The Hollywood Reporter talked to the three creative forces behind Kamikaze — Carrie and Alan Tupper, and Havana Nguyen — about the project and the current crowdfunding campaign.
On the Kickstarter, you describe Kamikaze as the offspring of Batman Beyond and Mad Max, as well as a love letter to animation. Can you unpack that a bit, and talk about the origins of the property? It’s been around for five years as a webcomic, and you’ve already successfully crowdfunded a print collection, which offers proof of concept that the series has an audience. How did the idea take shape?
Carrie Tupper: On a summer night in 2005, Alan doodled this androgynous woman in a super suit with thick, geometric dreads, a jetpack and a smirk. I saw her and thought, “She has a story.” That little doodle eventually became [Kamikaze lead character] Markesha and, for the next two years, Alan and I spent our dinners and road trips discovering her story.
Along the way, screenwriter Michael Harper introduced us to Havana Nguyen, who helped polish the character designs and designed our initial pitch bible. Little did we know what was in store for us for the next seven years. The enthusiastic reception from people led us to go ahead and launch the comic.
Havana Nguyen: I fell in love when I first saw Alan’s initial sketches of Markesha. She had such a striking, unique design and I was so impressed by the world that had already been built. They dropped a 40-page binder full of notes about the timeline, history, regions and people of the world of Trinity, the city where Kamikaze takes place.
Alan Tupper: As someone who had been raised on a lot of traditional speculative fiction and non-superhero comics, I was personally compelled by the opportunity to really pick apart the mechanics of a hero’s origin story and use that as a lens to talk about the real world.
Kamikaze is set 200 years after a pandemic wipes out almost all plant life and causes civilization to collapse. We chose this setting not only to focus on the concerns for our collective future, but also as a setting that tests each character. During development, we began to internalize how getting this right for the communities we were representing through our characters was one of our most important jobs as creators.
It’s meant getting comfortable being uncomfortable, but the result has been a stronger story and characters whose lives resonate with our audience in ways they didn’t expect.
Nguyen: It’s been an interesting mental and creative exercise to explore how humans would try to rebuild civilization. Our protagonist, Markesha, starts off mostly accepting the realities of dystopia and copes by just “staying in her own lane.” She eventually grows beyond that.
Carrie Tupper: People fight for their families, their friends and themselves. That led us to the question: what would happen if you took someone like Batman, but took away most of Batman’s privileges and put them in a world like that of Mad Max? This allowed us to explore themes of early adulthood through a more relatable lens, while threading in themes of hope, survival and sacrifice.
You’ve been working on Kamikaze for five years now — what have you learned not only about the world of the character, but also about her audience, too?
Carrie Tupper: I think the biggest lesson we learned working on Kamikaze is just how much better a piece of creative work becomes when you make room for others to collaborate with you. It creates a story with more nuance, heart and a richer world. We learn from one another, and become better people because of our experiences together.
And editors are lifesavers! Our editors help chisel the story and characters to perfection. Rachelle Udell has been a supporter from the beginning and has been crucial in crafting the plot. D’Andrea Seabrook brings depth to the characters, and keeps me inspired when I need that creative push. Talynn Kel is the mirror that shows me how my own privileges cloud my judgement, and together we find a way to work past them. Each of them has helped me become a better storyteller, ally and person.
Nguyen: I’m the black sheep who didn’t go to art school, so my love for animation and comics sorta existed in a vacuum before I met Alan and Carrie. Kamikaze is not only a creative outlet, it’s also given me a crash course on sequential art, entertainment and storytelling. The most rewarding part is seeing our readers react and connect to the comic in ways we didn’t expect.
The discussions around representation have evolved over the course of the comic and we make it a priority to listen and adapt. As a result, Kamikaze just gets better and better.
Carrie Tupper: The audience of Kamikaze is a passionate bunch. I’ll never forget the day a young woman saw our work and burst into tears saying, “I’ve never seen a hero who looks like me!” We stood there hugging one another, laughing and crying because it was the first time she felt like she could be a hero too. Being a part of something that brings such joy to someone is truly a gift.
Jamel Jones, concept artist: The fans are precious! One caught the team at a coffee shop and just lost it. It was precious! The people behind her favorite comic were tangible humans giving her advice and inspiring her to create more. Tabling at cons, I’ve seen fans hella excited to meet us, and skeptics who get one of the mini comics and comes back to buy everything because they want more.
Does all of this feed back into the work, especially now that you’re launching her into something new like the animated short?
Nguyen: Seeing the storyboards and animatics from Echo Bridge has been exciting. Despite working on these characters together for 7 years, we never introduced the idea of voice. I didn’t expect to get so emotional hearing our characters talk.
Carrie Tupper: I’ve had these characters in my head for almost a decade, but when our cast came aboard they gave me an entirely new perspective on the characters. I learned more about my own characters from the performances of Monica Rial, Dani Chambers, Jonathan Young, Kevin Paculan and Damon Alums than I expected.
The leap to animation feels like the obvious next step for the property, but what does that look like in practice? Is the 10-minute short that’s the subject of the campaign an end in and of itself, or a potential stepping stone to something larger?
Carrie Tupper: The short is a stepping stone to two things. First, we are looking to get a 12-episode series started. Second, we want to keep making comics. This campaign aims to bring forward the best of both worlds, and hopefully bring more fans to the table so we can do just that.
