich and sure of itself is amazing. Like the Mario, Zelda or Fire Emblem franchises.
Explain your creative process – how you come to develop an idea and then the process of turning that idea into a story, series, character, comic, graphic novel, etc. Also, what’s it like working with your brother? Have the two of you two always worked as a team like this?
Charles: Yes we have. Ever since we were five years old or so, we would find these shows that we were big fans of. Instead of taking that excitement and doing fanart or fanfiction, we would use it as inspiration for original worlds. Over time, the two of us would challenge each other to really find what was special in our original work, push the characters, and take it somewhere new and removed from where we started.
John: This brainstorming process has refined our storytelling sensibilities now that we’re older. Something that happens as part of our lives can get woven into whatever story we are developing.
Charles: In terms of actual work, we tend to develop the broad story concept together, then I will write the scripts and outline key moments, while John does the illustration and character designs, playing to both of our strengths.
It seems clear that much of the impetus behind making something like Spider Stories is to be found in the fact that there are essentially no representations of Africa and African characters in the realm of comics, cartoons and animation (and those representations that do exist tend to be extremely problematic). Can you tell us a little bit more about your motivation behind making an African fantasy tale like Spider Stories? What problems do you see within the genre/world/realm that you are trying to make Spider Stories a part of? How do you see Spider Stories eventually addressing some of these problems? What are some of the major influences you drew on when developing this concept? What are some of the most important messages you are trying to convey through this project?
Charles: Spider Stories started as a school project when I was at Northwestern. I created a series of digital murals that were an adaptation of an existing Anansi the Spider story. As time went on, we realized that we could really develop it into something unique and special, and as of about this time last year, it has been our main focus.
John: Indeed. To date, much of the world’s perception of Africa is tainted by images of poverty, disease and corruption. Growing up in an African household in the US, my brother and I experienced a different side of the continent: one of culture, laughter, and meaningful lessons. We intend Spider Stories to present that side of the continent as it’s virtually absent from mainstream media.
Charles: Images in the media have meaningful impacts on identity and perception, especially when they send the same message over and over. I think there’s something about our characters that’s striking because they break that mold. It can really be a starting point for people to start to take a second look and expand their minds as to what’s possible.
John: Our goal is to add positive images for African and non-African children to identify with as they are forming judgments about the world. It definitely has the potential for generational impact, but right now we’re focused on just telling a great story. The hope is that down the road people will see Africa as just as nuanced and exciting as anywhere else in the world, and will be encouraged to learn more and engage however they can.
Are there any sorts of Nigerian (or more generally, African) media that have inspired you in your own work (TV shows, movies, books, art, websites/web series, animation, etc)? Are there any examples of media being produced by other Africans (either on the continent or in the Diaspora) now or in the past that excites you? If so, can you tell us a little about one or two of these, what appeals to you about them, and how this may or may not influence your own work?
John: The most exciting media project coming out of the Nigeria for me right now is the film adaptation of Chimimanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. From the novel we already know that the story is excellent and the production quality looks phenomenal as well. Films like this can really change people’s thoughts about what is possible in African media. These are universal human stories coming out of Africa. They are not “niche” or “targeted” and that is what excites me the most: that it is not just by Africans for Africans, but really by Africans for the world.
Can you give us some specific examples of how Spider Stories adapts certain Nigerian and West African folktales? You mention Anansi the Spider and the Tortoise briefly on your Kickstarter page, but do you think you can give us a bit more detail? How easy was it for you reconcile these influences with the other Western and Asian influences like Zelda and Avatar: the Last Airbender?
Charles: Spider Stories is a totally original fantasy story. That said we do take influences from history, folktales, mythology, modern media content and our own life experiences. At the core, the story is about the characters and the struggles they face. With that focus, reconciling everything else comes naturally. Wherever we find inspiration that can give the story some depth or style, we work it in and make it our own.
So specifically there is a character based off of Anansi as you mentioned, but here he’s represented as an Ancient Spirit that guides our heroes. Going forward, you’ll see characters that take qualities from all over. We’re doing research everywhere from Africana libraries to Netflix. We’re looking forward to playing with all these resources and creating something unique.
Finally, what do you think the future holds for you guys and Central City Tower?
Right now our focus is on developing Spider Stories to the best of our abilities. Our vision is to reach a wide audience whether through television or digital media. We hope to develop a suite of content that really resonates with people around the world and exposes them to new stories.