The Last Count of Monte Cristo, written by Ayize Jama-Everett and illustrated by Tristan Roach, is an afrofuturist retelling of the classic novel by Alexandre Dumas. Published by Abrams ComicArts imprint Megascope, The Last Count of Monte Cristo is available now at your local bookstore and/or public library.
The Beat got the chance to catch up with creators Jama-Everett and Roach over email. We asked all about their personal history with the source material, found out about the process of world-building in the graphic novel, and discovered the inspiration behind the book’s futuristic ship designs!
AVERY KAPLAN: What was the genesis of The Last Count of Monte Cristo? How did you both come to be involved?
AYIZE JAMA-EVERETT: John Jennings came to me and said “Hey do you want to do a book about the last Count of Monte Cristo and outer space?” I’m sorry, but so much of the outer space fantasy/science fiction that I read looks like escapism. I find it boring. However, I told him I’d be interested in doing The Count of Monte Cristo 200 years in the future, having to deal with climate change. John said, “Bet,” and I got involved.
TRISTAN ROACH: It all started with a message from Jennings, who had me in mind for a new project that he felt would be a great match for my artistic style. As soon as I read the pitch, the idea of being able to participate in world-building for this “solar punk” reimagining of the count, it immediately caught my attention and I eagerly accepted his offer. Once I submitted my portfolio, the team behind the scenes was impressed and enthusiastic about my contribution. And so, our journey began.
KAPLAN: What is your personal history with The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas?
JAMA-EVERETT: Monte Cristo was the first novel that I finished. I was about 9 or 10 years old. Of course, it was an abridged version but still longer than most. It was a Penguin Classic. I didn’t learn for years later that Dumas’s father was Black and the basis for many adventures, the Count and The Three Musketeers. A few years ago, I read a book about his father, The Black Count by Tom Reiss, that was amazing. It made me want to do more with the story, but I didn’t know how. So when John came to me with the idea, I got super excited to try and include some of the racial and Military politics from the novel and the father’s historical account in this sci-fi piece.
ROACH: I was first introduced to the book by one of my secondary school teachers, but as it wasn’t a required read for class, I kept putting it off. It wasn’t until years later, when the movie adaptation was released, that I became more interested in the book. Like many great works of literature, it has become a nostalgic and cherished read for me. It is my hope that our adaptation can evoke the same feelings in someone someday.
KAPLAN: While the story is based on The Count of Monte Cristo, it’s set in a future world all its own. What was the process of world-building like for this book?
JAMA-EVERETT: I borrowed heavily from Octavia Butler‘s process. I was fortunate enough to see her three times before she died, and when asked how she came up with her sci-fi ideas, she said that she read the New York Times science section daily and that many of her ideas sprang from that. I searched New York Times science section for any conversations about climate change and what the Earth would look like in about 200 years. It didn’t look great. But I also know from my studies that resistance and adaptation to change are essential elements of humanity. I looked for the places where people would adapt to climate change and the falling of the old world, i.e., mammals like horses tend to get smaller when it’s hotter. In contrast, lizards and reptiles get larger when it’s hotter, and if the world is getting hotter, there might be a place where lizards are the size of ponies. I want to be able to ride a lizard.
I also base the story on the east coast of Africa because the continent has some of the fastest-growing economies in the world today. I didn’t want to extend the capitalist West project so far in the future that it seemed inevitable. I wanted to celebrate the African continent’s diverse ethnicities, cultures, styles of dress, food, architecture, and languages. I was so lucky to be paired with the incomparable Tristan Roach, who took all my mad ramblings about these different cultures and styles and put them to excellent visual display.
ROACH: The world-building for the book was inspired by not only Aiyze’s vision of humanity’s adaptability in times of hardship but also by my own inspirations. I wanted to create a world that visually conveyed sci-fi aesthetics with an appeal found in series such as Gundam and Studio Ghilbi, which I love. One notable example of this adaptability is the portable cooling units and how their refinement is based on the class system in the world, with military units featuring the best technology available to humanity.
Characters are a crucial aspect of world-building, as they bring the world to life and provide insight into its culture and society. Many of the characters in the story are dressed in outfits that showcase their culture while also adapting to the climate. The styling of the clothing and the overall feel of the world draw inspiration from visionaries such as Mobieus and Hayao Miyazaki. I aimed to create a world that felt as grand as the worlds these visionaries have built while still remaining true to everything Aiyze envisioned.
KAPLAN: What was the adaptive process like in terms of character development? Was it a straightforward process to move the characters from the past into the future, or were there any particular challenges that emerged?
JAMA-EVERETT: If you read the original Count of Monte Cristo, you’ll see that a lot of its politics and culture are based on the Napoleonic era of France. This is an era that very few present-day readers of graphic novels have a lot of awareness of. I had to do some Googling when reading the expanded version of the book to figure out who the heroes, the villains, the politicians, etc. The Black Count does a great job of laying a lot of that out. So the main background plot had to mirror the Napoleonic era in fighting and reversals. While pulling on something new, I imagined a Dalit or Untouchables war in India, and I wondered what a United African continent would say about rebelling dark-skinned people in India. That’s the background conflict our main character, Dantes, has to deal with. It main plot needed to be more straightforward.
