Peace, America. So this was the week that I geeked ALL THE WAY OUT for #MeccaConWeekly lol. ANYone who knows me knows how much of a fan I am of all things JOHN I. JENNINGS. Jennings is an artist, educator, hip hop historian, comic historian, multiple convention organizer, art curator, proud newlywed, and all around BAD ASS. Even with that massive list, he is one of the most humble brothas you will ever come across. His energy is COMPLETELY balanced. Jennings has recently this past Martin Luther King weekend organized TWO black comic book conventions, and BOTH were a success. The convention in Harlem has had thousands since its first year! It was a huge honor that he agreed to let me interview him, and I am so grateful to share all of this known and UNknown information with all of you. Black Comics are ALL year when it comes to the people I network with, folks. This isn’t a 28/29 day kind of shindig. The people I network with, work with, share with: we do this ALL YEAR LONG, and have been for YEARS. No hidden marketing agendas, no trolling, no begging, we do this from the heart, and for our community. We simply support, promote, and buy, ALL YEAR LONG. It didn’t come to us overnight, we’ve BEEN doing this, because we LIVE this. We work VERY hard in this field to be taken seriously, not just in the mainstream, but especially within ourselves. Be it artists, writers, publishers, convention organizers, promoters, etc, we LIVE black indie.
…….. and John Jennings is the best example i could ever give you.
Associate Professor of Art and Visual Studies at The University at Buffalo/
State University of New York(SUNY) / Eye Trauma Studios / The Factotum Collective / J2D2 / Black Kirby / Black Comics Arts Festival
BOOKS/ SERIES you’ve created and/or worked on:
Kid Code: Channel Zero; Blue Hand Mojo: A Case of You.
How did you all come with the concept for your series, KID CODE?::
Well. I am a huge sci-fi geek and I absolutely love time travel stories. I am also a HUGE hip hop head. So, I was playing around with the concepts of a hip hop time travel story. Stacey (Robinson) and I had to speak at the Columbus College of Art on Black Kirby at a conference. We drove from Buffalo to Columbus. It’s about a six hour drive. On the way there and back, we pretty much created an entire world with characters and the like. We started working on the story and we found that a lot of the story’s mythology lived in our heads. LOL. Damian (Duffy) took what we had come up with and made it into this crazy, hip hop infused story. It’s still an incredibly dense tale but definitely a lot more accessible now. Damian is a great writer and letterer. I really couldn’t have asked for better creators to work with.
How did you and artist Stacey Robinson first start working together? How did you two come up with the title BLACK KIRBY, and what does it exactly represent?::
We have to thank Yumy Odom and Joseph Wheeler III respectively. As fate, and the seating chart , would have it we ended up sitting side by side at ECBACC at first and then at ONYXCON after that. We ended up having very protracted conversations around art, race, politics, hip hop etc. and discovered that we had a great deal in common regarding our experiences. Stacey decided to move to Buffalo and study with me at UB and is now getting ready to finish his Masters of Fine Art in Studio which is a terminal degree in art practice, the same degree I hold.
As for Black Kirby, we were inspired by the fact that, at the time, Jack Kirby‘s family was in some litigation with Disney/Marvel about Kirby’s extremely profitable creations at Marvel Studios. For those reading who don’t know, Kirby was co-creator of The X-Men, The Avengers, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and also a huge influence on an entire industry regarding his methods for storytelling and design. We did not think that it was just that his family would be denied remuneration for their father’s creation… YES IN SPITE of the fact that he was in a standard ” for hire” contract which was pretty standard at the time regarding client work.
