LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD: A Quad of Leaders Featured

As the cliché goes, sometimes we have to be the change we want to see in the world. For Corey Lakel Pruitt, the change he hungers for is a more diverse, representational comic book landscape. While he saw the industry evolving, Pruitt wanted to be part of what helped it evolve more quickly, more fully. From that and a lifelong love of super hero team comic books, came the idea for LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD.

As time passed, the idea began to grow and take shape. Meanwhile, the divisions between those who were on-board with the industry growing and becoming more reflective of the real world and those that saw any attempts at representation as bad for comics grew starker.

After a chance visit to a DeviantArt page, Pruitt became aware of artist Elijah Johnson. The die, as they say, had been cast. Through conversations, the two began to realize Pruitt’s initial idea more fully. Before long, it became clear that the time had come to go for it. Two weeks ago, the duo launched the LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD Kickstarter page and have just recently surpassed their $4,000 goal!

I spoke with the writer via Skype to explore how the idea was born, how it took shape, and what it feels like to be on the precipice of realizing LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD in all its four-color glory.

LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD: The team takes a dip
The team had to get off the bridge so they could walk on water in the LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD promo art. (Courtesy of Corey Lakel Pruitt)

ComicsVerse (CV): Just to begin with, give us the bare bones description of LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD. For those entirely unfamiliar with it, what are we looking at here?

Corey Lakel Pruitt: Oh man, ok.

I came up with this idea years ago. The name of the group is the Leaders of the Free World. My idea for the book has always been–

You know, I’m 35. I’ve been reading comics since I was three years old. I’m a big fan of the team books. JUSTICE LEAGUE, AVENGERS, stuff like that. But my favorite group of all time has always been the X-MEN.

One of the many reasons why is that I am from California. It is basically a melting pot out here. We have people from Mexico, from Russia, born and raised here…people from all over the world. They all love and come to California.

So that’s what I know. I just know the melting pot. That’s why I like the X-Men. Because not only did they have a diverse lineup, they had members from all over. Again, they had someone from Russia. They had Banshee from Ireland. Wolfsbane was Scottish. Nightcrawler, German. So on and so forth. So many of them are from all over.

So when I was reading the JUSTICE LEAGUE one time, my question was — I said, “If this is supposed to be the world’s greatest heroes, how come they’re almost all American? Except for two of them who are from fictional countries: Aquaman from Atlantis and Wonder Woman from Themyscira. How is everyone else American?” That was a question for me, as someone who grew up around so many different people from all over the world.

So I wanted to make a team, these Leaders of the Free World, that was from people all over the world that could still come together and stand up to protect the world.

LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD: Writer Corey Lakel Pruitt
Writer Corey Lakel Pruitt can see the finish line coming for the release of LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD. (Courtesy of Corey Lakel Pruitt)

CV: That’s especially interesting given the global climate these days.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: That goes into the story.

They basically have to come together and form their own nation pretty much. They can’t exist together in any one of each other’s home countries so they have to form their own to protect the planet.

CV: Speaking of those characters, please give us a rundown of the main players.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: While growing up, I was a big fan of DRAGONBALL Z, so I always liked the monkey tail. Also, I have a friend from China who told me about the Monkey King and those stories, so I’ve had a lot of interest in that for awhile, like always.

The main character, the one you are going to probably see the most of, is Cong Li — Surreal — who has just become the new Monkey King. Every generation, the Monkey King gets resurrected and it is always in the body of this one bloodline of Chinese people. But this time, the Monkey King gets resurrected in a Chinese-American person. So Surreal is the first Monkey King who was not born in China. He was born to Chinese immigrants in San Francisco. There’s this huge Chinatown area out there and that’s where he’s from.

Because he is the first American Monkey King a lot of the elders have to teach him the ways. There’s conflict there. He’s a big hip hop head like I am so he’s always in a hip hop shirt, he has this kind of attitude. He’s kind of like the young punk kid of the group, representing America.

LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD: Monkey King2
Surreal the Monkey King is hanging out on top the world in LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD promo art. (Courtesy of Corey Lakel Pruitt)

CV: So there is even a culture clash within him before he’s part of the Leaders of the Free World?

Corey Lakel Pruitt: Right, yeah.

The next one is Eco, the son of Gaia. Growing up I watched a lot of CAPTAIN PLANET. [laughs]

As you can tell, everything I do is influenced by my childhood. [laughs]

So, to me, because I grew up on CAPTAIN PLANET, Gaia is a black woman.

CV: Why couldn’t she be?

Corey Lakel Pruitt: Yeah, absolutely. That’s just how I see her.

So Eco is her son. His mom tried to instill in him a sense of purpose, to be a champion of the whole world. But he really doesn’t want to do that. So, instead, he decided to do what we’d all do if we had super powers. He decided to become a wrestler.

