In the fall of 2018, University of Maryland student Kian Kelley-Chung sat in his African American graphic novels class, watching as his peers passed a list of books around the room.
His eyes fell on one — a short story by James Baldwin called “Going to Meet the Man” — and he immediately knew that’s what he wanted to make the subject of his class assignment, which was a storyboard for a graphic novel.
Baldwin, who was one of the first well-renowned black authors Kelley-Chung had read, inspired him. The senior English major aimed to continue his assignment beyond the classroom and turn it into a full graphic novel — and with a $5,000 award, he’s well on his way.
The Nonso Christian Ugbode Digital Media Award is offered by Black Public Media, a nonprofit dedicated to producing media content about the black experience. It will fund the development of Kelley-Chung’s project.
His graphic novel will include augmented reality components that help readers understand the novel’s historical context, such as Jim Crow laws, voter suppression and other similar issues, Kelley-Chung said. He is currently assembling a team for the project and needs an illustrator and a couple of developers to work on the AR portion.
“Visual stuff, I find, is a little bit easier to digest,” Kelley-Chung said. “Whether it’s graphic novels or photos or videos, rather than a really big chunk of text. I started seeing how much storytelling was involved with film and graphic novels and things like that.”
The prize is named for Nonso Christian Ugbode, who worked at Black Public Media for many years and died at a young age, said Lisa Osborne, BPM’s director of emerging media. Osborne said that Ugbode was a visionary, not just a developer — just like Kelley-Chung.
“He also has a very clear vision for how he wants to use his talent,” Osborne said. “He’s like, I want to tell emerging media stories, and my chosen media so far are VR and AR, and I’m also in love with graphic novels. He’s very clear.”
Kelley-Chung’s passion for storytelling started when he was 10 years old when he would watch his dad play older video games like Final Fantasy 2.
Fascinated by the plot lines, character development and game relationships, Kelley-Chung wanted to try it for himself. At age 12, he played Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty for the first time — and it made him forget he was playing a game.
“That was what got me to think, ‘Wow there’s a lot of power in this media that I can explore by making video games,’” Kelley-Chung said. “I can tell stories just as elaborate as a filmmaker does or a novelist does, in a video game.”
By the summer of 2017, Kelley-Chung began to explore new media forms: virtual and augmented reality. He began a virtual reality project — currently in production — that puts the audience in the shoes of people migrating from El Salvador to the U.S.
“I kind of wanted to make a video game that was able to make people engaged with the actual activities that people have to endure to make the journey,” Kelley-Chung said. “I didn’t want people to see it or watch it, I wanted people to connect and engage with it and have them interact with the piece itself … to understand the severity of the situation.”
Beyond that, Kelley-Chung plans to continue working on his novel — and in the field — after graduation. Between now and July 2020, Kelley-Chung hopes to have half of his novel finished.
“This is the kind of stuff I want to follow,” he said.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story stated Kian Kelley-Chung took an African American graphic novels class in fall 2017. He took it in fall 2018. This story has been updated.