In February 2016, Shawnee’ and Shawnelle Gibbs launched a Kickstarter campaign for a steampunk adventure comic called The Invention of E.J. Whitaker. And then the most amazing thing happened: the campaign not only reached its goal, but exceeded it! The Gibbs Sisters now have enough money to fund the first two issues. *throws confetti*
Their achievement is remarkable. The success of this campaign reveals just how hungry folks are for genre stories featuring female inventor protagonists, especially ones who are women of color. Here’s the overview:
Conceived by indie comic book and animation sister-team, Shawnee´and Shawnelle Gibbs, “The Invention of E.J. Whitaker” is a 24-page comic book tale mixing elements of Adventure, Romance, Historical Fiction and Steampunk to tell the story of one heroine’s epic journey through the cultural and gender land mines of the early 20th century to become a bonafide inventor.
Imagine a time in which your week might include being assaulted by patent-jackers, a surprise run-in with Nikola Tesla and catching up on “the tea” through actual tea time with Madame CJ Walker….with no Instagram to capture it all…
Welcome to the world of Ada Turner and her secret life as EJ Whitaker.
Stories like Ada Turner’s are practically invisible in mainstream venues, so hardworking, independent artists like the Gibbs Sisters are taking up the mantle to ensure they reach the spotlight. In support of their efforts, we at Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly are excited to present an interview with Shawnee’ and Shawnelle Gibbs so you can learn more about the process of bringing The Invention of E.J. Whitaker to life!
SFRQ: What are three little known facts about the Gibbs Sisters?
SHAWNEE´: Well, we’re both fans of the classic Hollywood actor, Cary Grant. I’m a whopping 4 minutes older than Shawnelle (and I like to frequently remind her that I’m her big sister, haha) and when we first moved to Los Angles over 10 years ago, we had to share the one car we drove down in: a 1996 Honda accord. It was a real challenge given how spread out the city of Los Angeles is, but somehow, we made it work. I think sharing the ‘super Honda’ as we called it, was one of our greatest collaborations in LA. If you can share a car in this town, you can probably do anything. It was certainly a “dream mobile” that carried us thousands of miles, and helped us navigate the bumpy road towards being working creative professionals in the city.
SFRQ: You both have impressive backgrounds in writing, comics, animation, and television. Please share some of the challenges and high points of your career so far.
SHAWNELLE: While we were students studying cinema at San Francisco State University, we started creating short animations using software like Flash and After Effects. Before then, we knew we’d loved writing, drawing, and telling stories but we were two kids from Oakland who didn’t know much about animation or the industry. The revolutionizing of software made it possible for us to tell animated stories and share them with audiences. A few of our films got us attention on the indie film festival circuit and brought us to Los Angeles to pursue careers in storytelling for film and television.
We’ve been fortunate to work steadily in television for the last few years as Story Producers for non-fiction programming / reality tv. For our day jobs, we shape the stories of hours and hours of television footage for networks including Food Network, Discovery, National Geographic and ABC.
Working in television has helped us hone our abilities to tell compelling stories that challenge us to hook a viewer before and after a commercial break, it’s also afforded us an opportunity to help fund some of our independent animation and comic book projects over the years. We’re really proud to have been able to direct and produce the short animation Sule and the Case of the Tiny Sparks, write the sci-fi time travel series, Fashion Forward, which has been well-received in the comics community, as well as develop concept art to share our creative vision for The Invention of E.J. Whitaker. Our day jobs in television have really helped in us being able to help make our personal projects a reality.
Creative gigs in L.A. are freelance most of the time, so being prepared for the ebb and flow of work is always a delicate dance and one of the most challenging aspects of the industry, but we’ve been very fortunate in our careers to stay afloat, which is something we were super concerned about being able to do when we were just starting out. There’s a mixture of faith, hard work, and connections through friends that continue to get us through.
SFRQ: How did The Invention of E.J. Whitaker evolve?
SHAWNEE´: We’d been working on our time travel comic book series, Fashion Forward, and simultaneously researching an African American circus performer of the early 20th century named Princess Wee Wee for a script we were working on.
So we were going back and forth between telling a contemporary sci-fi story about a young woman in modern-day New York who helped to create a time travel device, and researching the life of an African American Ringling Bros circus star who was at the height of her popularity in the 1920s. So some part of our days were spent looking at images of circus people and vaudeville acts traveling by railroads, and other parts were digging up Google Image references and imagining the New York subway system twenty-five years from now for our comic book artist. Definitely a fun time creatively.
We wrote a script about Princess Wee Wee’s life and through researching her story we discovered other amazing men and women of the early 20th Century who really stuck with us. I actually became pretty obsessed with the subject matter and have a growing collection of photos, cabinet cards and collectibles particularly of black entertainers and life during the era.
