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  • Writer's pictureBrad Gullickson

"I Can Hang Out Here For A While." Ngozi Ukazu goes Big for 'Barda'

We chat with the writer about Big Barda, Scott Free, and the cartoonist's cartoonist, Jack Kirby.

Ngozi Ukazu Barda Interview

Welcome to our Creator Corner, our reoccurring interview series, where we chat with the coolest and most thought-provoking creators in the industry. In this entry, we're conversing with Ngozi Ukazu about Barda, out now from DC Comics. Listen to the unedited audio HERE.

 

You become a fanatic when you play in Jack Kirby's (Fourth) World. We've collectively returned to the King's comics for generations, uncovering new ideas and emotions from his exceptionally defined storytelling. His books don't dim over time; they only brighten, especially when a spotlight returns to hover, thanks to an exceptional new interpretation.


Ngozi Ukazu, the bestselling cartoonist behind the brilliant Check, Please!, fulfills her childhood dream of playing with Jack Kirby's action figures. Her new original graphic novel Barda explores the title character's youth on Darkseid's Apokolips, where a crush on Orion awakens rebellion and propels her through a beautifully bombastic bout of self-discovery. And yeah, she meets Scott Free, but the two do not ride off into the sunset or, uh, Boom Tube. Not yet, anyway.


We spoke with Ukazu about her DC comic book origins and how crafting Barda transformed her into a Jack Kirby zealot. The Fourth World's creator was a cartoonist's cartoonist. He crafted a singular vision, and few singular creators, i.e., pure cartoonists, have been allowed to add their flourish. Walt Simonson and Ngozi Ukazu are the only ones who wrote and drew in conversation with Kirby. That's astounding, and all Kirby maniacs should take note of Barda.


This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

 

Ngozi Ukazu and her Barda Origin Story


Brad: I actually wanted to start this conversation with the dedication. You dedicate Barda to your mom, "a very tough lady." What does that mean for you?


Ngozi Ukazu: Thank you so much for noticing that. I am first generation. My parents immigrated from Nigeria in the 80's, so growing up, I come from very humble means. My mom and dad had to work so hard to give us opportunities. I always say that I never had a part-time job. My parents only wanted us to do school. They worked, and our job was school. I got to draw so much as a kid. I had a safe environment to draw and create. My parents encouraged us to be creative. So, I did dedicate this book to my mom because I get to make cartoons for a living because of all the work that my parents did.


Brad: I feel like I could guess why, but I'd like you to tell me, why Barda? Why is Barda the one for this dedication?


Ngozi Ukazu: Barda's a tough lady. My mom's a tough lady! I just wanted to link everything together.


Brad: I know that you came to DC Comics early on. You were a fan of the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons, but I've also read that in working on Barda you've become a Jack Kirby fanatic.


Ngozi Ukazu: Oh, yeah. I've been completely brainwashed. I walked in just being like, I really respect Jack Kirby's work. Now, I just have hair-trigger responses to anyone who says anything bad about Jack Kirby. I'm like, "You don't understand."


Brad: Did you feel a responsibility in tackling the Fourth World? Was it stressful even?


Ngozi Ukazu: It was less stress just more challenging. I wanted to make sure that I got everything right. Because the story itself, the Fourth World itself, is so intricate and has such engaging, just profound themes that I didn't want to mess it up. And also, Jack Kirby being a creator's creator, a cartoonist's cartoonist, I feel like I was in direct conversation with him.


Also, there's a lot of people who love Jack Kirby, just fan clubs, museums, archivists, and I knew that whatever I put into the world would be part of the conversations people would have about Jack Kirby, and I didn't want to be the one that people just kind of shove under the table. I wanted people to get excited and go, "Oh, yeah." Not just because, "Oh, she gets it," but just more like, "Oh, we get it. This is our fandom. This is someone who understands the Fourth World."


