Arts Culture

‘Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer’ author David Crownson’s altered worlds don’t feel as strange as the one we’re in

“There’s no way we would all come together to stop some dumbass Godzilla or some alien or some nonsense. I just watched grown-ass men argue about putting on a mask. Someone would probably say Godzilla is not even real.”

David Crownson’s graphic novel Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer started as a lark: “At first I thought it was a fun idea, ‘Yo man, it’d be funny if she beats up a racist werewolf.’”

So he shared the idea on Facebook and the response was maximal— tons of likes, dozens of DMs, a bunch of shares… in sum, a validation of the idea via social media. He set out to make HT:DS into a reality, but couldn’t find the funding to do it. 

Crownson paused the pursuit, but while he waited to turn his imagined world into a reality, the real world skewed toward the unimaginable—and the meaning of what would become HT:DS transformed with it.

“I just remember that Trump was running for president. I think I was like, ‘I’m having trouble finding financing, I’m gonna chill and find something else. Hilary Clinton’s gonna be president tomorrow, the world’s gonna be great, I can’t imagine Donald Trump was running for president. What a crazy ass time.’ The next day, everything was shitty, excuse my French,” Crownson says. “I just remember I was in a rural part of Jersey, I was sad, buying some food to eat my feelings. I just saw a bunch of dudes who were being antagonistic and racist toward this Muslim woman. I kept seeing all over the news [that] certain hate crimes were happening since Donald Trump became president, and I remember becoming angry.

“And so my comic book became something else. Instead of something being silly, it became cathartic: racism being a demon and Harriet Tubman being the chosen one to destroy that.”

Newly motivated, Crownson turned to crowdfunding to finance the book. More than 600 supporters and over $20,000 in pledges later, the first three issues of Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer are out (with three to go), and it’s now being turned into a live-action Disney series.

Knowing he “couldn’t draw for shit,” Crownson worked with illustrator Courtland Ellis (and, eventually, others) on HT:DS, spending hours researching what Tubman would look like, what she would wear, how scenes should look, how characters should talk, etc., before injecting their comic-book sensibilities into the art—“Yes, we want to honor what the real person did, but at the end of the day she’s gonna beat up a demon so we don’t need to go that deep.”

Too, Crownson launched Kingwood Comics to publish the comic book, and to help other creatives tell diverse stories in the graphic novel form. He named the company after his hometown, where he first fell in love with comics.

“I was still trying to figure out how to read at 6 years old,” Crownson says. “I used to get kind of overwhelmed and bogged down by novels. With comic books, the storytelling with pictures and the vibrant way of telling stories, it just jumped up at me. It helped me to read. I read a lot of comics at 6 and 7, then eventually got into novels—I was a big Animorphs person.”

The form helped Crownson in his early reading years, but the power of the content has endured. “I like how superheroes have an altruistic way of approaching their lives,” Crownson says; their day-saving actions come from a place of love, empathy and mercy for people, and not born from some mental calculation about who is worth saving and why they should put their lives on the line.

Crownson describes superheroes as being adults “on a planet filled with children”—and, hey, it’s certainly felt like that fabricated construct could be applied to the real world over the last several years. Truth (if we can even agree on that anymore) has indeed become stranger than fiction in many respects.

“I was talking to a company about writing an action thing, and they were trying to say, ‘Yeah, the world came together to stop this monster,’” Crownson says. “There’s no way we would all come together to stop some dumbass Godzilla or some alien or some nonsense. I just watched grown-ass men argue about putting on a mask. Someone would probably say Godzilla is not even real.” 

Thinking too long about the fact that he’s probably right might give you an aneurysm. For Crownson, writing comic books releases some of the pressure within when the blood starts to boil from events outside.

“It’s just been a cathartic thing,” Crownson says. “When you’re watching the news, it weighs on you. Doing the comic book kind of expels that out, and kind of releases that anger that I get. Seeing people get shot and people get murdered and seeing them got shot specifically for how they’re born, how they look, the color of their skin, that’s a heavy thing, because it’s innocence. Secondarily, that could be me.”

Crownson recalls a few instances of racism as a young child in rural Jersey, but because of what he sensed as the Kingwood community’s desire to improve themselves from previous times, “They were like, ‘Yo, we ain’t tolerating no racism. This county has done and seen too much nonsense.’” Moving to Bridgewater as an older kid, however, brought racism that “was way more in my face.”

And despite what James Patterson says, people of color are still tremendously underrepresented in the publishing industry, even to the detriment of their bottom line, to put it narrowly. HT:DS may not have (yet) raked in the cash publishing houses would want, but Crownson proved that there’s a community of support for the series—not to mention the opportunity to spread the brand across bigger platforms, as will be the case with the upcoming Disney series.

So the journey has paid off for Crownson, who (while finishing the HT:DS series) is raising funds for a new graphic novel, Nightmare in Newark. It’s the story of a black girl who’s facing trepidation about coming out to her parents; before that, though, she’ll have to survive an alien invasion.

“I was working out an idea that I had about, OK, what if you were going to do something scary or confess something really scary and then something even scarier happens,” Crownson says. “I got the story during a terrible time when I was living in an apartment that had a bed bug outbreak. All these giant creatures invaded. What if you were dating someone your parents don’t approve of, and in the middle of you telling your parents, an alien invasion happens, so I focused on that aspect, the whole confession.” 

Crownson felt like the stakes weren’t high enough in that structure, and eventually switched it to a girl coming out to her parents, inspired by one of his cousin’s journeys. He interviewed queer people of color, watched coming-out videos on YouTube, and found commonalities between his and his character’s lives; everyone deals with the nerves around confessing something, and, ultimately, Nightmare in Newark “is about being 100% comfortable in your skin with your family.”

The tone of the book will be similar to HT:DS, Crownson says—the irreverence and pacing of Friday with the thrills of Cloverfield, or Django Unchained meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“Movies and comic books should be fun,” Crownson says. “They should be serious enough to have heart but I don’t think they should be so serious where [the reader] feels like they’re being tortured.”

Nightmare in Newark, illustrated by Brett Parson and which is tentatively scheduled to be released in December, has already surpassed its fundraising goal of $12,500, but Crownson says he’s hoping the campaign reaches the $20,000s, so he can send out a bunch of extra items to supporters. You can back the project here, and find Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer and more Kingwood Comics offerings here.