Bringing the Awe of Her 10-Year Old Self to the Page: Talking with L.L. McKinney about ‘Power Rangers Unlimited: Heir to Darkness’

L.L. McKinney certainly needs no introduction. The acclaimed author and advocate for equality and inclusion in publishing is a known gamer, Blerd, and just released Nubia: Real One earlier this year. And we were lucky enough to talk with her about her latest work with Power Rangers Unlimited: Heir to Darkness.

BlackNerdProblems: Let’s get started with a question I’ve been wondering, but did you ever imagine your career’s trajectory would take shape like it has over the last few years when you were tweeting about writing Young Justice to taking iconic characters from beloved IPs like Nubia and Astronema?

L.L. McKinney: No… No, I did not. *laughter* I literally thought I was just screaming into the void, which is a thing that you do, you know. Just saying stuff that I wanted to do as a fan and for it to end like this still blows me. I honestly don’t feel like it’s real sometimes, even after holding the thing in my hands or seeing it in a PDF or whatever. I’m still just blown away by it.

BNP: So, it’s both constantly impressive and exhausting, but you’re the first Black woman author to write a Power Rangers book. How does that feel, knowing… *that*?

L.L.: Well, ’cause it was brought to my attention by someone else who was like “I think you’re the first Black woman to write Power Rangers.” And I was like “oh, huh.” And I was like first, the comics have been around for a little while, so it really wasn’t… none of it’s ever surprising. It’s just disappointing. But it was one of those things where it was like, the comics have been around relatively recently, and I wasn’t surprised ’cause normally stuff starts off when it comes to super popular things by centering particular voices. Namely white dudes.

But then the person was like “No, no, no. I think you’re the first Black woman to write for Power Rangers ever, and that includes the shows” and I don’t know about that, but if that’s the truth, like 10 year old me is blown away because I was such a fan of Mighty Morphin’ and then when the internet became a thing, going back and looking at y’know Super Sentai, it just… I am both delighted and depressed by it. In 2021, still having firsts like that, it’s a delight, but like really…

BNP: Yeah. Yeah. I can sympathize with that sentiment all too well unfortunately. Speaking to that, how difficult is it working within an established IP? You mentioned you were fan of Mighty Morphin‘, but how much of the *deep* lore did you know off the top of your head and how much did you have to research going into Heir to Darkness?

L.L.: Even if I don’t watch the seasons the way that I used to, what usually ends up happening is that I would binge them a year or two after the fact, right? I think the last one I actively watched in my day to day, well weekend to weekend honestly was SPD. Because there was Lost Galaxy and then… Mystic… or… well, see, that’s well it all starts to run together, well you had in Space and Lost Galaxy and I think Mystic happened after Lost Galaxy but Lost Galaxy right where everything started to meld together because it was no longer the same linear team passing the torch from character to character that started with Mighty Morphin‘.

That’s where I, I didn’t fall off, but I started mixing things up. Because there were different planets and different peoples. Like “Which Red Ranger did what?”. I didn’t really have to do a whole lot of research because again, I’ve been in the fandom since its inception, at least here in the states. But there were moments where I had to go back and rewatch episodes of In Space just to make sure that this thing that I was fairly certain that I knew happened, I just wanted to be 110% sure that it happened. If anyone was to look at my YouTube history, it’s like “Wow. Um. Power Rangers and Dragon Age. That’s an interesting mix.” And it’s mostly because I was re-watching stuff that I already seen multiple times. But as a fan, writing to and for fans, you gotta come correct. If you’re off in just one thing, a lot of people will go, “Oh you’re wrong,” but some people will like crucify you over this thing that got missed, and so it’s one of those things where I knew a lot of the lore, but I wanted to make doubly sure I knew what I was talking about.

BNP: Makes perfect sense. Now, for the uninitiated, who is Astronema and, why are you excited to show off her origin story?

L.L.: So to me, Power Rangers in Space is the best season. There are people who will fight about it. “No, it’s SPD” and blah blah blah, but. I’m sorry. I really really really enjoyed Power Rangers in Space. It was the first time–and I know other Power Rangers, you had the Aqua Rangers, and the talk of the Zeo Crystals and y’know other, and the villains were from space, so other stuff had been coming to earth this whole time. It was the first time that the Rangers did other stuff, every now and then on other planets. Still babysat Earth, but they’re from earth, why wouldn’t they? And Astronema and Ecliptor were just amazing characters because that was first introduction into what people now call “Being Bucky-ed” where you have someone brainwashed into being the bad guy. That was my introduction to my sort side of things where you had this person, who was kidnapped and actually one of the good guys originally, but then they raised to bad and now they’re fighting the good guys sibling.

