INTERVIEW: Author and Illustrator Ngozi Ukazu’s Beautiful Take on Big Barda and the Burden of Hope

New York Times-bestselling author and the creator of Check, Please!, Ngozi Ukazu, talks about expanding Jack Kirby’s Fourth World with her DC Comics graphic novel, Barda.

“She found something there that gave her hope and that’s what makes it even more devastating.” 

Coming soon on June 4, Barda is a brutal yet sweet look at the toughest Female Fury created by Jack Kirby, Big Barda. As an already established huge fan of Barda and her short king, Mister Miracle, I went into Barda with high expectations and was still blown away. 

As someone already familiar with Kirby’s Fourth World, Ukazu’s decision to build Barda and Orion’s relationship the way she did threw me for a bit. Until I got to the end of the book and realized exactly why. 

From the Furies’ designs to the uniquely cruel interactions between Granny and Barda, Ukazu puts her own stamp on a world that existed way before her and does it with respect. I got a chance to chat with her briefly about Barda, Orion, Granny Goodness and Auralie. 

Barda by Ngozi Ukazu. Credit: DC Comics

[Interview edited for clarity.]

“We all have our insecurities and we all have our doubts about ourselves.”

Multiverse of Color: Big Barda is one of my all-time favorites. So seeing not just a woman of color, but a Black woman doing a Big Barda means so much to me. Before we really dive into the book, I follow you on Tumblr, I’ve seen your posts about Orion. What drew you to Big Barda and Orion and the New Gods?

Ukazu: Oh my God, no, you are on Tumblr! That is where I really just unadulterated talk about the New Gods and it’s fun writing for DC Comics. But it’s always been fun being a fan of DC Comics. So my background is I’ve been a fan of DC for a while, particularly like Justice League, I got into DC from the Justice League animated series. But I found I’m now this fanatic for Jack Kirby and the New Gods. I think what gets me so interested about the Fourth World, versus other parts of the DC universe, is that it’s one person’s singular vision, which you don’t really get from comics at all. 

It’s very, very odd that we’re in the superhero universe with DC and we have Jack Kirby’s vision on what makes people good, what makes people evil, and the nature of good and evil. You probably saw me post an essay about Orion because, you know, I just wanted extra credit for being a dork. I literally sat down and wrote an essay about what I feel about Orion. But when it comes to Barda, she is such a fun character. The role reversal of Big Barda and Mister Miracle; him kind of being the damsel in distress. She’s the one who canonically helps free him. Come on. So fun. 

MoC: Yes! I’ve read the Jack Kirby originals, like where she’s constantly bridal carrying him. That’s just one of my favorite things about their relationship. Diving into the book, we open up with Barda and Orion battling and in a startling reveal, it seems that Barda has feelings for Orion? Can you talk about that choice? Also, what do you want to get across to readers in regards to Orion? He’s often viewed as an angry, one-dimensional character and you’ve written him to be very intuitive. 

Ukazu: I had no idea that this would be an Orion interview. I secretly not-so-secretly love Orion. When writing that first scene, I mean, the bigger picture of it all is: Jack Kirby’s Fourth World is built on that swap between Orion and Scott Free; they are sons who are switched at birth. It sets up this huge galactic drama. It’s this fun irony of: we all know Barda is going to marry Scott. But when we see her on these opening pages, she’s like, “Oh, all I want to do is fall in love and the only person in the world who understands me is Orion?

I wanted it for readers who had no idea who these characters are, maybe like young readers, to be like, “Oh, okay, I guess she likes this guy.” But for readers who are familiar with those comics that were published in 1971. I want them to go, “Hold up. Excuse me.” In writing Orion, I do want to just make sure that he is a character, who was actually at his heart extremely noble, he’s fierce. But he is not a bad guy and I’ve gotten up in arms about that. 

[She mentions wanting to do her own take on Orion’s story eventually.]

MoC: Lashina’s design, I love it,  I love that she has a braid. I love all the Furies’ designs, based on Kirby’s original designs but obviously with your takes on them. How’d you come up with their looks?

Ukazu: Thank you! Basically, I wear box braids a lot. Literally, I was like let me make Lashina have one big box braid. My only sadness is that she didn’t get to strangle anybody, which she would! Yeah, no, I think I was drawing a little bit from the person who did the covers [Nick Derington for Mister Miracle 2017]. Oh, I’m so bad. I’m blanking on that person’s name, but he’s amazing. One of those covers was the Female Furies. The way he drew Lashina, I was like, BOOM okay, that’s my inspiration. 

Stompa was also probably the biggest redesign. I wanted to make her have a bomb detonator outfit, because she does have these huge, impactful forms of combat. I wanted to show her face more, because we usually see her with those huge sunglasses, but I wanted to give her just a little bit more character. I could go down the list. We could really get into the weeds, but I feel like those are the two biggest redesigns.

MoC: I loved the…was it scarification? Or was it like vitiligo on Stompa’s face?

