Jeremy Whitley is no stranger to the ways comic books can push against the dominant cultural representations of the “hero.” When he realized that his infant daughter might learn to read without any major comic book showcasing a woman of color, he created PrinceLess. This book told the story of a young woman who rejects the passive princess role of waiting on a rescue. Together with a friendly dragon and a female blacksmith’s apprentice, Adrienne goes on her own adventures. Readers of all genders and ages found one of the most charming representations of a woman of color in the whole industry, and the Eisner awards took note of this, nominating PrinceLess in 2012 for both Best Single Issue and Best Publication for Ages 8-12. The series also won 3 Glyph awards. Most importantly to him, he has been “overwhelmed by the amount of support” from people who will cry on him at book signings, grateful to give their children a book representing them in ways they’d never had.
Now Whitley is back, telling a new story, and he hopes to use Kickstarter to give voice to further diversity in comic representation. Illegal is planned as a 15-issue limited series following Gianna Delrey, a woman surviving a science-fiction future where U.S. citizens are tracked by implanted microchips, and her undocumented status could lead to her death. Bringing the story to rich visual life is Whitley’s previous collaborator on NFL Rush Zone, artist Heather Nunnelly of the webcomic Vacant.
A major inspiration for this story came from Whitley’s own life. As he says, “my grandfather wasn’t undocumented, but he could have been under different circumstances.” Born in Mexico to a harsh father, that young man “might have ended up one of those kids stuck on the border now,” but “he beat the odds, became a legal citizen,” and later served in the U.S. military. This story reminded Whitley that “in a lot of cases, the people we’re so worried about coming over the border… their ancestors probably have a better claim than others… when in Ellis Island, it was expected there would be undocumented immigrants who would write their name down in a book.”
The science fiction genre of Illegal comes from an observation Whitley had reading science fiction and fantasy as he was growing up: “Most dystopian fiction happens to nice, young, virile white people.” He suspected the social conversion to dystopia began subtly, happening to the outliers as a sort of precursor without much widespread attention, “not entirely unlike the first few days of these protests” in Missouri.
Response to the series has been “largely supportive of having these types of heroes,” with no direct negative messages to him or comments on the Kickstarter and only a few negative responses to a Bleeding Cool article last weekend, but Whitley knew that the content of the project would raise fear in publishing companies, and he wanted the creative freedom to tell his story without repacking it to fit inside those fears, so he decided to work toward self-publishing Illegal, “at least at first, get an issue or two in the can and show that it works.” He recognized all too well that people are scared to read independent comics because they could disappear after three issues. He personally experienced this when creating The Order Of Dagonet with artist Jason Strutz at Action Lab. He loved doing it, but low orders on the third issue meant the company could not afford to continue, and the remaining issues have yet to see the market. In order to produce Illegal, Nunnelly has to reallocate time from her webcomic and freelance work. With this in mind, Whitley aimed to raise funding to produce the whole first volume.
At time of writing, the Kickstarter campaign is set to run until September 6 and has raised over $5,000 toward a goal of $6,000 to print and distribute the first issue and digitally create the rest of the first 5-issue act. Stretch goals allow for creation of the remainder of the 15-issue run at about $6,000 per arc. Backer rewards include access to the comic, bookmarks, mini-posters, original commissions, dog tags, and even inclusion as a cameo in the art of the first issue. Whitley points out that “even if the mature tone of Illegal isn’t for them,” many backer rewards showcase his work on PrinceLess and My Little Pony. Follow the project on Facebook, on Twitter via Jeremy Whitley and Heather Nunnelly, on Tumblr, and at Kickstarter.com.