We started thinking about the connections between the Jewish comics creators who pretty much invented the comics industry in America and the African American independent comics scene which came to prominence in the mid-90s, as well as how these two disenfranchised communities “spoke” to each other on some common levels and not so much in others. Black Kirby is a communal entity that Stacey and I share as an amalgam of these ideas. We basically took some of the very tentative and contentious ideas around some of the Lee/Kirby characters and made their articulation a decidedly Afrocentric or Afrofuturistic tone. So Black Kirby: In Search of The MotherBoxx Connection was born. This was a show that is made up of over 100 artifacts created by both of us acting in tandem as one fictitious comics creator. It was a way of both celebrating the work of Jack Kirby but also calling in to question various issues around cultural production, representation, and the political economies around the production or erasure of the black subject via the comics medium. Also, it was just fun to re-imagine and insert ourselves into this imagined history.
Your first book, OUT OF SEQUENCE, with Damian Duffy is basically a cult classic. It emphasized on many subjects that most were and sometimes still are afraid to cover, especially in the black art world. It highlighted artists who weren’t mainstream, and lesser known. Because you didn’t focus on MARVEL/DC/HOUND/etc, did you get any bad feedback from it or was it initially well received?::
Actually, the first book that Damian and I put together was OTHER HEROES. Which in some ways could be called BLACK COMIX 1.0. Both Other Heroes and Out of Sequence are exhibition catalogs for the first two major shows that Damian and I curated as J2D2; an interdisciplinary arts collaboration between the two of us that engages with issues around equity of representation, social justice, visual literacies, and pedagogy using the comics medium as a vehicle. Other Heroes was mounted at my alma mater Jackson State University and featured 148 pieces by 48 artists dealing with blackness and how it affects popular culture. In a sense, it was a practical exercise that taught us how to curate and developed our identities as curators of this culture. The show is now in the public archive of Jackson State.
Out of Sequence was an art exhibition that was put on at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2008 that featured a wide variety of artists and comics creators from EVERY possible mode of diversity. It was a response to the 2005 show The Masters of American Comics which actually only featured 15 comics artists from the history of the medium. The show only had one minority in it; George Herriman and NO WOMEN or anyone else that would be considered outside the heteronormative lens that, unfortunately, has driven the discourse around mainstream comics and also indie comics in America. So, this show was our attempt to show the true diversity of the medium itself but to also interrogate how the conversations were occurring around who does this work and how it’s made and disseminated. It’s one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done in my career.
As for how it was looked at by the mainstream. I’d say that they didn’t care about it and probably don’t know it even happened. I am just being honest about it. There’s a lot of investment in the superhero as a representative archetype of American comics there is also a very sort of white-hipster aesthetic to what is seen as the end-all-be-all to indie comics. I love a lot of mainstream comics and I love a lot of the inde comics out there as well. However, neither of these spaces seem totally welcoming of direct change. There are some pockets of resistance and change here and there and I totally applaud it… but, it’s taken a looonnnnng time to get to this point in comics history in our country where people are starting to have conversations about these underrepresented audiences in a really serious manner. I am very hopeful it will continue to change though.
As for the show itself, I would say that it was a huge success. On opening night, with two major competing events we still got over 700 people at the museum. I think it was a strong show for the Kranner Art Museum which is the main museum of UIUC. However, I often lament that if it were in any other larger metropolitan center and not in this landlocked college town that it would have been extremely popular. As it stands, only a lot of really dedicated comics scholars even know about it..even though at the time it was a very innovative show and had over 214 artifacts from the late 20s to mid 2000s…it is, as you said, a “cult” show that seriously took on these issues. I still haven’t seen anything like it. It took two and a half years of steady research and duration to do it and I don’t regret a single hour of it.
Let’s talk about one of my absolutely favorite Indie characters ever- THE HOLE. How did you and Duffy come up with this, and why did you choose to have the focus on racial politics in the African-American society? Was there a specific reason you all chose voodou as a main focus in THE HOLE? If yes, why?::
I will answer these together. So, a lot of people don’t realize this, but THE HOLE is a “race-bent” character. I created The Hole while teaching at UIUC and it was around the time when printing on demand publishing was just taking off. I wanted to experiment with this new technology and how it could change publishing. Also, I wasn’t as politically aware around the politics of representation and how deeply skewed it is around the inequities concerning racial images. So, I thought I would create a white character and attempt to distinguish myself by not being another black comics creator making the new black superman. I actually did have some sense of political inquiry around consumer culture and that has always been an underlying connotation of the character. However, my grasp of critical race theory at the time was anemic. In retrospect, I know that I can create a thousand black characters and we would still be underrepresented. I just wasn’t aware of the cultural landscape as much as I am now. However, I had thrown my hat into the ring on some level and it was the beginning of a new journey.
