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Diversifying Comics with John Jennings (Griot Vine Interview)

Written by Greg Anderson-Elysee on Monday, August 24 2015 and posted in Columns

Diversifying Comics with John Jennings (Griot Vine Interview)

Chatting with creator John Jennings about his works and the battle to diversify comics!

GREG ANDERSON-ELYSEE: Welcome to (Heard it Thru) The Griot Vine, Mr. John Jennings! It's an honor to have you here!

JOHN JENNINGS: I am honored to be here. Thanks for the interest in my work!

GREG: Are you kidding me? You're amazing! How are you today?

JOHN: I am doing just fine.

GREG: There are many people living under a rock. Can you please educate them and tell us about yourself?

JOHN: Let's see. Again, my name is John Jennings. I am an Associate Professor of ArtIMG 9574 and Visual Studies at the University at Buffalo State University of New York (SUNY). I teach in the graphic design program. I study stereotypes in popular media concerning the constructions of black identity. In particular, I look at science fiction, fantasy, comics and other types of cartoons and caricatures that depict "blackness" and it's mediations. I am also an illustrator, author, curator and comics artist. I am freelance graphic designer and I have designed a lot of notable covers around Afrofuturism including the Afrofuturism book by Ytasha Womack, Octavia's Brood edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Amarisha, and Mothership edited by Bill Campbell and Ed Hall. I also designed the Samuel R. Delany Tribute Collection Stories for Chip book cover published by Rosarium Publishing edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl.

tumblr nfbrqxukM31rt0l0ho1 1280I am the co-author of several books on race and identity in comics including The Blacker the Ink with Frances Gateward and Black Comix with Damian Duffy. I am also the co-founder and co-organizer of the Black Comic Book Festival in Harlem, NY at the historic Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and MLK/NORCAL's Black Comix Arts Festival in San Francisco.

My next major project is the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler's classic novel Kindred along with my long-time collaborator and good friend Damian Duffy.

GREG: How long have you been into comics, as a reader and creator? How did you get involved in it?

JOHN: I have been into comics since I was a child. I was always an active and avid reader from the jump. I'd read a lot of tall tales, myths, and legends from all over the world.

One day, my mother bought me The Mighty Thor and the Amazing Spider-Man and I was pretty much hooked. I must have been like 9 years old, maybe? I started drawing around the age of 4 and I have always been fascinated by images. I got really serious about comics again when I was going for tenure at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. So the early 2000s? Since then, I have been doing shows, events, and creation around diversity in comics.

GREG: So what is going on with Kindred? Can you tell us about it? I'm excited for this book because the novel is one of my absolute favorites.

tumblr npavokBBO61rt0l0ho1 540JOHN: The Kindred graphic novel was "stalled" a bit on the publisher's side due to a change in personnel. Damian and I are now full steam ahead on the production of the book. I have taken a research leave to devote my time to the book. ABRAMS ComicArts plans to release it in 2017. So right now we are in a flurry to get it done and out! Thanks for the patience.

GREG: Kindred is a pretty heavy book. For the people unfamiliar with it, can you tell us what it's about?

JOHN: Kindred is a dark fantasy book that was written in the mid-70s by the amazing Octavia Butler that details the adventures of an interracial couple's (black woman and white man) supernatural travels back into time from 1976 to a Maryland slave plantation. The book deals with the trauma related to chattel slavery and the intricate relationships that occurred in that horrible time in our nation's history and how those relationships still connect to us to this very day.

tumblr ns8ewz2tRF1rt0l0ho1 500GREG: What are you bringing to this adaptation? And what has the creative process been like? Is there a lot of reworked scenes?

JOHN: I think the main part that is being added is the visual, honestly. We have tried to be as honest with the adaptation as humanly possible; letting Octavia's voice take the lead. So there have been very little additions to the original story. As you said, some people have never read the book so it would be a disservice to them to not just introduce the book as is.

GREG: You brought up your long time collaborator, Damian Duffy, and you two have worked together for quite some time! How did you first meet and how did this creative union start?

