By James Hanton
Beats of War is a comic series focused on DJ E.T, who has made history as Scotland’s first-ever black superhero. The series focuses on an alien superhero who arrives on Earth to try and save his home planet, and while here discovers music and decides to take on criminals. Three editions have come out in the past two years, and STARBURST was fortunate enough to sit down with Beats of War’s creator Etienne Kubwabo to discuss his history, his influences, and what led him to create such a distinctive story.
STARBURST: So Beats of War came out in 2020, is that right?
Etienne Kubwabo: Yeah, 20th July, 2020
What first inspired you to get into comics and into filmmaking?
I think. I remember that when I was really young, between 5 and 7 and back in Congo, most of the time when my dad and my mom went to work I would watch a lot of cartoons like Tom and Jerry. The famous one was The Adventures of Tintin, and I watched a lot of Spider-Man too. My mum would always say to me ‘Etienne you have to do homework.’ But every time she would come home from work, she would touch the TV, and know it is really warm because I have been watching a lot of TV instead! We used to have this broken ‘80s TV box. You know, the big ones, the ones you had to get two people to carry. It was at the back of our house and the inside parts of the TV were missing. So what I used to do is take my brothers and sisters round to the back of our house, ask them to lie on the grass, and then I would stick my head through the set. I would then start acting like I was a news anchor, or do a few Spider-Man things that I had seen on TV. And then I remember anything to do with storytelling fascinated me from that time onwards. We also used to go and see our grandmother and she would tell us stories near a fire after she’d given us food in the village where she comes from.
All of these things have just kind of followed me whenever I have gone to see any kind of show or piece of theatre, or when getting into any kind of storytelling. I find it fascinating because I like that whole idea of escaping. When I got to Scotland and I went to college, I decided that I needed to do things that I would be feeling excited about every morning to wake up and go to. And they are filmmaking and storytelling. I just felt like there was some sort of fire within me. I was very excited to tell stories and make people escape to another world, because the world is full of crazy things happening at the moment. And these things you cannot control right? But there is one thing we do appreciate, whether it is reading a good book or going to the cinema and seeing a good film. I just really wanted to be a part of it, and a part of the world of creators who do that as well.
So storytelling has really been a part of your whole life.
Yeah, I mean I feel excited when sitting down with blank paper and thinking about what story I might be telling next. And then I have to imagine; think of places I have been, my way of growing up, and how I can bring my life experiences of both where I come from and of Scotland, which is my new home, into the story. So it’s always a fascinating experience, even thinking about what other life could be out there in space and what it would be like to meet an alien. Like, what would I say? So all these ideas and things I see open my mind to try and imagine how I can help people escape into a good story.
That fascination with space… is that how Beats of War came about?
Yeah. I love space. It is so unique and undiscovered. I know people have been there, but it’s still a mystery you know? Not knowing what I could discover if I keep writing and researching… that is what keeps me fascinated. So I wanted to bring Beats of War down from space and bring it to Earth, which is my reality. It’s Scotland and the friends that I have made, and I wanted to bring all of that to life.
What did the early stages of planning or drafting Beats of War look like? What was the beginning of the process?
It took me about three years, because I was doing film stuff, short films and stuff like that, and I was at university to finish up my course. I was doing all these music videos as well. But I felt like there was this emptiness within me; that there was this childhood, five-year-old Etienne story that I had not told. The kid who was in the TV box. I felt like there was a story he had not told and needed to tell, but I didn’t know what it was yet. What angle I wanted it to come from. And then I remember doing this Word Up podcast with the BBC where we’re interviewing various actors and people who are part of the Scottish entertainment industry. One of the guys, Sanjeev Kohli [best known for his role as Navid Harrid in Still Game] said something that was quite fascinating. He said something like ‘tell stories based on your own experiences, because you tell those stories a lot better.’ Then I thought that living in Scotland, looking at my life back in Congo and then coming to Scotland… I thought maybe I could base the story on those experiences.
But the idea of the story for Beats of War didn’t come until I went to watch Black Panther. The first time I saw it at the cinema, I remember coming home and staying up until two or three in the morning just drafting up ideas for the script. What the world looked like, what the characters looked like, all of these ideas were suddenly coming to me. I had all of these ideas before, but I didn’t know how I could tell the story. Because obviously people have told superhero stories before, but I wanted it to be an Etiene story – something that I really care about.
You’ve started to answer my next question, which is how have you tried to make Beats of War stand out in a crowded comic book and superhero market?
So Beats of War is a story really based in its characters. DJ E.T comes from a planet being attacked by an army of robotic invaders, and he comes to Earth to find answers to help save his planet. On his journey, he discovers music, because there is no music on his world. He starts connecting to that, but also fighting crime, hence the title Beats of War. I wanted to be honest with myself. I grew up in a country affected by war and with a lot of resources, but despite these resources we still suffered to the extent that I had to leave my country along with my family, and now we are here in Scotland. That always frustrated me. I wanted to imagine Congo in a more positive light, and this planet that I have come up with is how I want to see Congo in a better way; more advanced, more access to their resources, and working with other countries to make the world a better place.