It was like a whole new world had opened up to us. The early 1900s is a time period that we don’t hear much about particularly from an African American perspective and we thought, man there were so many fascinating people with pretty progressive ideologies who lived during this time. We were like, ‘We’ve got to tell a story set during the dawn of the 20th Century.’ Discovering what we’d had, it felt like a real shame not to.
SFRQ: Why does steampunk appeal to you as a setting for this story?
SHAWNELLE: Somehow we always manage to tell stories that have a little magic and adventure in them. We’ve told stories of a young girl being taken in by a family of extraterrestrials in our early web cartoon series, Adopted By Aliens. We bridged China’s Qin and the Sudan’s Kush empires together in an illustrated short story Tati, so exploring different time periods and even universes are really fun challenges for us. Ever since reading Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I think we both had a desire to tell a Steampunk story, but the pieces really started to slowly fall into place with ‘E.J.’
The Invention of E.J. Whitaker is the story of a young, female inventor who faces extreme obstacles in 1901 America as a woman, and as a black person trying to pursue her dreams of becoming a respected innovator. But she perseveres and doesn’t let race, sex, financial limitations, swindlers—or anything really—get in the way of her dreams.
We thought steampunk was the perfect genre to tell the story. The steam-powered aesthetic appealed to us—the tools to fabricate things are your basic wood, brass, iron and leather, all of which our heroine Ada uses for her inventions. Aside from being a visually dynamic genre, with amazing gadgetry and cool aesthetic elements, steampunk is a genre that provides a great opportunity to tell alternate histories during the Victorian Age and that really excited us.
SFRQ: What general themes do you plan to tackle in The Invention of E.J. Whitaker?
SHAWNEE´: We definitely want to explore what it means to be a woman and outsider taking on the world of innovation, which is often perceived to be a very white and very male career path—even today. When you think “inventor” I don’t think anyone ever thinks of a black woman, so we hope ‘E.J.’ can help change the perception of who and what an inventor can be.
We also want to tackle romance. In our travels, we’ve found that sci-fi romance stories that involve African American leads are few and far between. Characters of color are often sidekicks and buddies but rarely take center stage in stories that have romantic themes. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s deeply engrained in not just literature but film and television as well. We’d love to show audiences that seeing two people of color love each other is nothing to be intimidated by or afraid of. It’s a beautiful and natural expression that shouldn’t be shunned because of cultural taboos. One of our biggest Sci-Fi influences, Octavia Butler, taught us that early on, when we became huge fans of hers in high school.
SFRQ: What’s your collaborative process like?
SHAWNELLE: As independent creators, we usually outline our comic book issues together, planning out the story from beginning to end, then we’ll break up the scenes we’ve outlined and write them individually. After we’ve written our scenes, we’ll review each others’ work, giving input and making changes, and that becomes the basis of our comic book scripts.
Then we hand over those scripts to our artists to begin work on the page art. As we see the pages come to life through the artists’ renderings, we’ll often make changes to dialogue or captions may change to make something stronger, more dramatic or funnier. It’s a very collaborative process.
Seeing the scripts come to life when we’re in production is my absolute favorite part of the process. When the artist sends the art pages over, it’s a lot like being a kid on Christmas day morning…a real rush.
SFRQ: When you’re not creating, which books/films/tv shows are you reading/watching?
SHAWNEE´: As of late, I’ve been trying to immerse myself in the early part of the 20th Century, so I’ve been reading stories from Edith Wharton, W.E.B Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk and watching the History Channel’s series The Men Who Built America.
SHAWNELLE: Work has been taking up a lot of time as of late, but I’ve finally gotten around to reading Brian Vaughan’s Runaways series, which is a wonderful little distraction to life. I’ve also developed a growing obsession with FX’s whimsical comedy Man Seeking Woman (currently tracking down season 2 access) and the work of the Duplass Brothers. I am also very encouraged by the first offering of the reboot of Alex Haley’s Roots series, and excited to see where it takes us. This week I just added Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix to the reading list—big on the self help genre and hooray for the art of sweet, sweet love. The world needs more of it.
SFRQ: What’s next for the Gibbs Sisters?
SHAWNEE´: We hope to develop the first few issues of The Invention of E.J. Whitaker for release next year and continue developing lots more projects for comics, animation and television. I think we’ll tackle another animated project very soon. Even though they’re super-challenging and involved, I’m really itching to do another animated project.
SFRQ: Where can fans find you?
SFRQ: Fantastic! Thanks so much for your art, and we wish you the best in all of your endeavors!