It goes without saying that we are huge fans of Stranger Comics. However, while you may have come across the Niobe sword, you may not be aware that that’s where it comes from. When the creator Sebastian A Jones first contacted us several years ago, we had no idea how far he would bring the world of Asunda! Recently, we checked in with him to find out how he’s faring with his successful comic book series, a dedicated fandom and an HBO series in the works.
Q. What led you to want to write the stories of Asunda?
A. It all started when I was a young boy growing up in Surrey, England. I got into painting miniatures, and playing D&D, but it was when I was around 12 years old, I really got heavily into fantasy and Live Action Role-Playing. I wanted to escape some of the stuff I was dealing with as a kid, so I started creating the fantasy world Asunda and its lead character Niobe. With her, I think more than anything she reflected my own vulnerabilities, and became a guide on how to navigate and possibly overcome them. So she became my champion in a way, harnessing my anger, my frustration, and my hope.
The world I had created became a bigger place through LARP, tabletop RPGs and creative writing. I think I was trying to make my fantasy world a better place. What started as an escape, became a weekly thing with friends and, where I was forced to constantly develop storylines and so on. Soon, I had the big gods, the dragons, the mythos, the magic, the languages, etc. But for the characters themselves, I wanted them to reflect more of a spirit that we all kind of share, you know. Hope, redemption, vengeance… Family issues, bullying, relationships on a fundamental, visceral level. Ultimately, the stories, the characters and their journeys are influenced in a major way by my experiences. I could play with the metaphors of love and loss, of bullies and of fighting back.
Being mixed myself, I also wanted Niobe to reflect that, not knowing where we fit in. In a sense, I think everyone can relate to that, who do we belong to, what group do we belong with. Plus, she’s not only half Black and half White, she’s also half elven and human, and ultimately half angel and demon to reflect the duality of spirit we all share.
Furthermore, I read a lot as a lad and I noticed a lot of medieval fantasy is euro-centric. In my own creative journey, whenever there was something not European, i.e. not viewed as part of the norm, I wanted to make sure my creation had its own sense of reality. From an anthropology standpoint, different countries have different cultures and in order to integrate that aspect, I wanted to represent that depth and scope on the giant scale of Asunda while also letting the characters tell their own tale so that we can explore the world with them.
Q. You used to run LARPing events. How has that influenced your writing? Did you use Asunda in your LARPing events?
A. I had originally LARPed with my best friends in England, and when I moved to America I ran my own LARPing events in local parks and national forests and so on. I could’ve run them in say D&D or Forgotten Realms or other books that I was reading at the time, but since I had this fantasy world, it just made more sense to set the events there. Before I knew it, I had a bunch of some 20 maniacs turning up to my house in their mum’s bathrobe every weekend, ready for adventure. They expected quality, so I had to deliver, and soon they became obsessed about the politics and the intrigue as well as the lore, magic, and mythos. This constant pressure kept me actively creating content on a regular basis. As a matter of fact, one particular character named Salem, or the Raven in The Untamed graphic novels, is an NPC I played back then! So a character created from when I was a young boy is now in the Asunda books. So yes, LARPing has greatly influenced both characters and storylines. LARPing is also where I met one of my dearest friends Darrell May. Darrell is the CCO and Art Director for Stranger Comics and has created many of the incredible characters and landscapes you see in our books. He also provides all of the concept art and layouts, and as an anthropology major provides all the checks and balances. Amazing to think - without LARP there would not be Stranger Comics.
Q. Do you miss LARPing?
A. I do, oh my goodness gracious. So, I arrived in Los Angeles when I was 18 and I’ve been here since. It was difficult to find a really good organization in this area. When I created my own club we were sneaky about it, usually only having events at night and always deep inside forests we may not have been actually supposed to be in. Asunda really took its formative years in LARPing. I really miss it. I don’t know if I’d be any good anymore, but I was pretty good then.
It would probably be like getting back on a bicycle after a long time. *laughs* I’d be really good for about three seconds. I remember fighting my now dear friend Richard, and I think I was beating him for the first moment or two, but then I was getting exhausted...when is this guy gonna go down?! Ultimately I lost, feeling my shame, until he tells me, “I’m college decathlete.” A reminder I was getting older and should probably stick to being the games master!
But yeah, I miss the camaraderie and working with people to follow their dreams and giving them things to talk about after a good game. One trick I played was hanging an empty cloak on a branch in a dark grove. The players would crouch there, wondering what to do, having a 30min one-sided conversation with an empty cloak until they finally made their move, discovered the ruse and the trap would spring. That was a lot of fun! Yeah, I miss it all.
