• Color in Comics: Interview with Comic Book Creator John Jennings


    John Jennings is the coauthor and illustrator of the new book Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art and Culture.

    YLW: How did you become interested in comics?

    JJ: My mom introduced them to me. She’s a former English literature major. I actually started reading Norse and Greek mythology first. One day she brought home a Thor comic and from then on I wanted to read more. Then I segued into Spider-Man, Hulk, Marvel Comics. I wanted to read anything – Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost. There was something about the images that attracted me.

    YLW: When did you start drawing?

    JJ: I started drawing or trying to draw stuff at four or five. I’ve been drawing since I was really young. At ten or 11, I was trying to make comic books.

    YLW: Where did you grow up?

    JJ: I grew up in Flora, MS. It’s 15 min north of Jackson, a small farming community. We grew soy beans and cotton out there.

    YLW: How did growing up in the rural South contribute to your approach to comics?

    JJ: It made me practice a lot more. We didn’t have access to much. We didn’t have cable. I used my imagination more. I was so segregated from people. I lived way out in the country. It was so far the school bus wouldn’t come out there. My grandmother had to take me to the bus.

    YLW: Growing up, did you realize how few black images existed in comics?

    JJ: When I first started drawing comics, it didn’t faze me that there weren’t a lot of black comics. There were only a few: Luke Cage, Black Panther. I really liked those images, but it didn’t occur to me that there weren’t a lot of images until much later. As a professor, I studied media and images. There are so many negative images. Kids have to see themselves as creators of cultural capital, and create with meaning.

    YLW: Why do feel that the lack of images of color in comics didn’t have the same impact on you as it did for others?

    JJ: That’s an interesting question. I think as a kid you’re kind of oblivious to stuff until you have to deal with it. You stumble across problems and you solve them as you get to them. I didn’t think about it until college or grad school. People become aware of things at different times. If my mom had taken time to explain it to me, maybe I would have thought about it more . The guy who created Brotherman [Dawud Anyabwile] ,his father told him that there weren’t a lot of images and he rebelled and didn’t want to read comics anymore. People deal with information when they get to it.

    YLW: Why did you create Black Comix?

    JJ: It stems from some of the research that me and Damian (Damian Duffy, co author) have been doing for the last five years on independent black comics. We wanted to look at these types of books done by African American creators and the diversity of things that were offered. Also, if you’re not white and you’re in this country you’re starving for images of yourself. So with this book, kids get to see people who look like them who are creating this work. We also wanted to look at the culture.

    YLW: What culture? Comic culture? African American culture?

    JJ: The Black Age of Comics. It’s a movement that’s been going on since the late 90s. I don’t know if you collect comics, but there are various “ages” just like in art. Comics have a golden age, for example. However, Turtel Onli who teaches at Kenwood Academy said, ‘well what about our age?’. So there’s a Black Age of Comics Convention at Kenwood Academy in Chicago. The next one is in October. There’s the East Coast Black Age of Comics in Philidelphia. There’s the Motor City version. There’s the Onyx Comics which I just came from in Atlanta. There’s this subculture that supports the work.

    YLW: How have people responded to Black Comix?

    JJ: So far pretty favorably. We were interviewed by GQ magazine. The library scene has been picking it up.

    YLW: What are some of the indie classics?

    JJ: Brotherman. In fact it’s ready to launch a graphic novel based on it. It was done in the 90s. Totally self produced. Tribe by Larry Stroman [and Todd Johnson], it was an alternative English comic. Tribe is the best selling black book of all time. We have some previously unpublished pages of Tribe in our book.

    YLW: What are some of the new comic creators to look out for?

    JJ: Millenium Wars by Ashley Woods, she’s out of Chicago. She released her first trade paperback and she produced it. Trimekka Studios out of North Carolina is another. They are a group who work on comics. They did Abraham: The Young Lion, Blackbird, Deadly Artisans. I think they’re about to do a crime comic, too. Jaycen Wise created by Richard Tyler. Wise is a cool character. He’s immortal and has lived for thousands of years so he can be in any kind of adventure. They’ve done him in Ancient Rome. I think they’re doing a western. There are a lot of ideas out there that I think people would be excited about if they knew about them.