JOHN: Our creative process is very fluid. Damian and I have been working together on various projects for a decade. We met at the University at Illinois at Urbana Champaign when I was teaching there. Damian is a PhD student currently in the Library Information Sciences department. When I was there I managed to bring Scott McCloud to the campus. Damian attended and through a system of coincidences ended up having dinner with us. We met up again at a talk I was doing and ended up becoming friends and collaborators. Our process is very open and give-and-take. Damian is a very talented writer and editor. I think that we bring out the best in each other creatively. That's why we've tolerated each other for ten years! (Laughs)

GREG: I'm originally familiar with the Hole: Consumer Culture, a work both thehole1you and Damian created.

JOHN: The Hole: Consumer Culture (Front 40 Press) was our response to Hurricane Katrina and the total mishandling of that tragedy. It focused on the demonization of the black body and the subsequent buying and selling of race in America. It's also, as you said of Kindred, a "heavy" book. We are used to dealing with difficult subjects in the work.

GREG: An aspect that I loved with The Hole was the focus on the bastardization of Black spirituality. The Vodou spirituality plays a pretty big part of the story, especially in how Hollywood has converted Black spirituality into a form of horror storytelling and evil, and goes into the complexity of a character like Papa Legba. What brought about the decision to dwell on these themes? I'm sure this goes hand-in-hand with your interest of breaking down stereotypes within your work.

JOHN: So a lot of people don't realize this but The Hole was originally a white character that I did as a graphic novel by myself. I am kind of ashamed of it now but it was the first time I stretched out as a comic creator. A lot of the themes actually came from there.

thehole2That narrative took its "supernatural" aspect from the Judeo-Christian-Gnostic idea of the sin-eater. Since we were being inspired by Katrina, we decided to do research on Vodou. A great deal of practitioners live in New Orleans. We took a cue from that fact. The book became something totally different then. Sometimes it felt as it if it wrote itself. It was critically acclaimed and has been taught at major universities across the world. So I guess we did something right?

A large part of The Hole was definitely geared towards unpacking stereotypes.

The Hole has a teaching guide in the back, a bibliography, and a glossary of terms.

We made it to be taught.

GREG: So you find yourself cringing looking back at your original version of The Hole, like most writers and artists looking back?

JOHN: I think we all look back and cringe at earlier work. There was promise in the original story but I have come a very long way as a storyteller and artist.

GREG: Another thing that strongly stood out to me reading was the unflinching portrayal of sex. The book was pretty explicit but I felt it added to the raw storytelling going on with the portrayal and deconstruction of the Black body. Was this a conscious decision and what prompt you and Damian to just go all out with the sexuality? People are usually prudes when it comes to this.

JOHN: The Hole is an uncomfortable book. thehole2BCIt was hard for us to delve into those areas at first but the hyper-sexualization of the Black body is a part of the narrative and it had to be dealt with. The book is made to be problematic in the right ways. We wanted this book to be taught and studied and so you have to know the space enough to "go there" and be ready to defend your choices. So sexuality in our society is treated as this taboo thing yet violence is naturalized.

GREG: No sense at all.

JOHN: It makes no sense. So we will most likely be exploring these aspects more in coming projects for sure. People have desires and are attracted to a lot of things that aren't heteronormative. That is demonized in our society. So dealing with a shape-shifting hyperbolic body talks about that openly. We have to make spaces for conversation... literally poke holes in old notions about identity and the fiction of "normality."

GREG: Now you do know I'm still waiting for Volume 2 of the Hole, right...? I'm just saying... you left me hanging there. What are the plans for Vol. 2 if any?

JOHN: We are planning to eventually do the Hole Vol. 2. We have been talking about it recently... especially since the visit we made to Vassar College. It's down the road a bit more though. We have a ton of projects that are in front of it... UNLESS some publisher wants to publish it for us... That original book is just full of rage and anguish because of injustice. I think it'd be hard to pick up on that now... we are still energetic and outraged about what's been going on in society but I think our voices have become much more savvy and honestly more creative.

