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Out of Africa

Jiba Molei Anderson’s superhero comics sprang from Yoruba mythology.



In 1999, when Jiba Molei Anderson set out to self-publish his Afrocentric superhero comic The Horsemen, he knew the strikes against him. "I'm a black-owned, independent company doing a comic book about seven African and African-American characters," he says. "I should have failed."

But he didn't. At 36, Anderson's had ten years of modest success as a self-publisher, and in February his three-part collection The Horsemen: Divine Intervention will be released nationwide by Arcana Comics as a trade paperback. Anderson is publishing another comic, The Horsemen: The Book of Olorun, through his own Griot Enterprises this month. And the Silver Room opens a solo exhibition of his work on Friday.

The Horsemen series follows a band of seven orishas—manifestations of the Yoruba god Olodumare—who possess a group of young, black, professional Detroiters to save humanity from the Deitis, a multicultural pantheon of corrupt orishas with a vested interest in getting us to worship "politics, commerce, technology, war, sex, life, death, and organized religion."

"My goal," Anderson notes, "was to say, 'Yeah, they're black—get over it. I'm about to write some shit up in here, and I'm about to liberally reference African and African-American culture, but I'm also about to liberally reference world culture.' The Horsemen are not fighting drug dealers. They're not battling homelessness or inner-city crime or any of the typical tropes that you assign to black superheroes."

The comic book industry hasn't been kind to African-American characters and creators, stereotyping the former and marginalizing the latter. There's been intermittent progress since the 1990s, with the success of black heroes like Spawn and Blade and the founding of the Milestone imprint (which DC Comics recently revived) by a group of black artists. But black character/creator combinations remain rare in an industry that, despite the growing diversity of its audience, still pitches much of its content to white, middle-class teenage boys.

"We have more visions now of African-Americans in power and being the hero," says Anderson. "We've got a black president now. . . . But there's never been an iconic team of black superheroes."

Anderson, who also freelances as a graphic designer and teaches at the Illinois Academy of Art in Schaumburg, grew up in Detroit. His father, an architect, is a Detroit native; his mother, a social worker from Liberia, instilled in him a strong sense of African heritage. But his hero from about age six was Batman. "He's an ideal of self-determination," Anderson says, "taking a tragedy and making something positive out of it, never giving up. It sounds corny, but I still try to operate in that way."

Entering the University of Michigan as an art major, he figured on a career in graphic design, a safer choice than comics. But when seven Marvel Comics artists struck out on their own in 1992 to form the wildly successful Image Comics, with Spawn as their marquee character, Anderson started to see a future for himself in the industry. "They became millionaires overnight," he says, "and they showed me that I could have this as a career and get paid, and I could create characters that look like me."

Anderson got his first shot at it in 1995, when he was hired by Chicago writer La Morris Richmond to ink Jigaboo Devil, a comic about a black revolutionary leader who sports a Sambo mask and wields a machete.

After graduating that same year, Anderson came to Chicago to study visual communication at the School of the Art Institute. The Horsemen began as part of his MFA thesis: an illustrated history of African-American superheroes and their connection to African mythology. "I was studying the religion of the Yoruba and how it survived the slave trade in Cuba and Haiti, with Santeria and so forth," he says. He named each chapter for a Yoruba god and depicted the gods as superheroes. "I was like, 'These concepts are too cool to throw away.'"

He started Griot Enterprises in 1999 with two Detroit friends: Michael Larson, who created The Unveiling and inked some of Anderson's Divine Intervention, and Kenjji Marshall, author of the voodoo-psychiatrist title WitchDoctor. "We decided, 'Instead of trying to get discovered by DC or Marvel, let's just discover ourselves,'" says Anderson.

The first year, they released Griot Preview, a compendium of excerpts from all three artists' titles, selling it themselves online and at conventions. But Anderson wanted something better. "The opportunities for independent publishers were opening up," he says. "I was like, 'Forget selling this out of the trunks of our cars.'"

He bypassed mainstream publishers and made a deal directly with Maryland-based Diamond Comic Distributors to release Divine Intervention in a three-issue series. It came out in 2002, selling 2,000 copies, he says—respectable for an indie.

The week the first Spider-Man movie was released, in May 2002, not-yet-disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair wrote about Griot, using material apparently cribbed from a story that had already appeared in Detroit's Metro Times. After that the partners started getting calls from Hollywood. Anderson soon split with Larson and Marshall, pursuing his own mainstream aspirations. He kept the company, but each artist retained the rights to his creations.

Anderson signed with the William Morris Agency in hopes of developing Horsemen as well as other properties. Nothing came of it. He worked with companies including BET on making a Horsemen film, but those deals fell through. In 2005, LA-based Spacedog Entertainment hired him as head writer and art director for Hip Hop Chronicles, a comics adaptation of rap hits that was shelved indefinitely after failed development deals with Universal Pictures and Vibe magazine (which folded last week).

In late 2007 Spacedog shared a booth at Comic-Con in San Diego with Arcana Comics—a midsize independent publisher with dozens of titles, including superpowered-teen-girl thriller 100 Girls, medieval mercenary tale Ezra, and gothic horror Kade—and it got Anderson thinking. "I'd taken [Divine Intervention] as far as I could take it myself," he says. "I realized I needed to ally myself with a bigger publisher." He submitted online, and within a week he'd signed with Arcana to release the comic. That year he also began a partnership with XND Medium, a multimedia company that deals in a range of entertainment media products, to share marketing and distribution duties and continue to shop the Horsemen movie package.

Along with Horsemen art, the exhibit at Wicker Park accessories store the Silver Room features CD cover art and images from titles in development, including a blaxploitation homage, Getback, an urban sword-and-sorcery tale, Good Man in a Storm, and a sci-fi kung fu series, Outworld. All three will be released by Griot this fall as The Afrosoul Chronicles.

Divine Intervention was originally scheduled to come out this month, but has been pushed back till February. Meanwhile, Anderson's selling The Book of Olorun himself, online and through local retailers G-Mart Comics, Challengers Comics + Conversation, and Graham Crackers Comics. "Why wait?" he says. "I control the property. I've done it myself before. I can do it myself again."   v

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