Brad: I was already excited at the prospect of you tackling Barda because of the works that you have done. Check, Please! being so fabulous, but also the idea of you being a pure cartoonist, Jack Kirby being a pure cartoonist, this is a singular work coming from you.


Ngozi Ukazu: Yeah. And that is interesting. I think it's me and Walt Simonson, the only people who get to draw and write Jack Kirby comics, so I do not take that lightly. It's a very small and exciting club to be in. So, if I'm approaching a story like that, you just have to go all out. So, I recently wrote this blog post for DC.com. I started off wanting to make a book about Barda, exploring her backstory and where she's from, and I feel like I ended up submitting a master thesis work in my degree of Jack Kirby's studies.


Because I read interviews, I watched interviews. I just went back to look at some biographical facts about Jack Kirby, rereading obviously the textbooks of just New Gods and Forever People and Mister Miracle. To work on someone's singular vision, I wanted to make sure I understood not just who these characters are and what they do, but who this person is and what he believed in.


Ngozi Ukazu and the Barda Meet-Cute


Brad: I feel like I was able to see that on the page with Barda. You also have a tremendous opportunity here with Barda to explore narrative territory that has been left uncovered. Right? This meeting between Scott Free and Barda has not happened before.


Ngozi Ukazu: Yes, and I took my own liberties there. There's a lot of little tweaks that maybe stray a little bit from canon, but I still feel are justified because emotionally they're true to canon. But Scott and Barda, what a couple, I think the first time we ever see Barda, it is in Mister Miracle, and she kind of just shows up and she's ready to go. She has an amazing costume, she's trying to whack Oberon on the head, and we know that she has this amazing backstory with Scott. She helped him in many ways, as Scott tells Oberon.


And then, when we see Scott's flashbacks from his point of view, we see Barda as this rescuer. She rescues Aurelie, and one of my favorite things about Barda is the fact that the first time she meets Scott, she tries to strangle him with a steel pipe. I'm like, "Go off, girl." I know I'm really bad with my crushes, but she's like, "Let me strangle this guy, that'll get his attention." And that's what we see. We see them interact in these ways. And again, that's all from Scott's point of view. I had the chance to tell this from Barda's point of view, and I wanted to show Barda's internal conflict as she is clearly physically attracted to this boy, but also just aesthetically, intellectually attracted to what he represents, which we didn't get to see. You don't get to see inside the Kirby books.


Brad: I knew I was going to love this comic from the first panel where you write, "We do not speak of love on Apokolips," and how love is an act of rebellion on Apokolips. And you don't immediately jump into the Scott Free Big Barda meet-cute, if anything could be a meet cute on Apokolips.

Ngozi Ukazu: Right!


Brad: You have Barda already trying to investigate and explore the concept of love through a crush that she has with Orion, which was such a surprise, but ah, a good one.


Ngozi Ukazu: Yeah, thank you. This book is going to introduce a lot of people to the Fourth World, so they may not understand how bogus and sacrilege and blasphemous it is to have Barda being like, "I'm in love with Orion," but for people who are already familiar, I wanted them to read this and go like, "Huh, what?" But we just want to show that's Barda's character arc. She's in love with the wrong person. She doesn't even know what love is. She basically sees a boy who's attractive, who pays attention to her, and she's like, "Oh, okay. I get it." Eventually, she meets her actual future husband and realizes, "Oh, okay. This guy, for whatever reason, he loves me unconditionally. He wants me to be the best version of myself, and he himself is just so, he knows who he is," and then she realizes like, "Oh, this is love. Scott has self-love. I love Scott." She realizes all of these things in meeting Scott.


Brad: And it's not like your story, again, I mean, it's not spoilers because we all know the story, I guess, or the people who know the story know the story, but your arc isn't, "And they lived happily ever after." Right?

Ngozi Ukazu: No.


Brad: The arc is about Barda connecting to something that has been robbed of her in this environment.


Ngozi Ukazu: Yes.


Ngozi Ukazu and Barda's Happily Ever After


Brad: Why not go all the way with Scott and Barda?


