From Hedy Lamarr to Janet Jackson: The real superheroes inspiring the all-women Aza Comics Universe
Taking steady but efficient strides is Aza Comics Universe, the brainchild of entrepreneur Jazmin Truesdale, who sowed the seeds in response to a lack of superhero diversity
"Superheroes are the ultimate symbols of empowerment. When you create heroes that look like the world, the world becomes inspired."
It would be naive to not realize the power and reach that superhero comics (and in extension, cinematic and gaming franchises) hold as part of modern pop culture. Top Hollywood studios and productions, in fact, have been milking superhero fandoms to the best of their abilities, cashing in millions every year at the box office. Newer, and relatively, fresher competition too have joined the force, in an attempt to introduce hitherto lesser-known comics and grab the eyes of fans who haven't yet pledged their loyalty to either DC or Marvel (or both).
Despite all the attention superhero comics and comics-based franchises are garnering, there is little to almost no change in terms of representation or inclusion of different race, color, community, and even sex of cult-favorite characters. At least the stalwarts in the industry have failed. As indicated by GLAAD's 2018 Responsibility Index, top studios have failed to openly portray or identify the identity of the characters — especially in superhero films — who are openly queer in the books.
While LGBTQ representation is just the tip of the iceberg, these multi-billion dollar franchises are still struggling to give due recognition to female characters, who are not just white. In these circumstances, taking steady but efficient strides is Aza Comics Universe, the brainchild of serial entrepreneur Jazmin Truesdale. Created in response to a lack of diversity, the Aza Universe at present boasts a roster of beloved characters inspired by real women.
For instance, 'Adanna', a combination of physical strength and engineering genius is inspired by Hedy Lamarr and Geeta Phogat. African women warriors of Dahomey are the motivation for 'Kala', a master of battle strategy and various fight styles. And her mother, 'Queen Thema', is based on Janet Jackson and the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut. While all of this sounds fascinating, to say the least, Truesdale didn't begin with the idea of creating a full-fledged superhero universe.
"I was originally creating a game for one of my other companies and realized that I was making superheroes," says Truesdale in an exclusive interview with Meaww. "I wanted to create something that women could really lose themselves in and be inspired by," she explains, dishing on the final outcome that is Aza Comics.
"There is a major shift happening globally and women are finding their voices. I wanted to illustrate women from different cultural backgrounds with different personalities working together. Thanks to the feedback from fans with their life experiences and input, the characters have truly become more nuanced and three dimensional. As the storylines progress you'll see more cultural references and many other things that make each character unique," she adds.
Like every comics fanatic, though, Truesdale's initiation into the world of superheroes happened quite early, in her childhood. And in her own words, she is most definitely, "a DC girl". "I love the Trinity (Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman) as well as Vixen and Black Canary. I also enjoyed reading other series like Executive Assistant, Grimm Fairy Tales, and Witchblade," she tells us.
However, when she began exploring the superhero genre, less as a reader and more as an entrepreneur, this comics maven realized that women were practically left out of the gambit. And whatever handful of women superheroes did exist, they mostly catered to the men. So, rather than treading on the same beaten path, Truesdale chose to create a universe of her own, a move that so far has been in the right direction.
"Fortunately, there's been progress through more women writers in the industry but I wanted to hear from women themselves as readers," the Aza comics founder insists before explaining, "I did a poll asking women and girls of different ages and backgrounds what they wanted to see in their heroes. What they liked and didn't like and then I created a universe that catered to that."
Truesdale wanted to bring something different to the genre. And in order to do so, she "stayed away from watching superhero movies/tv shows and reading comics." A self-confessed fan of Disney, especially their princess brigade, she reveals that she "watched a lot of documentaries on crime, science, and history, animal planet, and even read many scientific journals to craft a universe of 'what could be'. I just really let my creative juices flow."
What resulted was the only superhero universe created for women by women. Interestingly, Truesdale doesn't look at her condensed focus as limiting. "Women are and will always be my focus. Half the population is women...that's 4 billion people," she says. The niche approach, as it turns out, was a part of her planning, which unsurprisingly includes male readers as well, just that they are not the focus.
"I created the company to inspire women and nearly sixty percent of Aza's female readership has never read a comic book or cared about superheroes until they discovered Aza," the comics enthusiasts quips, revealing how with a balanced and inclusive writing Aza tackles issues experienced by men as well. "I think men appreciate that because they make up almost half of Aza's fanbase! While empowering women is my focus I also try to show how men can have a place alongside powerful women," Truesdale adds.
Together with her illustrator, Remero Colston, Truesdale is churning out not only interesting and out-of-ordinary reads but also nuanced illustrations that set Aza apart from the hoard of other superhero comics. To put this into perspective, the comics writer-cum-entrepreneur explains how the physiques (of Aza characters) are based on their personalities and powers.
"Adanna has super strength so she has a muscular figure, Fenna is an innovative fashion designer and has a fuller figure," Truesdale explains, sharing a quick sneak peek into the future timeline. "You'll see them battle and overcome real issues like body image, PTSD, and other things women experience. You'll also see their bond as a sisterhood take on a life of its own. As I've been writing, their sisterhood has become its own character... you'll see that at the end of the day, they're just women kicking butt together and having fun doing it."
It goes without saying that Aza Comics is forging a space of its own, in the immensely competitive universe of superhero franchises. And at the same time, is also filing up the void left by top guns (in terms of representation and so on), as Truesdale promises a solo series by the end of the year for Aza's first romantic couple, who also happens to be a lesbian couple.
"I'm also in the process of taking submissions from trans writers for a transgender character for a series as well. In 2018, there is no excuse for not representing the LGBTQ community," the comics creator asserts.
While all of Aza's books are available in print and digital form, thanks to popular demand, in the next few months, Truesdale is also set to release the next installments of 'The Keepers', the children's series, and Genie & Jase (a fan favorite lesbian super couple). Hopefully, it won't be long before these diverse characters from the Aza Comics Universe make their way to the big screen, facing off the already established and popular DC/Marvel heroes.
"I'm currently being scouted by game developers and production companies," assures Truesdale. "Right now I'm going through the process of finding the right collaborative home for the Aza brand".