11822394 10154142005263345 9022121763868793256 nGREG: You've also been working on Blue Hand Mojo and Kid Code! You have absolutely NO idea how much fun I had reading those books.

JOHN: Thanks so much!

GREG: Can you tell us about the creative process?

JOHN: Well, Blue Hand Mojo is something that's been in my head for a while... maybe four or five years? I've stopped and started on it several times. I ended up plotting out a complete story and then decided that before I do that story...I needed to spend more time in that creative world so that audiences knew what I was doing. Stories have to have room to breathe sometimes. That takes time. So I ended up coming up with three shorter stories that I am now working on to collect as a trade. I plan to do another collection like that...THEN do the longer graphic novel. Also, I have some other plans to collaborate with others on that character. I have some really cool plans for Half-Dead Johnson! (Laughs)

GREG: I'm excited!kid-code-channel-zero-1-e1435873572295

JOHN: Kid Code was a blast to work on with Stacey and Damian. It was truly a Hip Hop comic. So Stacey and I planned out the initial world and story. Then I used dice to literally use "freestyle" and chance to decide how many panels would be on a page.

GREG: Dice?! Wait... so you literally rolled dice to plot your pages? How the heck...?

JOHN: Yep.

I basically gave myself a high and low number of dots to hit and threw dice to let chance decide what would happen on each page. Then I created a "visual script" that told Stacey exactly what size panels to use...POV etc. It was a great way to write. He would edit panels as he needed and Damian could just focus on the dialogue and the lettering. I wrote a very insane story and Damian totally edited and remixed it; made it better. Stacey did the pencils for Kid Code. I did inks and colors. Then Damian lettered and wrote over the images. It was a mash-up of epic proportions! We are working on number two of a three-part arc. Can't wait!

GREG: How long did Kid Code take from initial conception? One of my favorite things about the book was how tumblr n41vy4Imtg1rt0l0ho1 r1 500surreal it was. It was a little confusing but when I read through it a second time, I took it in more and everything just clicked. It made it such an amazing experience. Was that intentional or did you just get lucky?

JOHN: Kid Code took about four months or so? The initial conception started out from a long drive from Buffalo to Columbus. Stacey and I were going to speak at a comic forum at the Columbus College of the Arts and I pitched him this idea about a time traveling superhero who was inspired by Hip Hop. We riffed from there and built this wild story! Damian brought in the finishing touches... his dialogue and humor was just perfect for the story. It's obviously very similar in some ways to The Hole in that it's an anti-capitalist narrative. It's packed with a lot of information. Our work tends to have multiple layers. This was very collaborative and "freestyled" but I think we knew we had a special mix from the start. Looking forward to working in that world more.

GREG: Dude, where the heck do you have the time to do everything? You're a bit of a Jack-of-all-Trades with art and writing, you teach, and you got married about a year ago, right? How do you manage? Do you have clones because I feel like each week I learn you're working on something else?

JOHN: How do you eat a whale?

GREG: With tartar sauce, maybe? Like a TON.tumblr n0quy8xqhL1rt0l0ho1 500

JOHN: (Laughs) Even with tartar sauce, you have to eat it a little at a time :) People want an "app" for success and there just isn't.

A lot of these things take a lot of planning and collaboration over many years. For instance: that The Blacker the Ink collection that I co-edited with Frances Gateward? That took like 5 years to finish. You work a bit here...a bit there. Before you know it... you have a lot of work.

A comic is done one line at a time. One panel at a time. One page at a time. It's not a race. It's a marathon. People ask me all the time how much I sleep or how I manage. I think that most people aren't happy or fulfilled with what they do. Some people downright hate what they do for a living. I love what I do. It's difficult work. It's arduous...but I love it so it's not work to me.

GREG: So what is your creative process like?

