By Sumiko Saulson
Featuring an interview with African American Tidal Wave Comics Artist Ken Johnson and a
special preview of artwork from his as-yet-unreleased new The Blackbeard Legacy mini-series!
Tidal Wave Productions is one of the top independent publishers of comic books and graphic
novels. Out of Portland, Oregon, it was founded by Darren G. Davis in 2001. Their popular
biographical comic series, published under the titles Orbit, Fame, Beyond, Tribute, Female
Force and Political Power, have garnered a great deal of media attention and been featured on The Today Show, CNN, MSNBC, and in TIME and People magazines. The series is known for its diversity.
“I am super-excited to bring Lizzo into the Female Force world. Since her breakout she has
been all about female empowerment and destroying glass ceilings,” said writer Darren G. Davis. Over the past year, the biographical series has featured issues about African American
celebrities, such as Female Force: Mariah Carey, Female Force: Brittney Griner, Tribute: Donna Summer, Female Force: Stacey Abrams, Fame: Lil Nas X and Female Force: Tina Turner.
The latest in the line, Female Force: Lizzo, was given its April 27, 2023, release date in honor of the “Truth Hurts” singer’s 35th Birthday.
“Here, in Argentina, Lizzo leads the lists of the main Tops, so it was quite an incredible
experience that she accompanied me with her songs while I drew her pages, no matter what
time it was.” said artist Pablo Martinena.
Biographical comics are not the only titles in the independent comic publisher’s repertoire.
Tidal Wave’s publishing partnerships include filmmaker Ray Harryhausen (Wrath of the Titans) and Adam West of 1960s Batman fame (The Mis-Adventures of Adam West).
“We have done a bunch of horror comics such as Leprechaun (based on the movie), all the Ray Harryhausen comics, we did Vincent Price Presents. We also do fiction series too. We started 23 years ago at Image Comics,” says founder Darren G. Davis.
Tidal Wave started with 10th Muse and The Legend of Isis when they were still with Image
Comics. Over the past nearly quarter century, they have added a number of original comic book characters and series to their catalog, as well as stories based on movies, literature and more.
Ken Johnson is an African American comic book writer and illustrator who is an artist working on the Tidal Wave titles Juliet and Romeo #1, The Blackbeard Legacy: Origin, and Bold and the Brave #21, all of which feature Black characters.
“The Juliet and Romeo book features a Black police officer, and she ends up becoming one of
the secondary characters in the group towards the end of issue two and towards issues three and four.
In my next book, “The Blackbeard Legacy: Origin,” the main character is Jamaican. Her dad was
Blackbeard and her mom was Black,” says Ken Johnson. The artist is clearly fond of all of the characters he illustrates, but he becomes especially animated as he discusses the character in The “Blackbeard Legacy: Origin,” a pirate named Hannah.
Davis created the character in 2008 and Tidal Wave has released 10 issues with her so far. Johnson is the artist on a new mini-series that will start later this year and recently finished penciling its first issue.
“This one is set in the early 18th century and the story begins with Hannah, the main character,
who has been captured by Captain Duran, and he’s another one of those pirates, but he is not
her friend, let’s put it that way. The first issue, it’s really about how she basically escapes and
steals another ship. It’s pretty fun. That’s all I can touch on because I want [readers] to see the
book when it comes out. And she has flashbacks, a snippet with her friend. She is very tough,
resilient, super clever, and independent. Most pirates are independent. She’s exceptional.”
Learning that this interview is going to be for the San Francisco BayView and shown a copy of
the most recent print edition, his eyes light up with recognition.
“When I was stationed in Alameda, when I was 18 or 20, I would go out to the clubs. I went to
the Palladium in San Francisco or I would go out in Oakland, and I would see the paper in
places. So I know the San Francisco Bay View has been around for a while. I would hear new
music down there. MC Hammer was big. Hammer Don’t Hurt em! I am from North Carolina, so I had never heard anything like that. Then, I hung out at Carl’s Jr. Those were fun days.”
