INTERVIEW: Juni Ba Talks Comics, Art and Valuing Your Own Voice

Juni Ba artwork

Cassie posed some questions to Juni Ba, artist behind comics like The Unlikely Story of Felix and Maccaber and Kayin and Abeni, to chat about comics, illustration and telling stories inspired by personal cultures.

What first gave you your interest in comics and illustration? Do you have any advice for people looking to make their own comics?
I chose this path at eleven. (That sounds awfully shonen manga.) It’s a mix of a few things: I grew up watching a lot of cartoons, reading a bunch of comics (mostly French and Japanese), but the deciding factor was the fact that I would use my toys to create my own shared universe, so to speak. I invented stories, mostly for my own entertainment, acting as both director and spectator.

Growing up in Senegal meant that I had access to maybe 10/20% of all the geek toys and books and such produced in the west, so I had to make up for it by drawing my own figures, if I couldn’t buy a proper one.

Then, naturally, I made some comics. First with Sonic the Hedgehog (the Sonic CD intro animation blew my mind) and then through discovering manga, mostly because of Shaman King. I can cite Samurai Jack or Hellboy as big influences as well.

An advice to newcomers? Be crazy obsessed. I remember drawing in moving cars, despite the bad road, or at night despite the electricity being out. I drew so much my Grandma thought I was going to die. You can find anything you need on the Internet to learn technical stuff, so I won’t bore you, but I think we underestimate how much this needs to be a need for you, not just something you “enjoy”.

Can you tell us a little about Felix and Maccaber? What compelled you and Hassan to create the comic?
The Unlikely Story of Felix and Macabber is set in a world of monsters, where wrestling is the most popular sport ever. A real show of masculinity and strength, and an opportunity for its champions to be adored.

Felix is a little boy. Shy, awkward, and a bit socially anxious. He dreams of being tougher though, and his dream “might” come true, when he meets the great wrestler Macabber: a legend, now old and bitter, living alone in a mansion. Felix hopes to learn how to be “a real man” with the power and fame [of that] combined, while Mac has the benefit of hindsight and knows that this is not a path that necessarily brings happiness. So the book is very heartfelt, very action packed, and full of honesty. It’s a bit of a therapy for us. But I think people will get a better idea of it by pledging for it on Unbound, since they’ll get the first chapter right away. Plus, Hass made a Strip Panel Naked video about it!

As for how we made it: I contacted Hass for a completely different purpose at first. I had two comics that I just completed to get an illustration degree, and wanted him to take a look because his channel, Strip Panel Naked, had been so influential in the making of such stories. I actually thought he’d never reply. Funny how you imagine the folks you admire to be super busy and far away…but sure enough, January 1st 2017, I open my e-mail, and there’s a message from him going something like “It’s really awesome, let’s make a book. I don’t know what it’s gonna be about yet though”. I may have died for a second, just from shock. Obviously I replied yes, and it grew into this project.

Hass and I have similarities in the ways we were brought up. He, in England, with an Arabic dad, and I in Senegal, from a mixed family also. That, plus a certain inadequacy to find ourselves in whatever male archetype/role model you are expected to fit into. Felix and Macabber is the result of a reflection on that, sparked by a few interviews Hass did, of wrestlers old and young. An open window into what it means to be a man, and what their aspirations are, compared to the more jaded and regretful outlook of older wrestlers, who realised they maybe made some mistakes along the way.

What’s it like working with Unbound?
It’s extremely free. Unbound provides a platform on which people can come and help the crowdfunding of any project they fancy. We handle the campaign ourselves, and if it pans out (which we hope it will) it’ll be available in bookstores!

Which is really the reason why support for this project is so important, so share away!

Can you tell us a little about Kayin and Abeni? The conflation of African cultures and sci-fi elements is very unique and makes for some amazing visuals, is this something you’ve always wanted to do?
Kayin and Abeni is a digital comic series set in a fantasy-space world using African aesthetics, themes and cultures as a source of inspiration. It follows two cousins who travel around the universe, having adventures and meeting talking animals, fighting corrupt governments or goofy situations.

I had been working on creating my own aesthetic for years now so I suppose I always wanted to do this, and I ended up doing this one when my collaborator Keenan Kornegay pitched it to me.

Growing up in Senegal meant looking at African art, and the [African] lifestyle there, as something just “normal”. It’s just how things are. But I started realising, as I grew older, the value of having your own voice, especially when you come from a place so rarely represented. Looking at the comic landscape representing Africa, I find very few that use African folklore as its own thing, instead of a backdrop for a more Western character to evolve in. Basically: it’s exotic to people. But it’s not exotic to me. It just is. And I wish to use the folk tales I grew up with, the customs and everything else, as a source for a fantasy story.

It’s also a great way for me to dive deeper into my own culture and past, and the culture of other countries, ethnic groups and civilizations. It’s also attracting some eyes, and could be the next step to a more fleshed-out project, actually edited and published some day. Baby steps, you know. Hopefully some day people will be so used to this it’ll be as mundane as samurais are now.

Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
Several. I’ve received some sweet proposals too! But my energy is focused on Felix and Kayin and Abeni (or a new project it could lead me to). I hope I’ll have more to say on that front soon !

Anything else to add/say?
Well I guess the big take-away here is that we’ve got this sweet sweet book about monsters coming out!

But another thing would be a huge thank you. Not just to you for this interview, but to the people who support me, who voice their love for what I make. I’ve started working on Kayin and Abeni about three months ago and I got feedback from folks like Ron Wimberly, or even a recommendation from Jordie Bellaire on Felix. I’ve talked to folks my 15 year old self in Dakar, Senegal never thought he could even share a word with. I suppose it’s a leap of faith to do this, and it’s scary, but the responses have been amazing. And a special thanks to Hass. Receiving such a show of faith from him is like having a badge of honor to me.

You can pledge to Felix and Macabber over on Unbound, and you can find out more about Kayin and Abeni by clicking here. Thanks so much to Juni Ba for taking the time to talk with Cultured Vultures!

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