Humanoids, best known as the publisher of epic European science fiction graphic novels, is publishing Omni: The Doctor Is In, Vol. 1 by Devin Grayson and Alitha Martinez, one of the first releases to come from H1, the publisher’s foray into an interconnected superhero universe. The book will be released this month.
Each of H1’s line of comics features a hero with enhanced abilities that have been “ignited” by a mysterious event that has created a select group of superhumans around the world. Omni: The Doctor Is In Vol, 1 is the origin story of Dr. Cecelia Cobbina, an African-American woman and physician working for Doctors Without Borders. During a standoff with gunmen in a war zone in Africa, Dr. Cobbina realizes she has inexplicably gained superhuman abilities. In her case, she’s acquired a super genius level of mental acuity that allows her to instantly cycle through nine “modalities,” or types of intelligence, like a human supercomputer scanning and processing her immediate surroundings to figure her next step.
PW spoke to the writer Grayson (Batman: Gotham Knights and the Nightwing series) and artist Martinez (Black Panther: World of Wakanda, with writer Roxane Gay) about the creative process behind the title and why it stands out in a saturated superhero market:
Publishers Weekly: How did you go about creating Dr. Cecelia Cobbina, a multi-modality hyper genius?
Grayson: My marching orders were to model her after Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House, but that felt like a very limited and, frankly, masculine definition of intelligence. I was curious to see if I could come up with something broader. Deductive reasoning is a great power to play with, but what would a character with emotional intelligence look like? What about philosophical instincts, or deep self-knowledge?
Once I had decided I wanted Cecelia to have every kind of identified human intelligence, I had to figure out what they all were. That pretty quickly led me to Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (from Howard Gardner’s 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences), which was initially concerned with capturing the full range of human skills and talents in order to develop effective educational models for students who weren’t benefiting from traditional visual, auditory, or kinesthetic teaching modes. One of the first breakdowns I saw was in the form of a colorful chart, which I realized could help inform how we developed the power visually: I associated each intelligence modality with its own color and avatar so that we could literally see Cecelia thinking.
Martinez: Devin went into great detail about that in the script. I had to present that in a way that would be both visually pleasing and not muddled. I like more action, detail, and flow of movement, but a book like Omni needed a sort of quietness that would let the reader see everything clearly on the page. The bang-up moments come from the openness of panel layouts.
Can you tell us why you chose to portray a doctor/healer as a superhero, which is rare in today’s adventure comics?
Grayson: I think part of what makes the healer archetype both difficult and vital in the context of superhero stories is that it entails a devaluation of violence as a resolution. Medicine does occasionally make use of what amounts to brute force—ask anyone who’s been through chemotherapy or even orthodontia—but it’s not the norm. Ideally, healers are less concerned with the mitigation of symptoms than with the identification of the root cause of systemic disruptions. You can see how that immediately feels like a better fit for the detective genre, but I think attempting to plug it into superhero stories opens up the possibility of deepening the conflicts, both in terms of complexity and consequence.
What is it that excites you about drawing Dr. Cobbina?
Martinez: When I was a kid, I remember learning about the advent of computers, seeing grainy photos of those huge Univac machines and being very excited about the prospect of a technological future; but something troubled me so I asked my teacher, basically, why the landscape seemed so skewed. Where were the ladies and people of color (of course, I'm using modern terminology)? It was years and years later before I learned about the human computers of the 1930-40s, and women like Melba Roy, a black woman, mathematician and NASA chief of research, who tracked the trajectory of Echo satellites in the 1960s and got us to the Moon. Today it's impossible for a kid growing up not to see examples of strong women of all colors, especially black and brown women. Characters like Cecelia Cobbina add to that foundation and will hopefully inspire the pursuit of science by people who have been long told that the color of their skin dictates the knowledge in their heads.
Omni's story uses real world issues like climate change, immigration enforcement and racial profiling. Were you ever concerned that topicality might overwhelm the timelessness of good storytelling?
Grayson: Bringing contemporary issues into a story gives the reader an immediate sense of agency and stakes. There can be value in approaching moral struggles allegorically, and that tends to be where you get that timeless feeling you mention, but as a storyteller, it doesn’t feel to me like that’s working right now; I don’t see those stories rousing people to action, and action is needed. Superheroes can’t save the planet for us or change the daily reality of marginalized groups through token acts of compassion. We have to do the real work around that ourselves now, every day, and we need stories that can help point the way.
Dr. Cobbina’s natural appearance—eyeglasses, utility vest and black top—helps establish her persona. How did you go about putting a visual stamp on the character?
Martinez: The good doctor’s look was designed and solidified before I was on the book. I very much enjoyed drawing such a down-to-earth character. There’s less pressure for her to be A-list beautiful and impeccable at all times. It freed me to do more natural poses and facial expressions. Even drawing Mae Walters [Dr. Cobbina's sidekick/healthcare aide and an amateur cartoonist] was fun for the same reason. There was no pressure for her to be an idealistic version, because she was so natural I could really stress her quirks.