My journey to Scotland, struggling to fit in for reasons like language and facing a lot of racism but also meeting some really interesting people that have become my friends, has that balance. So I wanted to bring my two worlds of Congo and Scotland together into an epic science fiction story, but also make it unique. The warships in Beats of War are based on musical instruments from Congo that used to be played, so I used them as a reference to create those. And then the mothership is based on the Titan Crane in Glasgow. So indirectly bringing real landmarks into the story lets me pay homage to this new country which is now my home, and this is reflected in the dialogue of the comic book as well. So I am giving the reader these hints that make the story more unique. I also touch on the history of Scotland by including the Razor Gang, who were part of the South East of Glasgow.
I love a superhero story that is grounded and that people can really connect with. My main character, DJ… his main power is sound manipulation. The reason I wanted to bring in the music element is because, when you look at the world we are in today, with all of these crazy things happening, music brings people together for one moment whether they are dancing in a club or are at a concert. And nobody cares what your gender is, what your colour is, what language you speak… everyone is just happy. So music has that magic that I really love, and I want everyone who reads my story to have a soundtrack to go with what is happening in that world.
How personal is Beats of War to you?
It’s very personal, because every character in Beats of War is based on my friends or family and they are all friends or family in the story. I lost my mum growing up. She passed when I was really young and I didn’t have a good relationship with her. I didn’t get to know her. I feel like keeping her alive as a queen mother in Beats of War would make me feel connected to the story in that sense. Having my friends and places that I know in the story helps me feel connected to it too, but also hopefully help people in Scotland or who have been to Scotland feel that connection as well.
You have appeared on BBC Scotland and STV in recent years, both for Beats of War and the other projects you have been working on. How much does this increased exposure and recognition mean to you?
It’s been amazing. As a creator, you come up with these worlds and these stories but you don’t know how people are going to receive them. I’ve always said to myself ‘okay, if I am living this one life then I always have to be honest with myself, with my content, and what I am trying to share with the world.’ So seeing a lot of the responses to Beats of War in the media and from people is encouraging and inspiring for me. It gives me that strength to keep going and try to inspire other people to realise that ‘anything you want to do? You can do it if you put your mind to it.’
When I am not doing comic book stuff or filmmaking stuff, I’m doing workshops in schools helping kids to reimagine the kind of world they want to live in using superheroes. That’s kind of my way of giving back, because the universe has responded and people have received my work really well. So I am overwhelmed, super happy, and very positive. I’m always very grateful to anybody who gives me an opportunity.
You have a new film coming out soon too, can you tell me more about that?
It’s finished, we are just waiting for it to be released. It’s called The Difference Between Us. It’s based on the story of Alex Watson, who grew up with a posh family in a secluded area in the Highlands. He leaves the Highlands for the first time, and leaves that protective bubble, moving to Glasgow. As a student, he is now learning what it means to be a Black man in this day and age, based on all these stereotypes that are given to people based on what they look like. It’s a very exciting project and again it is very personal to me too. It’s a crime drama shot in Scotland, and we shot it for five weeks last year, so I am pretty excited to see it come out.
You mentioned Black Panther earlier on. Do you have any other creative people, films, or stories that you take inspiration from?
Oh of course, I have the two greats! One is Ridley Scott. I’m a big fan of the Alien and Prometheus movies. I love the way he creates his worlds and stories, and even just the look of the worlds in his films and TV shows. Spaceships, warships… he really pays attention to the detail. The other is James Cameron with Avatar. You can tell I am a big science fiction fan! But I’m a big fan of drama too, and of real life stories as well. At this stage of my life, as a film director, I want to focus on something that I can achieve at the moment and then move on to bigger projects and have a bit of a voice. Because I’m giving my life, and hopefully I can make a movie or TV show out of it. But yeah those are the top directors whose work I love. Obviously I also like Christopher Nolan… the work he did with Interstellar and Dunkirk, those are like my top movies. I love great storytellers, but also people who give you the best picture and still respect the whole idea of cinema.
Is there anybody you want to give a shout out to?
First of all my family, my mum. She is my inspiration. I have a stepmum who I call my mum. She is the one who took me in when I was very young. She has always supported me and encouraged me to work harder. She doesn’t vocally say it. She just does things in her own way and we pick up from that. Also, Clydebank College [now called West College Scotland]. I had never picked up a camera, but my teacher she encouraged me and encouraged me. Now, I’m on my second feature film, and I have shot over 500 music videos. I appreciate them a lot because they took me out of my comfort zone and my bubble, to help me become more confident in myself. And they set me free.
Issue four of Beats of War is available to buy now.