January 24, 2024
Sensi'il Studios is Iowa's first Black-owned comic book company, founded by Basi White
Long ago, in the 15th-century monasteries in Ethiopia, monks sewed together pieces of parchment with sequential images and, occasionally, limited text.
According to The Walters Art Museum, these “chained manuscripts” depicted different religious iconography or scenes from the Bible. These books were folded accordion-style, and some seem to appear to depict linear movement.
These books were called “sensuls,” and they are some of the earliest examples of modern day comic books.
Local creative, Basi White, learned about sensuls from an Ethiopian creator. He was in the midst of beginning his own comic book company in Des Moines, and the piece of art from one of the only countries to never be colonized fit his vision perfectly. The word is presently often combined with another Amharic word, si’il, to create “sensi’il,” which is used to describe comic books from Black culture.
Basi used this concept to name his comic book company “Sensi’il Studios” in 2022. As the first Black-owned comic book company in Iowa, the name represented his drive to share stories for his community, by his community.
“Everything about it fit perfectly,” said Basi. “For the Black community to have our own name for the work. Take the reins and have our own style and our own industry. As I play my role in shaping the Black comic book industry, it’s very pivotal to have that type of influence early on, and the name of the company has to emulate that.”
Growing up in Des Moines, Basi would frequently find himself wondering about the lives of the strangers he saw every day.
“As a kid, we would drive by people, and I’d look out the window and wonder who they were,” he said. “I realized all of these people we see have stories and family members and a favorite color. They have this whole life, and they know nothing about me. I always thought it was really interesting how there was a complete world that I didn’t know.”
Basi found himself more and more interested in stories, a love cemented once he read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” in preschool. As he grew older and began to write his own stories, his family and teachers nurtured his budding talent.
Basi would go on to enjoy many different mediums on top of writing, including music, acting, and modeling. Each creative form allowed his storytelling ability to flourish.
“As long as you know how to storytell, how you do it is just the mechanical side. Storytelling is the organic, innate ability that is often an intrinsic gift,” he said.
Basi understands storytelling as a staple of human culture. When only a few types of stories are shared from a few types of people, we miss out on connecting with the vast world available to us.
Basi and Sensi’il Studios aim to expose more of the world to stories from the Pan-African diaspora, changing the narrative of what storytelling can be.
“There’s three things that have historically united people: music, food, and storytelling. Storytelling unites us,” Basi said. “Getting entertainment from a different perspective can expose you to different neural pathways. You are exposed to different mythologies that will expand your mental capacities for different types of stories, which leads you to empathize with different paths of life.”
Basi was writing a book around the time the world shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic. With more time on his hands, he caught up on some of the anime shows he had been wanting to watch.
Diving into this larger world of anime, and the way it used visuals to enhance the narrative, inspired Basi to shift his creative practice towards graphic novels. He began creating comic strips based on his novel, which has become the basis of his universe for much of the work Sensi’il Studios has put out.
As Sensi’il Studios took shape, Basi focused on creating comics that celebrate stories from the Black and Pan-African community. The visual element of graphic novels allows him to add a new layer of representation to the Black experience.
“You don’t have to read or imagine what a character looks like. It’s right there in front of your face,” Basi said. “I wanted to see my characters. It’s a lot more powerful to see melanated skin and ethnic hairstyles.”
It was important to Basi that Sensi’il Studios produced comics about the Pan-African experience written with the perspective of someone in the community. As a consumer himself, he had witnessed too many stories fail to encompass the rich, diverse Black experience.
He shared a memory of watching a popular animated television show. A female character told a cyborg, a half human-half robot, that she had been discriminated against. She asked the cyborg if he understood how that felt.
“Of course I know what it feels like. I’m a robot,” the cyborg responded. What the show failed to address is that the human part of the cyborg was portrayed as a Black man.
Basi felt this was a missed opportunity to explore Blackness through the lens of science fiction, digging deeper into a common human experience. These insufficient portrayals of the Black community have motivated him to create comics by and for Black people.
“The mission of my company is to make quality stories,” Basi said. “I want to bring quality products that show what the Black community can bring to this industry. This is a way for the Black community to remember our heritage and unite within ourselves, to be able to share commonalities. We can take the reins of our own narrative.”
Basi is currently on a journey to define what a Black comic book is.
“Is it a story with a Black lead character? Is it a story with all Black characters? Is it a story that’s created by a Black creator?” he pondered. “I would say it’s a combination of all these things. But as it gets more defined, we’ll be able to look at the art style and know, ‘yeah, that’s a sensi’il.’ We can create this larger vision of what Pan-African storytelling is — then that will become a greater something that has more definition and articulation.”
Basi has so far created in the science fiction genre. He wants to provide a representation of what Blackness can look like in the future.
“We have to have a vision for ourselves,” he said. “That’s part of the reason why I chose the sci-fi genre, so we can see ourselves in the future.”
Basi currently has two books out from his main universe, with a third one on the way. He’s laying the groundwork to build an expansive universe. He’s also partnered with NASCAR driver Colin Garrett, who promotes Sensi’il Studios on his car. Colin will be a featured character in another of Basi’s books.
Basi has big dreams for Sensi’il Studios. He’s put out a motion comic and has another one planned for this year. He wants to publish writers in different genres, expanding the company’s work that captures the Black experience.
“I don’t write romance or slice of life,” Basi said. “But I want to publish these types of stories to show Black love and a day in the life of a Black person. I want to show different cultures, whether it be African or African American or Caribbean culture. We can see how we’re all different but also similar. It’s just one large community with variation.”
Visit https://www.sensiilstudios.com/ to check out more of Basi’s work.