So, the black version of The Hole was highly inspired by the events around Hurricane Katrina. Damian and I sat, ANGERED and truly spiritually traumatized by the overtly horrific sights of black people being treated in these incredibly inhumane ways. We wanted to do something to speak to the way we were feeling. So, we decided to use The Hole as a vehicle to talk about the demonization and degradation of the black image and subsequently black people but also to interrogate late-capitalism and it’s many intricate systems that hold us all hostage on some level.
The reason we used Voudou as a the “magical” or “spiritual” aspect of the story was simple. A great of deal of the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina were devout Catholics and also devout worshipers of the religion Voudou. The Hole is a supernatural anti-hero in his modest origins but,the white version of the character was very much informed by Judeo-Christian belief structures and,therefore, suffered a great deal from the limitations of the polemics of “good” and “evil”. We found that by using Voudou, and inherently syncretic and flexible belief system, we could cover a lot more ground regarding the intersections round race, sex, gender, economics, justice and other constructs. It was a huge learning process for us and we managed to find a publisher, Doug Fogelson, who was just nuts as we are to publish the thing! Later, he ends up getting picked up by the University of Chicago as a distributor (the first graphic novel they’ve dealt with) and the rest is indie comics history. We are still shocked at the reception of the book and how it has been, and still, engages audiences around these topics. The book has been taught around the country in multiple college courses regarding race and representation in visual media.
Do you think that the show, AMERICAN HORROR STORY COVEN, covered voodou accurately or mocked it (if you actually watched it, lol)::
I personally have a huge affinity for horror. Blame my mother! lol. So, I am a fan and big critic of AHS. I am a binge watcher and so I will wait and let the seasons pile up and then watch the whole thing in two days. So, I was very excited about the show because I have been interested in what Stanford Carpenter and myself have termed “the Ethnogothic”. That is, looking at narratives around race and the black body via the lens of the Gothic movement and also how these stories around race and the body drive social discourse around the “grotesque” or “monstrous” black male. So, to make a long story short, I was excited by the beginning of the third season but very disappointed in it’s cliche and offensive conclusion on many levels. I was intrigued by the witch played by Precious star Gabourey Sidbe. She was basically an inversion of the myths around the “indestructible and insensate” black body but also had this amazing commentary about the connectedness of the black woman to American society. She was a walking Voodou doll that could affect you by hurting herself.
As for the portrayal of Papa Legba? I am a fan of Lance Reddick so I was very excited about his casting as the trickster god of the crossroads but, the writers went for a very lazy, contrived, and cliche’d depiction of this very important deity as “The Devil”. Basically, they were not ready to truly engage with the ambiguities of the religion of Voudou and simply fell back into these more Westernized constructions of “good” and “evil”.
Also… I love Stevie Nicks but that was lame. Sorry Stevie. LOL.
You are highly known for being heavy in the AFROFUTURISM world, be it your own work or covering someone else’s. I have been bashed for the fact that I’m known for not being a collector of anime, lol. How important do you think it is for our culture to raise up art traditions of our own?::
I actually have a problem with most mainstream anime. I love animation and I think that some of those stories are simply brilliant. However, I can’t help but cringe at the thought of an entire popular media form not truly representing the actual visage of their creators. I feel that it is VERY important for everyone to feel validated by the culture in which they participate. The design of hyper-Westernized features and rounded-eyes as Japanese really make it hard to watch.
