There is limitless potential in fantasy. It exists in the realm of the imagination where constraints mean nothing. Sometimes it offers commentary on real world phenomena, while other times it simply explores ideas too outlandish for the confines of grounded drama.
Yet despite this freedom, modern fantasy storytelling has barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. Can you think of any stories in this genre that meaningfully explore non-European/Asian myths and legends? How many of those narratives feature female leads—or rarer still, female leads of color?
Charles Agbaje—along with his brother, John—are set to shift that paradigm with Spider Stories. Along with their diverse team at City Tower, they hope to bring a new perspective to the world of animation with a story based on the cultures of West Africa.
Spider Stories follows a young woman named Zahara whose birthright, the throne of the Lion kingdom, has been taken from her by an invading force known as the Hawks. Her story will take her around the five nations (Lions, Elephants, Leopards, Rhinos and Buffalo) as she regains her agency, unites her people and takes on the invading threat.
I sat down with Mr. Agbaje to discuss his ambitious project.
How did you and you brother get Central City Tower off the ground as an independent media production group?
Yeah, it started with my brother … [E]ver since we were little kids, we’ve been drawing, writing, coming up with our own characters. And I think by the time I was a senior in high school we decided, “If we’re never going to grow out of this, we’ve gotta turn it into something.”
At that point we decided, “What can we do? What can we polish up of the ideas that we’ve created into some meaningful bit of content?” It was actually in 2010 that we published our comic book. It’s called Project 0. It’s a sci-fi adventure story. And that was pretty well received. We did that just on our own; I was the writer, my brother was the illustrator and between the two of us we put together a 26-page comic book.
Over the next two years, we did two more issues of Project 0. We were able to take it to a comic book convention, C2E2 in Chicago. It was pretty well received there. We had a booth set up, we were playing music and selling comic books. It was right across the way from Marvel’s who would always bring some of their crowd, too, whenever the excitement over there died down.
That was what convinced us that this isn’t just a hobby. This is something we might actually be good at. This is something we might be able to do and to make meaningful. After the three issues of the comic book, we decided that the next step is to do cartoons. We’ve always been total fans of cartoons first and foremost… We decided the best way to do it was get a little bit of funding and build a team, so we went to Kickstarter. And that was in… 2013? We ran the Kickstarter for 45 days and set the goal at 25K and ended up with 30K at the end.
Which was, again, another grassroots—doing it just because we wanted to do it. It started just with the support of our friends and family and from there branched out into people that they knew that they could introduce us to, people that just saw it online and got excited about it. Eventually we started getting press from small blogs and stuff. And then as the Kickstarter started to Snowball it got the attention of some national magazines, too. We ended up in The Guardian at one point and Ebony Magazine.
So Spider Stories, I think, has kind of just taken on a life of its own beyond just us as creators because a lot of people have just been responding to it in a way that we couldn’t have imagined and that we couldn’t have engineered at all.
One of the things that struck me is that you both have pretty interesting academic backgrounds. Not every filmmaker has that—some go to film school, and some don’t. How does that fit into your creative development?
…I think the whole way education is tied into the filmmaking and the storytelling is that it’s more experiences. It’s broadening your network and getting a little bit of tactical know-how of what it really is. Because there’s only so much you can do as a creative on your own, we’ve found. And there’s a lot that those schools and those institutions and the networks and the training that they offer can do to enhance what you already know.
That makes sense. One of the things we know is that California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) produced a whole crew of people who now work with and around Disney/Pixar. So clearly there’s a sense of network that’s born out of common educational backgrounds.
Yeah, it’s all about relationship building.
You and your brother have been fans of cartoons for a long time. What got you out of graphic novels and into the world of animation?
I think the transition between graphics novels and animation… One, I think it was just to test ourselves to see if we could do it. Two, I think we always wanted to do cartoons from day one. Graphic novels were a good way to get our feet wet with storytelling and character design. World building, stuff like that.
To that end, we’re not beholden to one specific media [sic]. So if it makes sense to do a comic book, we’re do these characters in a comic book. If it makes sense to do it as a cartoon, we’ll do it as a cartoon. If in the future it makes sense to do a video game or a web series or—pie in the sky—if we had a feature film, we wouldn’t be opposed to any of those things.
At the end of the day, it’s about the story and the characters. That’s really where the love is. That’s what drives us.
So you’re saying the story drives what medium you’re looking at?
