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Top Cow’s Genius is a chilling reflection of this week’s Ferguson turmoil

This weekly series is the most relevant comic on stands

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Genius #2. Written by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman (The Highwaymen, Hero Complex) with art by Afua Richardson (24seven, Bohemians), this story about an urban revolution has been in the works for six years and coincidentally lands at a time when it is extremely relevant to current events both within and outside the comic-book community. This review reveals major plot points.

As of this writing on Thursday morning, the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson has been occupied by a militarized police force for four days and major U.S. news outlets are just now starting to spend considerable time on the story. What we’re seeing in Ferguson is an egregious misuse of power against a community that’s seeking justice after a recent tragedy and years of systemic abuse, and most of the breaking news is coming straight from journalists and civilians on the front lines—people who are tweeting updates, posting videos, and setting up livestreams to broadcast these events to the rest of the world.

Social media has forcefully shifted the narrative of the past week in favor of Ferguson’s citizens, but there’s still the overwhelming question of when and how this situation will ultimately be diffused. With no sign of the police occupation ending anytime soon, the hacker collective Anonymous has organized protests in major cities around the U.S. for Thursday evening, a show of solidarity for the protesting residents of Ferguson who are being painted as rioters and looters by the media (#DayofRage). [Update: For its #DayofRage, Anonymous co-opted the National Moment Of Silence, an idea put into action by a black woman who goes by the Twitter handle @FeministaJones. —ed.] This morning, Anonymous also released a name that it claims is the identity of the officer who shot Michael Brown on Saturday and left his body in the street for hours, but Americans shouldn’t need to turn to a renegade hacker collective for information and organization.

So what does this all have to do with comic books? If this were any other month, the answer would be “not very much,” but the events in Ferguson just so happen to coincide with the release of Genius, a weekly miniseries about a black community in South Central Los Angeles revolting against an oppressive police force. Genius was a winner of Top Cow’s “Pilot Season” in 2008—an annual event involving an assortment of one-shots and a reader vote to determine which story deserves a longer project—but it’s taken six years for this miniseries to hit stands. (The Pilot Season issue of Genius is available for free over at Comixology.)

In a series of tweets (re-presented as an essay over at thenerdsofcolor.org), Marc Bernardin—co-writer of Genius with Adam Freeman—describes the serendipitous timing of Genius’ release:

The six years between the Genius Pilot Season issue release and the miniseries dropping [last week] felt like an eternity. But now, it feels like the world was making us wait for just the right time. When the hunger for female leads would reach a tipping point. When the hunger for diversity on and behind the comics pages would reach a tipping point. And, sadly, when the devaluation of black youth would reach a tipping point.

Genius follows 17-year-old tactician Destiny Ajaye as she unites the separate gangs of her neighborhood against a common foe: the police. Destiny witnessed the LAPD gun down her parents as a young child, and dedicated her life to military strategy in hopes of inciting permanent change by taking the fight directly to the cops. Because this is a comic book, Genius plays like a worst-case funhouse mirror of Ferguson events; Destiny’s crew isn’t peacefully protesting, it’s waging a domestic war with homemade explosives, assault rifles, and rocket launchers. Destiny has noble intentions, but she’s willing to embrace the emotionally detached perspective of a warlord in order to achieve her goals through uncompromising force.

The weekly release schedule of Genius makes the timing even more opportune, getting the entire story out while Ferguson is still prominent in the cultural consciousness. But as Bernardin mentions, Ferguson isn’t the only thing making this series extremely relevant. The demand for female lead characters in film, television, and comics is higher than ever, and the same can be said about leads of color. The Internet age has made it possible for members of underrepresented communities to have their voices heard on the global stage, and the call for expanded diversity will only get louder as more people cry out.

Character diversity is a big part of that movement, but so is creator diversity. (A.V. Club tackled both in our Diversity in Comics Roundtable during Comics Week.) By embracing a wider range of creators, the entertainment industry can benefit from a larger spectrum of perspectives, and we’re seeing that philosophy at play in Genius. Marc Bernardin and artist Afua Richardson are both black, and their individual experiences as minorities in the U.S. impact how they approach their work.