I think that it is vital for black people to make, control, and disseminate their own images. The social narrative around how we are perceived in the popular media is still very toxic and sometimes fatal. Think of the reading of a black body as “thug” or “monster” and how it relates to these incidents around the country regarding the police and black men.
We need to embrace our own stories, make our own stories, and use them to re-calibrate how we are viewed and how we view ourselves.
What do YOU think is the difference between the terms AFROFUTURISM, BLACK SPECULATIVE FICTION, and STEAMPUNK. I have gotten in debates with people who seem to love to put these all in the same category. If he doesn’t wear a cape or have “super powers”, then people just throw AFROFUTURISM on it. If it’s set in the 40’s, they will throw STEAMPUNK on it, etc. It blows my mind.::
Black Speculative Fiction is an umbrella term that encompasses Afrofuturism and other speculative narrative practices. So, black subjectivity via fantasy, magical realism, horror involving the supernatural could all be under Black Speculative Fiction. I think that there are a host of other very valid descriptions of what these areas could be; AfroSurreal, EthnoSurreal, Folkloric Horror, etc. These are all terms that exist now and overlap in various ways. But, if I owned a bookstore and needed to simplify the genre I could see just having a section just called Black Speculative Fiction.
Steampunk is a genre of speculative fiction that is sort of offshoot of Cyberpunk. Basically, it’s historical fiction that takes place in the Victorian Age. It’s called Steampunk because the mode of technology that existed at the time would be driven by the burgeoning Industrial Revolution which was a steam run enterprise. I wouldn’t put it under Black Speculative Fiction per se. HOWEVER, Black Steampunk aka SteamFunk I definitely would.
Police brutality is something that is SEVERELY on the rise in America right now within the indigenous community as a whole. It’s blatant, it’s systemic, and it’s disgusting. Your collaborative upcoming project, APB: ARTISTS AGAINST POLICE BRUTALITY, is something I absolutely cannot wait to receive. Can you go into details about that please?::
I think that everyone around the country has been moved by the apparent upswing in police brutality cases across the country. We are at a point where the problem seems almost common place. I think that the problem has always been bad but the ability of us to record these incidents has increased and therefore the coverage of these incidents along with the advent of hand-held phones and people using the internet for various modes of protest. The trouble is, there are a great deal of great policemen and women who do a great job and do it with pride and sacrifice. However, the issues around systemic racism are also part of some of the constructions of some of these officer’s training and socialization regarding the need to police black bodies.
The APB project was created by my friend and publisher Bill Campbell, the owner of Rosarium Publishing; a new independent publisher that is dedicated to issues around telling everyone’s stories and attempting to level the playing field regarding what stories are out there.After Eric Garner event, Bill called me and Jason Rodriguez: a very talented and well-known comics writer and editor, about doing a collection of cartoons, short comics, essays and flash fiction that dealt with these issues around police brutality on various levels. The book is in production now and I believe should be out in fall from Rosarium Publishing.
Most people who know me know that I call you FALCON, lol. I deemed you to be because no one i know withOUT super powers can throw TWO huge comic cons on the SAME EXACT DAY, one being for an entire weekend, on two entirely different coasts. So yes… You MUST be Falcon. There is simply no other explanation for it. Please explain the differences between BLACK COMIC BOOK FESTIVAL and BLACK COMICS ARTS FESTIVAL in California. What can one gain from one that they can’t gain from the other?::
Actually, the festivals were two days apart but both on MLK weekend. Sorry to tarnish my “superheroics’. Honestly, there aren’t really sizable differences between the events outside of their physical locations. When we were doing planning on the BCAF we imagined these cons being not only in conversation with the BCBF Schomburg event, but also with the traditions around already established black cons like ECBACC, ONYXCON, Kids ComicCon, Black Age of Comics, Motor City Black Age, and yes… MECCAcon.
