After the publication of the graphic novel adaptations of Kindred and The Parable of the Sower, Abrams ComicArts senior editor Charlotte Greenbaum engaged John Jennings in a dialog of how they could best provide a forum for speculative fiction and Afrofuturism stories. The Megascope imprint was born, and on Friday, Alverne Ball (Across the Tracks), the husband wife team of Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes (The Keeper), artist Marco Finnegan (The Keeper), and artist Jeremy Love (The Resurrectionists) joined with Jennings and Greenbaum in a panel discussion to preview their books and discuss their collaborations with Jennings on the Megascope imprint.
The inspiration for the Megascope imprint arose while Jennings was conducting research on object prototypes that are created inside stories, such as the dream mask in Butler’s Parable of the Talents. He came across the term “megascope” in his readings about a W.E.B. Du Bois 1908 short story called “Princess Steel.” Within Du Bois’ story, the protagonist offers a critique of the United States Steel industry through a machine that sees across time and space. According to Jennings, “Princess Steel” predated the term “science fiction” and was one of the first science fiction stories by an African American man.
Jennings fixated on this idea of the megascope and wanted to use the term as a launching point for a line of speculative fiction and horror stories. Jennings brought his ideas to Abrams Senior Vice President Andrew Smith, who turned around and offered Jennings the opportunity to head the new Megascope imprint.
According to Jennings:
“Megascope as an imprint would look at the unseen world, uncharted territory, and focus on people of color and speculative technology, which includes horror.”
One of the first passion projects Jennings took on at Megascope was The Eightfold Path, a concept that arose from Barnes’ love for Buddhist philosophy and martial arts. Barnes thought it might be possible to use an EC Comics approach to visually discuss the concepts of the Four Noble Truths. Barnes sought the help of Buddhist scholar Charles Johnson for help in confirming certain facts. According to Barnes, The Eightfold Path uses “delightfully horrific stories to teach morality” and was a forum he and Johnson created “to be a couple of evil kids together” to tell stories. “There is adventure, but at the core of it, we’re just laughing our asses off, having fun.”
Barnes praised Abrams for taking on such projects, stating:
“We felt like Abrams was ideally placed for Megascope to really push the envelope of what type of storytelling could and which stories could be told. We made a name of ourselves in this industry as the home for that kind of work.”
The conversation turned to Due, who related how Jennings and Barnes convinced her to turn an 18-page treatment for a screenplay into a graphic novel. Jennings and Barnes approached Due to convert The Keeper into a graphic novel and enlisted Finnegan, an illustrator friend, for the art.
“I got involved because John texted me at 11 o’clock at night and goes, ‘How would do you feel about drawing ants,’” said Finnegan. “I have a script that I think I’m going to get and that has a lot of ants, but what they sent two months later blew me away. I cried the first time I read it. It was just written visually well.”
The screenplay format largely influenced the visual and cinematic feel of the story. Due had this to say about her intentions for The Keeper:
“I wanted to capture the vulnerability of a young black girl in the face of mortality, perseverance, and having to live with an aging grandmother. There are a lot of things but ultimately, I think the question is, when do you become a monster? And that’s something that we need to ask ourselves from time-to-time because the world is full of everyday monsters, we don’t realize all the monstrosity because all of us are trying to survive.”
While not speculative fiction in the technical sense, Ball’s Across the Tracks covered monstrosity in a different vein, communicating horror through acts of racism, Jim Crow bigotry and destruction. Ball had approached Jennings about a project that would honor the 99th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, where Black Wall Street was burned to the ground. As with Finnegan, the project’s initiation began with well-placed text message from Jennings. Ball went through several drafts to get the story right, and he spoke about the rewarding, if somewhat hurried, process.
“When I was writing this, I had COVID. I would literally get on my feet for an hour a day to write and then just lay back down. After the pitch sessions, John came back to me on a Friday and said to give a revision of this by Monday. And I wrote this in a week. I started writing in a fever pitch. In the process, I literally read five or six books, did a whole bunch of online searches with Stacey Robinson recreating this historical graphic novel, trying to pull references from everywhere, including the Greenwood Historical Society.
We didn’t want to focus on one topic. We wanted to focus on the destruction, not the trauma. We wanted to focus on the fact that this was probably one of the most racially terrifying times. And one of the most powerful parts of it ends on Christmas day. I believe we get a community of people who burned it to the ground, but we could still be human about it.”
Another Jennings text was the impetus to Love’s involvement on The Resurrectionists with Ho Che Anderson. The Resurrectionists is a Victorian noir, Lovecraftian story based in New York City in 1820. Groups of black and Native American grave robbers dig up freshly buried bodies to sell to medical schools. A street urchin falls in with the band of robbers and discovers that contact with the dead leads to an ability to revive them.
Love reflected on his experience with the book:
“I can speak to the fan. Usually when I read a script that I get to draw, I’m breaking it down. But with this one, I started in the first couple of pages, and it kind of made my head hurt because there were so many panels. But then eventually, I got absorbed into the story and by the end I had forgotten that I was going to draw it. It defies genre. It’s horror in name only. Even though it’s like this supernatural mishmash, it’s really grounded in reality.”
The panelists opened the forum to questions from audience members, who wanted to know what inspired each of these stories.
“Usually, a word will come into mind. It could be a random word. Once I get the word, I already know the meaning of the story, and I’m working my way forward,” said Ball.
On the other hand, Due’s influence came from personal experience:
“I was about eight years old, in my grandmother’s bedroom when she had emphysema and was on an oxygen machine. I was terrified she was going to die overnight. I’m the only one there, but also this was the first time I was looking at the process of mortality, and that had a huge impact for me in terms of central imagery that drove me to write The Keeper.”
Barnes took a different approach towards world-building.
“In contrast, I tend to think about story worlds. Something will happen that will trigger a thought. I can either create a situation and ask what is the perfect character to view this situation through. Or I can come up with an interesting character and ask what situation it would be and show us everything we need to know about. That’s the yin and the yang of it. And that’s what makes this so much fun.”
For both Finnegan and Love, the inspiration was much simpler.
“Everything starts with a story,” said Finnegan. “So, whatever the style, that message, the story, that’s the style I draw in.”
For Love, “it starts on the surface. I ask myself why I like it. The why is personal, and I can get excited about it.”
Jennings summed up the mission and scope of the Abrams Megascope imprint with the following:
“We just try to shoot for the moon…I get to work with the Tananarive Due, the Steven Barnes, the Jeremy Love. It is a dream come true, but it’s a passion project, and I think we’re making books that will make a change.”
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