Nguyen: The comic has been an amazing medium that has allowed us to get the story into people’s hands but, as animation fanatics, we have always envisioned this as an animated series. That’s why the comic looks the way it does — each panel looks like a frame of animation.
Carrie Tupper: Because of our art style, we’ve got a ton of assets already created. Basically almost all the pre-production work is already done. This makes it easier because the animation team has references, documentation on the world, characters and more. The biggest hurdle has been organizing five years of reference work.
Of course, the current campaign isn’t just for the animated short; there’s also Short Circuits, an anthology of short comics that opens up Kamikaze to different voices and ideas, with creators old and new working on the property. What was the thinking around that?
Carrie Tupper: From the start, we always wanted to bring more people in. The Short Circuits anthology is a series of individual short comics that explore the missions, characters and world. We actively seek out creators from different backgrounds and take a hands-off approach. I think my mom said it best: “Sometimes, you just gotta let someone else hold the baby for a while.”
Nguyen: The anthology features the works of Eisner nominee Dan Jolley, horror writer Malissa White, DC Comics and Route 3 writer Robert Jeffrey II and Scorpio writer John “Sceritz” Robinson. It’s been such an honor to collaborate with these writers and see their visions of the Kamikaze world. The art in our existing short comics have been done by Jamel Jones, Licca Kirk and Hank Jones. Artists Takeia Marie and Erin O’Neill Jones will be joining the roster in this new anthology.
Takeia Marie: I think what drew me to this particular story was the way the characters were developed. The story was really interesting, the characters were all so distinct and diverse that it made me want to keep reading it. Getting a chance to work on it and play around in that world in this anthology story is going to be really fun.
Robert Jeffrey II: One of the things I love about a world like Kamikaze is that there are so many opportunities for many different stories to be told. Within the core comic you don’t get to see everything that’s happening in this environment… The anthology opens it up for different writers and artists to come in and put their stamp on this wide and expansive universe.
Jones: This anthology is a perfect way to jump ahead to future missions for a taste of what’s to come. We’re expanding the project by including other creatives. As the world of Kamikaze grows, so does the diversity of voices behind the scenes.
It’s about midway through its run, so I’m curious — how is this Kickstarter going? As I said before, you’ve previously run a successful campaign for a print edition of the comic strip, does that make the current campaign less stressful — you’re experienced at this! — or more, because you have something to compare the speed and success against?
Carrie Tupper: Well we’re about 50 percent funded, and I’ve only had about two panic attacks this week, so that’s progress! (Laughs.) The Kickstarter is going well, but we’re really excited to get this funded by Dec. 10. The money we’re gathering will pay for publishing the anthology, more animation and a custom soundtrack for the short with local Atlanta composers and hip-hop artists. We know what to expect with funding books, but this is entirely new. This is our biggest campaign yet, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t kinda scary.
Alan Tupper: An exciting thing about being in a Kickstarter phase is it forces concrete planning. These aren’t just idle hopes, we can plan with certainty on the how and when we’ll be able to deliver these next big steps. The nature and speed of our growth is going to be based on the response from our backers. We’ve always referred to ourselves as a fan-driven property, and we’re not kidding. While we’ll always work to surprise and maybe even challenge our fans, our existence is tied to how they want to see Kamikaze grow. Together we’ve gone to some fantastic places so far, and we can’t wait to go farther.
Of course, Kamikaze isn’t the only collaboration between the three of you; you’re also a design studio in Atlanta called Moving Ink Media. How does something like Kamikaze help in terms of the design studio? Is it as straightforward as offering a regular example of work to potential clients, and showing that you can hit deadlines, or is there more to it than that…?
Alan Tupper: While we’ve worked with some clients on animation and branding projects, as a studio, we’re primarily focused on applying the design process to build immersive, inclusive stories regardless of the medium. A lot of those projects are internal, though we seldom pass up an opportunity to consult on projects from like-minded creators. A project like Kamikaze has not only established credibility, it’s also built the processes and modes of thinking inclusively, pragmatically, and proactively about what we’re creating and how.
Nguyen: Those processes have become tried-and-true creative methods that we now apply to other properties and external projects.
Looking past the current crowdfunding campaign: What are the hopes for Kamikaze in the future?
Carrie Tupper: When the pilot is completed, we’ll be moving onto our next phase of getting a 13-episode series created.
Alan Tupper: This is only the first of many animated episodes exploring the world of Kamikaze.
Carrie Tupper: There’s enough story in this for multiple seasons worth of action-packed sci-fi with a ton of heart behind it. I hear a lot of people talk about wanting to see more representation of diverse women on screen, and well… we have a black woman who can bend the laws of physics and defy gravity!
But more importantly, I’d like more people to meet Markesha. Through Markesha I hope people will see a person whose flawed, but valued, loved and despite everything, will always be worthy of that love — just like they are.
Alan Tupper: Comics have also become a fundamental part of this story world, and the anthology will build our library of stories. We are also very tuned in to the potential Kamikaze has in media beyond comics and animation. That includes games, novels, scripted podcasts and more. There are so many different places to go with a world like this one, and so many excellent creators we still want to bring into this project.