Because Sojourner “Jo” Mullein — the Green Lantern at the centre of writer N.K. Jemisin and artist Jamal Campbell’s upcoming series Far Sector — is stationed countless lightyears away from Earth on a strange planet where emotion no longer exists, her humanity is one of the things that most makes her stand out.
Being able to feel is what made Jo good at her job as an officer with the NYPD before she was fired from the force, an event that would lead to her joining the Lantern Corps and taking on a unique assignment in one of the farthest reaches of the galaxy.
When I spoke with Hugo winner Jemisin recently, she was candid about the real-world questions about policing, police brutality and what it means to be an officer of the law that Jo’s mulling over in Far Sector’s pages.
Jo isn’t just a space cop, Jemisin explained, she’s a black woman who turned in her badge at a time when Black Lives Matter protests were taking place across America. She’s someone who has a healthy distrust of any and all police organisations, and she’s doing everything she can to keep fighting the good fight on her own terms.
I want to talk to you about Jo, but before we really get to her character, I want to talk to you about the big concepts you really want to define Far Sector. The Lantern Corps is such a defining part of DC’s mythos, but from the jump, it’s obvious you wanted to do something really different with this story. So, talk to me about the big picture... what were the things you really had in mind going into this?
N.K. Jemisin: Super-big picture? The idea came to me from Gerard Way, so I cannot claim to have come up with Sojourner.
He contacted me and was like, “You want to do a Green Lantern? A Young Animal-style Green Lantern, basically.” And he wanted to call them Far Sector — he had the name in mind already. “And we want it to involve the first known Green Lanterns in this unique society.”
The catch was they hadn’t thought of any of the details beside that. So... he basically contacted me with that and I ran from there.
I wasn’t familiar with Green Lantern, beyond watching episodes of the animated Justice League series. I was familiar with John Stewart, so for a long time, I didn’t realise Hal Jordan was supposed to be, like, “the main” Green Lantern. But... for the longest time, I was like, “Why is he white?” [laughing]
I decided to do this, the idea sort of spun out in my head — the concept of the City Enduring — the city when the story takes place, which is a giant Dyson swarm of connected platforms around a sun, not a Dyson sphere. It hosts 20 billion people and it counts itself as one city, but it’s a city of, basically, planets.
So, three different species. I wanted them to be species with a history of conflict, where they’re still trying to work past all that. I’m interested in conflicting societies and things like that.
The fact that you’re relatively new to the Green Lantern mythos has me curious. People joke about them being space cops and don’t stop to think about what all that means. To enforce justice throughout an entire galaxy with “justice” as a singular concept. For you, personally, in crafting this story about a very unique lantern, what’s your read on the Lantern Corps as an organisation?
Jemisin: Well, the first thing I did to try to gain some familiarity with the history was read the gigantic hardcover compilation of Geoff Johns’ issues. One of the things I was trying to do was understand all the different retcons and it became clear I’m not going to be able to keep track of all of it. So, yay.
The good thing is I’m working in the YA area, so I can kind of discard some of this history. But I did need to understand that fundamental space cop aspect of things.
My first thought is they’re a giant organisation of police, so I need to treat them like a giant organisation of police.
Even though Jo is going to be effectively the frontier sheriff compared to the rest of them, she’s not in any contact with the rest of the Lantern Corps at this point. She basically is kind of on her own in a place that’s not part of the 36 hundred sectors of the Lantern Corps is charged with overseeing.
I wanted to understand her compared to a large organisation of cops, and I wanted to leave it clear that she chose to do this because she’s coming from the NYPD herself, and she was dealing with the NYPD during the period of Black Lives Matter marches — stuff like that.
She’s got some history of discomfort being part of a larger organisation that has some fucking problems. I actually reached out to NYPD in hopes I could get in touch with their press liaison... but... nothing. Silence. I actually have a friend who’s an NYPD cop who was willing to talk to me about some things, off the record. So that helped a little bit.
Without getting into spoiler-y specifics, what are the aspects of the cop experience you wanted to elevate to the surface through this story?
Jemisin: Hmm. What I really wanted to come to explore was the choice to valorise image and organisation over justice. We’ve heard this described as the Blue Wall of Silence.
Jo’s history is NYPD, but she got fired for reasons that will become clear in the comic and she’s chosen to do this thing with the Lanterns now, because she will be on her own, because she will not be part of the Lantern organisation.
She doesn’t trust organisations anymore because she’s concerned that, as with the NYPD, there was a tendency to privilege what was good for the organisation over what was good for the people. I have some strong feelings about that community — American police in general. But I wanted to try to do a nuanced take on it.
I don’t hate the police or anything like that. I want to make that point clear. The reason I reached out to the NYPD was because I wanted to get their take on some stuff I had heard from actual employees, and I wanted to know, “What’s the reasoning behind this? The NYPD is an organisation, and there’s some rationale I’m not getting.” And again: I got no response from them.
Jo still genuinely wants to be a good cop. How would she then work through her own feelings of complicity, because she was part of an organisation who did some shitty stuff? What does justice mean in this context?
You’ve blown through a lot of my specific questions about Jo, which is fabulous. But now I want to get into things about the races of the City Enduring. In particular, talk to me about the power dynamic between the Nah, @AT and keh-Topli.
