The revolutionary images of Gal Gadot kicking butt on the big screen as DC’s Wonder Woman or Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira beating up a casino full of men in Marvel’s Black Panther make it easy now for people to envision a world where women are the protectors of kingdoms. But just a few years ago, when 30-year-old Jazmin Truesdale was looking to create her own empire of multicultural female superheroes, the frames of reference were scarce.
With their one-dimensional female characters, comics didn’t provide the inspiration Truesdale needed, but music did. As she sat down to create, she found herself listening to Janet Jackson’s 1989 album Rhythm Nation. And before she knew it, the main character of her first comic novel, The Keepers: Origins, was a lot like... Janet Jackson. The idea of Jackson as a fierce warrior at the helm of an entire universe is not hard to fathom considering she has been the queen of pop music for decades, spawning progeny from Britney Spears to Aaliyah to Teyana Taylor. On Sunday at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards, the 52-year-old legend will finally get her due when she receives the Icon Award.
However, Truesdale has already memorialized Jackson in the character of Thema (Tay-ma), who is ruler of the planet Arjana and mother of Kala, the leader of the five-woman superhero team chosen to protect the Aza Comics universe. Truesdale says she was influenced by the singer’s feminist ideals and the empowering messages in her catalog of music.
“I love how Janet has this way of empowering not only women but black women as well, particularly through her music,” says the North Carolina-based CEO of Aza Comics. “She has many songs that are devoted to the plight and issues of black women, but then she also addresses issues in the black community and the global community, and those are crucial elements to Thema and how she goes about being and doing what she does.”
Thema doesn’t have superpowers, necessarily, but she’s comparable to Xena, Warrior Princess, and she is not to be fucked with. In The Keepers: Origins, she’s pregnant with Kala and fighting the odds to get her daughter to Earth, to hide and protect her from dangers on her home planet. She then must get the rest of the heroines to safety on Earth as well, making her the central character who the initial installment revolves around.
“Even though she’s a monarch or she’s the queen of this one single planet in this entire universe, the way that the people of Aza—the people of this universe—look at her, is kind of like this universal monarch. So they have their own kings, their own queens, their own government, their own plans, but they still kind of look at her as their leader in a way,” Truesdale says of Thema.
The parallels write themselves at this point. Though she was always a member of a royal American pop music family, Janet assumed her place in the monarchy with the 1986 release of Control, the breakthrough album that marked her first appearance at No. 1 on the charts and went five times platinum. According to Billboard, Jackson has No. 1 albums in four consecutive decades; 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, 10 of which went No. 1; and 100 million albums sold worldwide. Her first headlining tour was in 1990; 28 years later she is still commanding audiences with her State of the World Tour. Her reign is undisputed; much like Thema’s. This might be why when Truesdale was looking for an illustrator to bring Aza Comics to life, she connected on Instagram with Remero Colston and discovered he was just as inspired by Miss Jackson in his drawing process as she was in her writing.
“He sent me the first mockup of Thema and I was like, oh my god this is awesome, and he was like, yeah, so I was looking at Janet’s catsuit and it kind of helped me design this suit that she’s wearing. And I was like, you’ve gotta be kidding me! I’m over here writing a scene, and I’m listening to Rhythm Nation!” she says with a laugh.
Truesdale says she was around 7 years old when she took a trip to a comic book store with her dad and bought a copy of Wonder Woman. She fell in love with the genre, and specifically with female-centric stories. But she lost interest as she got older and got the sense that many of the women presented were based on tropes and were created with the male gaze in mind. When she picked the comics back up as a young adult, she realized that not much had changed. So she started doing her research.
“A lot of women who were already into comics, they told me that Wonder Woman was somebody who they liked, and it was because she was a character that stood by herself. She was three dimensional, she had a whole backstory, and she existed as her own entity—she wasn’t a spinoff of any other male character; she was a complete, self-autonomous character.”
if I wanted to see a woman who looked like me doing these awesome things, I’m pretty sure my Latina friends and my South Asian friends would wanna see a woman that looked like them as well.
It made perfect sense to Truesdale, who has an MBA with a concentration in finance. She sought mentors in the industry who could share insight on the business of comics, finding luck with everyone from executives at Screen Gems to veteran comics writer/editor Ann Nocenti. But she also talked to real women.
“My friend circle is pretty diverse, so when I was creating the universe I knew that if I wanted to see a woman who looked like me doing these awesome things, I’m pretty sure my Latina friends and my South Asian friends would wanna see a woman that looked like them as well.” To that end, Truesdale created Ixchel, who is Colombian, Adanna, who is a dark-skinned Indian woman, and Genie dos Santos, who is a lesbian Afro-Latina who bears a striking resemblance to Dominican-American musician and Love and Hip-Hop star Amara la Negra.
Her research didn’t stop with having inclusive characters; she wanted to see how to get women interested in comics to begin with. What she heard from them was that even the comic book format itself can be intimidating. For example, having to buy books every month to keep up with the stories requires an investment of time and money.
“So I don’t even make comics, I make superhero novels,” Truesdale explains. ”They’re like a traditional novel, and then the action scenes or scenes that I think are important are illustrated like a comic book. So it really brings the best of the both worlds and it really brings women into this genre that they were typically excluded from before.”
I don’t even make comics, I make superhero novels.
The second installment in the Keepers series is due out this Christmas. The reason it’s taken so long from the 2015 debut is that Truesdale put out the first book to test the waters. When she first started, she had a hard time convincing publishers that there was a market for a female superhero universe. Then Wonder Woman and Black Panther hit theaters, breaking box office records. Suddenly the same companies who rejected Aza Comics before came running back to become partners. Her sales increased and fans started blowing up her inbox asking for more content. It’s this interaction with fans that keeps the entrepreneur excited in her quest to make sure women know her characters are created with them in mind.
“I’m always open to hearing about people’s experiences,” she says. “The DMs for Aza Comics is open! A lot of the stuff that we write is about people’s real experience; I say I write the truest fiction, and the only way that we can get representation to the forefront is if you share your experience so that we can put it out there so people will know.”
For Truesdale, the experience of seeing your life on the page—even in a fictional, superhero world—makes you feel connected to a character. And if she does it right, it might make us all feel more connected to one another. Thema herself, monarch of the universe, suffers an indignity universal to black women when she first comes to Earth: Someone touches her hair without her permission.
“You put your hands on a warrior woman without her permission, she’s going to kill you!” Truesdale jokes. “So that’s an experience that we all have, and as you’re reading you’re so invested in this character, so to see them go through the things that they go through in their communities, it makes you more sympathetic. And that’s all we need at this time, is for people to be sympathetic towards each other.”