To me, little Elle was like “THIS IS AMAZING STORYTELLING! WHAT?” *laughter* Just the love and the awe that I had in watching this season play out, I just wanted to bring an element of that to the comic. And we knew Astronema’s backstory. Kinda like you know what happened way back when in ancient times. Like there was a Roman Empire. Alexander the Great ran around a little bit and did whatever he did. But no one does a deep dive unless it interests you. You just learn what you learn from school. And it was kind of the same with In Space. We were just told, these people were siblings. One of them got kidnapped, was raised by one of the bad guys as his daughter, and here they are.

But there was a never a “What did look like in an empire of evil?” you know. Clearly, they weren’t the only one because other people had been snatched up and turned into bad guys, so what’s this machine behind all of this. I think that’s what really drew me. The awe of being able to relive everything I loved about that season’s storytelling but also being able to flesh it out. And being part of fleshing it out. I got to write fanfic, but it’s canon now. And it’s just great.

BNP: Well, that’s the dream isn’t it? To have your fanfic become fact. I wish I could do that.

L.L.: That’s literally what it is though. After the people who create the characters are done writing them and bring other people in to continue the legacy, you know, those people are writing fanfic essentially that is being accepted and canonized by the overarching “whoever controls the story at that time.” It’s the same for any of my favorite comics and my favorite writers. These are people writing fanfic, stories that they think match really well with the mythos and most of the time they do. And now it gets to be called canon because when you’re not the creator… you’re not the creator. You’re now just stitching your little bit to the side here. I think it’s one of the appealing things of about it for me was that I get to contribute to the canon, but also like I said: I’m a fan. That’s where I come from.

BNP: What was your favorite moment to introduce in the first issue of the comic then?

L.L.: I really, really, really enjoyed writing Astronema as this badass. You got to see her kind of fight in the show right? You got to see her with these mystic powers and her affinity for the dark arts, but you never got to see her really go to town. She had minions for that. That was the point. She had gotten to this place where she’s the second in command of this literal empire of evil. She has people who fight beneath her and for her.

I was really excited to delve into, you know, if Astronema had to step off her throne as princess and get her hands dirty, this is what it would look like. Even just talking about it, because you mention Young Justice earlier, one of my favorite lines from that show is in the first season where the team is trying to stop something happening on Bane’s island where Cobra is mixing Cobra venom, super-Cobra venom or whatever and King Cobra-that’s not his actual name, that’s just what I call him-Master Cobra is there and he goes to fight Robin and Robin says along the lines of “I thought you didn’t like to get your hands dirty” and this dude who is the leader of this sect is like “even a god must stoop to conquer.”

And that’s kind of what I embodied with Astronema. We have where she’s been set up and we see her at the end of this trajectory, this lifetime of fighting and scrapping to get to where she is. She’s established when we come up on her. So, I was really excited to see, “this is why people are scared of this lady.” This is why people across the galaxy fear the name Astronema, Princess of Evil and it was just really cool to be able to do that.

BNP: How was the collaboration with Simone Ragazzoni? How was it seeing your words come to life in Power Rangers fashion?

L.L.: It was amazing. What’s really funny, is that they would send me the concept or the blocking is what it’s technically called. I don’t know, I haven’t been at it long enough to learn all the acronyms and such. But he sent me where he laid out all the panels, and it was just like… not stick figure, but circle figures that artists do to show the proportions of the character, so I’m looking at it and to me, it’s just this mess of shapes or whatever. And I’m like “you guys can see something in this that I can’t.” It’s like how people who are architects. If you walk into a house and nothing’s up, just a bunch of wood, walls are empty, pipes are visible, but architects can see the *house*.

I can’t do that. And I couldn’t do that with the comics. And I was like “I have no feedback, because I don’t know what I’m looking at.” But I trust him because he’s the expert. And I say this with even Robin with Nubia…I’m here to tell the artist the story so the artist can then convey the story to the rest of the world ’cause the art does the heavy lifting in telling the story. So, at the beginning, I was like, “I don’t know. I’m so sorry. I’m worthless. I don’t know what I’m looking at it.” But then when I got the pictures and saw what Astronema looks like and her expression and Ecliptor and his expressions, ’cause we didn’t get to expressions in the show because of the masks. It was really beautiful. It’s really interesting to tell someone something, and they pluck it out of your brain with just the barest hint of direction and create this masterpiece. And that’s what this is, it’s creating a string of masterpieces, and I just fell in love with each page. And then when the colors got added, oh man. It really pushed me because I had the script right and then they would send the pictures, and as a writer just now getting into comics, there are things I don’t know about comics.

