Inspired by the West African folklore of Juni Ba’s childhood, Djeliya (pronounced ja-LEE-ah) is a fantasy epic that tells the extraordinary tale of Prince Mansour and his royal storyteller Awa as they journey to reach the mysterious wizard Soumaoro, who guards a fearsome power that he once used to destroy the entire world.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Senegal at the beginning of the 90s, meaning that I grew up laying down on a mat on the floor, doodling manga characters, watching Beyoncé and Xena, while my cousin was getting her head done. Eating thieboudiene (great dish —you should try!) while watching Cartoon Network. Listening to the buzzing streets in my school bus in between two anime openings on my mp3 and witnessing heated political arguments among the adults — my independence activist Grampa especially — while watching anime.
I mention all this because the subject of the book makes it important to understand the seamless mix of both African influences, and the media, and ideas from the rest of the world. I still remember the damaged front office of the theater where I saw Blade when it came out (Yes, I was too young!).
As a kid I was considered too obsessed with fiction and way
too into my own head, but I think this book is a sort of way to tell my family I wasn’t that oblivious to the world around me, and it mattered as much as the world of Dragon Ball, even if I wanted to escape to Narnia most of the time. So Djeliya (pronounced ja-LEE-ah) is a letter to everyone from an African nerd, and I hope you like it.
Have you always wanted to be an artist? What inspired you to draw?
I always drew. Like many artists I suspect it’s not so much about when it started, but rather that we never stopped. I originally wanted to do pottery like my mother, until I was about 11, and started drawing Sonic comics with a friend. From then on I had decided I was going to do this for the rest of my life.
I had always loved comics, movies, and making my own stories, so I think I gravitated towards the medium that I could most easily do by myself, without reliance or interaction with other people. I was an awkward kid with a very clear idea of what I wanted to do creatively.
You’re an incredibly talented artist but also a wonderful storyteller; so often in comics a creator has a strength in one or the other. Where did you learn how to craft such compelling stories? Did you also write a lot as a kid?
Toys! I either bought or drew my own action figures and imagined stories set in the same continuity. That meant imagining characters, their motivations, their conflicts. My eyes would be the camera so even when I did a “take” and the line delivery wasn’t good enough, or the figure didn’t look how I wanted, I would do it again.
The ideas came from all the media I consumed as well as life, so I quickly absorbed narrative conventions from all kinds of places. As a teen I kept coming up with story ideas that were supposed to become comics, but I kept making new ideas, so it never went anywhere. As I grew older and entered my twenties I started reading and listening to theories on how to craft a narrative. As much as some of it came naturally, I wanted to learn the details of why certain things are constructed the way they are.
How did moving from Africa to France affect your drawing and storytelling? Do you feel more at home in one place or another?
I moved from Senegal to France when I was 19. Having only visited France every summer or so as a kid, it wasn’t that hard a transition. It also helps that I grew up on French media so the culture wasn’t alien to me. The effect is the same as for every mixed person I think. I grew up between two influences and it means I was surrounded by West African life, while reading French comics, and Djeliya is the result of that osmosis.
It’s refreshing to see a graphic novel telling a story pulled from West African influences and folklore instead of European. Tell us more about the West African folktales you’ve incorporated into Djeliya. Why are they important to you?
I just thought it would be cool! There was no push to feel represented or anything like that mostly because I don’t feel a particular lack in that area. I came to the realization that I had never seen a fantasy comic based on West African lore the way manga used Japanese lore to make cool adventures. Since then I’ve discovered that there’s a whole generation of us doing just that. It was a way for me to have fun, and also learn more about my part of the continent while doing research. It gave context to so many little things in my everyday life in Senegal that I never bothered to pay much attention to because it was simply there and mundane.
Your style is very energetic and reminiscent of manga with that frenetic movement on the page. Do you still read manga?
I read them less now, but I often revisit books I liked as a teen, to see if they hold up and what else I can learn from them. I should dive more into the recent stuff actually. But as a teen it was my life.
Full Metal Alchemist, Shaman King, Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, and many more impacted me a lot. I learned a lot about how to frame action and streamline designs from Japanese artists both in manga and games.
Tell us about Djeliya; what made you want to tell this particular story?
The initial impulse was just to do fun adventures in a fantasy West
African context, but then I started thinking about the figure of the Djeli. To have someone in a society who embodies so many intersections between history, propaganda, wisdom, poetry, and music. That’s a hell of a way to approach very universal themes that go beyond a West African context. To question ones history, culture, national lies and identity as a people, and the effects of the elites’ behavior on the rest of the people; that’s a very relevant topic, it turns out. I didn’t plan it that way at all. I just wanted to do something that tackles some of the issues I saw in Senegal and around, so it was very amusing to see those themes become relevant in America in just the last year. Turns out it was universal the whole time, because elites creating a national narrative for personal gain is a very common thing. It’s also why the book ends the way it does. It may be set in a fantasy Africa, but it’s about all of us. Which is also why I see it as a fantasy book and don’t seek to pigeonhole it into a strictly African framework. After all if we can consider the adventure of Spider-Man, an American, universal to a human experience, why not this?
What challenges have you faced trying to break into comics? What advice do you have for other young creators?
I think I was born lucky. My family could provide me with everything I needed both materially and in my education. They could pay for my art school and send me abroad. It still required a lot of sacrifice and effort but that’s a drive. So I approach this with a complete acknowledgment of my privilege in that regard.
I struggled to find a home for Djeliya mostly because trying to find a publisher with sufficient funds to pay the bills and give you a platform can be tricky on its own, but especially if you bring a project they haven’t seen before.
Which is also why —when I found my ideas of a fantasy book with such inspirations were met with a lack of understand or willingness to take the risk —I kept going and decided I’d do it alone if need be. Fortunately I found TKO Studios, but the lack of a publisher wouldn’t have stopped me.
And I think that’s my main advice: to not stop. Because ultimately there’s already so much you can do by yourself. Especially with the Internet.