Steampunk! ‘The Invention of E.J. Whitaker’

This month is Women’s History Month and what better time to talk about this really cool Kickstarter, The Invention of E.J. Whitaker by Shawnee´ and Shawnelle Gibbs, a sister team. This story caught my eye because it melds some of my favorite things: women inventors, diversity, comics, and women creators together in to one exciting project.

The tag line reads: “A steampunk comic adventure that follows one heroine’s epic journey to become a distinguished inventor at the turn of the 20th century.”

The Gibbs sisters graciously answered a few questions for GeekMom. Read on to see why I think this is such a fun project.

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Gibbs Sisters. Photo by Moe Reed

GeekMom: How do you see the current landscape in animation and comics for diverse women characters? For diverse women creators?

SHAWNEE´: I think now is a wonderful time to be an animation or comics creator from in any walk of life—especially diverse female creators. The ability to share work via the internet and social media in particular has been a game changer in the last 10 years. Female readers have been gobbling the content up because we’ve been an audience that’s been so underserved over the years.

Because for so many years, writers and artists in the comics world have been white and male, I think women are now proving that our artwork and stories can be just as dynamic as those of our male counterparts. People used to think that women weren’t capable of telling stories that weren’t about hair and makeup, or drawing characters with grit, but women like some of our favorite artists; Kelly Sue Deconnick, Afua Richardson, and Victoria Ying are really out there showing that we can and we do.

GeekMom: When designing E.J. Whitaker’s inventions, did you take your inspiration from real world inventors like Leonardo da Vinci or more rooted in a fantasy “Tony Stark” world? Or both?

SHAWNELLE: Oh yeah, we’re inspired by inventors both real and fictional.

We’ve been inspired by everyone from The Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver to Thomas Edison and Fritz Lang’s fictional fantasy classic, Metropolis. Dr. George Washington Carver is actually a central character in the book and because “The Invention of E.J. Whitaker’s” story is set in 1901, at a time in history when Dr. Carver actually taught on the campus of Tuskegee University, we wanted to add a twist of historical fiction into the narrative. So the series will have lots of guest appearances from real-life inventing icons including Carver and Tesla and even Madame C.J. Walker.

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Artist: Earl Womack

GeekMom: With your backgrounds in animation do you foresee translating the story into an animated short (or movie)?

SHAWNEE´: We’d love to see The Invention of E.J. Whitaker become the kind of story that crosses from a comics medium to a cinematic one. It would make our hearts flutter to really see our heroine, Ada, flying across a skyline in some future iteration of the comic. We hope the boundaries are endless for what kind of stories can come from the comic in the future. I’d also really love to play an Invention of E.J. Whitaker game on my iPad or something one day, haha.

GeekMom: Are there any complexities involved in working as a sibling team which are different than working with non-family members?

SHAWNELLE: Oh, definitely! The level of trust we’ve built up after what seems like 5 million years together allows us to speak frankly, and work pretty effectively to move any bit of writing, a scene, or joke into a better place if it happens to need work. Growing up as twins we had to share a lot. And the fact that we spent probably 15-20 years of sharing before becoming a writing team has been extremely helpful to our collaboration process. I’m sure our Mother is pleased after all those years breaking up disagreements about Nintendo, arts supplies, and dolls!

Even how we write has been ironed out. We first started trying to literally sit at a computer and write together and it was a disaster! Since then, all those years ago, we’ve learned how to beat out the story together, outline, then work independently, and tag team the finished draft in the end. So much easier than arm wrestling in front of a laptop. Haha.

GeekMom: Why did you choose crowd funding and not an established publisher?

SHAWNEE´: There’s so much red tape involved with established publishers that we didn’t want to jump through the fiery hoops of trying to convince the gatekeepers that E.J. is a story worth telling. Though we struggled with the idea of whether or not to crowd fund, we really believed in the story and knew that if we found the audience who believed in it too, we could save ourselves a lot of agony trying to knock down the doors of major publishers. It’s hard to have publishers take us seriously as independents and relative unknowns without a overwhelmingly massive existing fan base.

There also aren’t many comics titles by established publishers with African American female leads. Most of the diverse voices in the field are coming up the ranks via indie publishers or just doing it themselves. We believed in the story so much and wanted to find an audience who believe in it too. As we started sharing the idea of EJ Whitaker through small cons and social media, people started expressing interest in seeing it realized. It gave us hope that we could do it on our own.

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Artist Chul Kim with colors by Jenny Chui

GeekMom: What do you see as the target age for this comic?

SHAWNELLE: We think this comic would be great for readers 14 and up. Young adult to adult. There are some mature subject matters that address race relations in the 1900s, sexism, romance, and violence. Certainly suitable for teenage readers who can dialogue with their parents about how certain institutions shaped our society, and how they’ve changed or remained the same. Overall, it is a classic adventure story that dips into some more serious topics for adults and older teens to ponder and discuss.

GeekMom: What do you hope your readers take away from this story?

SHAWNEE´: We’d love for people from all walks of life–young and old–to be inspired to dream big and create, regardless of any challenges they may encounter along the way. Women like Octavia Butler and Tananarive Due were those inspirations for us.

It’s never too late or too early to innovate–all it takes is a little bit of elbow grease and an idea.

GeekMom: Thank you so much ladies for taking the time to speak with GeekMom! We really appreciate it.

There is still time to join me and many others and get in on the ground floor of this project. Click here for the link.

I'm a 52 year old mother of two teenagers. I'm also an electrical engineer. I love comic books, single malt whisky, wine and The Grateful Dead.