CV: Makes sense.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: So he’s become this wrestler and his mom is giving him crap about it. “What are you doing? You are more than this.” However, when the time comes, he ends up joining the Leaders of the Free World.

Then there’s Doctor Séance. Every time I show him to people, I get a reaction. They’re always like, “Wow, what’s up with this guy?!”

I love Doctor Doom. People call me Task because Taskmaster was my favorite villain growing up. I just really like villains; I think villains are a lot of fun. I always thought, “What if a villain was forced to be on a team with only super heroes?”

That’s Doctor Séance. He’s this old entity that’s been around for years, this ancient entity. He realizes to take over the world, he has to work with other heroes to take out all the other threats. He may be this old Aztec god but he’s rolling with the team because he needs them for the moment.

They all know he is evil. They all expect him to betray them at some point. At this moment, though, both sides are like, “You know what, we could use each other now.”

Have you ever watched FIREFLY?

LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD: Dr. Séance
Doctor Séance strikes a pose with some of his closest friends in a piece of promo art for LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD. (Courtesy of Corey Lakel Pruitt)

CV: Yes, definitely.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: I love Jayne from FIREFLY. Basically he’s like Jayne. Doctor Séance is not a good guy, he’s just there for his own purposes. He is sure he could take over the team at any moment. He’s the anti-hero of the team.

CV: Intriguing.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: Then I have Tech-Neek. She is from the island of Samoa and has a dog named Doohickey.

CV: Ah, ok. So that’s the dog.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: Tech-Neek has a twin brother. They were like the smartest kids in the world. They had always wanted to be super heroes but they didn’t have any powers so they made a suit. With this suit, they could stand along other super heroes and it enabled them to control all sorts of robotics.

At first, the brother ran the suit but something happened. He got hurt so now it is up to her to run it. But she didn’t create this one, her brother did. So they have to work together, the brother telling her how to do things and her making that work.

A big favorite of mine is Firestorm and I love that idea. That he has all this power but he can’t use it.

CV: He needs that second person.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: You got it. He needs someone to teach him to do this, to tell him to do that and that. That’s kind of how it is for them. She doesn’t really know what she’s doing so the brother is in her head.

CV: I like that there is a theme of people having to rely on others to show them their path, to teach them how to be heroes.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: Exactly.

Tech-Neek also has Doohickey. When they first created a suit, they tested it on their dog. Unfortunately, it ended up killing the dog, but it kind of came back to life as this robotic creature type thing. He’s on the team. He’s nice, he still acts like a dog, but you can tell there’s a part of him that’s kind of Terminator-ish. There are signs when he gets kind of scary and everyone reacts. Think W3 by Grant Morrison.

LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD: Moonshine
Moonshine hoists a car and the bottle in this piece of promo art for LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD. (Courtesy of Corey Lakel Pruitt)

CV: I like that inspiration.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: It’s great. That’s where I got the beginnings of the idea for him.

Then there’s Medic. There were two angels who came to Earth. One was the Angel of War and one as the Angel of Mercy. The Angel of War was sent to prepare for the Rapture but instead she fell in love with this guy so she didn’t end up doing it. What she didn’t know was who she fell in love with was the Angel of Mercy.

So here’s the Angel of War and the Angel of Mercy and they end up falling in love and, accidentally, having this baby. Now, this is prohibited. They had to leave the baby on Earth and go back up to the Heavens. The baby ended up being raised in the Philippines and grew up to be Medic.

She’s a combination of both her parents. She has mom’s tendency towards fighting but she can also heal like her father. She has to keep herself balanced so she’s the most well-grounded of the Leaders of the Free World. She’s also the leader, the Chairwoman.

Then, lastly, we have Moonshine. In this world, the first super heroes came from other planets on some Superman stuff. They were the ones that set up the rules. They teamed up with the United Nations and helped other people around the world get their powers.

As humans, though, you know, we just bring destruction and war. So with the powers everyone just went to battle with one another over who would rule the world.

The beings that came ended it, saying, “Alright, everyone go back to your countries and just stay there.” That’s the rules. They police them.

Moonshine was part of this original group. She came with them but didn’t like how the rules were going so she got kicked out. She had become this drunk party girl. Basically, her powers — flight, strength, durability — are like Superman’s. His come from the sun, hers come from the moon.

Her original super hero name was Lunar but the media started calling her Moonshine because of the drinking. The thing is, though, she’s cold, cold all the time. She found that the only thing that consistently warmed her up inside on Earth was drinking alcohol. So she’s addicted and she started drinking all the time. When the media started calling her Moonshine she just thought, “Screw it, that’s my name now.”

She joined up with the group because, really, she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. She’s still a pompous jerk — “we are the superior race, we are the superior people.” The team has to check her a lot.

LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD: Eli Johnson
LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD artist Eli Johnson is all smiles with the looming success of the book’s Kickstarter Campaign. (Courtesy of Corey Lakel Pruitt)

CV: I know that looking at things online that the early popular designs are Doohickey and Doctor Séance right now. That puts me in the mind of your collaborator Eli Johnson. How did you two end up hooking up with each other for this?

Corey Lakel Pruitt: I was on Reddit and I just posted my idea on the site. I said, “Hey, I would like to find an artist.” So this guy reached out to me and said, “I just had someone do this piece for me.” He sent me to Eli’s DeviantArt page and he had this Rogue piece he drew.

I was like, “Wow, this is gorgeous.” So I just sent him this email introducing myself and my idea. “Can we work out?” And he said, “Yeah, just send me some thoughts.” So I did and then he sent some back; we really just started to send one another all sorts of ideas.

A year and a half later, here we are.

CV: How has the collaboration been?

Corey Lakel Pruitt: When it comes to doing a comic with an artist, you really have to mesh to make it work. You could find someone who can draw but that doesn’t mean they’ll be right for you or the project. They might not be able to bring your ideas or your words from your head to the page.

For us, it was a long process, but we did eventually get on the right page. That’s why we worked together so well because we had gotten to know each other by talking so much. That was important to me, that we would talk a lot. We need that communication to make sure we are on the same page.

Interestingly, we came to find out he’s also in the same state as me. I was like, “Dude, I’m like 6 hours away from you.”

LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD: The team gets high
The Leaders of the Free World elevate above the debate in promotional art. (Courtesy of Corey Lakel Pruitt)

CV: How did the design process work for you and Eli? How did the ideas take shape? When he showed his work was it as though he pulled them straight from your head or were you surprised by how he interpreted them and brought them to life? Like, “Actually, I love this more than I pictured.”

Corey Lakel Pruitt: It was a mix of both. When it comes to my writing, my explanations, I can be pretty thorough. I know exactly what I want and I’ll tell him that.

But I also want to make it his as well. Because, to me, this isn’t just my book. I see it as him and I’s book. To me, it is important to prove that an artist is just as important to the book as I am.

For example, with Moonshine. I am a big fan of the leather jacket over the costume look. You know, like that era of the Avengers with Black Knight, Hercules, Sersi and so forth.

CV: Oh yes, very. [laughs]

Corey Lakel Pruitt: That! I love that look. If I ever write for Marvel, I’m bringing that look back! [laughs] I just love that look!

With Moonshine, I told Eli, the jacket over spandex. That’s what I want!

He came up and said, “What if I did it like?” and he drew parts of it and sent it to me. I said, “This is perfect!” He just got it. And it was like that throughout. I gave him my ideas and he designed them from there.

CV: That’s awesome.

I know from talking to you and looking at the project online that the cultural aspects of each character were really important to you. How did you go about researching the cultures and experiences you wanted to utilize and deciding how much should be folded into the character?

Corey Lakel Pruitt: I have a job, I work in an office, for the State of California.

Yes, I am one of those state job people.

LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD: Tech-Neek
You definitely want to respect the Tech-Neek in this piece of promotional art for LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD. (Courtesy of Corey Lakel Pruitt)

CV: So is my wife, so I’m not mad at you. [laughs]

Corey Lakel Pruitt: [laughs] [My office] has a lot of people from a lot of different cultures. When I have a question about a culture or tradition, I’ll go out to lunch with someone who has experienced those things or grown up with that culture and just absorb all the information I can.

For example, for Doctor Séance, I talked to a doctor I work with. He was from Mexico and his college degree was in History. He would tell me all about the older history, like the Aztec civilization. Or we’d talk about Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and how I could incorporate that into the character.

You’re right. The culture aspect is important. I want to make sure I do that well. For me, you know — everybody’s talking about diversity, diversity, diversity. But I don’t want just diversity, I want representation. I want these people to be seen and heard as well. That’s what’s important.

People ask, “Why was Black Panther so important when there has been other super hero movies with black characters?” Representation was the answer. Black people felt represented by that film, not just like they saw people they looked like just being there.

I want to capture that with my team as well. I hope I do a good job.

CV: Another area where I know you have been striving for diversity and representation is online as a part of the group “Do You Even Comic Book?” How has your positive and negative experiences being part of that group informed your commitment to representation in LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD? How did inspire you?

Corey Lakel Pruitt: Well… that is a good question. [laughs]

When we started Do You Even Comic Book?, it was important to us that everyone be included.

It was important to get different voices because it can be easy to be part of an echo chamber online. I wanted to make sure I could talk to people about things, not just assume.

I would talk to people in the group about, “what if I did this, what would that mean,” or “if I have a character say this, is that something that might happen.” I’d also make sure to really engage with the women. What would they like to see in a comic book. A lot of women, I think, feel that they are not represented well in comic books. Hey, I think they often aren’t.

