French comic book illustrator Phil Briones works in his home office in Los Angeles, California, on September 18, 2019. (AFP/Robyn Beck)
Two US authors have found a novel way to address the mass shootings that regularly plunge their country into mourning -- comic-book superheroes.
The daring Ignited series, penned by former Marvel and DC writers Mark Waid and Kwanza Osajyefo and released by legendary French publisher Humanoids Associates, tackles the politically controversial topic head-on.
It tells the fictional but tragically familiar story of six teenagers who survive a shooting at their high school in Phoenix, Arizona.
Under immense shock and stress, the teens develop superpowers. They view their newfound strengths as an opportunity to "make a difference" in their violent world, "because otherwise we went through all our pain for nothing".
In addition to giving a voice to real-life shooting survivors, Ignited was a chance for scriptwriters Waid and Osajyefo to address a range of sensitive, highly topical issues in the United States -- while drawing on their backgrounds with Captain America, the X-Men, Batman and Superman.
Topics featured in the first few issues include gun control, immigration police raids on Latino families, militias and growing calls from ultra-conservatives for teachers to be armed with guns.
"The Ignited shared universe is different because it's not really superheroes -- to me, having written a million superhero comics, superheroes are about masks and capes and powers, and super villains," said Waid.
Here the real "villains" are extremists and the National Rifle Association (NRA) gun lobby.
The books' heroes are "dealing with things on a more realistic and a more human level," added Waid, 57.
'Make some waves'
Publisher Humanoids Associates was founded in Paris in 1974, and is the only French-language comic book publisher to have successfully entered the US market.
It remains one of the top players in the European market, where it is first became known for wildly popular sci-fi comic anthology Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal) -- which Ridley Scott said partly inspired Blade Runner.
The publisher's owner Fabrice Giger said superhero comics are "a first for us".
"Our logic was to approach (mass shootings) from another angle ... What can we say that hasn't already been said by others?"
The series, which had its US launch this summer and will be published monthly, has "the taste and look of American comic books but is something a little bit different."
"We started from the basis that Marvel, DC Comics and even smaller American publishers are all politically correct ... whereas we have always dealt freely with all subjects," said Giger from his Los Angeles office, where the company has operated since 1998.
Scriptwriter Waid agreed that "because American comics are corporate owned, they have to cater to all political stripes.
"We're a smaller company. We can afford to make some waves," said Waid, who is director of creative development at Humanoids, the US branch of Humanoids Associates.
"It's a timely book because, clearly, it's about the madness that's happening here in America."
Could a project like Ignited have been created at Marvel or DC?
"Not a chance -- not to this degree. We would have had to dress it up as 'both sides are OK.' No, listen, both sides are not OK. This is ridiculous," Waid said.
His co-writer Osajyefo also started at Marvel and DC, but had to turn to crowd-funding to publish his controversial series Black.
The critically acclaimed work imagines a world in which only black people develop superpowers -- which the authorities seek to stifle by all means.
Ignited is drawn by Philippe Briones, a French comic book virtuoso who worked for a decade at Disney.
Briones applauded the "courageous" decision to tackle a subject as political -- and taboo -- as shootings in the United States.
"Living in Los Angeles, I see how important it is here," he said, comparing it to the idea of writing comic book stories about the Bataclan terror attacks back in France.
"That would be really tricky, personally I wouldn't want to deal with this kind of subject," he said.
"The most important thing is for people to speak up, and comics is a good way," Briones added.
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