    YLW: Do you see any similarities in theme or illustration style in black comics?

    JJ: One thing we see is that black kids, like most kids are influenced by manga from Japan but they also like to infuse it with graffiti and hip hop. There’s Shana Mills. Her work looks like graffiti meets Japanese manga. I also see these afrocentric vibes where people use the comics as a political standpoint. Instead of basing characters after these Greco Roman images, they pull from other non western imagery. For example, Jiba Molei Anderson has these characters called the Horsemen, but he uses the Orishas as the mythology to fuel the narrative. He lives in Chicago, too.

    You can see an aesthetic, however as far as story arcs, they are as varied as we are. You’ll have stuff in there that’s funny, political satire, fantasy. You have fantasy that doesn’t represent blackness. Like Millenium Wars, you probably wouldn’t know that a black woman created the work. Whereas with Brotherman, it’s a political satire. It just depends on what the intention of the artist is. You can’t pin it down. But there are so many modes of what blackness can be. I showed this book to my director and he said, ‘wow, they’re so varied’. But they would be. It’s a Post Black kind of thing. What is a post black comic book? Whatever it is you need it to be.

    YLW: What do you hope people will take away from Black Comix?

    JJ: As a comic creator, I want people to know that you can do anything with comics. American comics are dominated by superheroes in the mainstream. But in the independent, they can tell any story they want. People get comics mixed up. They think it’s a genre, but it’s a medium. I also want people to know they can create a comic whenever they want to. It’s possible for people to do that. I want people to leave with inspiration and empowerment. Especially younger people who feel, ‘gee, I didn’t know I could do this’.

    For more information go to http://www.blackcomixbook.com/

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  • >Jennings "Not a Lame Male Pig" (We know that already)

    > In a recap with hip hop professor John Jennings, he shared that Peggy Mcintosh was a pioneer in the study of “whiteness.” “You have to add her to the list of scholars,” he said referring to the list of professors currently studying the subject.

    Mcintosh is a feminist and anti-racist activist. She’s also director of the S.E.E.D project, on Inclusive Curriculum. Her work “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondence through Work in Women’s Studies” was pivotal in framing the discussion on privilege.

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  • >Post Black as Post Modern – A Talk with Graphic Novelist/Prof. John Jennings.


    “People are bombarded with so many images, we really need a way to teach people how to process this information,” said John Jennings,. professor of art and design at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana. Jennings coauthored the graphic novel The Hole Consumer Culture: Vol. 1 (Front 40 Press/University of Chicago) with Damian Duffy and Black Comics: African American Independent Comic Art and Culture (Mark Batty Publishers). He also contributed some really cool artwork to Post Black. I visited John’s Hip Hop design class recently because they’re using my book Beats Rhymes and Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip Hop as a text. When a teacher kicks of a class with a Tribe Called Quest song, you know you’re in the place to be.

    YLW: When you think about Post Black what is the first thing that comes to mind?

    JJ: I think of Post Modernism. The Post Industrial age. Modernism, was about being in the present. Being able to measure the things that you’re seeing with your own eyes, with your senses. Man is the measure of all things.

    Post Modernism brings in the question of which man, what if it’s a woman? It brings in all these other perspectives. I think Post Black includes this measure of self reflectiveness. Blackness is not something we created. It’s something we were given. Now it’s post slavery, post reconstruction, post civil rights and we’re looking at how we fit into the larger context of things.

    YLW: Is “blackness” something that can be defined?

    JJ: Black Americans are really diverse. I think that because blackness has always been put in a box, we tend to think we know what it is. Because we’ve been stereotyped so much, we feel that blackness is something that’s stagnant or solid, but it’s constantly morphing.

    YLW: How has the concept of blackness changed in the past decade?

    The idea of blackness has shifted a lot because the world is a lot more connected and there are a lot more affluent black people. This generation of black people is looking at blackness in a different way. Or maybe we’re not. But I think because we’re so connected now the perspectives vary.

    YLW: Can you think of a Post Black moment?