Yeah … [W]ith Spider Stories, the cartoon made the most sense, or some type of video made the most sense, because there’s a musical component to it. You know, the sidekick character is a drummer, and the best way to communicate music is to actually have music playing.
In that sense, we though we had to do this in animation. We could do this in comic book form, but there are certain things you get in terms of the way the colors play and the way the music sounds and the way the characters move and interact that come across much better in a cartoon for the sake of Spider Stories. That’s where our sensibilities on that are.
Your team has to be bigger than just you and your brother at this point. Who else is involved in the project?
It’s grown quite a bit. It was just the two of us when we started the Kickstarter campaign. Since then it’s grown … We have a composer onboard named Anastasia who’s been with us pretty much since day one after the Kickstarter ended. She was the one who was behind the great score in the teaser trailer. We have a group of artists from RISD, Rhode Island School of Design, who are involved in the project and some other guys in the northeast.
We also partnered with an animation studio called Animation Libation who’s based out here in LA. They’re actually helping us to produce the animation itself. At that point we shifted into more of a director role rather than actually drawing every frame.
But Animation Libation also works with what they call a virtual studio, so they have people in New Jersey and around the country and around the world who… And then we collaborate on DropBox, GChat, emails… Just wherever people are because what Spider Stories has turned into more than anything is—it’s just a passion project.
The people involved are here because they want to be here, wherever they are physically. So we’re able to do a lot of things virtually; people submit the content and we give notes and we create our own stuff, too. It’s been growing very naturally. It’s attracted a lot of people to it and we just feed of that energy and keep going.
What do you think drives that passion? Why are people so invested in the project?
I think the passion comes from… One, the story that we’re trying to tell is, it gets to that epic, universal story. Everyone loves sci-fi and fantasy and these great tales of heroes, you know—the modern-day myths. I think we’re doing a good job of tapping into that.
Another thing that’s impossible to ignore in Spider Stories is the cultural component to it. So often when you see fantasy narratives, you get medieval Europe. Or if you’re into anime you may get feudal Japan or Eastern cultural references. With that Avatar series, a lot of it took from the design and the mythology and the cultural sensibilities from China and other Eastern cultures.
What we wanted to do is tell a similar type of fantasy narrative that anybody can relate to—that anybody can find a character that they like or enjoy the action or the choreography or the music or the style—and create one of those great epic series. But to base in an aesthetic that’s based off of West African mythology, culture, clothing, music, all those types of sensibilities. I think when people see that in the character designs and everything that we’ve produced, I think it strikes a chord.
It’s unique and it’s accessible and it’s never been seen before. Especially for minority groups and minority people who don’t get to see themselves in this content that they love so much very often, it really strikes a chord with them. One of the things that we hear all the time is, “I wish something like this existed when I was a kid.”
I think tapping into that passion and that love is really where it’s come from and what we’re always trying to keep in mind as we continue to produce. This could be meaningful to a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons.
One of the things Josh and I found so compelling about The Legend of Korra was exactly that. It featured a protagonist of color who was also a woman, and that was something we don’t see often in animated series. Was making the lead in your series a woman an important factor to you?
To explain that, I have to go back to the origins of Spider Stories. So Spider Stories started—you mentioned how school played a role in this—it started in undergrad. I had to do an animation project for class. So what I decided to do was adapt a West African folktale into a series of murals. It was these six huge pictures and the camera would pan across it and you had music playing over that, as well.
The story that I adapted was a simple story about a guy who inherits this magical talking drum and gets into trouble with it and figures out the proper way to use it at the end. It’s kind of a basic children’s fable story. When we did Project 0, and we had that up on the website. We decided, “Well, hey—we have all these ideas, let’s take these school projects and also put it on the website.”
Just so people know, yeah, we do Project 0, but we could do other stuff, too. When we would go to comic cons and sell Project 0, people would ask, “Hey, I love what you guys are doing and I also saw that side project on your website. What’s that about?” They’d always ask about it, and we were like, “Well, what could that be about if we really wanted to flesh it out?”
We decided to hit that niche that you were talking about. It’s unusual for a fantasy series to feature people of color or all these various nationalities and cultures and traditions that usually don’t get represented here. We come from a West African household—our parents are from Nigeria. We decided to draw from what we know and infuse that into this genre that we’re already into.
