Its hero is powerful, but he is not a god or some laboratory-created savior. He is an enslaved man who refuses to accept that title.
“My heart is not a slave,” the main character, Jupiter, says early in the story.
“I understand that perfectly,” author Yusef Komunyakaa tells me on a recent morning, explaining why he chose those words. “He doesn’t see himself as a victim, because a victim is defeated before the fight begins.”
Komunyakaa’s name usually appears alongside a long list of accolades and accomplishments. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his poetry is just one of them. So he understands why people might be surprised to see his name at the bottom of a comic book. His own daughter was.
Komunyakaa admits to hesitating before agreeing to work on the project, which was dreamed up by filmmaker and publisher Ram Devineni during a stay in Maryland. But then, Komunyakaa says, he thought about how he read comic books as a child and about his own upbringing in Louisiana. His family didn’t talk about slavery, but he found ways to learn about it through books and eventually taught African American history. A common theme in his poems is Black resilience.
When he started thinking about Jupiter and the life he would have lived, he saw a complex character, one who had “a spirit of his own, a story of his own.”
“I knew that what he would say wouldn’t be long, drawn-out passages,” he says. “It wouldn’t be didactic. It would say something about his spirit as a living, breathing person.”
In the comic book, Jupiter is 19. He displays a gift for taming horses and shows no fear of talking back to those who hold the power to hurt him. For saying his heart is not a slave, he is ordered to receive a whipping. His response: “If it cures your mind, sir.”
Later, after another beating, he rides into a storm on horseback and is struck by lightning. In death, he learns that he is Ashanti royalty, and then he comes back to life. During another point in the comic, he encounters Harriet Tubman.
Recent years have not only highlighted racial divides, but also revealed how little we’ve been taught in schools about their historical context. Consider how many of us grew up knowing the jingle, “In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” but never hearing the date 1619. Consider how long it took for people outside of Texas to start talking about Juneteenth. People are still shocked to learn that Georgetown was once filled with free and enslaved Black people, even though their graves remain there as reminders.
Like many of us, Devineni recalls his exposure to slavery in school as lasting the length of “Roots.” A teacher had his class watch the series.
“I think that was in 10th grade, and there was no discussion afterward about slavery and the African American experience,” he says. “And then we jumped to Martin Luther King Jr., and that’s it. We didn’t read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ or anything by Frederick Douglass.”
The idea for Jupiter came to him while he was participating in the Merriweather District Artists in Residence program. At the time, he was also working on his Priya comic book series, which features a rape survivor turned superhero.
While staying in Columbia, Md., Devineni visited former slave quarters throughout the region and searched through historical photos made available by the Library of Congress. The plantation in the book is modeled on the Hampton mansion, which sits north of Baltimore, and the augmented-reality offerings on some pages incorporate the historical photos.
Using technology, the comic book allows a person to see real pictures alongside illustrated ones. On a page that shows a drawn version of a slave auction house, readers can choose to see a black-and-white photo of a real one. On a page that depicts an enslaved man in an iron mask, they can view an 1807 illustration of torture devices.
In that way, the book offers constant reminders that the story is fictional but not removed from reality.
It also offers a chance to present history to young people in a creative, modern-day format.
Devineni says one of his main hopes while working on the book was to see it end up in the hands of young people and help foster discussions on race and history.
He is currently talking with a Maryland school system and library about adding the book to their offerings. The Howard Hughes Corp. — which created the Artists in Residence program as part of a larger effort to turn downtown Columbia into a regional hub for culture and commerce — also plans to hand out 1,000 copies at its upcoming literary festival “Books in Bloom” and its “Good Kid-izen” event.
“I think that intersection, the way he looks at art and storytelling, is a very positive way to shed light on really strong topics that are hard to talk about,” Vanessa Rodriguez, who works for the corporation, says. “We believe Ram is an incredible example of innovation. He’s breaking new ground, which allows us to view the work in new and exciting ways.”
When it comes to the comic book, Devineni is the Stan Lee of the team. He is the creative mind and publisher behind it. He also does the augmented-reality work.
But to give Jupiter life and a voice, he needed a writer. He says he turned to Komunyakaa, whom he has known for 20 years, because of his knowledge of history and deep way of thinking about topics that others might see only in political terms.
When Komunyakaa talks about Jupiter now, he does so with an intimacy that makes the fictional character feel real. He speaks about him as if he holds the power to determine his own story.
“I think Jupiter will go some places that surprise me, that I’m not even aware of,” he says. “This is just the beginning.”
The book is the first in a series, and it should surprise no one if Komunyakaa’s name appears on the ones to come.
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