So I am getting a lot of ideas from them and I’m bouncing off other ideas. That helped, and every time that inspired me to make sure I was getting it right.

Then there was ComicsGate and everything they are doing. I was like, “You know, I don’t agree with what they’re doing, at all, so I’m going make my own stuff to show what people want and like, not just let them dictate to us what [comics] should be.” Know what I’m saying?

That really motivated me, which was good, because this is not an easy job.

And I hope that I can inspire other people to make their own stuff as well by doing this.

LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD: Doohickey
Doohickey brings the Ruckus in LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD promotional art. (Courtesy of Corey Lakel Pruitt)

CV: Taking us through the timeline: at this point, you have had the idea for LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD, you’ve found Eli as a collaborator, and he’s created the designs. When do you or you two reach the idea that you want to take it to Kickstarter? Why did it make sense?

Corey Lakel Pruitt: I noticed a lot of people had been going to Kickstarter. I met a few people at conventions who had done their own Kickstarters, successfully. One was Marcus Williams who got funding for his comic book TUSKEGEE HEIRS. He gave me information on it and it inspired me.

I started doing research — I’m a research guy. I looked into what people had done that had successful campaigns. This might sound cocky or arrogant of me, but I’m the type of person that sees people doing things and thinks that if they can accomplish that thing then I should be able to, too. “If this guy can do it, I can do it, too.” That’s just how I think. The only difference is this person is doing it and we’re not. So I just said, “Let’s go for it.”

I did a lot of research. I bought a book by Greg Pak. He has a bunch of successful Kickstarters so I started to ask him all kinds of questions and he sold me his guide on how to have a successful Kickstarter campaign. I just studied it and then threw [the campaign] out there.

I’m someone who learns from his mistakes and looking back there’s a lot of things I would do differently now. But I just hope other people can see how we did it and take what works and change what didn’t to do something better next time.

One thing my parents always said to me is “Smart people learn from their mistakes, wise people learn from the mistakes of others.”

CV: I like that.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: Exactly. So I feel like I am throwing myself out there and hopefully I can spark someone else’s brain so they’ll say, “I’m gonna do it but unlike Corey, I’m going to do this differently. I’m gonna add this and take away that.”

To me, I’m like if I can get someone else to do it and be successful, I’m ok with that as well. That’s why when people say stuff like I’m a horrible, mean person, I’m like, “For real?” [laughs]

Listen, I have a job. My wife has a job. We have a beautiful house, we have beautiful kids. I’m doing this because I just want to do it. This is something I love doing, something from a culture that raised and I want to give back to it. No matter how it works out, I’m going to feel like I tried something I loved, I did it, and I had a good time.

For me, I want my artist to get over. Hopefully he can go on to do things for Marvel, DC, Image, so on and so forth. Because [Eli] is incredible.

CV: The art I’ve seen has been impressive.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: I know! Thank you and I’ll let him know.

CV: In terms of the Kickstarter, you are over two weeks in now?

Corey Lakel Pruitt: Yes sir.

CV: And how much time is left?

Corey Lakel Pruitt: At this point, about 14 days. We aren’t there yet, but we’re gonna get there. I’m excited to finally get the project itself going.

LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD: Monkey King
A page from the upcoming LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD featuring Surreal, the Monkey King. (Courtesy of Corey Lakel Pruitt)

CV: I know right out of the gate, you were already at around half.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: I was shocked by that number. We did that 50% in like a day.

But let me say, hitting the launch button was like the scariest thing I ever did.

Oh man. Because when you finally get everything approved and the Kickstarter people said, “All you have to do is hit this button–” I started sweating. [laughs] I was like, “Oh my God.”

CV: It becomes real.

Corey Lakel Pruitt: But someone made a great point to me: “You’ve come this far, why stop now? You might as well just go now.” So we launched it and as you can tell, people were excited for it.

CV: If you could step over me and talk directly to people who aren’t excited yet or who are just hearing about this for the first time, what would you say to them? What would be your elevator pitch to get them into LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD and the Kickstarter?

Corey Lakel Pruitt: LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD. Basically it is a celebration of comic book culture. If you like great characters with great interactions and a diverse representational cast go pick it up. I write my action scenes like I’ve been chosen to write an action movie and I have an unlimited budget. Over the top craziness, space fights, animals transforming into tanks, dragons…all of it. Eli got some of the scripts and said, “Oh my God, I’ve never had to draw anything like that before.” I’m like, “Exactly. EXACTLY!”

CV: Might as well go for it, right?

Corey Lakel Pruitt: That’s how I see it. My imagination is so big that I feel like I can do scenes no one has ever seen before. So help a brother fulfill his dreams. A celebration of comic book culture. Give it a shot.

If you’d like to follow Pruitt’s excellent advice and check out LEADERS OF THE FREE WORLD, you can visit the Kickstarter!

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