First announced in 2018, Megascope, a new graphic imprint at Abrams ComicArts under the direction of John Jennings, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, will release its first title, After the Rain, a graphic adaptation of a Nnedi Okorafor short story, in January 2021.
Megascope is also adding a previously unannounced title to its list. In May 2021 it will publish Across the Tracks, Remembering Greenwood, Black Wall Street, and the Tulsa Race Massacre by Alverne Ball with art by Stacey Robinson, a graphic nonfiction account memorializing the 100th anniversary of 1921 massacre of the Tulsa Black neighborhood known as Black Wall Street. The book will also include an essay on the event by noted scholars Reynaldo Anderson and Collette Yellowrobe.
Beginning in spring 2021 Megascope will release four titles, After The Rain by Nnedi Okorafor with art by David Brame, and adapted by John Jennings (January); Hardears by Matthew Clarke and Nigel Lynch (April); Across the Tracks (May); and Black Star by Eric E. Glover with art by Arielle Jovellanos (May.). Additional Megascope titles are planned for the fall.
The Megascope imprint—the name comes from a short story by noted African American sociologist W.E. B. Dubois—will be directed and curated by Jennings, an academic, acclaimed comics artist and co-adaptor of two of Octavia Butler’s celebrated novels, Kindred and Parable of the Sower, into bestselling graphic novels. PW talked with Jennings about the new Black Wall Street title, his work on After the Rain, and the launch of, and ideas behind, the Megascope graphic imprint.
Publishers Weekly: The Tulsa race massacre of 1921 has become part of pop culture in a way that has forced the general public to pay attention to it. What can you tell us about Across the Tracks.
John Jennings: What you’re saying about pop culture making things more salient is really important and it fuels why we wanted to do the book. We’ve had two major TV productions that have focused on the massacre: Watchmen, where the massacre figures prominently, and an episode of Lovecraft Country. Both of these very popular and well done series focus on Black trauma and on reconciliation over these issues. I was having a conversation with Abrams editorial director Charlie Kochman about where we are as a country right now, the pain and the disillusionment, and how the George Floyd murder has ignited the country. I mentioned to him that it was the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, so he asked if there was anything we could do for the 100th anniversary.
The idea was to put together a primer, a shorter work on the tragic event with a timeline and contextualizing essays by experts. The idea was to create something that was accessible for a younger audience, that could also be a teaching tool for librarians and for teachers of English and history that also had a strong bibliography. And we also wanted to honor the dead for the 100th anniversary. We reached out to Dexter Nelson II at the Oklahoma Pop Culture Museum who was extremely helpful and Michele Brown at the Greenwood Cultural Center.
Is there a focus in this book we should look for?
We wanted to celebrate the Greenwood district of Tulsa. We wanted to focus on the fact that the Tulsa race massacre did not end the Greenwood district. The Tulsa race massacre was an all out assault on Black people, who basically tried to fight back as best they could. Hundreds of people were killed, people were run off but some of those people said no, we’re not going anywhere and we wanted to depict that as well. It's a miracle. The people of Greenwood were super human. They rebuilt almost immediately the next year. They had a tent city, the Red Cross helped them get situated and they started building and fighting for their land and a lot of people stayed. And in a short time they built up the Greenwood section to be almost as strong as before.
The first book to be released from the Megascope list will be After the Rain by the acclaimed Nigerian American science fiction author Nnedi Okorafor, which was adapted by you with art by David Brame. What can you tell us about it?
After the Rain is based on an original short story by her called “On The Road.” I’ve wanted to do an adaptation of it for about 8 years. Nnedi and I have been friends for over a decade. “On the Road” is one of the only short stories she’s written that can be considered horror. It’s horror but it’s more about the tensions around self-discovery and the tension of being from two different worlds, just like Nnedi, who is Nigerian American. I started working on an adaptation but then I got married, started working on adapting Kindred and did not complete it. I did a lot of the breakdowns but I needed help on it. After Megascope was up and running I reached out to David Brame andf retrofitted my breakdowns into a script. We consulted with Nnedi as far as any changes to expand it. We wanted to do things that dialed into what the comics medium does well. Now it’s the lead book for Megascope.
Can you tell us about the larger ideas behind the launch of the Megascope imprint and its relationship to speculative fiction and to people of color?
This imprint was a direct result of the success of the two Octavia Butler books I adapted into graphic Novels (with Damian Duffy) and the growth of interest in Black speculative fiction across the board. I’ve never seen anything like it. As Sheree Renee Thomas’s anthology, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from The African Diaspora points out, despite the fact that Afrofuturist as a term was created in the early 1990s, Black people have been writing speculative fiction about race for a very long time. Black people have been actively writing about themselves and speculating in fiction about dreams, aliens, magic, conjure or what have you. George Schuyler’s novel Black No More, a satirical science fiction story about a device that turns Black people into white people, was written in 1931 or there’s the Henry Dumas, writing what Amiri Baraka called Afrosurrealist expression, who was actively writing about devices with magical powers and the devil. There’s always been a space for us to do this.
Once my Kindred adaptation came out I talked with Abrams publisher Andrew Smith about doing original content. He said that sounds like an imprint and I was like, well, yes it does. And that’s the birth of Megascope. I had been wanting to do something like this for a while. There’s so many stories by writers who have been inspired by Octavia Butler, like Nnedi, Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemison, Steven Barnes, and, Tannarive Due. We wanted a way to celebrate venerated voices of speculative fiction, and by speculative fiction, I mean things outside of what people call reality, and that incudes science fiction, fantasy, horror and anything dealing with the supernatural, from the perspective of people of color. And not just African Americans but Asian, indigenous people, and Latinx. There’s a lot of history that gets erased by mainstream educational practices on purpose, as well as systemic issues about what gets taught as literary cannon. I’m huge fan of crime fiction and there’s a lot of great mystery and crime fiction written by people of color that people don’t know about.
Where does the term Megascope come from?
The title of the imprint comes from [the great African American sociologist] W. E. B. Dubois. In 2015 I co-curated an exhibition at the Schomburg library in Harlem called "Unveiling Visions", which focused on looking at different types of storytelling objects created in Black literature, like the chair in George Schyler’s Black No More or the dream masks in Octavia Butler’s 1998 novel Parable of The Talents. These storytelling devices are discursive objects created to allow the author to have a conversation about race. Two professors, Brit Russert from the University of Massachusetts and Adrienne Brown at the University of Chicago, found an unpublished short story in W.E. B. Dubois’s papers called The Princess Steel that was written around 1908, 1910 or so. It’s a science fiction story that is a critique of capitalism and the US steel industry. It’s told through a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy allegory that is seen through a thing in the story called a megascope, which is a device created by a Black sociologist that may or may not be Dubois himself. It’s a textbook science fiction story that is like a gift from DuBois that lets us know more about the man himself and what he thought about speculative fiction.
In my classes I teach that the concept of race is a type of science fiction—its totally meaningless and it’s a story but we build so much into it. I believe that anybody writing about race is writing about a science fiction object. You might as well be writing about another dimension. So that’s where the name Megascope came from. Our mission is to uncover different voices, to empower them and give agency to writers of color who might not get a shot to tell their stories, and to go find stories that have been covered up by history that aren’t getting the proper attention.