Steampunk Friday – Interview with the creators of The Invention of E.J. Whitaker

In scouring the web for Steampunk comics sometimes you hit upon one that you are interested in, but have completely missed the Kickstarter for. Even so, I felt compelled to give it a Kickstart the Comic treatment. At the same time, I reached out to the women behind the comic for an interview and with the official release of the comic today, it seems like a great time to catch up with Shawnee´Gibbs and Shawnelle Gibbs.

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How long have you been creating/working in comics?

SHAWNEE´: Shawnelle and I have been working in comics since 2011 when we started writing our comedic sci-fi series “Fashion Forward.” We’d been working in independent animation before that and comic books just felt like a natural step, since we loved telling stories through art. In addition to the “Fashion Forward” series, we’ve written short stories for anthologies, including several for Graham Cracker Comic’s Ladies Night Anthology, a great women in comics organization based out of Chicago. 

At what point did you sit down to become writers? Do you remember the first thing you wrote?

SHAWNEE´: When we were kids in elementary school, we’d staple together lined paper and create our own little homemade comics to sell to kids for a quarter. I remember those stories being about cartoon characters, not unlike the animated shows we were seeing on tv at the time. Imagining fictional worlds and writing about them was something that began early for us. It was an awesome way of entertaining ourselves and our friends and a surprisingly great way to make candy money. 

Who inspires you? Or do you have a favorite artist or creator?

SHAWNELLE: We are inspired heavily by our mother, who set us on this path with her eternal love of illustration and stories and our strong desire not to bring shame upon her head (laughs). Octavia Butler who we discovered in our youth, and whose stories spoke to our souls, and the work and careers of a host of writers and artists such as Vera Brogosol, Nnedi Okorafor, Sonny Liew, Vashti Harrison, and the list goes on and on. In terms of our own work, Shawnee and I are forever inspired by life itself, history and the human condition. We’re constantly getting hit with shocks of inspiration, our notes applications in our phones are a laundry list of thoughts and ideas for stories and projects.

How do you manage your daily/family life with your creative work? Is this your 9 to 5 or is this your 10 to 2?

SHAWNELLE: We’re still working on it, actually. I think it’s a lifelong process. Shawnee and I don’t have families of our own at the moment, but it’s something we constantly think about, carving out time to stop and smell the roses and spend time with our partners, friends, and families. We both make our living in creative and demanding jobs, and write and produce our own content independent of that. It helps to have the resources to take trips and take breaks when we can, it’s just a matter of taking breaks. We both have incorporated sacred time for meditation and stillness that has been really helpful to how we approach the days and weeks. Having a partner to help get the check-off list of things to do helps tremendously as well. So that when we need to tap out for a day or two, there’s someone there to carry the torch.

Working with your sister has to be both amazing and bring an entirely different set of challenges. What’s your process look like when you’re writing? Do you go with the full outline? Or are you a fly by the seat of your pants type?

SHAWNELLE: Having some level of organization and a plan when it comes to writing has always been a big part of our process. But when we first started writing together, we’d outline together and then try and sit down at one computer and write together as a team….and….it was difficult, to say the least, and SLOW. We’d spend more time debating about dialogue than actually getting it on the page (laughs). But over the years, we definitely have found our groove in respect to writing and most things. These days we’ve learned to work more remotely, and we’ll come up with an outline that we both are excited about, split it in a way that makes sense, and have at it separately. That way we can swap pages, make scene and dialogue punches without getting into long western-movie-style stare-downs (laughs).

What inspired you to create The Invention of E.J. Whitaker?

SHAWNEE´: While working on the story for “Fashion Forward,” which is a time travel adventure that jumps time between present day New York and a New York twenty five years in the future. We were also writing a screenplay about an African American entertainer who lived during the early 1900s. 

So we were simultaneously looking at historic photos of African Americans from the early part of the 20th century, while also perusing designs and concept art of what the world would look like in the near future. And an idea started to emerge about a young black woman of the Victorian Era who had dreams of becoming an inventor. Once we started fleshing out the details and knew there’d be flying machines and robots and fanciful gadgets involved, we thought comics would be the perfect medium for it. 

Was this a case of coming up with the story first and then the setting or vice versa?

SHAWNEE´: I think as the story started to take shape, the setting pretty quickly followed. As a historical fiction piece, we wanted to anchor The Invention of E.J. Whitaker in an America that actually really existed. Since our heroine, Ada, is an inventing phenom, we thought placing her on the campus of Tuskegee University, where legendary inventor George Washington Carver taught and lived would be the perfect place for her. 

We also knew that one of the most challenging places to be black and a woman at the time was the Deep South. So having our adventure get underway in both Alabama and Texas gave the story real palpable tension and danger. 

What’s been the reaction to the book?

SHAWNELLE: We’re really thrilled that our readers are enjoying the beginning of the series, and the steampunk community has also embraced it as well. In our early reviews, they’ve been really positive and it helps as we’re digging into the second book to have that level of reaction. It’s very validating.

Are there themes and/or subjects you find yourself drawn to again and again in your work?

SHAWNELLE: Science Fiction, Adventure, and History are recurring themes in our work, and there’s always some level of comedy sprinkled in somehow, someway. For some reason, orphans are a recurring part of our narrative universe, probably because we grew up in a single-parent family and were “half-orphans” (as we’ve phrased it) ourselves. We’d need to get a psychologist in to help answer this one (laughs). Women overcoming obstacles to find their way/place in the world is always part of the undertone to our stories, I believe, because essentially that is a big part of our own journeys.