I’m not going to know if this is or isn’t possible, but I’m going to ask for it. And the artist is going to give me what is possible of what I’m asking and so I have to adjust the script to what is possible via the art. And I think the story turned out stronger, in any of the cases of where I worked on comics with the artist, because they were like “maybe we can’t do this because you know comic, not movie, but we could do this.” And a lot of the times, it was like “oh, that’s even better.”

While he didn’t help me write the story, he helps me tell the story in a much better way, and people love Nubia because of Robin. I’m fairly certain that people are going to love Heir of Darkness because of Simone.

BNP: Do you find it easier to write villains or heroes?

L.L.: It depends. I like my witty, snappy villains. I like my villains who have reasons for what they do. I like when some villains are sympathetic. I don’t like every villain being sympathetic. We don’t need all the villains to be sympathetic. Sometimes people are just horrible, and that’s life. And we’ve entered this weird space where people are creating backstories for villains, like iconic villains. And sometimes it works. You get Maleficent. That worked. And then you’re about to have the Cruella, and while I’m a 100% going to see it because freaking Cruella de Vil, it’s like, “so you’re trying to make me sympathize who later in life we know, will kill people in order to be able to skin puppies.” Can’t she just be a horrible human being, and we are just here to root against her.

I love villains like Zuko who can come full swing with the redemption arc. And then you have Azula, who is also a villain with a sympathetic side, but she’s still a villain. And I enjoy villains like Darth Vader, up until we got all this stuff with Anakin Skywalker, was just this big scary dude with a mask with this great imposing and deep voice. All the backstory wasn’t there for him to do his job in the original trilogy, and I love both aspects of that.

I guess it depends on the story. I don’t like writing one over the other as long as the villain, or the hero because there are stories where you’re like, “I hate this person.” It’s gonna depend on the context.

BNP: Do you have any advice for any Black, Indigenous, and other people of color wanting to get into publishing and comics?

L.L.: Yes. My biggest thing is gonna be twofold. One is don’t stop. It’s going to be very tempting to give up. It was for me as well. And I preface this by saying, it’s okay to take breaks. And breaks can be a day, a week, a month, a year, they can be several years. If you are thinking about writing in the back of your head, going to school or raising a family or doing any number of things that have your focus when writing doesn’t, you’re still participating in writing. If you’re thinking about it and parsing ideas and storylines and things like that. That’s still part of the process.

At the same time, I’m going to say: find your group, your friends, your circle of people who are not only your colleagues, like they are not just people in writing, but they are also people if none of you are writing, y’all would still hang out and talk to each other, right? Either via text or email or video games. My writer’s group who I have been a part of for 15 years now, we’re just friends outside of writing at this point. If one of us stopped writing, we’d still be friends. If all of us stopped writing, we’d still be friends. So those are gonna be my main bits of advice because they’re always advice about “how to do the job” right? This is how you write. This is the process, tips and tricks. that’s all well and good, but you need stability for you as a person. And the best thing is to find people who understand what you’re going through. Find your people.

For me, it was my sister’s circle. It was three other women writers who were in this together. And this sister’s circle has expanded and now includes lots of people, but at its core there are people who I am colleagues with, but also, if I got married next week, they’d be at my bridal party, you know what I’m saying? Find people who you can be yourself with while also being a writer with.

BNP: Alright. This is the last question I have, but I love asking it to every single person I interview. But what is a piece of media you wish more people knew about? Not necessarily your favorite, but one you think is under the radar and needs more attention immediately.

L.L.: Ooooh. I have to think about it for a second, because there are a number of them. But they have their core followings.

Cannon Busters. It’s a Black anime on Netflix. It has its issues, but of course everything does, but it was really fun, and it had lots of black and brown characters.

Um… what else… That might be it. I love other shows like Castlevania, but again it has issues. I don’t know… I wanna name all the things, but then like She-Ra is like doing really well so that doesn’t make sense. Jeez. Lemme look around my other books.

Anthologies. There’s one. I think people get caught up in big novels and sprawling tales and some of the smartest and best writing I’ve ever done are short stories. So, I think people should pay more attention to anthologies. I’m in a number of them. A Phoenix First Must Burn is one. Color Outside the Lines is another. One just came out, Tales of Wakanda for Black Panther. Plus that allows you to taste lots of different authors and their styles. It’s like ordering the sampler at a restaurant, you get to try a little bit of everything. I think anthologies overall are a medium that people should pay more attention to.

BNP: Great. Anything you want to add just generically at the end of all of this?

L.L.: I’m super stoked for this, and I hope other people who are fans of the characters as much as I am enjoy what we put together.

Check out our review of Power Rangers Unlimited: Heir to Darkness #1 here.

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  • Mikkel Snyder is a technical writer by day and pop culture curator and critic all other times.

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