Ngozi Ukazu: Well, that wouldn't be her true arc. Scott teaches Barda a lot about herself, but the arc isn't that she rides off into the sunset or into the Boom Tube with Scott, and it's happily ever after. And then suddenly she's like, "I'm in love." She starts on Apokolips, and she ends on Apokolips. And that phrase, which I find fun to say, I think it has a nice cadence to it, "We do not speak of love on Apokolips." It's about Barda realizing that "No, I do have the power to love myself and love others on this planet."


So yeah, I didn't want to just immediately take her out of the entire situation because it was important for her to remain on this planet for a little bit longer and to exist there and to be grounded in her rebellion before she goes off and just peace signs and hangs out with Earth. Which again, is it a spoiler that Barda ends up on earth with her husband? Who knows?


Brad: I mean, for some new readers, which I think is also exciting, it would be a spoiler, but I think that's the delight of the book too. Certainly, I don't reflect on this moment on Apokolips between these two and really how horrific Apokolips is. And your story isn't grotesque in any way, but it doesn't shy away from the hell that Apokolips is, especially for Barda and Aurelie, and well, really for everybody.


Ngozi Ukazu: For everyone. One of my favorite challenges, or one of my favorite things that I did with this book, was looking at the Female Furies and thinking about how I could expand each of their trauma. I always talk about how in any story you tell, you have your protagonist, and whoever is in their cast or crew, they all represent different aspects of the protagonist. It goes back to ancient Greek theater. The chorus represents the internal world of the hero, Batman's Rogues Gallery, they all represent different parts of Bruce Wayne or Batman. And with the Female Furies, we basically see funhouse mirror versions of Barda. If she had lost that one piece of her, that makes her a hero.


So, when you think of writing Mad Harriet, she's so fun. Honestly, I've heard people say, "Mad Harriet should be Harley Quinn," and there's no reason why Harley Quinn should be more popular than Mad Harriet, but you have a character like Mad Harriet who is just insane. And yes, you can maybe guess like, "Oh, maybe she was just born that way." But I think if it's just this - a coping mechanism that's equal to the horror and stress of Apokolips, that's more fascinating to me. Or even someone like Bernadette who maybe was born with some semblance of empathy, but has a very cold sadism that she intellectualizes. All of their villainy represents the horror that they grew up in and adapted to, to survive.


Brad: Darkseid is present at times in the story, but he's a little bit more in the background. Darkseid's evil is represented through the kingdom that he rules over and also through Granny Goodness.


Ngozi Ukazu: Yes. Granny Goodness is the main antagonist of this story. I've said before, Darkseid is kind of just Barda's boss. He's the guy in the background, he's the tyrant. He's the face of this fascist planet. Well, Granny Goodness is this voice inside Barda's head that both belittled her and also gives her validation and that tension of Granny Goodness being Barda's mother figure, but also this tormentor, that's what you want in an antagonist. Someone who is able to push and pull you and give you, it's almost what you need, but it's kind of like a toxic version of what you need. Darkseid is such a fascinating character, and hopefully I'll get to write more of him in other scenarios, maybe like a sequel to this with a different protagonist. I'll wink at that, just who knows?


Brad: We'll leave that there for now, but that's fascinating.


Ngozi Ukazu: Wink, wink.


Brad: You talked a little bit about Mad Harriett, she should be like Harley Quinn. We should all love Mad Harriet the way we love Harley Quinn. The popularity of Fourth World is sort of interesting. I feel like we're at a period, and I think your book could help tremendously in this, of redirecting people to what's so fascinating about the Fourth World.


Ngozi Ukazu: Ooh. Even as someone who grew up with DC Comics and loves DC, there's something about the Fourth World that appeals to me more than other pockets of DC Comics, and it could be because it comes from a singular vision. It's Jack Kirby. When you're in Jack Kirby's sandbox, you're playing by his rules, and those rules are about father versus son, good versus evil, fascism versus freedom. And you see those big capital ideas in other pockets of the DC Comics universe, but it's very cohesive in the Fourth World. So that's why I'm like, "I'm good. I can hang out here for a while." I didn't expect for me to end up as a Jack Kirby fan or fanatic, but here I am.