After running a successful Kickstarter for The Invention of E.J. Whitaker, what have you learned about the process of Kickstarter? What do you think has contributed to hitting your goals on The Invention of E.J. Whitaker? Do you view the platform as a testing ground for the concepts?

SHAWNEE´:  It is an incredible tool for testing concepts and finding people who may be interested in what you do. But I’ve gotta admit, Kickstarter can be a terrifying platform—I think both our knees were probably trembling a little as we hit that “Launch” buttonBeing as organized and as prepared as you can for crowdfunding, and researching firsthand accounts of both successes (and failures) was key for us. There will be unexpected bumps in the road on your journey, but staying committed and never being deterred by hiccups will help you reach your goals and cross the finish line.

We are super thankful to our Kickstarter supporters for believing in an unconventional story about one young woman’s courage to dream big despite the cultural and societal limitations surrounding her. We were floored that so many people believed in our little steampunk tale enough to help over fund it by $10,000.

Comics is an amazing collaborative medium, and it looks like you’ve managed to gather a talented team of co-creators around you. Tell me a little about working with the pencillers, inkers, colorists, and designers.

SHAWNELLE: Independent comics allow us to realize the worlds and stories of our dreams with a small team of people. On The Invention of E.J. Whitaker, we were able to call upon a couple of incredible artist/friends we’ve worked with in the past. That’s Mark Hernandez (Penciller) Hasani McIntosh (Colors), Earl Womack (short story) that we knew and worked with beforehand. Mark and Hasani we worked with on a beautiful, animated project some years ago, and we met Earl “amazing artist/kindred spirit” Womack at Long Beach Comic Con about five years ago, and have been looking for ways to work together since.  We met Shanna Lim (Inker) June Park (Graphics) and were lucky to work with ladies from the LNA anthology series we’ve contributed to in the past —Lauren Burke (Copy Editor) and Emi Rosen (Letterer). We truly became a small comics publishing house with this one.

The process went pretty much like this — After finishing up all of our concept art and character sheets with Mark and Hasani, it continued with the script that we workshopped with Mark to get ready for Shanna for inks, and finally Hasani for colors. Over several months, we had a rotation of pages of art with each artist/“department” if you will, until it was finally ready. And we love our team, because like us, everyone was working full time jobs, heading families, having life happen, etc., and their time, commitment, and care with it continues to warm our hearts. It took a little longer than we initially anticipated to finish it, but the team rallied (shoutout to Mark and Hasani who divided the lions share of it!). We are so proud of what we were able to to do together and what’s possible for the future.

Where’s the best place to find out more about The Invention of E.J. Whitaker and the rest of your works?

SHAWNEE´: You can find out more about The Invention of E.J. Whitaker at http://www.ejwhitaker.com and find the rest of our work at http://www.gibbsisters.com

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The Gibbs Sisters are an award-winning hybrid team with credits in writing, producing, and animation. The twin sisters and collaborators have created a brand of quirky, fun projects that have entertained audiences across the globe. They are the creators of the popular online animated series’ Adopted by Aliens and Old Ladies Driving, and the YA time-travel comic book series, Fashion Forward. Their comic book adventure series, The Invention of E.J. Whitaker, a diverse re-imagining of the early 20th century, makes its comic book debut March 30th, 2018 published by BopSee Books. 

 The Gibbs Sisters are members of Writers Guild of America, West, The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the Organization of Black Screenwriters. Their combined credits included Producing for Emmy-Award winning series’ Top Chef and Project Runway, and popular television series’ X-FactorThe Ultimate Fighter, Food Network’s  Holiday Baking ChampionshipCupcake Wars, Discovery Network’s Shark Week and National Geographic’s Wicked Tuna, as well as contributions to Disney’s Emmy winning sitcom, Wizards of Waverly Place.

 The pair are also alumni of the renowned USC Guy Hanks & Marvin Miller Screenwriters Fellowship.

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The Invention of E.J. Whitaker: Issue #1

Written By: Shawnee´Gibbs, Shawnelle Gibbs

Pencils by: Mark Hernandez

Colors by: Hasani McIntosh

Inks by: Shanna Lim

Short Story Art by: Earl Womack

Letters by: Emi Roze

Cover Art by: Mark Hernandez, June Park, Sharifa Patrick

Copy Editor: Lauren Burke

Published by: BopSee Books

Release Date: Friday, March 30th, 2018

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I want to thank Shawnee’ and Shawnelle Gibbs for their time in answering these questions. Be sure to check out the first issue of The Invention of E.J. Whitaker today!

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John McGuire is the creator/author of the steampunk comic The Gilded Age. Want to read the first issue for free? Click here! Already read it and eager for more?

Click here to join John’s mailing list.

His prose appears in The Dark That FollowsTheft & TherapyThere’s Something About MacHollow EmpireBeyond the Gate, and Machina Obscurum – A Collection of Small Shadows.

He can also be found at www.johnrmcguire.com

About John McGuire

Writer of comics and novels. In 2006 his first short story "The God That Failed" was published by Terminus Media in their debut comic Evolution Book 1. Since that time he has had stories published in Terminus Media's Evolution Book 2 and Evolution Special, Kenzer and Company's The Knights of the Dinner Table, and Four J Publishing's The Burner #3. Currently he is eagerly awaiting the digital publishing of his first creator-owned comic The Gilded Age #1 to be published online as well as his first novel The Dark That Follows later this year.
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