Jazmin Truesdale was a week away from launching Aza Comics, an entertainment line focused on a team of ethnically diverse female superheroes. The first eBook, The Keepers: Origins, would be released June 24. But on June 17, the murder of nine black people in a Charleston church changed her plans.
The 27-year-old Durham businessperson and first-time author had already chosen Charleston as the hometown of Kala, the leader of her superhero team. The book is set in a parallel sci-fi version of the present. The Charleston massacre shook Truesdale, and she felt she couldn't ignore it.
"The reason I created this entire thing was to promote tolerance and diversity, geared at the youth," she says. "I couldn't release it without addressing that." She postponed the release date and started revising. When the book arrives July 15, the massacre will reverberate through its world, just like in ours.
Truesdale hopes for her superhero team, The Keepers, to appear in books, comics and video games. But for now, most of that is pure potential. What currently exists is some concept art by Whitney Sherman and two prologue books. Truesdale is starting with books because the major superhero publishers, Marvel and DC, are 75 years ahead of her in world-building. She can set down millennia of mythology more quickly in prose than in comics.
Aza Comics centers on five super-powered women saving the universe, Aza, from Kala's father. The backstory amounts to an alternate cosmology explaining the existence of different races on Earth.
Aza's seven "realms" contain infinite planets. The first realm is wracked by endless wars. Its godlike Protectors send refugees to a planet in another realm, the Earth-like Dunia, which they then seal off. Down the generations, Dunia's inhabitants forget that other realms exist, and the refugees become ethnic groups.
But there's a wrinkle: Long ago, the Protectors started a line of superheroes, always male, called the Askari, who have grown corrupt over eons. Kala's father is one, and he wants to destroy everything. A new team of Askari, the first female ones, are appointed by the Protectors and hidden in regions of Dunia where they blend in, eventually becoming the world's champions.
"There's a process here that deliberately parallels life," Truesdale says. She means the increasing prevalence of women and people of color in comics—as characters, creators and readers. If new companies such as Aza lag behind the big publishers in history and resources, they also have the chance to start from contemporary diversity and multimedia standards, rather than trying to drag 75 years of lumbering continuity up to date.
Marvel Comics has been making admirable efforts to diversify its main characters, which were invented by white men between the 1930s and '60s and then written and drawn mostly by white men until around the '80s. Recently, Thor became a woman. Captain America is black, and Spider-Man is biracial.
But things change slowly in a medium based on the archetype of the Superman. There was a recent furor over the sexist depiction and weak merchandising of Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson's character in the Avengers movies—and her bizarre talk-show slut-shaming by costar Jeremy Renner. Truesdale especially takes issue as a businessperson.
"It took me seven years to find a Wonder Woman backpack. From a business perspective, that's insane," she says. "My favorite Disney princess is Pocahontas, and it took me 20 years to get the Barbie. I finally got fed up. Why am I sitting here waiting for a company to do something I have the resources to do myself?"
Truesdale grew up in suburban Durham, in an education-focused family. Both of her parents have mathematics degrees from North Carolina Central University, where her grandmother taught. Her stepmother is an epidemiologist at the School of Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill, where Truesdale was pre-med and earned a degree in exercise science.
"I grew up around successful black people, and I've always been knowledgeable about the history in Durham," she says. She realized business was her passion and, after studying finance at UNC-Charlotte, earned an MBA from the Florida Institute of Technology in 2012. A gymnast and fitness enthusiast, she started the online company Jazmin Fitness. She also dabbles in real estate and does consulting work with start-ups.
"Doing business here in Durham, a city founded on black entrepreneurship, I thought it was odd that I would go into meetings and not see people of color," she says. "So I started focusing on helping college students, and females as well, recognize their entrepreneurial ideas."
Aza Comics took root six months ago, when Truesdale had the idea of tying in a video game with Jazmin Fitness. But it quickly took on a life of its own.
"I can never think small," she says, laughing. As she thought about ways to mix fitness and gaming, she realized she was imagining superheroes, and went back to her comics for inspiration. A lifelong Wonder Woman fan, Truesdale didn't start seriously collecting comics until college. She now has a storage unit full of them.
