NIOBE, a Milestone for Black Women in Comics, is Changing the Face of Comic Book Heroes

You may have already heard of Niobe, actress and activist Amandla Stenberg’s comic that debuted in comic shops all over the world last year. If you haven’t yet come across the Stranger Comics story or its flagship heroine, then I’ll let Sebastian Jones, the company’s founder as well as the creator and co-writer of Niobe, introduce you: “Niobe is a black, half human/half elven hero, who can tie two worlds together. She represents every misunderstood teenager who’s trying to find their way.”

Torn between duty and a need to be free, Niobe’s struggle is a relatable one that just happens to be set in a universe inhabited by demons, fantastical creatures, and evil knights who want nothing more than to hunt down and destroy her. Niobe takes place in an already established world, one created decades earlier by Sebastian Jones in his first graphic novel, The Untamed: A Sinner’s Prayer. Jones spent his younger years dreaming about crafting stories that included the heroines he saw were missing from mainstream media. The incredible epics that he loved were full of homogenous heroes, but Niobe is the radical protagonist that he always wanted to see.

The idea of bridging fantasy and reality is a driving force behind Niobe, and Jones’ childhood love for characters like the Incredible Hulk were a huge influence on his first comic. “I always identified with the people who wanted to be left alone,” Jones told Nerdist. “I wanted the escapism, but the stories back then were really rich and relatable to folks who just didn’t fit.” After years of running a record label, Jones began creating comics. Once he pitched his first story to some established publishers, Jones realized that he’d rather just start his own company, and so Stranger Comics was born.

Niobe: She is Life was birthed over many years, and Sebastian’s dedication to encouraging inclusive storytelling on and off the page meant that he sought out input to make Niobe as authentic as possible. That led to his collaboration with renowned actor and activist Amandla Stenberg. Making her name as Rue in the first Hunger Games film, Stenberg has become an outspoken activist and radical role model. “I was at a festival and I saw Amandla and her mum Karen,” Jones said. “I ran over like a bit of a fangirl and said, ‘You! You have to be Niobe!'” After this unconventional meeting and an instant creative connection, their collaboration began.

The first arc of Niobe came out last year, and was a critical and commercial success. It’s an enthusiastic and loving introduction to our titular hero, co-written and visually inspired by Amandla Stenberg, and with incredible art and colors by Ashley A. Woods working from layouts by Darrell May. The book was not only a great entry into the fantasy comics canon, but was also the first comic book ever to be nationally distributed through the direct market that had a black woman protagonist with black women both writing and drawing the book.

The book struck a chord, becoming a word-of-mouth hit that garnered a lot of praise for its political resonance and incredible world-building, which was always the intention of the creative team. “Politics are actually something we’ve talked about a lot, Amandla and I, because in a lot of ways she sees Niobe’s journey as a reflection of her own,” said Jones, speaking highly of his collaborator. “I can’t imagine being as young as Amandla is and being attacked on a constant basis while maintaining her commitment to trying to do the right thing.”

For their followup book Niobe: She is Death, the team is joined by a new artist, Sheldon Mitchell, as they follow Niobe on her new path as a badass vigilante hunting down the evil men who oppress the women around her. A startlingly dark turn from the fantastical optimism of the first arc, this looks to be an exhilarating adventure story that explores the multitudes women contain.

The Kickstarter for Niobe: She is Death is scheduled to go live on May 18th. Click here to keep track and support the project.

Images: Stranger Comics

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