Q. Asunda is becoming a tv series with HBO and you’re the executive producer. How is that experience?
A. It’s a huge learning experience on so many levels. I get to work with incredible producers who have really helped with building my knowledge of the industry. Obviously COVID19 has slowed everything down a lot and these things take a long time to develop to make sure all the moving parts are done right, beyond the world from the comics.
Q. Maybe, once the designs are locked down for some of the weapons, we could even have some officially licensed and safe-to-use products for fans!
A. That would be so cool. I mean, obviously it depends on development and it’s very far down the line, but that would be amazing.
Q. Speaking of future stories, when is Niobe expected to be back with She is Spirit?
A. Well, we’re in development for the comic She is Spirit but I can tell you that she’ll be back in 2 other stories. One is the second issue of The Untamed: Still a Fool (Volume 3 in the series) where she meets her brother WASO for the first time in a story of Niobe’s tribe, which also ties into our DUSU book. The other one, and I’m really excited about this, is from when Niobe is a young girl on the run, discovering her powers with Dura, a shaman, and a creator of the world. We just signed an incredible model Celai West to pose as Niobe. In May we’ll have a kickstarter for the first issue, so that’s amazing! And the art that is coming in is beautiful.
Q. Let’s talk a bit about inclusivity.
A. Right. Asunda is a multicultural universe so if you’re Black, White, Brown, wherever you come from, chances are you’ll find yourself represented authentically by creatives of many backgrounds in the Asunda books.
Q. What are your thoughts on writing Black characters?
A. It’s a beautiful honor. A lot of medieval fantasy is European-based but I wanted to open up the playing field to our global audience. I also wanted to make sure that anything that didn’t feel familiar to readers had its own sense of reality, its own landscape, its own way of breathing, talking, making love, dancing, rituals and ceremony…things that vary for each of our own real world cultures, which a lot of people take for granted and paint with a cosmetic brush. We wanted a world that reflected the depth and scope of our own, on a grand scale while also ensuring that the characters were relatable and could tell their own tale.
When creating a race, Elves as an example, whether Black or otherwise, we first consider where these specific groups of Elves are from and what their cultural heritage is, from nomads, and tribes, to city dwellers and so on. Have there been migrations to new lands, interactions with foreigners? What is the climate like in the different regions, the history, and politics? How can we talk about race and culture if we don’t honor and celebrate the realities of our differences? When I see a lone Black knight in a European setting I want to know how they got there. Too often entertainment will present unrealistic narratives that feel hollow, cosmetic and generally, just pandering, which doesn’t help anybody.
I think, based on my experiences, creating a cultural identity for both the landscape and inhabitant was intuitive, and needed. We celebrate various Black cultures in our fantasy world, and bring them to the forefront of our franchise in a genre that has been the norm for the European. But Black culture isn't a monolith. Black is not a genre. Depending on where you are in America, Africa or anywhere else, things of course differ a lot. And people learn at their own pace, as we are learning too. And we’ll fail here and there, as we proceed, but I think that as storytellers, when we want to do the right thing, we have a responsibility to honor what we are representing. From there, readers will also get to water the seeds that we've planted, so they get to learn and grow as well.
Q. We need to learn about the stories that exist before we can build the stories that we want to tell.
A. Yeah. I also needed to consider the individual realities beyond the larger stories of people, plural. I think that once you do that, you humanize everything and that translates to characters. Humanity transcends. It’s important that readers are able to care about our characters, believe in them and want to follow them. I made sure that I can put myself in these characters’ shoes and relate to them in all their flaws and tragedies because I can also relate to all their beauty and triumphs, so that readers can too.
Q. Is there anything you’d like to add? Final words?
A. With what we’re experiencing worldwide what really means a lot is the connection with our fans. I feel like through the worlds we create like with the Asunda comics and events like LARPing, we can find the commonality of community and fellowship. That has been extremely encouraging through all the lockdowns and social distancing. I think there’s been a feeling of isolation, which is magnified with social media but I’m very encouraged by how the communities that we share allow us to remain connected in fantastical and beautiful ways. It's given me a lot of faith, hope and excitement for the years to come. We don’t take any of that for granted so we’re doing a lot of livestreams and we’re planning for an app that will allow folks to have more interaction with us. Livestreams on Instagram every Thursday at 6pm pacific time! (9pm EST) and StrangerCon on YouTube Live March 20, 2020 from 10am - 8pm PST.