A group of Nubian and Egyptian werewolves rise to infamy in a fantasy version of Ancient Egypt in The Pack.
A master thief inadvertently finds himself at the centre of an intergalactic war in a universe aesthetically inspired by Ancient Africa in Yohance.
Both are storylines in works by Paul Louise-Julie, founder of Midas Monkee, and the artist behind a shared African universe.
The Pack is Louise-Julie’s first work in a flagship graphic novel franchise that challenges the very western universes offered by well-known brands like Marvel and DC Comics. Yohance is a space opera that, like its predecessor, offers a unique and rarely presented alternative to the typical American hero.
For self-confessed “nerd” Louise-Julie, the franchises he loves – Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones – rely on one thing: mythology. But they aren’t inclusive fantasy worlds.
“If I wanted true black fantasy, this meant doing more than stupidly arguing why there should be black characters in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. It meant making my own world based upon that of my ancestors and the empires they built. Only then would I have a unique mythology that black people would not only fit into, but naturally dominate. We would be at home.”
For Louise-Julie, addressing the diversity gap in modern mythologies was a primary motivation in developing these stories.
“Watching Batman vs Superman, you’d think that all minorities around the world are impoverished wretches in war-torn countries at the mercy of white saviours and supervillains. Muslims and people of Arab descent are lumped together and portrayed as uneducated, violent, primitives who live in war zones.”
Louise-Julie points out the absence of creative works that explore black history “beyond the 400-year stretch of misery that is slavery”.
His works ask questions that popular fantasy and comics fail to: “What about the thousands of years before that? The civilizations we built, the wonders we accomplished? Not a single movie, comic book, or TV series on Mali, Songhai, Benin, Oyo, or the Kongo kingdoms.”
Space operas everywhere
While filling a gap drives the work of artists like Louise-Julie, for Stu Campbell, creator of the award-winning Neomad, the opportunity to do something inventive with Aboriginal children held even greater purpose.
Neomad emerged as part of a project called Yijala/Yala, a long-term, multi-platform arts project operating out of Roebourne in Northern Western Australia, which involves honouring the local heritage.
Campbell was tasked with equipping Roebourne’s youth with new media skills to help tell their stories now and into the future.
“The main brief from the elders of the community was to work with the kids, with an emphasis on imagining a bright and positive future. So the kids and I got to work brainstorming and trying to imagine what Roebourne could look like in the future. It didn’t take long to imagine flying cars and rocket ships.”
The result is a series of projects, including Neomad, a space opera set in Australia’s outback, featuring a gang known as the Love Punks, who are of Aboriginal descent.
“I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi and, yes, that includes Mad Max. I’ve always been disappointed by the absence of Aboriginal actors in the Mad Max films, so in one way Neomad was an opportunity to redeem that.”
Campbell saw Neomad as an opportunity to use setting and population in an accurate way – Roebourne’s population is 95 per cent Aboriginal – while also offering the public something new.
“I was conscious that Australia has never had a comic series with a cast of Aboriginal heroes. And I think it is really important that the stage is shared, that young indigenous and non-indigenous people can look up to these characters as their heroes,” he says.
“That can help to shape a positive representation of our indigenous population, it can empower young people and it might even prove to be a subtle reconciliation tool.”
Diversity in more than race
While race is one of the most obvious ways in which diversity is lacking in fantasy universes, the exclusion of difference extends to less apparent traits. Christian Read, author of the Lark Case Files series of occult noir novels, as well as graphic novels and video games, says writers bring their own critique of their lived experiences.
“I write a lot about characters marginalised by class. That's my experience of my own culture. I'm a disabled man, so I find I tend to write about pain and the body.”
He says writing about diversity as he experiences it should be “normal”.
I'm a disabled man, so I find I tend to write about pain and the body.
“I'm interested in being a good writer. And to do that, I have to be aware that the world I live in is, always was, a lot more diverse than movies would have you believe. I'm mates with people from dozens of different backgrounds, races, classes, religions. Most people are too, I think,” he says.
“I don't pride myself on quotas of ethnicities and sexualities. That's token. That's just demonstrating what a nice person you are, that's not honest. And I don't think it's useful.”
More essential, Read adds, is having more diverse creators and voices.
Tokenism versus genuine diversity
Indeed, for Read, it’s not always easy to identify when inclusion is genuine versus tokenistic.
“While we've got a handful of Islamic characters, gay characters, what have you, there's very few Muslim writers, disabled writers, gay writers, even women writers/artists/editors. I think when the creator base looks a lot less middle class and white, we'll be able to answer that more accurately.”
While there’s no denying diversity in fantasy storytelling is on the rise, Louise-Julie believes that including ethnically-diverse characters can be tokenistic – such as the Pakistani Muslim Ms Marvel.
He believes the “real cure lies in creating more characters who happen to have ethno-religious differences”. He cites Dwayne McDuffie’s small comics 'universe', Milestone, published by DC in the 90s, as an example of successful diversity.
“All his characters were people of colour but it’s not as if you can say: ‘OK that’s their black superhero. That’s the Muslim one and there’s the Asian one’. There were so many to choose from that their culture, religion, or ethnicity became more of a welcome detail and not a defining trait. Ms Marvel, Miles Morales, and Black Panther are all great characters – but tokens nonetheless.”
Read has similar praise for Milestone.
“Part of the reason why it was a very good series of comics was that it had black writers, artists, editors. All dudes, alas. But even so, a remarkable project that represented diversity within black culture in ways never, if ever, seen before.”
Both Read and Louise-Julie see independent creators as the way forward, though Louise-Julie says not enough artists from diverse backgrounds will pursue independent work due to the financial challenges and a lack of support from their own communities.
“We need to change that. This means actively buying quality content from creators of colour. We have an incredible buying power that can sustain any industry we choose. Why not sustain industries that give us what we want, not what we settle for?”
Read says there are so few minority creators working on mainstream books that indie projects are the only way to ensure characters and culturally specific stories getting out there.
“If you want to read about characters who share your identity, you've got to create them.”