John Jennings on Graphic Arts and Afrocentricism

img_9574John Jennings has quite the impressive resume. He is a studied scholar and professor that has taught on several panels for black perspectives in media and Afrocentricism. In fact, that was how we met…at a Comic Con convention in Chicago in 2016! This year he won a prestigious Eisner Award for Comics and is currently working on the (Harvard University) Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellowship for Spring of 2017. Check out his what he discusses about his experience in the arts, pop culture, and the world of black perspective voices.

1. Tell us about when you first started illustrating and becoming involved with graphic novels.

JJ:Well, I have been drawing for as long as I can remember. I majored in Commercial Art at Jackson State University in Mississippi and then ended up getting a Masters of Arts in Art Education and an MFA in Design from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I have always incorporated illustration or hand done images into my design work and logo design. However, it wasn’t until I was teaching at UIUC in Graphic Design that I became very interested in representation in the comics medium that really pursued doing a lot more illustration and storytelling. When I met my long-time collaborator Damian Duffy we ended up putting out our first graphic novel The Hole: Consumer Culture Vol. 1 through a small Chicago press called Front 40 Press. The book, a horror-sci-fi satire of how race is sold in America, was the first graphic novel distributed by University of Chicago Press. After that book, we ended up doing smaller projects and eventually ended up landing the Kindred graphic novel (based on the novel by Octavia Butler).

black-twitter2. Explain your experience about “Black Twitter” being in the NMAAHC and the Eisner Award for Comics at Comic Con.
JJ: I created the Black Twitter image as a response to the Emmanuel 9 shooting that white terrorist Dylan Roof perpetrated in South Carolina. I am not an avid poster on Twitter. I mostly post images and use it for promotional messages regarding events I am involved with. However, I know that “Black Twitter” uses that space to deal with issues around race, politics, and popular culture. So, I created the image as an open source icon that could be used as a symbol of solidarity. I was totally shocked to be contacted by the installation crew of the NMAAHC. Ironically, they reached out the same day that I turned in the final pages of the Kindred graphic novel. I am pretty overwhelmed by the notion of something that I created in that historic space. I plan to visit the museum in the new year.


the-blacker-the-inkThe book that Frances Gateward and I received the Eisner Award for is entitled THE BLACKER THE INK: CONSTRUCTIONS OF BLACK IDENTITY IN COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART. It was five years in the making and is a collection of essays by some of the most brilliant media, literature, and history scholars in the country. The book was published by Rutgers University Press. Frances, her family, and myself attended the Eisner Awards ceremony and were in the middle of our dinner when they called our names. Frances and I stared at each other in disbelief. We were totally surprised by the announcement and were so stunned that the presenters (Jason Latour and Ron Wimberly) made fun of our slow ascension to the stage. The award was for Best Academic or Scholarly Work in Comics and is given out yearly to the best work in the academy on the medium of comics. Our contributors worked very hard on their essays. I think that most people don’t realize how difficult it is to edit something of this scope so, it was a wonderful feeling to put five years into a project and then win the highest award in the land. The Eisners are on par for comics with winning an Oscar in the field of comics.

3. Explain Afro-futurism in your own words.
A. How will these elections (2016) effect black art and entertainment?
JJ: Afrofuturism, in my opinion, is the creation of speculative fiction, particularly (thought not exclusive to) science fiction, that privileges the black subject and its narrative in the future. This narrative usually deals with Afrocentric techno-cultures and Afrocentric ideologies which drive the story, image, music etc. It is a mode of cultural production that re-appropriates the genre of speculative fiction for the enlightenment of people of color.
I do feel that there are nuances of this production. For instance, I think that genre tropes connected to other speculative areas such as Fantasy, Horror, and Magical Realism deserve subcategories.
I think that Afrofuturism is a great space to start with.

I think that the new President elect will spark a Renaissance of wonderful, power, imaginative, speculative art, music, and visual communication to fight oppression. It will push, what some of
us call, the Black Speculative Arts Movement even further. Our art has always been a weapon against oppression. That tradition won’t change anytime soon. It’s in our spiritual and creative DNA.