After he left the Naval Station in Alameda, he was stationed in Washington, where he met one
of his future comic book compatriots. “In September of 1990, my ship went to Bremerton, Washington. I met Ciam Sawyer there. He inks. I worked with him. In fact, his comic debut was on The Bold and the Brave. He was so nervous, he wanted to get everything perfect.”
Like The Blackbeard Legacy: Origin, The Bold and the Brave also features a Black character.
Soon, it will feature a character named Velika, for whom Johnson feels a special kinship. She
was first created by him 38 years ago, long before he started working with Tidal Wave.
“I originally worked on Velika, my own self-published comic. Velika makes her crossover into
Tidal Wave Comics in The Bold and the Brave #24. When I started speaking with Darren G.
Davis at Tidal Wave Comics, I had already put out six issues of Velika. I connected with Darren
through a colorist, Kirsty Swan.”
A small-town boy, Johnson was still in high school when he first fell in love with cartooning.
“I went to an art school in Des Moines, Washington, although I was largely self-taught. I went to
high school at Bartlett Yancey High in Yanceyville, North Carolina, in small-town America, and
I also studied art there. Dollar General and all that. They didn’t have a traffic signal and Briggs
BBQ was the only fast food place, although the corner drugstore made a mean grilled cheese
sandwich. I did fine art and portraiture, but I always come back to comics.”
Comics are not the only thing he always came back to. He kept coming back to a character he
first created while just a teenager, Velika (originally spelled Velica).
“Velika is African American; she is mixed race. I originally came up with the character back in
1985 in high school. The first name she had was Foxfire, the second was Nightbird, and she
was published in my high school newspaper as Nightbird. After she became Nightbird, I
renamed her ShadowWing. And then she became Velika. I have been evolving the character
since 1985. I think I’ve got her in a good place now.”
Although Velika predates his relationship with Tidal Wave, she isn’t the first comic he worked on
with the publishing company. Used to working independently on self-published comics he wrote
and illustrated, working with another writer was a wholly new experience for him.
“The first Tidal Wave Comic I worked on was VSS: Russian Roulette #4. VSS stands for
Victoria’s Secret Service. It was my first foray into working with other people’s characters and
writing with them. The Juliet and Romeo miniseries is where I really got my flow and rhythm,”
Johnson eventually returned to North Carolina, where he grew up, but not before spending
some time overseas in Europe.
“I lived in the United Kingdom for fourteen and a half years. When I first moved there I stayed in Basingstoke. After that, I stayed outside of London in a place called Buckhurst Hill. I would do local conventions there and I met a lot of good folks, but I stopped showing at conventions in
2010 and didn’t start again until last year.” Johnson is back in North Carolina and busy hitting the convention circuit once more.
“I showed at East Gate Comic Con in Greensborough, North Carolina in May of 2022. I will be participating in a local free comic book event at East Gate Comics on May 6. I also will be showing at East Gate Comic Con again this year on May 21, 2022. I will be at Heroes, my first major convention, June 16 – 18, in Charlotte, North Carolina.”
TidalWave Comics’ vast catalog of titles are available wherever you can order print books from
Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, Books-a-million and more. They can also be downloaded digitally from Kindle, iTunes, EPIC!, ComiXology, Global Comics, Google Play, Overdrive, Library Pass, Biblioboard, Nook, Kobo and wherever eBooks are sold.
Sumiko Saulson is an award-winning author of Afrosurrealist and multicultural sci-fi and horror whose latest novel, “Happiness and Other Diseases,” is available on Mocha Memoirs Press. She is the winner of the HWA Scholarship from Hell (2016), BCC Voice “Reframing the Other” contest (2017), Mixy Award (2017), Afrosurrealist Writer Award (2018), HWA Diversity Grant (2020), HWA Richard Laymon Presidents Award (2021) and the Ladies of Horror Fiction Readers Choice Award (2021).