The idea is that we need an independent network, loosely connected or what have you, that can support the need for the production for these independent books. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge comics geek and I love a lot of mainstream comics. However, I feel these cons represent a direct counter-culture to some of these one-dimensional or off-kilter representations of black people in the mainstream. All of us conference organizers are setting up a safe space that can cultivate positive images and hopefully activate the imagination of our youth and shape the public discourse around the black image.
BLACK COMIX is a book my son PROUDLY owns. He treats it like an art bible. Many must buy ticket passes to even walk BY it, lol. That book is golden for ANYone who is into black indie comics. How did you decide to create that book, and what impact has it given to the black art community as a whole?::
Well. That’s awesome! I have heard many such stories about the book. It was an extreme honor to get it done and out there. So, bascially there was this pubisher; a wonderful publisher called Mark Batty Publisher. It was started by a very talented designer called Mark Batty and his wife. He worked in the design industry but had a huge love of independent publishing and visual culture. So, the books that MBP put out were very political and smart and dealt with these niche visual culture phenomena. They had a book on Mexican black letter and a book on African letterforms for instance. I started reaching out to their developmental editor and over a year sort of cemented a relationship with him. He basically asked for a pitch. So, we thought that a really well crafted book on the black indie comics scene would be great. They went for it! A year later, the book was out. It’s still a huge honor to have done it. We had created a rep of doing high-quality work as scholars and curators and we already had contacts of wonderful artists that we wanted to show.
It’s hard for me to gauge the impact, I have to say. However, people seem to love the book. It is a historical volume. Some have said that it, in some sense, unified a lot of us to the public. Despite the disagreements some of us have and also the myriad ways we make work, it did seem to give a visual reference for people to grasp. It also destabilizes the notion of a unified “look” or “style”. How do black comix look? They look like a lot of things just like the people who create them and that’s what the underlying idea was. Blackness has many faces and lived experiences. It’s not fixed. It moves and has stories to tell. 🙂
What was your favorite comic book series as a child, and did it influence your art into adulthood?::
My favorite comic series was Frank Miller’s run on Marvel’s Daredevil. I think that some of the themes that he explored in the character really resonated wtih me on a visceral level. Miller’s art had a stylistic influence on me for sure but, he’s not one of my main influences. However, the emotional content spoke to me as an 11 and 12-year-old boy who was experiencing growing up smart, talented, black and extremely poor in rural Mississippi. Hell’s Kitchen and the Deep South have a lot of overlap. More than you think. So, I totally related to this poor little Irish kid who was smart, bullied, angry, creative and sometimes felt utterly alone. My favorite issue of that series was number 163. It was the issue where Daredevil TRIES to stop the Hulk from destroying New York. The cover shows Daredevil battered and bloody in an alley with the Hulk about drop what looks to be a large section of a brownstone on his head. Daredevil’s nickname is “the man without fear”. In this book, he is almost KILLED by the Hulk. By comics standards it was a pathetic attempt. He ends up in the hospital but, he manages to reach the man inside the monster and the Hulk stops. That’s Daredevil’s true power, It’s not his physical fighting style, it’s not his super-senses, it’s not his billy club, it’s note even his intellect. It’s the simple fact that he would rather DIE than stop. THAT lesson has stuck with me from that age until now. If you have to go out… then do not go out gently. One of my favorite quotes that I quote often is from the remarkable scholar Zora Neale Huston “Do not be silent about your pain, they will KILL YOU and say that you enjoyed it.”
We make this work not just for entertainment. I believe we make this work to fight for the very minds of our youth. It’s that simple.
So, my fight is one of the visual and the energy to keep going is inspired by my two superheroes…my grandfather Albert; an illiterate poor, little black man who gave me everything and Matt Murdock; a blind, poor, kid who is stupid enough to think that he can make a difference.