JOHN: My creative process is methodical. I do a lot of research on things. I read broadly and deeply. I have a personal library that I consult on the regular and add to when needed. I make a lot of sketches and scribbles. I edit down a lot. My writing process and my art-making process are both informed by my training as a designer. That's another mindset that helps you work on many things. As a freelancer, if you don't have a bunch of things going, you starve. Also you learn that from the academy. "Publish or Perish." If you are at a university and you don't get tenure; that's it. You are out of a gig. So you have to keep pushing and I think that it just becomes part of you. Another thing: I don't have kids! (Laughs) ...yet.

GREG: Yet. (Laughs). I wonder if your wife, Tawana, is reading...

JOHN: Oh, believe me. She is...

tumblr nq7t5fwhZI1rt0l0ho1 r1 1280GREG: Haha. What inspires you to keep on going?

JOHN: My main inspiration is that I want to, in some way, leave the world better than when I got here. I am also very dedicated to helping alternative voices be heard. Also, Death keeps me going. Our time on this earth is short. I want to make the most of time on this plane of existence. I know that sounds morbid but it makes me appreciate what I have and what I can offer.

GREG: The very first work from you I discovered was actually the David Banner series you did animation for called Walking with Gods. How did you get involved in that?

JOHN: David got wind of the Black Kirby project from a long time friend who saw the show at Jackson State. David called me one morning and we talked about what he needed. It was a great project to work on!

GREG: Do you know if Banner thought of expanding further and getting you involved?

JOHN: I know that David is focusing on his commitments as an activist at the moment. He also he has a new album about to drop called The God Box that deals with a lot of the issues that are affecting our people on the ground today. Walking With Gods is an extension of that idea. He wanted to give our children a new hero, a symbol of hope. So you haven't seen the last of Alex Light but I can't openly say what the next steps are.

(NOTE FOR READER: Youtube video collecting Part 1-4 of David Banner's Walking With Gods featuring John Jennings' works is embedded at the end of this interview. Be sure to check it out!)

GREG: What are your thoughts on the state of race and overall diversity withintumblr npapawG1uU1rt0l0ho1 500 comics? What do you think is working and not working? And what could be improved?

JOHN: That's the hardest question yet. I have made it my business to deal with diversity on all fronts regarding the comics industry. It's come a long way but there is much more ground to cover. You have to come at the problem on multiple fronts, diversity in readership, diversity in content, diversity in characters, diversity in creators, and diversity in the people who publish and distribute these books.

So there are more independent books out there and technology has allowed for us to get our work to a much, much broader audience. Just look at what Bill Campbell has done with Rosarium [Publishing], what Regine Sawyer has done with Lockett Down, and what Imani Lateef has done with Peep Game Comix. There's a huge upsurge in talent and there's a community that we have built that supports it.

Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider from MarvelThe mainstream is listening a bit now. There are a few really great titles that are pushing boundaries. Bitch Planet, Rat Queens, Wolf, Ms. Marvel and the new Cyborg comic from DC Comics written by Shaft scribe David Walker. One really cool book that hardly anyone talks about was the Latino Ghost Rider! It was a cool book! It wasn't The Watchmen but it was a solid read. At the end of the run it was written by Felipe Smith and drawn by the dope Damion Scott. And it was about a LATINO kid taking care of his disabled brother. Two black creators on a book with a Latino lead AT MARVEL COMICS? Unheard of! No one talks about it though.

Oh by the way, I'd be remiss to mention the lackluster Falcon as CAPTAIN AMERICA book and the even more uneven STORM solo series. How is that these characters have been around for decades and they don't know who they are?

But as I understand, there are also new books on the horizon and the new Milestone Media getting ready to push out more work soon! The main issue is that the largest comic book publishers aren't comic book publishers. They are multi-national conglomerates disguised as comics companies. They really don't care about true diversity overall and don't really care about the audiences. If they did, they would change how they operate. They only care about the bottom line and this mythical notion that everyone wants the stuff they are putting out. When in actuality they would reach more people by just changing a few things. However, DC and Marvel in particular are institutions. Institutions SUCK at changing. That's ok. WE will change it.

