Interview: Juni Ba on 'Djeliya'
We chat with the writer/artist about his new YA graphic novel from TKO and how it blends everything he's ever loved about cartoons and comics.
When was the last time you dropped a book in your lap and went, "Damn, I'm in the presence of a master"? This happened to us just the other day when we were reading Djeliya, the debut graphic novel from writer/artist Juni Ba. The comic is an astonishing display, a gorgeous tour de force that at once feels like many things and something totally original. It's a quest story. It's a celebration of West African folklore. It's a saga championing the power of story and those that tell it.
Djeliya is one of three new titles released this month from TKO Studios as part of their new young adult line. The book is digest-sized, printed on rich, coarse paper, and simply feels incredible in your hands. We read it digitally first, but the comic erupted into life when we got the physical copy. You'll want it on your shelf, but mostly you'll want to keep it gripped in your mitts.
Like the best epic quest narratives, Djeliya keeps the details of its plot simple. Prince Mansour and his royal storyteller Awa embark on a journey to the White Tower. There they hope to encounter the wizard Soumaoro and ask him why he ignited an apocalypse that birthed the horrible reality our heroes now occupy. What they find is not necessarily what they expect.
We were fortunate to get on the phone with Juni Ba. He's currently hard at work on his next project but still very much excited to chat about Djeliya. The comic is a dream come true and the culmination of a lifetime spent consuming comics and cartoons. We discuss his influences, and how they made him the artist he is today. We also talk about the importance of narrative and the responsibility that resides in its telling.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the entire conversation on our Patreon feed. Just 1 Dollar.
Brad: I wanted to start this conversation with the incredibly adorable author photo at the back of the book, where you are holding up some sort of Transformers or Power Rangers character?
Juni: It's a Spider-Man robot.
Brad: A Spider-Man robot? That's even better! The bio mentions how you're the product of what happens when Cartoon Network meets your average Senegalese boy. Can you explain that a little bit more? What is the influence of Cartoon Network on your brain and your aesthetic?
Juni: So I was born in '92, which I feel is important to understand the type of influences I had in terms of media, because I was born and raised in Senegal, but TV was very much ruled by American and French media at the time. The earliest TV memory I have is Xena: Warrior Princess.
Juni: It played with preschool-type shows. There was one about a turtle called Franklin. I don't know if Americans have watched that show.
Lisa: Yes! Yes!
Juni: Yeah, so it was Hercules and Xena or Franklin the turtle and a bunch of other stuff, including French stuff. And then Dragonball and Saint Seiya, and the more Japanese influenced programming. Towards when I was 11 or 12 - I had grown up to that point - I saw Cartoon Network on the TV of other people.
It's a classic thing if you're a child of parents with limited means. Every once in a while you meet a new friend who has a big house and cable TV. And I had this neighbor I visited, and once I walked into the living room and he was watching Justice League. And when he saw me arrive, he just turned the TV off. Like he was doing most normal and casual thing in the world - to turn the TV off when Justice League is on! To me that was insane because I was still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that such a concept existed in the first place, because I had never seen it before.
So, Cartoon Network was a bit of that far away land with interesting-looking cartoons that I could not get because I didn't have cable.
Brad: Yeah, sure.
Juni: Eventually, around the same time, my dad managed to get Cartoon Network because the price dropped drastically. It became my life! I would wake up in the morning, go to his room and then spend my entire day there just watching cartoons. And my grandparents got the channel as well. So even when I went there, I started watching the TV, mostly for that.
I think the main draw for me was the visuals. The very interesting way that they would take real life and sort of simplify it into very clear shapes and how they would play with the laws of reality, because cartoons have their own rules of how they work. There is a very amazing artistry in being able to do, say Dexter's Laboratory and have his sister who's walking around with him. She's supposed to be a ballerina, but when she walks around, because she has those big fit, no one ever comments on the fact that she sounds like mashed potatoes every time she walks, but it works. I was fascinated by this. I was amazed by how you can tell stories using visuals and sounds and a system of logic that doesn't make sense at face value. But if you actually look at it, it's sort of has its own logic and inner workings.
Lisa: Djeliya is all about the power of narrative. Your heroine Awa is learning how being the keeper of the narrative makes you the most powerful person. Being the keeper is really a huge, enormous responsibility. So how has it been for you being the keeper of this narrative? Does it feel powerful? Important? What responsibilities come with that?
Juni: There was a moment of huge pressure, because the initial reason why I made the book was simply that I wanted to do something fun with the folklore of where I was born. So there was no particular desire to make up for the lack of anything. But then, naturally, I started doing research and I looked into the usual representation of Africa in and outside of the continent. And that's when you start realizing how little there is of it, and you sort of feel this - you can see how people, especially on the internet, we tend to be very critical, very easily. So, there is a weight to do this right. I think the first thing that I had to learn to do was let go of that form of pressure because I'm only just one person and I can only make one book.
And really the biggest thing for me, I guess, was I wanted to try and make something that I feel is useful and speaks to humanity as a whole. It sounds very grandiose when you say it like that. I wanted to use the very specific focus of one space on the planet, but talk about things that are relevant all around the world. And then, I guess in the end, what I hope most is that it's going to resonate with people who don't even come from my side of the planet at all.
Brad: Well, we can tell you that that mission is accomplished. Specificity does create universality here.
Lisa: At the beginning of the novel, Awa is contrasted with the other Djeli who are using their narrative powers for money and fame instead of continuing the Djeliya traditions. And I love your little play on words with the DJ, Eli.
Juni: [Laughter] Yeah, thank you.
Lisa: I thought that was very clever. Like who did DJ Eli represent for you? These people who are not taking their narrative powers seriously.
Juni: I don't necessarily have individuals in mind, but it's also a sort of low-key commentary on the evolution of the... I don't want to say the profession because that's not the right word. Essentially, the skills used by your typical Djeli are supposed to be taught from father to son and they're supposed to be very carefully guarded and kept. But the evolution of society is such that their position has essentially disappeared now. And aside from finding your private patron somewhere, you're not really going to sustain as a Djeli anymore. And I just thought it would be interesting to explore the larger question of having that access to art. When you have the ability to create art that speaks to people, what do you do with it?
I thought it would be interesting for someone like Awa, who was raised with this idea that you have to use your skills for a very particular, very important purpose. She's seeing society change in ways that she doesn't recognize. And she is a bit judgmental of that as well. I suppose it would be funny to have a scene where she actually gets to talk to that guy and realizes that he's not actually that vapid and interesting as she thinks he is. So, yeah. The basic idea is I was watching a music video by a Nigerian musician. And I thought most of the music that these guys make is about money and sex and material wealth. And I feel like someone like Awa would probably have a lot of issues with that, considering what she was raised with.
Djeliya is both a celebration of and a confrontation with storytellers. And it's an absolute pleasure to hold in your hand. Grab your copy, currently available from TKO Studios. Also, don't forget, you can hear the rest of this conversation over on our Patreon page.