Hulk, X-Men, Black Panther, the Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, hip-hop music, and James Brown are among the diverse array of interests that inspire comic book writer Sebastian Jones. As a lover of fantasy and comic books, Jones noticed a distinctive lack of fantastical narratives that don’t take place in some kind of mystical European setting. Unsatisfied with the representation of people of color in fantasy work — often a group relegated to a forest for some unknown reason — he took it upon himself to make a fantasy world that was more representative of himself. And so, Niobe and Dura were born. Their vast fantastical universe of Asunda has been in the making for 30 years.
“When I was a young guy, I was creating this fantasy world of Asunda,” Jones said. “And that’s where Niobe lives. And I think [I] was trying to find myself and I was mixed and living in this area of England… dealing with a lot of aloneness in these feelings of wanting to [fit] in, but never [belonging].”
Creating a company to house his universe was not a part of his plan. But while searching for a publisher for the works set in his Asunda universe, none of his options felt quite right. To Jones, their desire to publish his work felt like more of a bid at winning diversity points rather than a true passion for inclusion and his work. Treating diversity and inclusion as a trend or passing hashtags went against all that Jones believes in. So, even though he didn’t want to start another company after his record label, Jones took matters into his own hands. Stranger Comics was the result.
“[I realized] I’m gonna have to create a company again to protect the journey and innocence and opportunity and hope that Niobe might bring to someone like me if I had that when I was a kid,” Jones said. “Hopefully someone picks up [Niobe and Dura] and goes ‘Oh snap! I wanna be her.’”
Jones modeled the company after three businesses he admired: Blue Note Records, Taschen, and HBO. He wanted his company to have a signature so that readers know they’re reading a Stranger Comics creation as soon as they pick one of their books up.
“But if you come to Stranger Comics my goal is [for readers to go] ‘their stories are great, their art is great’, and authentic representation matters,” Jones said. “We say the story and art are sacred, fill it with a philosophy of quality and that authentic representation matters.”
Of course, being indie can be a kind of a catch-22. We’re conditioned to associate quality with reputability and fame. It’s these facets that can entice a reader to pick up your work. But what you gain in creative freedom can be lost in the budget you have to finance your work.
“And so the challenges have been very very severe when you go ‘Okay I’ve got a marketing budget of X.’ If I was at a big company that had millions if not billions behind them their marketing budget is the rest of the alphabet,” Jones said. “What’s more important? Is it more important that more people get to experience Niobe? Or less people but in the way that I want?”
Even as an indie publisher, the reception to Jones’ work has been monumental. The Kickstarter for his most recent project — Niobe and Dura: Wrath of the Ancient — has surpassed its goal of $12,500 by a huge margin. With over $100,000 dollars pledged, more than 700 backers, and still upwards of a week to go, it’s abundantly clear that his work does resonate with readers. Jones has been able to see the effect of his work firsthand.
“The reward has been phenomenal. When we’re at conventions we have elders [coming up] going ‘don’t give up, young man’ and then sometimes getting teary and it’s very humbling,” Jones said. “And you go ‘Okay, I made the right choices.’ Seven days a week work that it is.”
Jones’ success is a huge rejection of his naysayers. While trying to fund his work and Strangers Comics around 2008, publishers would reject him for a slew of ridiculous reasons. The usual suspects were that fantasy doesn’t sell, there aren’t enough Black readers, and there aren’t enough female readers. Jones disproved all of these with the success of his work. He recounts one instance where a Hollywood executive told him they’d only portray Niobe as a white boy. Jones held out even in the face of starting an independent business with all of its trials and tribulations and his determination was well worth it.
HBO has since picked up The Untamed — the comic that launched the series and universe — developing it as a series named Asunda with Prentice Penny attached in its current development phase. Penny, who has also worked on Insecure, is also working with Jones on Wrath of the Ancient as a co-author.
“He is the best listener. So it’s like you have an idea and he makes it better. If he has an idea, it’s probably great… The thing that he really does incredibly well…[is challenging me to] dig deeper,” Jones said. “Whatever the human emotion is, dig deeper. So that you can strip it all away, if there’s no fantasy [world] there’s no nothing. It’s just an older lady with a kid in our world. What [are] the core human elements? Make it the most human relatable thing.”