Two sisters breaking barriers in animation

By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — When comic book creators Shawnee and Shawnelle Gibbs were growing up in Oakland, they loved pouring over comics in the newspaper and watching Garfield and the Peanuts cartoons on television.

“We also loved reading Boondocks and Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals in the Sunday papers,” said the sisters, acknowledging that Turner, one of the few Black cartoonists to draw his own comic strip for the Oakland Tribune, was a huge inspiration.

“We’d grown up writing, illustrating and telling stories collaboratively since we were children,” said the sisters,who added that their mother, Patricia, instilled in them a love for the visual arts.

After receiving their degrees in cinema from San Francisco State University and hoping to break into the television industry, the sisters packed their bags and moved to Los Angeles.

“We didn’t know anyone but we began knocking on doors,” Shawnelle said.

They got their first break when they were hired to write and produce lifestyle television producing for several shows.

The talented sisters have since penned projects for Dreamworks Animation (“Not Quite Narwhal”), Cartoon Network (“Jessica’s Big Little World”), HBO Max (“Little Ellen”), Mattel (“Barbie: It Takes Two” and “Barbie: Mermaid Power”), and many others.  

The Gibbs sisters will be appearing at the Women’s History Month program at the Community Coalition, 8101 Vermont Ave., at 1 p.m. March 30. 

As lifelong comic fans, the sister’s ultimate goal was to enter the traditional publishing world and publish their own graphic novels.  

“We continued to create our own stories and our own comics online,” said Shawnelle. 

Their first graphic novel, “The Invention of E.J. Whitaker,” the first of a three-part series, follows the adventures of Ada Turner, a young African American-college student who dreams of being an inventor at the dawn of the 20th Century. The sisters said they infuse Black culture throughout their comic series that touch on the struggles that Black people have endured in the United States.

“We did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to publish E. J. Whitaker and we were able to raise over $17,000,” Shawnelle said.

The sisters hope that their E.J. Whitaker novel will inspire more Blacks and Hispanics to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math since these groups have been consistently underrepresented in employment. 

“We believe stories like E.J. Whitaker are key in creating heroes that spark the belief that we can continue breaking down the walls of centuries past,” Shawnelle said. “The need for stories from and for multicultural perspectives in the world of steampunk and sci fi adventure is a big reason why we chose to tell stories in the genre.”

The sisters’ newest work, “Ghost Roast,” is a young adult graphic novel that was recently spotlighted bythe American Library Association’s book review journal, Booklist, as one of the “Top 10 Novels For Tweens.”

The novel, set in New Orleans, follows 15-year-old Chelsea as she reluctantly goes to work for her dad’s ghost hunting business for the summer and discovers that she can communicate with the very ghosts her dad was sent to exterminate. 

“‘Ghost Roast’ is a coming-of-age story full of history, adventure and self-discovery,” said Shawnee, who added that their family has deep roots in New Orleans. “We actually traveled to New Orleans and researched the historical aspect of the city’s culture, tradition and history. We did research on cemeteries and visited plantations for historical inspiration.”

The sisters said the “Ghost Roast” can be purchased online at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, at Octavia’s Bookshelf in Pasadena,  Malik’s Bookstore in Culver City and wherever books are sold.

“We are currently working on a second graphic novel,” Shawnelle said.  “We have a couple of unannounced animation projects that will be coming out this year.

“There’s a huge youth and adult market who read graphic novels,” she added. “We hope we are inspiring readers and writers and we love that we are able to pass the torch to the next generation.”

“People can always expect to find humor, heart and a bit of magic in all of our stories,” Shawnee added.