    JJ: That’s a hard question. The obvious one would be Obama being president. He’s like the ultimate black man now. He’s always the black president first, though. That’s the curse of being other in a society where you’re opposite of the norm. I’m looking through the lens I’m being judged by. Can you think of one?

    YLW: I had a conversation with a group about black identity and out of six of us, only two were black. Each person had these really intriguing perspective that didn’t differ much from if it had been a group of African Americans. But it dawned on me that what we call black identity with respect to image has as much to do with others and their perceptions and identity as it does with our own.

    JJ: Maybe we can’t see it because we’re in it. It’s really hard to see the forest through the trees. It’s like people who created hip hop. They didn’t know they were creating this global phenomenon. The fact that we’re questioning what blackness is is a Post Black moment. It’s a meta-moment.

    YLW: What’s a “meta-moment?”

    JJ: A moment about a moment. Meta pictures are pictures that make fun of pictures. It goes black to this self reflectiveness, because we were given this identity. If you think about it, blackness is Post Modern, because it forces you to be viewed and to be conscious of being viewed. W.E.B Dubois was writing about that in the 30s. Forever blackness was the opposite of whiteness, but now we can redefine what that is because we don’t live in that age anymore.

    YLW: Tell me about your comic book work.

    JJ: My work is about disruption of stereotypes, looking at things we’ve always experienced as black people, making fun of them, inverting them, and using that to deconstruct stereotype whenever I can because stereotypes aren’t meant to change. The root word for stereotype is stereos which is Greek but it means hardened, not changed. But because stereotypes are proliferated so much, you have to keep fighting them because they keep popping up.

    YLW: Is hip hop “Post Black?”

    JJ: The nature of subcultures is that they get sampled and remixed by corporations. With hip hop being a culture you can’t put it in a box. Being black you can’t put it in a box. Hip hop is was created by black and brown people but that doesn’t mean those are the only people who can express it and be a part of the culture.

    YLW: Are you saying that being black can be commodified in the way that hip hop has?

    JJ: Definitely. We were commodities. We didn’t exist as people in America legally until after the Emancipation Proclamation. Being black is a construct. We didn’t make it up. We’re stuck with the framework of blackness in being the opposite of whiteness. That’s why its good to have these conversations, because its about what does being black mean to us. It’s so easy to commodify our culture, because everything about us was commodified anyway. We were property at one point. We were given this framework and we really don’t know anything else. It gets comfortable, because then you don’t have to think of who you are as a person.

    YLW: But you do see being black as a political identity?

    JJ: I say black than African American. African American is my type of blackness. But when I say I’m black, it’s political identity. I can say I’m African American, but my political stance is a black stance so to speak.

    YLW: Is there a black aesthetic in the way that there’s a hip hop aesthetic?

    JJ: You get people creating culture out of thin air. You’re forced to be creative. Maybe that’s the black aesthetic. We spend a lot of time on race, but we should spend more time on class as well. If you’ve always had, you’re less apt to have to be creative.

    America needs to sit on a couch and talk it out. This is a strange country we live in. My blackness would get called up a lot growing up in Mississippi, being a light skin kid. I was everything but black, white, Mexican, Indian. The scrapes I would get into. My authenticity was always called into question.

    YLW: Why was your authenticity called into question?

    JJ: Because black is about visuality. Because race is about the visual. Because we’re black, it’s like we’re supposed to be the exact opposite of white, which is totally crazy, but that’s how we’re forced to look at ourselves. When you see someone similar to that, you automatically assume other. On the other hand, I’ve had white students at U of I ask me what ethnicity I was. When I told them I was black I could tell they were thinking about it, trying to figure out what that meant.
    Inherently people know that what you look like isn’t who you are. But because of this society, that’s how we judge ourselves by. Then we develop these belief systems based on how people say we look.
    I commend you for trying to attack something so complex. Anything dealing with black people in America isn’t easy. Everyone tries to forget how we got here, who we are. Maybe your next book should be post whiteness.

    YLW: I’ve read that people are studying “whiteness” now.

    JJ: There are people out there who are studying whiteness. David Roediger, Tim Wise, Robert Jenson study it. They have some interesting work. If you look at that, you’ll see some of our problems, too.

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