But we also wanted to do a little bit of research. So some of it was intuitive, some of it was research that we’ve done. And it turns out that if you look into the history, there have been dynasties of warrior queens, essentially, in West Africa before. We thought that’s an interesting way to turn the story on its head because when you think of fantasy stories, you think of a heroic knight rescuing a princess. But here you have a whole cultural tradition where you had women in power and we thought that was great.
So not only is the female lead a princess, but her relationship with her mother, the previous queen, also plays a pretty big role in the story. So we wanted to have that generational thing with a queen handing it off to a princess, which we found in some of the first research we did for the project as we were developing it.
My mother taught in Kenya for awhile and brought back a lot of Swahili ideas and traditions back with her. When I first saw the name “Spider Stories,” the first thing I thought of was Anansi the Spider, who is of course very famous. But you really only see those stories in picture books and other media, so I do think it’s an untapped well of potential.
I read a rather sobering statement on your website. You said it was as if “Africa wasn’t even invited” to the table of international animation. I think that’s been true of many places throughout history on a country-to-country basis, but Africa’s an entire continent that’s been left out of it. What do you think this new perspective offers that’s different from, say, European and Japanese culture?
I think that’ll come out naturally in the story itself. Some of the creative sensibilities that we’re doing are taken from—I mean, you mentioned that you recognized Anansi the Spider instantly. Some of the cultural tradition that’s already infused in the stories that we’re drawing from and the culture that we’re drawing from will naturally inform how the characters will interact and how the story progresses.
At the end of the day, that’s accents on top of the universal story thing that we want everyone to be excited about. We’re all human, right? So whether or not it’s the Japanese stories or the European stories, I mean—I am a huge fan of those stories. But the same way… When you watch anime, you get bits of Japanese culture that you don’t get when you watch American shows in terms of how characters refer to each other, sometimes how they greet each other, sometimes how they dress, sometimes the sensibilities that inform their fighting styles, or what have you.
I think when you have those natural bits of culture infused in the story that you can love regardless, it’s a nod to the people who get it, and to the people who may not identify with it, it’s just something that’s eye-opening. “Oh, this is how another culture operates. These are the kinds of sensibilities that come from that part of the world.” And then it can be a jumping off point for their own interests, right?
Spider Stories isn’t designed as a PBS kind of thing, as an educational… It’s not historical fiction, or an educational story. It’s fiction, it’s entertainment. But if people go for the entertainment and get bits of that culture, maybe they might go watch a documentary or do some research on their own or find out for themselves if there’s anything else in this culture for them. I think that’s part of the “coming to the table” thing. It’s just showing it in a light that it usually hasn’t [been] seen before.
Has the African angle influenced the aesthetic to any degree?
Yeah! Is there anything that you’re thinking of specifically?
I know—it seems like a broad question! But any time we see a new group enter the animation fray, we see a certain style come with them down to simple things like how the characters are drawn. Is that a factor in Spider Stories, as well?
Oh yeah, definitely. A lot of it is evident just in the costumes and stuff. It’s based on the kind of clothing and textiles that you might see. One of the instant touch points that we did was the masks in the spirit world. A lot of the spirit creatures in Spider Stories have faces that are integrated with masks—that are kind of evocative of masks—and we thought the masks were a sort of cultural touch point, something that’s instantly recognizable and kind of unique to that part of the world in terms of how faces are structured and the style and the aesthetic of those kinds of things.
I think the design sensibilities are always going to be there. When you do stuff like that, it transforms something that universal like the spirit world, which is in pretty much every culture, and every culture does the spirit world a little differently. But we all have this idea of another plane where there are fantastic creatures, where there’s magic, where there’s maybe ghosts and ancestors and stuff like that.
I think when we get into the West African tradition, when we get into their mythology and their folklore, their ancient gods … that informs how we do the spirit world. So it feels different than, you know, the spirit world that you get in Korra, or The Book of Life, that they’re all sort of infused with the cultural sensibilities of whatever culture they draw from.
It also seems like the cultural aesthetic is reflected in something as simple as the colors you use.
Oh yeah. I mean, there’s bright, vibrant colors… If you’ve ever been to a—when we go to family reunions, or weddings, just the outfits that people wear are just bursting with color. We wanted to make sure that when we were designing the characters, everybody is very bright and vibrant and kind of fun to look at. Infuse that natural liveliness into it.
Can you tell me a little about Zahara? What kind of character is she?