GREG: I'm determined to be a part of that change! You've hit on a lot of points there. But what of the audience?

JOHN: The mainstream comics audience is nerdishly devoted to the superhero genre and this perpetuates the notion that comics are only good for doing superhero driven narratives. It's this horrible vicious cycle like something out of the third act of that Ang Lee HULK film!

GREG: Ouch...

JOHN: Another horrible thing is that folks who are creators and happen to be white men are looking through privileged lenses... and don't realize it. So you have a Mark Waid who writes a story that is supposed to deal with racism in Mississippi in the 1920s but ends up composing a hackneyed collection of stereotypes via a white male perspective. Then you have an Ales Kot who creates a new book (Wolf) with a black protagonist and after the 5th issue plans to feature creators of color in the back of the book. He has also turned down writing jobs at Marvel that he felt would be better written by someone other than a white straight male author. So you see two totally different paradigms there. These are happening in the industry RIGHT NOW.

The last thing is distribution... (Sigh)

GREG: As an indie creator working to break in, I'll add a sigh right there with you. (Sigh)

tumblr nkwyom4kH01rt0l0ho1 1280JOHN: (Sigh) We have a MONOPOLY in charge of what books get distributed to comic retailers. Diamond Distribution has some very weird and honestly unfair policies when dealing with independent books. However there are alternative spaces... and we have to go there and figure out ways to open up the market. There's an audience yearning to hear our stories and we can't let a handful of privileged folk control our destiny. America doesn't work that way.

GREG: Sadly when it comes to quite a large number of consumers of color, the only time diversity really matters to them is if it's from DC or Marvel. It's such an uphill battle.

JOHN: A main issue around the buzzword of diversity is that it's only important when large multi-national companies do it. The Black Age of Comics Movement has been around for over 20 years now and it's still a relatively unknown counter-culture. It's a hot topic now for them but it's been the LIFE'S WORK of so many of our colleagues. Marvel makes Thor a woman and Captain America black and it's the best thing that ever happened since Understanding Comics was published.

The BBC interviewed me at length last year regarding diversity in comics. I focused on the black indie side of things. None of my interview was used. A black female reporter from a large network approached me about a story regarding diversity in comics and AGAIN...I spoke about the independent work, the events, the awards that are happening yet getting no fanfare. We spoke for about two hours. I also told her to some effect "I know you can't really use any of this because we aren't Disney or Viacom... but, I wanted you to know, sister." Nothing came of it.

"Diversity" writ large... is just a box someone checks on a form in some cold office space. However THIS...this work is what we do. When the cameras are gone and the networks stop caring, me and my sisters and brothers will still be here... Sometimes ALONE in front of a table or computer, ruining our posture and eyes... panel by panel, building something that looks like a future we need to see.

GREG: I feel like most consumers who want to find books of diversity, and creators also, have that breaking point where they say, "That's it. I'm done with this, I need to find something else that reflects me and others." What was that moment for you?

JOHN: I think the turning point was in 2005 when the "Masters of American Comics" art show was touring and there weren't any women in it. That was a wake-up call for me. There are gatekeepers and you can't play with us. It's a type of violence. People don't think of it that way but it kills your spirit to not see yourself reflected in society.

390112 10150701687708345 1235885919 n

Pencils by Eric Battle and Colors by John Jennings

GREG: What has been some of your biggest challenges being a Black creator in the industry?

JOHN: I think being black has been a challenge! (Laughs)


JOHN: Seriously though, you have to realize that most of my career has been as an academic. I have fought the battles around diversity in the classroom and in the academy for over 17 years now. I am a relative new voice to anything that resembles the mainstream. So I'd say I've had the same challenges but when you add race to equation, it does become much more difficult whether people want to acknowledge that or not.

GREG: What has been some of the most rewarding?

JOHN: The most rewarding aspects of my career has been the creation of new spaces, publications, and events where people can feel empowered, safe, and connected to others that make and feel as they do. When you don't see yourself reflected in the world, it causes a type of trauma. I think that I've had some hand in making experiences and spaces of healing.

