Halloween is my favorite time of the year. The darkness, the spookiness, and oh, the horror! I've always been fascinated by themes of the unknown creeping in and terrifying us, or the repressed finally erupting into chaos. One thing growing up that I always wanted, though, was to see more characters of color as the main characters and not as the "other" where our background were the source of horror or we were relegated to the sidekick best friend who most likely died. And I'm sure other marginalized groups feel the same in terms of how we're represented and I'm always down for some subtext and social commentary if provided, horror serving as a great backdrop for such stories. So for this feature in the days counting down to Halloween, I wanted to showcase some independent works featuring leads of color, women, LGBTQ+, disabled, especially if created by creators of the like. So without further ado…
Oh, the Indie Horror! Day 3: WitchDoctor by Kenjji Jumanne-Marshall
Kenjji Jumanne-Marshall is one of Black comics pioneer artists. After publishing WitchDoctor in 1999, and as a co-founder of GRIOT Comics, he followed Detroit self-publishers like Urban Style Comics into their own lane in indie comics. Kenjji's offering would be the first horror in the mix of Black superheroes.
GREG ANDERSON ELYSÉE: Can you give us the rundown about WitchDoctor?
JUMANNE-MARSHALL: WitchDoctor is a psychological thriller following the supernatural investigations of Dr Jovan Carrington, a reluctant Black hero haunted and hunted by the spirits and his past. After the death of his father, the Doctor returns to Haiti to discover the secrets of his birth and the true nature of our history. Ultimately he must face the reality of his terrifying visions.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: I really enjoyed reading this book. One thing that I loved was the showcase of Haitian spirituality and not as the source of horror but also as something within our protagonist. Can you tell us about that and why you decided to go that route?
JUMANNE-MARSHALL: Creating WitchDoctor's origin was a pretty linear process in terms of the historical aspect. I wanted the horror of the narrative to be real shit because that's really what's scary for Black audiences: our actual history haunts us. A lot of our trauma comes from the idea of our ancestral history. At the time Black heroes in comics were dealing with mostly drug villains. It was either racism or drugs so I wanted WitchDoctor to deal with the monsters of the Black mind more so than the obvious exterior evils. WitchDoctor was designed to see something beyond.
So I wanted to do Black supernatural stuff. I could either do Black Christian stuff, which wasn't as deep as I needed it to be, [but] I really wanted to draw more from and play more to Pan-Africanist. That pretty much meant Vodou, which pretty much meant Haiti. A lot of it kind of wrote itself and what I really liked about Haitian and Vodun history is that their story weaves – they don't just tell one tale. It's this twisted narrative that says something on the surface while whispering something underneath. So for Vodou, you have that zombie/voodoo doll/oogie boogie shit they play in movies and then you have the real rituals and traditions that go back to African roots. Nevertheless, real believers play into it. Even for early Black Christians you actual have Vousiants just using Christian iconography in effigy of their own beliefs.
I'll digress but what I love about Haitian and Vodou culture is the high capacity for strategic subterfuge. The facade of perpetuating myth and turning it into profit or making it a weapon for revolution. Playing negative expectations and prejudices against the people that hold them.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: What are some of those aspects of Vodou that we'll be seeing?
JUMANNE-MARSHALL: You'll see that duality in the series. WitchDoctor plays with the superficial and sensationalism of voodoo imagery while burying the more lethal concepts underneath. So there's campy stuff like zombies, one in particular named Moss, but just like in the real culture this is a character with an extremely dark history. Ultimately you'll find out why he is a zombie, the ritual process of it, and what wrongs he did to get there. It's not so simple as eating brains. WitchDoctor's supporting cast is also a good example: his family, the Macandal clan, are the descendants of one of Haiti's most legendary and probably most brutal revolutionaries. I use these real life references to reward people who do the research. Yes, on the surface they have a definitive visual design, but if you really want to know what's happening with them, look up their ancestry.
Beyond this story you'll see WitchDoctor returning in print and in color. These will be issues that I pulled due to catastrophic events that occurred in New Orleans (our Crescent City) at the time and ever since. These were really difficult stories to create and even harder to publish but you'll see WitchDoctor taken to his limits and broken.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: While rich with stories and culture, Haiti tends to get a bit of a negative light shone on it, some due to history of corruption, others due to misrepresentation and misinformation. Is there any social commentary or subtext in Witchdoctor?
JUMANNE-MARSHALL: The social subtext is there but won't really be a dominant plot element until WitchDoctor and his Haitian family are reunited. One of the story elements that is purposefully played down in the first few issues is that despite being the main character Dr. Carrington isn't a hero when you meet him. One of the tricks I played on readers was dressing him in swag and giving him a fancy car, so he's definitely admirable but if you're paying attention, the guy has no soul. He's abandoned his family, he's out in the world just kinda being a suave star, and THAT'S when the spirits start hollering at him. The spirits snatch him out of his comfort zone to remind him of who he is and he doesn't like it. Part of the identity he realizes is his direct Haitian lineage and that's a big part of how Pan-Africans operate in Black American culture. It's better now but back then there was this additional facade that Haitians would have to wear around normalized Black culture in order to fit in. Jovan Carrington embodies that. He has transcended Haiti, he has transcended Blackness so the Spirits put him in his place.
I'm trying to answer as it occurs to the story but separately as it occurs to me the creator, I'm not Haitian. I'm not even a believer of Vodou but I have an academic understanding of its nature and totally respect and admire where it comes from. I often get fan letters and inquiries to perform curses on people and every few months I have to remind people that I am just a comic book artist and the main intention of this project as real as it may be is to entertain. So when it comes to social commentary, yes, I play on a variety of issues but I'm not offering solutions or judgements. As an artist I am an observer and my work is a reflection. I would urge people to do their own research or consult with Haitian people to explore it. I'm not any kind of expert – I'm just good at showing people how I see it.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: Wow on those fan letters [laughs]. Now I saw that you may be crowdfunding soon for Part 2? What can you tell us about that and where does the story go in this chapter? This has been a long time coming!
JUMANNE-MARSHALL: I think there will be a Kickstarter. I like the opportunity of giving it to the people that want it and not just printing thousands of copies (like we did in the olden days). WitchDoctor has spent a lot of time digging out of his own mind so I'd really like to get beyond that and see him really take on the mantle of hero. As deep as the narrative got, the bottom dropped out on me when the story got too real but I've always wanted to level out with more fun action sequences. In addition to letting other artists and writers explore this story, I'm also bringing in a few guest appearances that will hopefully spark collaboration with other Brothers in the genre.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: Man, that sounds exciting! Well in time for Halloween season, what other horror series or popular stories/movies can you compare it to or which category of horror fans will feel right at home in checking out this book?
JUMANNE-MARSHALL: WitchDoctor is in the supernatural spirit of Blacksploitation films like Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream. The true Voodoo action series trades history and stereotypes for an edgy vision of Vodou and the horrors that haunt the Black mind.
If you're looking for other books in this lane I would suggest Is'nana the Were-Spider and Crescent City Monsters. My inspiration in comics came from BrotherMan. My original intent was to make books like that: same 8×10 format, same defiance of mainstream design, more of an urban fiction than a normal comic. There wasn't much of anything like that when I started WitchDoctor – that's why I did it. The closest thing I had was like Heavy Metal or Cartoons magazine. I guess Zine culture, in general, was kind of what was guiding my publishing.
ANDERSON ELYSÉE: Where can people read and purchase this book if interested?
JUMANNE-MARSHALL: The trade paperback is on Amazon and on PeepGamecomix.com. I will probably do a new trade of the first few issues to go along with the relaunch.