The biggest thing we want to do with Zahara… the word that we’ve used to encapsulate her is “fearless.” The story of Spider Stories is that several years before the series began, her nation was invaded, her family was dethroned and she had to go into hiding.
The story begins when she meets the drummer who comes from the spirit world. He invites her back to the spirit world with him and he gives her the tools that she needs to fight back against these invaders and reclaim the throne on her own. A big part of Zahara’s arc is we want to take her from a place where she’s lost a lot: she’s lost her family, she’s lost her birthright. But she hasn’t lost her faith and she hasn’t lost her courage.
So the main thing is she’s coming from this place of being down and rising back up. It’s a lot about agency. When bad things happen, what do you do about it? What can you take into your own hands? What can you do in small ways every day to make things better? And then as you do that, those actions will begin to inspire people. People will say, “If you’re working at it, then I can work at it, too. And maybe we can work at it together.”
It goes from [Zahara] going “What can I do day-by-day to fix this and get better?” And maybe being a little bit reckless; she’s untested, she’s a rough around the edges a little bit. But at the end of the day, she’s trying to do the right thing and when other people see her doing the right thing, it’s a very noble act. It inspires them and they come onboard and she evolves into the leader of these people who, like her, have lost. When the invasion happened it affected her most directly, but the whole nation had to change to deal with this threat. So everyone is coming from that place of “You had something taken away from you. What can you do to get better and how can we work to get better together?”
That’s what we’re trying to do with the character. We just want to have fun with [her]. She is the hero. We want to be able to identify with her journey. We want to be able to identify with her growth. We want to be able to relate with her the way you relate to all these other heroes. She’s got this great burden of destiny on her and she’s eager to tackle it so she’s going to figure out a way to make it work.
To be clear, she’s trying to reclaim the throne of her kingdom? Or the throne to all five kingdoms?
She’s technically in charge of all five. What we have is there’s an alliance of five nations: the Lion Tribe, which is at the head, the Elephants, the Leopards, the Rhinos and the Buffalos. The Lion Tribe has historically been at the head, but this invasion force comes in that we call the Hawk Tribe. [They’re] able to get rid of the Lions and in their place the Elephants take over as the sort of “second house” in the interim while the Hawk threat is ongoing.
And there are spirits associated with each of these kingdoms, right?
The spirits are sort of universal. [They’re] aligned with the Lions in that the Spider spirit is the guardian spirit of the Lion tribe. So it’s through the Lion tribe and their partnership with the Spider spirit that they’re able to achieve and attain balance. When the lions are dethroned, that link with the Spider is gone and the Elephants are not able to rekindle that link in quite the same way. That’s why you need Zahara to come back to relink with Spider and relink with all of these nations again.
I was just looking at the parallels with Avatar—the four nations versus five kingdoms, things like that.
I mean, there’s all kinds of things you can do with separate nations, separate houses. Look at Game of Thrones—Game of Thrones is all about the different houses, but that’s a totally different story than Avatar is. If you think about having these houses with symbols and stuff, I mean—even Harry Potter sort of did something similar with different Hogwarts schools. So it’s easy to create one of these fantasy worlds and it’s important to have these different factions that represent different ways that you approach the magic, different power hierarchies. The thing of having different nations is pretty widespread. There’s stuff to play with there.
Was that part of the intention? Each of these kingdoms representative of different cultural ideas?
Yeah. There’s going to be some… We want the basis to stay in West Africa as a unifying [theme]. But I think we’ll see different cultures become sort of infused into them just to broaden the scope of the world.
You funded your project through Kickstarter. What was that like? What has it been like building it from the ground up?
It’s always been a sort of grassroots thing—just finding people who are excited about it, reaching out to people who might be excited about it. As we continue to grow, I don’t want to ever lose that spirit about it. It’s been amazing that—even that I’m talking to you right now. there’s something about the project and something about the work and something about the way we’re approaching it that lends itself to growing. I think the more people that see it, the more people are going to get excited about it. That was always the biggest thing,
Do you think you have more creative freedom working in this crowdfunded independent realm?
Oh definitely. We’re free to make any decisions we want to make. We definitely have creative freedom.
One of the things I like to talk with independent filmmakers about is the democratization of live-action filmmaking: access to cameras/editing software is better than ever, things like that. But animation is a bit more complicated. Do you think that democratization applies to what you do?
I think it’s easier than it was. [Laughs.] Access to software has made it possible for you to approach it. As you were saying, the difference between animation and live-action is that—it’s really got to be a group effort. You need a team to do animation.