"I loved seeing these physically fit women," she says of her childhood attraction to superheroes. "My favorite artist ever is Janet Jackson, and one of her trademarks is her rock-hard six-pack."
It wasn't until Truesdale was 11 or 12 that she started to notice something else about the physiques of the heroes she loved.
"When you're a kid, you're not looking at color," she says. "But when I came across Storm [of the X-Men]—this strong, black, female superhero—playing Sega with my little cousin, I was like, wow, she's dark like me. How come we don't see more of that?"
This critical perspective on comics sharpened as she got older. "When one person seems to be the representative of an entire ethnicity, I hate that," she says.
It's why she decided to make The Keepers a whole team of women. Strong Kala can "manipulate force and energy." Agile Amaya, who is Korean, can open portals between realms. Tomboy Adanna, from Mumbai, is a shape-shifter. London fashionista Fenna has the power to manipulate emotions. And Ixchel, in Bogota, is a young genius who controls electricity.
"There's one girl every woman will see herself in, whether you're shy or more the leader; go with the flow or you're super sassy," Truesdale explains. "Women aren't cheetahs; we're more like lionesses. We move in groups."
Though Aza Comics has a long way to go to meet its goals, it was quickly noticed in the comics world. In March, Truesdale was contacted by Wizard World, a major comics convention that was coming to Raleigh. She was surprised, because Aza Comics was mainly just an idea and a new website.
She was placed on a panel, "Superwomen in Comics," with experienced creators such as Dean Haspiel and bona fide legend Ann Nocenti, a longtime advocate for women in comics, who edited multiple X-Men titles starting in the '80s. Truesdale got their feedback on her new universe, and a comment by Haspiel changed its course.
"He said, 'Clearly, you have the idea and know exactly what you want, so why don't you just write it?'" Truesdale remembers. "I thought it made a lot of sense for me to establish the foundation and then let other people take on the mantle."
The book will be sold for $3.99 through Kindle, iBooks and at www.azacomics.com. The second one is slated for October, with the video game and comics projected for next spring. Truesdale is also planning a children's book, written by her stepmother, who pointed out that her 5-year-old sister might like the characters.
"All these girls' powers are based in science and technology," Truesdale says. "Why not use them to inspire more girls to get into STEM jobs, where women are lacking? After CSI had on that girl with crazy hair, who's actually a forensic scientist, so many women went into forensic science. Sometimes, you don't know what you want until you see it."
Truesdale wanted one of her characters to live in the U.S., and her stepmother suggested that Kala could be from South Carolina. Truesdale liked the idea of tying Kala to the Geechee and Gullah culture started by former slaves in Charleston.
"She could be American, but rooted to her history and heritage," Truesdale says. "Kala lives on an island where she is isolated, but is able to come into American life. She is in college, a social activist who works in the Gullah community."
When Truesdale heard about the Charleston shootings, she closed herself in her room for a day and thought about it. She takes pains to say that, in her experience, most people are not racists.
"This is one dude," she says. "There are white people who care, and they've shown it." But she deeply identified with the victims—and, in a way, the shooter.
"Targeting a group of people that looked just like me—that could have been me sitting in church," she says. "And this wasn't a 75-year-old guy; he's just a few years younger than me. We grew up watching the same stuff and reading the same things."
The news of the shootings will ripple through Truesdale's story. Each character will deal with it in her own way, with her responses modeled on those of Truesdale's generation.
"We millennials think, bombing black churches? That's something people did in the '60s," she says. "This is happening in 2015? Kala's reaction is like that. She feels a sense of helplessness, because it's so random. Racism is not like [supervillain] Darkseid, and you just knock him out. This is an invisible monster."
Kala has a white friend, Katia, who Truesdale says she portrays as "feeling the backlash of what happened, but with sincere sympathy for Kala, so there's a dimension of hope." This perspective resonates with what seems to be a moment of wary accord in America, as Confederate flags come down across the country.
"Even something as simple as putting an idea in kids' heads to be kinder," Truesdale says. "That could be my contribution, my act."This article appeared in print with the headline "The Next Generation."