Jemisin: There’s a whole history here. The short version of it is, they are three races that developed in a unique solar system. Two biological species developed on it, and then one of them spun off a cybernetic species of AIs that became a race of their own.
Historically, all three races were mostly cooperative with each other and developed together, but when another more technologically advanced empire began colonising the planets, they sowed dissension amongst the three native species. The whole divide and conquer thing.
That immediately set off a conflict of literally apocalyptic proportions between the peoples and their planets and now, the survivors have rebuilt their society, but they came to realise that part of their problem was them being very, very emotional. Like, when they get mad, they get super mad.
So, they decided to impose something called the Emotion Exploit on themselves. Which, basically, is a way of suppressing all emotion. And that’s working out for them in mixed ways.
How do members of each species, sort of, fit into society in the City Enduring?
Jemisin: Well, the Nah — the ones who look most human — are kind of the ascendant race, through their wealthiest and power.
The @AT, who are the AI species, are struggling economically and in every other way right now, because, without the Emotion Exploit, they are deprived of something kind of crucial that they need to survive. So, a lot of them are poor. A lot of them are struggling just to get by. There’s a lot of organised crime among them because that’s one of the ways they found to survive.
And the keh-Topli are the plant species. They’re struggling a bit, too, but in a more spiritual way because they’re carnivorous plants and they’re not allowed to eat people anymore and that’s caused them some existential angst.
When I was speaking with Jamal [Campbell] earlier this week, he began to break it down to me — the way the @AT and keh-Topli can physically comport themselves to look more like the Nah, aesthetically. That they’re not necessarily presenting themselves as they naturally are. Are there other ways we’ll see that explored throughout the series?
Jemisin: I kind of encapsulate it because I didn’t want to hit people with too much. There’s a lot going on here — when you’re introducing people to a completely different world, you have to introduce things in drips and drabs and focus on what’s most important.
So yes, the keh-Topli normally look like big venus fly traps. And they contort themselves to look more like the Naa, because the Naa is the most powerful species.
The @AT, same thing. They don’t have bodies. Normally, they exist only in, effectively, cyberspace — but when they project bodies for themselves, they tend to project bodies that look mostly like Naa. Most of them have trouble with fingers. So, there’s little things like wealthy @AT are actually able to articulate fingers, the rest wear mittens. Little things like that.
What are the things you really want people to take away from Far Sector? It’s really obviously this wild, new Lantern adventure, but more than just the fun of it, what do you want people to walk away thinking of?
Jemisin: I don’t intend for people to come up with anything. End of day, I want people to just feel like this is a good story. To me, a good story leaves them thinking about how societies are structured and how criminal justice actually operates — how government, in some cases, defend themselves instead of their people. Things like that.
I want people to think about these things, because, to me, that’s what makes a good story. But if they want to just do, “Oh my god, the new Green Lantern’s eyebrow game is always on point. It’s the best.” That’s cool, too. Because we did discuss that, Jamal and I.
Since you bring it up, Jo’s look — I’m a sucker for a solid costume. You’ve seen a couple Green Lanterns, you’re like, “OK. Sure, why not?” But Jo’s outfit... my goodness. I’m a big Janelle Monae fan and we see the pompadour and the glasses — how much of this is you and how much is Jamal?
Jemisin: Just a quick note that Shawn Martinbrough came up with Jo’s initial look. So we were working, at one point, on coming up with background sketches — Jamal basically retained the basic look. I suggested Janelle Monae and a couple of her, at the time, looks as a sort of basic — this was before Dirty Computer, where she changed her aesthetic.
So... Jamal took it from there, added the glasses, came up with different looks for the uniform... I’m not a super visually-oriented person. There’s a whole language of costume I am not big on, or grasp I guess. Because, to me, the words mean more. This was a whole revelation — this whole process of working on comic books.
So, to me, it was important her stylishness shown through. That her costume had accessories. Because, of course, she’s going to accessorise. She’s gonna make sure she looks her best at all times.
There’d be points where she’s mulling energy and in her civvies and she can’t do the completely put together look — but she’s a black woman who is used to being in a hostile environment and having to look her best at all times. She is now in another completely different hostile environment, but her survival skills remain. And I want that to come across at all times.
It’s a rhetorical question, but I feel I gotta to ask — in a story like this, I feel a certain kind of reader might not be inclined to understand why, in this foreign, alien setting, Jo being a black woman from America might not inform her perspective. How does Jo’s black American background factor into the way she is a piece of this alien story?
Jemisin: Jo’s a black woman coming from at least two marginalised groups in American society and had to develop specific survival skills because of her reality.
Now she’s taking on a completely alien society where she’s the representative of her species, the Lantern Corps, and people with feelings. She’s aware... not just aware of these things about herself, she’s constantly conscious about it.
There are people who are not going to get it, that’s fine — not everybody has to get everything and still you can still appreciate this as a good, fun, rollicking adventure story. The story has layers.
Your willingness to engage in subtext, or subtleties or power dynamics dictate how much of the story you’re going to be able to chew on. How deep people are willing to delve into the layers depends on them.
Far Sector his shelves later this year.