At the head of the product, I think we’re able to set the style and we’re able to give notes on everything as it comes in, and that’s important to us. But it’s also important that members of the team feel like they’re part of it. Unlike a YouTube channel where you can start with yourself, some editing software and a camera and just go, you need to build a team for animation. You need to have other voices involved.
So I think on the production side, it’s easier to get started but it’s still very difficult to finish. But that’s the nature of the beast.
Where do you plan on taking this once you release the pilot? Are you going to go to studios, or do you want to keep this independent?
It depends on how it all shakes out. If we were approached by a studio, we’d have to figure out how that deal would work, but it’d definitely be really exciting for us. But there’s a part of us that wouldn’t mind staying on this grassroots route if we’re able to make that path work.
Ideally, though, we do plan to—we have the story planned out for several seasons’ worth of content if we got the opportunity. Figuring out what shape it’s going to take is a constantly evolving process.
Where and when can we find the pilot when it releases?
Um… We will notify you when it happens! [Laughs.] For now, the teaser’s up on YouTube and you can follow the progress as we make it on the Facebook page. We’ll keep people updated but we don’t have a set location right now.
So you don’t know that you’re going to release it on YouTube or Vimeo?
We’re interested in a way where it’s accessible. But we can’t say exactly where. It’ll likely be available on YouTube in some form.
This is a very open-ended question—and you’re free to answer however you’d like—but how do you think your work fits into the animation industry? In light of your cultural ideas and education, what do you think you and your brother add to the animation conversation?
I think as you mentioned, the cultural perspective is the differentiator. The other thing is we grew up in the golden age of animation. You think back to the early 90s, that’s when you had American animation evolve into a place where you could use it for some pretty interesting storytelling. That’s when you had, for instance—Batman: The Animated Series came out of that and a bunch of shows in that vein. And that’s also when you had this influx of anime, with Toonami becoming prominent. Shows like Dragonball Z, the Pokémon craze hit…
And we were part of the generation that grew up on that, right? So now we’re in a position to produce our own content, it’ll be interesting to see what we can bring—and what our peers can also bring, if they get into this space—having grown up with this tradition and finding new ways to reinvent it and new ways to approach it, now that there is a benchmark.
Back in the 90s and the early 2000s, you wouldn’t have had a benchmark or an example of how this type of content can play in animation on television or anything like that. But now that we have all of these examples, it’s going to be fun to play with the ideas from the people who’d gone before… and find new ways to reach audiences, whether that’s YouTube or a streaming video service: new ways for the content to find its audience and interact with its audience in ways that we haven’t seen before.
That’s something we’ve seen as animation has transitioned from these one-off shorts from the early to mid-twentieth century into these serialized, story driven works like Batman: TAS and the rest of the DCAU.
The DCAU is awesome.
It’s fantastic! But it took what could have been standard kids’ fare and set a new precedent for a serious narrative. It affected Marvel, too—Spectacular Spider-Man, The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. It’s a skew toward a more mature audience who can follow multi-season arcs, even as kids are getting a kick out of individual episodes.
Right, and the thing I want to be careful about when you say that… Like yeah, it’s something that teenagers and adults audiences can follow on a week-to-week basis like any other drama. But it’s also something that kids can follow. I was nine years old when I was watching Gundam Wing for the first time. I was nine years old when that happened. And I was able to follow Gundam on a daily basis or a weekly basis or whatever.
So I think there is a space for this kind of content. One in that kids are often a lot smarter than we give them credit for.
And I think if you can make a good show for them that has a story to it, they can appreciate it. If you’re doing good storytelling, anybody can appreciate it. People that respond to—like the Pixar movies. Toy Story 3 is not just for kids. It’s for anybody looking for a good story. I think the space for animated drama and the case for animated drama is getting more and more compelling every day.
Because you typically think animation is for kids, the Looney Tunes shorts, or maybe the Disney movies or stuff like that, but animation is just a medium. You can tell any story that you want to tell. These dramatic stories, these character-based stories, these narratives, are going to become—they’re going to find their audience and they’re going to become more and more popular.
Absolutely. I mean, take Mary and Max—a fantastic stop-motion film—which is entirely character-driven, or Ernest & Celestine, which is a French animated film that came out not long ago. They make a great case for the maturation of the medium by demonstrating that there are other stories that can be told.
Yeah, and we just want to be a part of that.