Like the stereotype of comic book fans, Jeremy Whitley is a white man. But when he and his wife, who is black, were expecting their first child, Zuri, he realized there was a gap in the marketplace.
"I wanted to share comics with Zuri when she was old enough," says Whitley, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate who lives in Durham. "But I couldn't find comics that had characters, from a standpoint of racial diversity, who looked like her and that she could aspire toward. So I started doing it myself."
The result was Princeless, an all-ages comic launched in 2011 by Action Lab Entertainment. It's the tale of Adrienne, a biracial princess in a fantasy kingdom, who rejects her parents' attempt to have her imprisoned in a dragon-guarded tower to be rescued by a prince. Instead, she tames the dragon and sets off to rescue her sisters in a series of humorous, exciting adventures that also comment on the roles of women in fantasy stories.
Princeless, which is currently on the fourth volume of its projected seven-volume storyline, has earned widespread acclaim, including an Eisner Award nomination, the comics equivalent of an Oscar. Now, Whitley is set to premiere a spinoff, Raven: The Pirate Princess, at San Diego Comic-Con this week, with the series slated to hit comic shops and digital platforms July 8.
The protagonist first appeared in the pages of Princeless. Raven Xingtao is a pirate princess on a revenge quest against the brothers who stole her inheritance. "It's little more YA, with a little more room for action and romance," Whitley says. "It's an opportunity to do some things that don't fit into what we're doing with Princeless."
In recent years, superhero comics have taken great pains—occasionally stirring up controversy—to diversify their lily-white, male-dominated universes. There have been efforts to include more female, non-white and LGBTQ people as both characters and creators at Marvel and DC Comics, such as the Muslim teenager Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel.
Princeless' proactive young female hero was ahead of the curve. "When we started Princeless, we were pretty unique in having a female lead, not to mention one of color," Whitley says. "Now, it's starting to feel like a more diverse marketplace."
Whitley recently witnessed this firsthand at a conference at the American Library Association in San Francisco, where a number of diversity-themed books took the spotlight, including Kwame Alexander's Newbery Medal winner, The Crossover. Whitley says librarians were coming up to him and saying how excited they were to see a book like Princeless.
"At conventions, people tell me this is the book they've been looking for and they didn't know it existed," he says. "That's kind of heartening and heartbreaking at the same time."
Whitley has plenty of other work on the horizon. He's launching his more mature science-fiction series, Illegal, funded through a Kickstarter campaign that raised almost $10,000 last year. He's also a regular contributor to IDW Publishing's acclaimed tie-in comics to the animated megahit My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. He's even got his first story with Marvel Comics coming out in the anthology Secret War: Secret Love, focusing on the relationship between heroes Iron Fist and Misty Knight—one of comics' first interracial romances.
But Princeless remains his passion, and he has ideas beyond the initial seven-volume storyline. "We all have day jobs, but we're dedicated to putting the book out and making everyone aware of it," Whitley says. "Anything we can do to get it out there, we'll do that."This article appeared in print with the headline "Princess Power."