Hunger Games' Amandla Stenberg teams up with Stranger Comics to create Niobe: She Is Life comic book series

“What haunts you? Is it the shadow you cannot run from? Or the memory you cannot escape?”

This is how the story of Niobe Ayutami begins.

Born of different life bloods, half wild elf and half human, half African and half European, Niobe is an orphaned teenage warrior running from a mysterious past in the fantasy world of Asunda. She is the ‘chosen one’ prophesied to fulfill a destiny of the tallest order: to bind nations against the devil’s wrath and save the world. But Niobe must first find her spirit while confronting her own past sins.

Niobe Issue #1 cover by Ashley A. Woods

Niobe Issue #1 cover by Ashley A. Woods

Niobe: She is Life is a coming of age comic book series following the life of Niobe Ayutami. Sebastian A. Jones, founder and publisher of Stranger Comics in Los Angeles penned the book, alongside 17-year-old actress Amandla Stenberg (Rue of The Hunger Games), and Ashley A. Woods (Baaaaad Muthaz) illustrated it.

“This is not the Superman or Batman for DC or Spiderman or Captain America for Marvel. This is not your rich, white male protagonist. This is … Niobe Ayutami. She is from a tribe and she has humble beginnings and she has dreadlocks,” says Jones.

Stranger Comics is unapologetic for making a Black female superhero the face of its franchise, Jones explains. But while Niobe’s melanin may be an obvious selling point, it is her captivating storyline that has brought success to the franchise since the release of its first issue in early November.

However, not once does Niobe: She is Life touch on Niobe’s skin colour.

In his journal article, “Black Skins” and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race, published in the African American Review in 2002, Dr. Marc Singer, a specialist in American literature, notes that superhero comic books have long relied on visually codified representations where characters are defined by their heroic costumes and aliases. This system extends to the superhero genre’s history of excluding, trivializing or “tokenizing” superheroes that are marked purely for their race.

However, not once does Niobe: She is Life touch on Niobe’s skin colour.

“There’s too many times in other different titles where they’ll take a selling point and drill it into the audience and it’s like overkill and I believe in just everything being natural,” says Woods. “Bottom line, it’s all about a good story.”

Niobe Issue #1 Preview page

Niobe Issue #1 Preview page

Niobe is quintessentially beautiful and youthful with her complexion, dreadlocks, trinkets, ponchos and skirts, emanating a quiet power she herself has yet to discover. A girl, not yet a woman, Niobe is life as the comic book title suggests.

Woods creates scenes of Asunda with vivid colours absent of any play on stereotypical ‘darkness’ and ‘evil’, and enriched with various cultures that have existed and warred against each other for thousands of years.

For Jones, who is of mixed racial ancestry, the character of Niobe illuminates a dream that lived in his heart and soul from childhood.

“Growing up, I read a lot of fantasy, played a lot of Dungeon & Dragons, played a lot of live action role playing, and this character was kind of a reflection of my hopes and dreams for somebody that could represent everybody; become kind of the Luke Skywalker of this world I started to create as a kid.”

Niobe’s tale is first introduced in Jones’ graphic novel, The Untamed: A Sinner’s Prayer, where she is portrayed as a young, orphan girl.

“I didn’t have anyone that looked like me to reference for a career in illustration or comics. I just had to go off of my own internal passions, so maybe I can be a physical representation to the next generation.”

Since then, Jones had tried to find the right person to help mold her character and sculpt her voice. Last June when he met Stenberg at the Mixed Remixed Festival, an annual Los Angeles-based cultural festival celebrating stories of the mixed, multicultural and biracial experience, he knew she fit the bill perfectly, and she willingly lent her own voice to Niobe.

“When you’re a teenager, you do feel all this pressure to make decisions and so on, and so the good thing about working with Amandla is she brings that teenage perspective as well,” says Jones. “As I’m hammering in the heavier subjects, she’s keeping everything very balanced.”

With the talents of Woods to bring Niobe to an art form, Jones and Stenberg established the perfect creative force behind what is one of the first nationally distributed comic books to include a Black female writer, illustrator and protagonist.

Niobe Issue #1 Preview page

Niobe Issue #1 Preview page

But although people of colour have made strides in mainstream comics as creators, the industry remains predominantly White.

As a Black female artist in the industry, Woods faced many obstacles, but stuck to her convictions and followed through with her goals.

“I didn’t have anyone that looked like me to reference for a career in illustration or comics. I just had to go off of my own internal passions, so maybe I can be a physical representation to the next generation.”

For now, with issue two of Niobe: She is Life due out in January 2016, Jones, Stenberg, Woods and the Stranger Comics team are excited to introduce a character as diverse as Niobe to the comic world and shed light on a mission that will hopefully inspire and celebrate the works of other creators who are people of colour.

“It’s amazing,” Jones says, “to hear and read that young girls, black or white … and people of colour [are] going, ‘Finally there’s somebody that represents me and it’s not the token character or the best friend at the white school on TV, and finally it’s not the boy who’s off to save the princess. Or, guess what? She is the princess, and she’s going to save the world her way.’ And those are the elements that we’re going to constantly challenge and break down.”

Photos Supplied By. Stranger Comics [Top Photo: From left to right: Sebastian A. Jones (co-author), Darrell May (Layout Artist), Hyoung Taek Nam (Cover Artist), Amandla Stenberg (co-author), Markus Prime (Cover Artist), Ashley A. Woods (Illustrator).]