Jupiter Invincible, the latest augmented reality comic from Ram Devineni and his New York-based Rattapallax press house, marks a bit of a departure for the doc filmmaker and technologist. Best known in the AR world for his comic book series Priya’s Shakti – starring the first Indian superhero and rape survivor (and named a ‘champion of gender equality’ by UN Women) – Devineni now travels both to these shores and back in time, to Maryland. ‘before the civil war. And he brings with him an impressive trio of collaborators.
Our superhero in this tale, the titular Jupiter, is the brainchild of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa. And while Jupiter may be a teenage slave, he’s also immortal – and able to join forces with more deadly superhero Harriet Tubman on his Underground Railroad mission to freedom. With illustrator Ashley A. Woods (who worked on tomb Raider, Niobe and the Ladycastle series) and publisher Eric Battle (who drew for both DC Comics and Marvel Comics), Devineni and Komunyakaa created a futuristic history lesson capable of moving from festival exhibits to staged reading, to (hopefully) a classroom near you in one kiosk.
Director got the chance to catch up with half of the super creative team, Devineni and Komunyakaa, just before the TFF comic launch on June 9.
Director: Ram, I believe you’re the only non-African American involved in this project, so how exactly did that happen? Was the idea Jupiter Invincible brought by one of the other artists?
Devineni: The original idea for the comic was mine, but it was more of a concept. I wanted to create a story about an African American slave who had the power of immortality. Even though he couldn’t die or be killed, he lacked forethought. He would therefore witness the repercussions of his actions, even 100 years in the future. Can Jupiter use his powers and wisdom to change the course of history to right racial injustice and inequality? That was the core of the idea, but it was Yusef Komunyakaa who brought it to life by writing a brilliant story with complex characters and storylines. Yusef can talk more about it.
Komunyakaa: I hope Jupiter Invincible takes a sidelong glance at this brutal institution from which rather obscene wealth and privileges have arisen and have been passed down from generation to generation. Jupiter is an albino, which makes him a doubly outcast. After being struck by lightning, traveling to the underworld where his mother reigns after dying in childbirth, and then returning to the plantation with now black skin, he seems an impartial young man who feels born to “speak” the horses in obedience. However, Jupiter is naturally defiant because he says, “My heart is not a slave.
Director: You collaborated with illustrator Ashley A. Woods and publisher Eric Battle to create Jupiter Invincible. So how did this process work? Did you approach the project as a unit or did each of you only address your specific area of expertise?
Devineni: Although I’m the general producer and brought all the different talents together, I think it was a collaborative process and everyone shared their opinions and contributions in all aspects. My initial idea was very rudimentary but came to fruition after talking to Yusef about the story and the characters. We spent several months in 2019 developing it. After our conversations, Yusef would write a few more pages until we had enough for the first edit. It was Yusef’s first comic book, but he’s a master poet and storyteller. He wrote it more like a play, so I had to convert it to comic book format before working with Ashley A. Woods on his stunning designs and illustrations. I really believe we had the perfect team to create Jupiter Invincible. There was a great synergy between all the people involved in the project.
Director: I’m very curious to hear about the research that has been carried out as part of the project, particularly at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and the Hampton Plantation in Maryland. Plus, you bring Library of Congress photos to life. So how do all of these elements intersect in the final work?
Devineni: The idea of creating the comic book started in the summer of 2019, when I was selected by the American Arts Incubator to lead a comic book workshop in Durban, South Africa. It was my first trip to South Africa and I had very limited knowledge of its history. While in Durban, I met some of the Indian and black freedom fighters who were involved in the struggle to end apartheid. They told me their stories. Later, I would spend time in Johannesburg to research movement at the Apartheid Museum.
Looking at the historical photos, there were many similarities between the apartheid complex and the power structures that were created during the Jim Crow era in America. Then I spent several months in the Merriweather Art District in Columbia, Maryland, where I visited the Hampton Plantation, and followed the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman’s paths to freedom. What was evident about slavery was a vast system of brutalizing and exploiting African Americans that continued after the Civil War. The shameless opulence of the plantation mansions contrasted dramatically with the slave quarters. I photographed everything relentlessly, knowing that I would use the materials for a future story.
It wasn’t until later, when I started working with Yusef on comics, that I decided to integrate the images into Ashley’s work using augmented reality. It was essential to show the reality of slavery and plantation life. I also used the US Library of Congress digital photo and story archive and put them in the AR. Even though our comic is fictional, there is solid historical research and the characters are based on genuine people.
Director: Jupiter Invincible comes with the exhibition at Tribeca, followed by another at the Schomburg Center Literary Festival. And then you have the staged reading at the Stella Adler Studio (of Acting). So why this multi-pronged strategy? Do you hope to reach as many different audiences as possible?
Devineni: I am proud that our comic book and our exhibition are very accessible to young audiences and accessible in different ways. Through the augmented reality of the book and exhibition at Tribeca, audiences can see the imaginative use of AR to deepen the history and experience of the technology show and see the powerful works of art by Ashley. During the Schomburg Center Literary Festival, we want the audience to appreciate the beautiful language written by one of America’s greatest poets, Yusef Komunyakaa. I also think the comic is easily adaptable for theater and film, and we hope to present it at Stella Adler Studio. We also run virtual events and workshops at Comic Con Africa. We want to make the correlation between apartheid in South Africa and slavery in America.
Director: Do you have a plan in place to eventually obtain Jupiter Invincible in schools across the United States?
Devineni: We publish the comic for free in several formats, and we hope to bring it back to Columbia, Maryland and introduce it to their libraries and their school system. Obviously, it’s a complicated process with the pandemic and with the reopening of schools, but we have remarkable partners and supporters in the community. Comics are a mix of pop culture art, literature, history, and technology – perfect for kids and schools.
When I went to school in New Jersey in the 1980s and 1990s, there was very little exposure to stories about African Americans or slavery. The only time I learned about slavery in school was when we watched the TV miniseries Roots, by Alex Haley. That was it, and the topic was never mentioned again. I believe bold new stories and narratives are needed to create a cultural shift and challenge perceptions of race in America.
Komunyakaa: Personally, I think such a comic goes beyond mere entertainment, and it could probably create a bit of a half-hearted dialogue. We have just started; it is the first part of a character imagined in a historical landscape. And everything that happens on the page makes sense. I feel that comedy and satire also enter this psychological space. We have just opened the first door to Jupiter’s life. Prepare for surprises and twists and turns in the labyrinth.