That feels great.

Main art by Manzel Bowman, Logo by Alex BatchelorGREG: You're one of the show runners of The Black Comic Fest! Thank you for that! That has been one of my favorite events of the year. What was the initial thought process starting it and what has the journey been like? How has it grown? And where would you like to take it?

JOHN: The Black Comic Book Festival in Harlem is one of my proudest achievements. Deirdre Hollman, Jonathan Gayles, Jerry Craft and myself founded it and it was basically a meeting of the minds. We found that we all had common goals and decided to come together. It was kind of serendipity. The process was pretty rocky at first because you have two cultures coming together to figure out how to work together properly. Once we got past that we realized that we all wanted the same thing: for our people to celebrate their creativity and to fuel the imagination of our young ones. The first one brought in over 1300 people. The event has now more than doubled in size. So we want it to continue growing and inspiring. As of now it's part of a network of these events that hopefully can provide an alternative space for these creators to shine.

Last year I co-founded with Aaron Grizzell, Collete Rodgers-Grizzell, Ayize Jama Everett, David Walker, and Shawn Taylor the Black Comix Arts Festival in San Francisco. It was a big success as well and hopefully will grow like the Schomburg event. It takes place on MLK day, the same weekend as the NY event. So MLK Weekend is now a coast-to-coast celebration of black indie comics! It's wonderful.

tumblr nqpyjliPzH1rt0l0ho1 1280In October (1-4) I am co-launching with Dr. Frederick Aldama and Ricardo Padilla (founder of the Latino Comics Expo) a new event called SOL-CON: THE BROWN AND BLACK COMIX EXPO. It's a historic teaming of Latino and Black indie comics creators on the campus of The Ohio State University. It's going to be in tandem with a new comics festival there called CXC. It's going to be fabulous!!

GREG: What advice, tips, or warnings can you give creators, writers, and artists trying to get into comics?

JOHN: My advice is don't try to get into comics. Just make comics... and create honestly with your own voice. Time is short. Don't let anyone stop you from telling your stories. There's no reason to not make what you feel you need to make.

GREG: What else is currently on your platter?

JOHN: My platter? (Sigh)

I honestly can't list it all. I am co-curating a show right now called UNVEILING VISIONS: THE ALCHEMY OF THE BLACK IMAGINATION with Dr. Reynaldo Anderson. The show will be open to the public on the 25th of September and run through late December. My friend and collaborator Stacey Robinson is our Art Director on that event. So exciting! LOT of work, but so exciting!

My new book that I co-edited with Dr. Frances Gateward just dropped in summer. It's a collection of 15 essays by top scholars regarding the portrayal of black identity in comics it's called THE BLACKER THE INK.

You can find my own art book available as well: PITCH BLACK RAINBOW.

As I stated before I am working on Blue Hand Mojo, Kid Code (with Damian Duffy and Stacey Robinson of Black Kirby). But my two biggest projects are Octavia Butler's KINDRED the graphic novel adaptation with Damian Duffy and THE BLUESMAN with my friend Stuart Jaffe. Imagine the Ralph Macchio film CROSSROADS mixed with the TV show SUPERNATURAL with a touch of a samurai story.

tumblr nq9kj4dWAI1rt0l0ho1 500I am also working on a graphic novel with Nalo Hopkinson called NANCY JACK and a graphic novel with Ayize Jama Everett called BOX OF BONES along with a team of talented pencillers. It's like 'Afrocentric HELLRAISER'. Ten part story that takes place throughout the diaspora.

Oh! And I am co-editing APB: Artists Against Police Brutality with Bill Campbell and Jason Rodriguez for Rosarium Publishing.


I could go on but it would make me cry...

GREG: You did it to yourself. I told you, you're a mad man. Where can we find and stalk you?

JOHN: You can stalk me on twitter at:

Twitter: @JIJennings

Tumblr: http://jijennin70.tumblr.com/

GREG: John Jennings, ladies and gents!


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