4. Talk about your transition from New York to California.
JJ: Well. I have been an Associate Professor of Art and Visual Studies at the University at Buffalo SUNY for about six years. I really enjoyed my time in upstate New York. The students were wonderful and I truly will miss the faculty and staff of University of Buffalo’s Art Department. It’s a really great space to work within. However, my wife, Tawana wasn’t very happy in the city of Buffalo. Like most native Chicagoans; it’s truly hard to beat the City of Wind.

So, I went on the market and found, to my surprise, that there were universities across the country that wanted to make room for me.
The University of California at Riverside has a relatively new program called Media and Cultural Studies that is dedicated to the interdisciplinary study of how media affects society. I went out for an interview and it seemed like a natural fit. So, I begin teaching in their department next Fall. In the interim, I will be at Harvard University as a Nasir Jones Hip Hop Studies Fellow. My project is centered around a narrative space that I call “The CyberTrap”. It’s a remix and fusion of classic trap music/culture with the sub genre of cyberpunk. We will be there for a semester and then make the final move to Riverside, CA in May.

5. Who is your audience, the fans and why is there a “resurgence” of interest in Black Comics? Marvel/D.C Comics vs. the Independent man?
JJ: My audience is any one who wants to see a speculative or fantasy world that truly reflects the diversity of America. An all white fantasy space is just that..a fantasy. America has always been a melting pot but, black people have traditionally been either excluded from being the protagonists of stories dealing with the speculative or have been relegated to playing highly stereotypical character sets.

This “resurgence”, I think, is attributed to the rise of the sheer number of people color in the country. By the year 2043, white people will be outnumbered by people of color in our country. The push back by the Alt-Right , this horrible election, and other white nationalist groups are very afraid of what that means.
However, America is a capitalist country FIRST. It always has been. Money is the religion that turns the wheels. So, if there’s a larger demand for content featuring characters of color..then guess what? That need will be fed.

It’s no surprise that the Luke Cage NETFLIX series is the most successful Marvel series to date. I predict that this Black Panther film will be on par with Marvel’s highest grossing films or surpass them. We want to see ourselves reflected in this society that we have helped build.

6. Tell us about your adaptation of Octavia Butler’s novel “Kindred” as a graphic novel.
JJ: I am still in shock about this too. The Kindred graphic novel adapted by Damian Duffy and myself will be the first graphic adaptation of the work by the legendary Octavia Butler. The story, which is set in 1976, features a young black woman named Dana Franklin. Her husband, a white man named Kevin, watches as his wife is magically transported in front of him from their new house in Southern California to pre-Civil War Maryland slave plantation. The book is a classic in the speculative genre. It actively deals with American History, Women and Gender studies, and the political economies of sex, gender, race, and identity. It was truly an honor to work on it and I truly hope that people appreciate the care and love we put into the book. The graphic novel comes out January 10th from ABRAMS ComicArts and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

7. What would you like to tell future illustrators and graphic novelists?

JJ: Be critical of your work. Understand your place in the world. Study everything.Practice constantly. Get a job to support yourself while you ply your trade because it’s hard. Publish your own work and learn the craft. Be fair to people, even when it seems they aren’t to you. Make alliances and collaborate when it feels right. We all need allies. Learn about the the industry. Get a thick skin and learn how to take criticism. Read other things besides comics. Draw from life and draw things you hate drawing. Take breaks and love yourself. Call your Mom. Sleep. Stretch. Remember that failure is part of the process. Make something that you want to read. Make something that you think is necessary. Make something that feels your souls and not for profit. Make something you want to leave behind. Make something, because life is too short and nothing is promised.

Mr. Jennings…. Finish this sentence…in your own words. (in bold print)
8. Afrofuturism is vital.
Artistry makes me complete.
Tomorrow (future) the world will…be one of conflict but
I think to it’s service and not its detriment. I think that we will prevail.

check him out on twitter
Go to Amazon to order “Kindred” the graphic novel. It comes out on Jan 10th!

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