Ukazu: It was scarification. Thank you for noticing the detail! That thing was because I have a feeling that when she was learning about her power, she probably injured herself. Maybe she was hurt by her own powers. Thank you for… DETAILS! Thank you so much. 

“Jack Kirby was really good at making #hashtag Strong Female Characters.”

MoC: I’m telling you I really do love these characters so much! Now, Granny Goodness and Barda’s conversations hit the hardest for me. Granny takes such pleasure in being abusive and hurtful and particularly to Barda, calling her a weapon, which is painful. A lot of people can probably relate to that, especially people who you know are seen automatically as aggressive. How do you write someone as evil as Granny?

Ukazu: Right? She is evil. It’s fun, because Darkseid is technically more evil. But Granny Goodness is more cruel. She indulges in pain. Darkseid just wants control, but Granny Goodness loves pain. She loves others’ pain. A scene that happens later on in the graphic novel where she’s talking to Barda and she’s just belittling her. She says, “You’re nothing but a weapon, you’re like a cudgel. You’re just a fist. That’s all you are.” 

Barda is already pretty self conscious about her body. We could see that, even though this is the first time we’ve seen Granny Goodness demean her directly to her face in this comic, we can tell that this has been ongoing through her life. This woman has been in her head telling her she’s nothing. How do you write something like that? I think we all have our insecurities, we all have our doubts about ourselves. So it was taking all of our doubts and externalizing them in a purely evil character.

MoC: There’s a beautiful parallel in Barda’s relationship with Auralie and with Scott and trying to hide her softness. She can’t really do it with those two especially. There’s been versions of Auralie’s story [New 52 era] that have not been my favorite, but I appreciate that you brought her story in and did something beautiful and painful. Can you talk a little about her friendship with Barda and their relationship or sisterhood or maybe into something deeper? I read it as another kind of love…

Ukazu: It’s a little bit queer, because Barda has this attraction to Auralie. You can read it a little bit like, she’s my little sister, but she also sees this like beauty that brings her to tears. It all goes back to the source material. Jack Kirby was really good at making #hashtag Strong Female Characters, who were actually strong female characters, not just like quote unquote badass. 

Auralie is a character who can’t help who she is. She can’t help that she loves to dance. She can’t help that she loves to imagine things. She’s so free and when Barda sees that she’s both threatened by it, but attracted to it, which makes for any good character chemistry. It’s unfortunate that, I mean spoilers for a 50 year old comic, Auralie does not survive Apokolips. But it does leave Barda to say, “Oh, this can’t happen again. I can never have someone I love get destroyed by this planet.” Which is why she so fiercely turns on a dime to protect Scott.

MoC: I love that you can kind of see the growth in her. There’s scenes with Scott that got me emotional, especially the one panel where he scooted closer to her. Is there anything that got you emotional when you were writing or drawing it?

Ukazu: Oh my gosh, I think it was when Barda was sharing with Scott her background, how she grew up. They both grew up in this orphanage, Greyborders. With Barda, I think the most devastating thing was she found something there that gave her hope and that’s what makes it even more devastating. We see in the story that something awful happens because she found a little bit of hope. That was really hard because I didn’t have a great background growing up and I had wonderful parents. But I tried to give Barda a little bit of my own background growing up in not the best circumstances. Yeah, I got a little emotional seeing Barda just go through all that, but I ended up okay and obviously, Barda ended up okay.

MoC: I’m trying to ask very vaguely, but you have them not riding off into the sunset together, which I think is important. Can you kind of talk a little bit why you made that decision?

Ukazu: Yeah, I actually gave an advanced reader copy of this story to a student that I had met while doing a writing workshop. She wrote me back an email saying, “I can’t believe they didn’t ride off into the sunset, because she’s the creative writing student, who was working on romance novels. I was like, Don’t worry, they get together. She was not familiar with the comics. Do not worry about Scott and Barda, their thing is that they are happily married. 

In writing Scott’s escape, which again, spoilers: Scott escapes! I knew that I was already rewriting a lot of that traditional Kirby escape that Scott has. I didn’t want to stray even further from that. Also, she will eventually free herself, but Barda’s arc isn’t to have a totally happy ending. Barda’s arc is that she found hope and she protected hope and that’s all she needs to do to have a full character arc. We’ll hopefully see Barda again.

MoC: Do you have any other upcoming projects with DC or outside of DC? Are we going to see more Barda? Orion? 

Ukazu: Yeah, I’ll do the on the record answer, which is I’ve already started working with DC. We have a DC Pride 2024 anthology coming out this year. I have a 10-page story that I wrote and illustrated. It features Jackson Hyde/Aquaman and we also get to go to the Fourth World. I’m so happy to stay in the Fourth World.

Barda is a sharp, sweet look at how love and hope can bloom in the most cruel and evil place. Ukazu’s take respects the source material, while also breathing new life into characters that are often overlooked. Barda is available Tuesday, June 4. DC Pride 2024 is out today, May 28.