The central rivalry conflict stays the same. It is still, at heart,the core of the superhero narrative: a man unjustly incarcerated learns the tools for self-liberation and domination of the world only through rigorous study and inhuman amounts of discipline. That is the core of the first part of The Count of Monte Cristo. The second part is uniquely French and a tale of absolute and total Revenge. To those things, I stayed loyal to the spirit, and let the location and the main players shift. I loved being creative with that aspect, hopefully making it more relevant to modern-day readers.
KAPLAN: In the Afterword, Jennings explains that The Last Count of Monte Cristo contains elements that fit into the subgenre of “Solar Punk.” Can you tell us about these elements of the story and why you wanted to include them?
JAMA-EVERETT: When people think of Solar Punk, they often think of harmonious nature and technology growing and evolving together. We see that on Dante’s ship, now known as the Monte Cristo. But I believe in the rest of the locations in the novel you’ll find failing Solar Punk, so while Dante can sail the world with solar sales and genetically altered catfish and electric eels powering his ship, he must pilot through vast islands of discarded plastics and be aware of acid rain and other environmental disasters through which Technology holds no cure.
As a little punk kid growing up, the “punk” part, I believed to be the most important aspect that I held most dear to my heart, was not the Mohawks or the leather jackets, but the D.I.Y. aesthetic, the do-it-yourself. I wanted to include those elements because I saw them as a natural fit for a character who lives in a dying world with supply chains broken and the consistency of materials at risk all the time. The hero in that world only needs their hands, minds, and drive to make things happen. Dante does everything for himself.
KAPLAN: Relatively early on in the book, a mind-blowing psychedelic sequence serves as a narrative turning point. What was it like writing and designing this part of the story?
JAMA-EVERETT: Thanks for noticing! Let’s just say I have a lot of love for psychedelic art. I threw as much religious symbolism, Consciousness altering knowledge, and yogic framing as I could at those pages. Quite honestly, I didn’t know if Tristan could pull it off. But of course, he blew it out of the water. I should have never questioned him. For the rest of the book, the goal was to show how absolutely different Dantes would be from the rest of humanity and how that process occurred. It was inspired by the feelings I got reading the original Count of Monte Cristo and Dante’s experience in prison with his mentor.
ROACH: All credit for the religious symbolism and other elements goes to Ayize, as it was his detailed instructions and reference materials that allowed me to create pages that closely aligned with his vision. It was clear that Ayize had a lot of love for these moments, and I tried my best to make them as close to what he envisioned as possible.
Working on these pages was also a learning experience for me, particularly in terms of understanding the importance of religious symbolism and other elements. These pages were crucial to the growth and character development of the count, and it was exciting to be a part of that process. I found these pages to be some of the most fun to work on, as they allowed me to delve deeper into the world and its themes.
KAPLAN: Were there any other books, comics, movies, music, or any other media that was particularly inspirational for you during the creative process for The Last Count of Monte Cristo?
- Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples– Reminded me of the joy of an epic read.
- Blade Runner by Ridley Scott– Reminded me that the future can be bleak and beautiful at the same time.
- Ghost in the Shell by Mamoru Oshii– Felt like what happened 100 years before the start of The Last Count. What we see in the novel is those levels of Technology in decline.
- Mad Max: Fury Road by George Miller– Shows how much more essential morals are in a breaking world.
- Blackalicious: Blazing Arrow– On repeat.
- Mos Def: Black on Both Sides– To keep it Blacker than oil.
These works of art all explore themes of race, identity, and revenge differently. They helped me think about how to tell the story of The Count of Monte Cristo in a way that was both faithful to the original and relevant to a modern audience.
ROACH: During my creative process, I immerse myself in various forms of media to help set the mood for each project. For instance, during the storyboarding stage, I find it helpful to watch movies and shows that share similar themes and concepts with the project. For The Last Count of Monte Cristo, I drew inspiration from revenge tales such as John Wick, Kill Bill, and Gladiator. I also found world-building inspiration in movies like Ghost in the Shell and Dune.
When it comes to the linework and colouring stage, I draw inspiration from one of my favorite Western artists, such as Stuart Immonen‘s run on X-Men, and various mangaka, most notably Satoshi Kon‘s Opus and Katsuhiro Otomo‘s Akira. This is when I like to slip into a more relaxed state of mind, so my music playlist reflects that. I listen to a variety of music genres, including game and movie soundtracks, classical, jazz, and rap. One playlist that stood out during production was a fantastic Japanese Fusion Jazz playlist, along with my Frank Sinatra playlist. Overall, the music helps me get into the right mindset to bring the story to life visually.
KAPLAN: Where did you turn to inspiration for the futuristic ship designs?
ROACH: Much of my inspiration for each of the futuristic ship designs comes from the love I have for mecha and Gunpla, particularly shows like Gundam and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. The battleships and technology aesthetics of the 80s and early 90s seen in these shows also inspired my work, and I paid homage to them in my designs. One of my biggest influences for this project in terms of mecha design is Kimitoshi Yamane, a production designer who has worked on several popular anime series. I appreciate the practicality and sense of realism that he brings to his designs, and I tried to incorporate these elements into my own work.
The Last Count of Monte Cristo is available now.