You are a very known professor at multiple universities and facilities. Please list them and explain what you do specifically at each one.::
I have been teaching for 17 years in higher ed. My training is specifically around the teaching of Graphic Design history, methods, and theory. Currently, I am an Associate Professor at the University at Buffalo-State University of New York (SUNY) in the Department of Art. I teach a lecture course on the history graphic design, applied semiotics (the study of images), design and entrepreneurship, and special topics courses on hip hop and visual culture and yes..comics! I also have been a visiting scholar in residence at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco where I taught a summer grad seminar in their MFA program on comics. The topic was Diversity and Representation in Comics. That program is one of the spaces where they are VERY serious about race, gender, class and other aspects of identity and how comics are affected by these aspects. The program, spearheaded by Matt Silady, has only been around for a couple of years and has already shown that it’s dedicated to changing the public discourse around the medium. They want to make comics for EVERYONE!
What was your favorite cover art/project that you created for a different artist?::
I think my favorite cover to date would have to be the cover for MOTHERSHIP. that was a labor of love and everything clicked for that project. I do a lot of covers but, that felt just right and came so easily. That’s when you know it’s right.
Do you think that sexism exists in comic book industry? (I will ask this every week, America, so deal with it, lol)::
Yes. Sexism is still huge problem not only in the comic book industry but in society in general. America reeks of it as does the stunted performance of what passes for masculinity.
We have come a long way on these but I, dare say, that you and I probably won’t see it’s resolution in our lifetime. This goes for every aspect of identity related injustice that actually is also a part of sexism. It’s not just about being a woman. It’s also about the intersection identity politics of race, class etc. that make these problems seem so complex. The main issue is that these boxes around gender roles are extremely well designed and marketed as are the portrayals of authentic performance of what “real man” is.
What do you feel needs to be changed in order for the advancement of women in your industry?::
I think that men need to really do some soul-searching about their internal issues around how they have been socialized regarding women and I also think that we need to..as men..use our access to the patriarchal infrastructure to not ONLY be allies of women who have the audacity to have a voice and make comics..but, also to fight alongside them and be soldiers for TOTAL equality for all people.
That’s what our country SAYS that it stands for. I am tired of the hypocrisy. We need to really change this or we will continue to create men who have been socialized to fear and hate the opposite sex. We need to see women as people..like really see them or we are in a LOT of trouble.
Ok, less serious stuff- if you could have ANNNNY two characters be your homies in REAL time, who would they be and WHY?::
Oh. Wow. So, i think that I’d love to hang out with Doctor Who and James Robinson’s STARMAN. It’d be great to get whisked away in the TARDIS and then I’d laugh as Jack Knight would try to steal antiquities for his store. I think Jack would make a great drinking buddy and the Doctor would be the ultimate tour guide of every aspect of knowledge you could imagine. See? Told you I was a massive geek. 🙂
Are there any new or upcoming projects/events you’re brainstorming?:: (OMG, folks, when does John BREATHE? lol)
Oh jeez. Well, I am working on a project with Stacey Robinson and Damian Duffy called NIGHT BOY. The first issue should drop in May… hopefully? Also, Damian and myself are working on a project called JENNI DETH with the amazing David Brame. ALSO, I am working with a handful of different pencilers on BOX OF BONES that is a ten part maxi-series created by the super talented Ayize Jama Everett and myself. As for events, there’s some new stuff in the works that I really can’t divulge because they are still cooking. BUT, I am co-curating an upcoming art show at the historic Schomburg Center in Harlem with my colleague and friend Dr. Reynaldo Anderson. The theme will be on, of course, black speculative culture and the materials surrounding it in public popular spaces. So I guess add the book SANTO to my upcoming projects? It’s a new comic from Rosarium Publishing. It’s by Daniel Jose’ Older. Pencils by Tommy Nguyen. Inks by Stacey Robinson, with colors by yours truly.
Also, I can’t believe i forgot the most important project! I am working on the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s KINDRED with Damian Duffy for ABRAMS ComicArts. We unfortunately are behind because we had to get a new editor.
Where can we find you online? Links, Handles, Hashtags, Bribes::