Ngozi Ukazu, Barda, and Jack Kirby Krackle


Brad: If you are indoctrinated in the Fourth World of Jack Kirby, you have pretty strong opinions about what other people do with these characters.


Ngozi Ukazu: This comes up all the time, but I have to chill out now whenever I talk about Orion, because I'm like-


Brad: Yeah. I've read the Tumblr post.


Ngozi Ukazu: Okay, you know what? That Tumblr Post has 20 likes, so I assume no one read it, but I wrote a screed about how I view Orion and how I view his anger in particular, and how I view him as a very noble character. But you know what? Everyone can interpret him the way they want.


Brad: Sure, sure, sure. That's the right of the reader. That's the right of the creator.


Ngozi Ukazu: Exactly.


Brad: That's the right of the artist who's taking on the character. But again, back to Jack Kirby, I'm going to keep bringing things back to Jack Kirby. Not only are you re-contextualizing your version of these characters and also design, but also action, and there are moments in this comic where I really feel like you're trying to emulate Kirby's specific style of energy.


Ngozi Ukazu: Yeah, which was fun. It was a challenge. I come from the world of web comics, even though my comic Check, Please! was about sports, not a lot of punching going on, not a lot of intergalactic violence. So, I spent a lot of time looking at how Jack Kirby draws a punch, how he draws action, how he draws energy. Even just obviously the Kirby crackle, and I hope that came through. I'm excited to keep refining that because so much of Jack Kirby is, yes, there's the world-building, there's the wonderful dialogue, there's the huge themes, but a lot of it is just fun action and building up to that. So, yeah, there's still so much to learn. Even though I may have submitted a thesis in Jack Kirby studies, I should go for my PhD.


Brad: Yeah, yeah, please do. I would also imagine, because this is your work, you put yourself in this book, and I wonder what you learned about yourself in creating Barda?


Ngozi Ukazu: That's such a fantastic question. I think there's the aspects of understanding that DC Comics is just part of me, and it's been part of my childhood. I didn't expect for this to be as fulfilling to my inner child as it was, because I've been making web comics for years, and I love that. But then getting to work on DC Comics, I was like, "Oh, this is fun in a way that I haven't had fun in." It's a very specific type of fun. It's the action figures smashing together fun. It's the drawing fan art in my childhood bedroom fun. So there's that. I didn't realize that I'd get so into the research, even though, well, I guess with Check, Please! I got way, way, way into the research there to learn about hockey; but just these characters.


It's interesting because writing Barda is writing about a character who exhibits these different parts of the masculine and the feminine. She is "very violent," a "bruiser", an enforcer, but she also is, I think, pretty in touch with her feminine side as well. So it was fun accessing both of those things and writing her to be, I don't know, a girly girl sometimes when she's talking to Scott. She kind of just melts around him, but then also just turning around and then whacking someone with her Mega-Rod. I didn't know that would be as fun and fulfilling to write as well. So yeah, I guess, that's what I learned.


Brad: So, you've teased a little bit. You're in love with working in this world. There's a possibility, a hope, that you'll continue working in the Fourth World. I want to see it for sure.


Ngozi Ukazu: I would love to. There's just so many characters that could be developed, because again, Jack Kirby, creator's creator, comic book artist's comic book artists, just left us with dozens and dozens of characters that you could really explore. So, yeah, there's so much we haven't seen - New Genesis, what's Scott doing on earth? I mean, Metron? Where's Metron?


Brad: We have not seen them really fall in love.


Ngozi Ukazu: Yes.


Brad: Right? So there's a sequel. There's a Barda sequel from you about that.


Ngozi Ukazu: Yeah. Yeah. We'll see.

 

Barda is now available wherever fine comics are sold.

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