In a must-read essay for Wired, Marc Bernardin writes about his entry into the world of comic books and his inspiration for Genius, addressing how a lack of good representations of black people in pop culture made him feel like an outsider. “When I first got the opportunity to write comics—with my writing partner, Adam Freeman—I wasn’t consciously trying to inject diversity into the books we were writing,” Bernardin writes. “It wasn’t an agenda, it’s just what happens when your default is different from the norm: The books don’t look like the norm.”

In the pages of Genius, the sole white male main character is the detective trying to uncover the truth about South Central’s new gang leader. The rest of the cast is predominantly black with the notable exception of Latina journalist Izzy Cortina, a woman who is willing to jump 60 feet out of a helicopter, into a pool, wearing a full pantsuit, all so she can get a scoop. This doesn’t look like the cast of a typical mainstream American comic book, and these characters are a part of a story that is similarly unconventional.

“Every villain is the hero of his or her own story,” Bernardin writes in his Wired piece. “But Destiny Ajaye is smart enough to know that she’s the villain of this drama. She is an agent of change. And change is almost always bloody.” Genius is an ethically complicated, politically heated story that isn’t afraid of asking hard questions and showing multiple sides of the conflict. This second issue contains scenes of police officers being shot down and blown up by gang members, but it also devotes time to the struggles of regular civilians whose rights have been infringed upon by the law enforcement officials who are supposed to protect them. And in next week’s Genius #3, the focus shifts even more heavily to the community as daylight breaks following the explosive events of this week’s issue.

To see how Afua Richardson’s experience as a black woman affects her work, look no further than this in-depth dissection of her creative process for the cover of Genius #1, a response to critics that took issue with her nude, sexualized depiction of a character whose keen military mind is her most prominent trait. Regarding Destiny’s character, Richardson writes, “Like many from a low socio-economic background, she’s left to the whims of a system that is designed to be a revolving door of poverty. No resources. No hope. No one to rescue her from a life of victimhood but herself.” Richardson goes on to detail that flawed system and her personal experience with poverty, elements that figure directly into her final cover image:

That chalk outline represents the containment of those who can’t afford to fight the masters of their fate, no more than a dead man can change its pose on its own accord. She is perceived as a victim. She has no military training. No well-funded army. No armor. She never wears a bulletproof vest because she is prepared to fight and die for her cause. She is nude, without shielding. She has just her self, a gun, and the mind to use it. But as you can see, she does not take that laying down. She’s getting up from the ground owning nothing and still RISES to fight. She is not submissive. She is not bound. She is not begging or pleading. She is a credible THREAT. She will get up and fight on her feet, rather than die on her knees.

That description provides insight into Richardson’s visual style for the interiors as well, specifically the bold outlines the artist puts around the characters. This may be overanalyzing, but that stylistic choice creates the impression of chalk outlines everywhere, marking each person as a potential dead body in this urban war. Applying the symbolism of the chalk outline on the cover of Genius #1 to the outlines in the interior art, it can be assumed that every player in the story is a slave to fate; they’ve all just been cast in different parts with varying degrees of authority. From Destiny to Izzy to the police officers, gang members, and innocent civilians, everyone is contained by these boundaries that are ingrained in their society, but Destiny is fighting to eliminate the lines that trap her and her community.

Genius is a cautionary tale, tapping into the pervasive fear of urban rebellion that has pushed Ferguson law enforcement officials to stomp on the constitutional rights of civilians. The people of Ferguson aren’t waging war, but judging by the response of the police department, they may as well be. As a nation, we don’t want tensions to escalate to the point where there are firefights between civilians and police in our city streets, but the events in Ferguson have proven that peaceful methods of protest aren’t going to cut it against a police force that has free rein to shoot tear gas and rubber bullets into a crowd once the sun goes down. Ideally, the U.S. won’t need a Destiny Ajaye to fix these problems, but as options become more limited for these demoralized communities, we run the risk of seeing Destiny become a reality.