Smash Pages Q&A: John Jennings

The writer, artist and professor discusses his role as director of Megascope, the new publishing imprint at Abrams Books dedicated to publishing comics by and about people of color.

It’s hard to sum up John Jennings’ career. He’s a writer and artist who’s made comics like Blue Hand Mojo and collaborated on books like the recent graphic novel adaptations of Kindred and Parable of the Sower. He’s a fine artist and part of the art collective known as Black Kirby. He’s a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside. He’s co-editor of The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Blackness in Comics and Sequential Art, curated exhibitions across the country, and co-founded the Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, and SOL-CON. Jennings also edits the back matter of the Eisner Award-winning comic series Bitter Root.

As if straddling academia and public scholarship, fine arts and comics making wasn’t enough, Jennings is also the director of Megascope. The new publishing imprint at Abrams Books launched this year with After the Rain, an adaptation of a short story by the great Nnedi Okorafor from Jennings and David Brame.

We spoke recently about his work, the imprint and what it means. He also dropped some news and announced another Megascope title in our conversation, an adaptation of Charles Johnson’s National Book Award-winning novel The Middle Passage.

So how did you end up making After The Rain?

The original short story is called On the Road, and I was a fan before it was published in the collection Kabu Kabu. I’ve been friends with Nnedi for 12-13 years or so, and I’m a big horror fan. She used to be a big horror fan. After having a kid she shied away from horror, so this is the only horror story she’s ever written.

There’s a lot of unsettling aspects to it. I was just attracted to the story. A lot of times horror gives us a metaphorical allegorical sensibility that’s a very smart way to deal with social ills without ever directly talking about them. I’ve wanted to do this for like eight years. She told me that I could do an adaptation so I actually have pages I did before, different takes where I tried to figure out how I was going to present the story.

What happened was I got really busy. Damian Duffy and I did the Kindred graphic novel and the Parable books. I was curating a show in New York. I got married and I ended up moving across the country. A lot happened. I really wanted to do the book so I reached out to my friend David whose work I adore. We’ve collaborated on a few art pieces and he said that if I did the colors, he would do the pencils and inks. So I dictated some of the sketches. I had broken it down to a 100-page story. We talked about the approach and put together 20 pages for a pitch and shopped it around. Then the Megascope opportunity presented itself and I thought it would be a great intro.

It’s about the diaspora. A lot of times we talk about Afrofuturism we ignore the fact that the black experience is a global experience. Nnedi calls her work Africanjujuism by the way. Juju is the West African term for folk magic, because it’s dealing with the supernatural, the spirit world intersecting with our world. Nnedi doesn’t consider her work “Afrofuturist” she calls it “Africanfuturist” or “Africanjujuist” because she is writing about the fault lines between her experience in our country and the continent. She’s always fighting that battle so that the continent is centered and not a Western mentality. We called it After the Rain was because she wanted to differentiate it from the Jack Kerouac novel.

It is a slightly different story for her, and horror, as you said, has a lot of metaphor. As a visual storyteller, it offers a lot of possibilities.

It really spoke to me visually. One of the challenges was that she writes about this smell of death and life simultaneously that was permeating. I loved the challenge of how do you illustrate a smell? I came up with this idea of a death flower where it’s a flower but has a deaths head, a skull, in the middle of it. You train the audience so that the first time they see that she’s holding her nose, so when the audience sees that, they know the smell is there. That’s one of my favorite things. Creating your own visual language around what she’s describing.

One of the hallmarks of your work is that you collaborate a lot. What is it about collaboration that’s so important to you?

For me the most important thing about these projects is the story. Comics lend themselves very well to collaborate. Of course you have auteurs who make their own work. I’ve done that and I want to do more of that, but I feel like many hands make light work. I love sharing ideas. If you can step out of the way and let people do what they’re amazing at, you can make some really compelling stories. I’m more concerned about that than “look at what I’ve made.” The team made this book.

After The Rain is an example of that because it’s an adaptation and had a lot of editorial hands on it. Damian Duffy did the letters. The team of flatters I used have worked on pretty much every other project I’ve worked on. It’s always been a group effort to me. Also, I have a lot of ideas that I can’t readily get out by myself and so there’s got to be a way to put out more compelling stories and collaboration is just one of the ways you can do that. And I really enjoy it. I love collaborating and sharing ideas and seeing what happens when like minded people put out something together. 

You clearly love it, and seeing what you do with Damian or Stacey Robinson or others, you love finding new ideas and approaches.

They’re my friends. Also maybe its because I come out of the academy, I’m really into mentoring people. I work with a lot of younger artists and try to build more of a communal art space and work together to move forward. I teach from this Afro-futurist standpoint so what does that mean in the arts? What does that mean when trying to create positive narratives around people of color? That’s where Megascope comes in as well. What’s the spectrum of experiences can we get out in the comics medium?

You have that academic background, but you also come from a fine arts background. And you tend to approach things from multiple angles and perspectives

I would agree with that. 

I think that influences so much of what you do. I mean, in the fine arts there is an auteurist lone genius narrative that gets promoted, and in your own work and in your scholarship, you push against that.

That’s true, and thank you for saying that. I came up in a traditional “publish or perish” model when it comes to the academy. So much is put on what have you published, what have you done, what have you made? How have you made your institution famous? It’s just a lot of pressure. I just think it’s refreshing to share ideas. The academy is a wonderful place to germinate and train, but the siloing of information through departments and schools of thought goes against how people are supposed to learn.

A lot of my career has been about breaking down barriers and trying to see what we have in common, not only as a people, but as a practice. Comics are a really immediate beautiful perfect art form to me. A really well-designed way to tell a story. And if you know what you’re doing, you can move people. You can move the needle, so to speak. I really like organizing things and presenting them to the public. Here’s a collection of ideas, what do you think? I like that archivist notion. There’s a very archival nature to comics editing. My friend talks about the fact that making comics is basically all editorial. When you’re making a comic book you flesh it out, ink it, color it, and every pass is an editing pass in one way or another until it becomes the communal story that everyone has their hands on. I like that idea.

Comics are one of the few art forms where that’s the norm and not exception.

That’s true. A lot of that is because of necessity. But if you take that weird corporate structure, that industrial Fordist notion of you do this, you do this, you do this, it does train people to think in a particular way. You have to work past deadlines and conventions. I like the way this practice came out what was designed to be this disposable medium. It’s so much more than that. It’s like the redheaded stepchild of art or the underdog of media in our country.

Curatorial work is a good segue into talking about Megascope. You’ve talked about how this came about, but was this something you’d been wanting to build for a while and had idea in the back of your mind about what and how it would work?

I guess to a certain degree. I’ve always been an advocate for building community. I love comics. You know this. I really love the form. I have my heroes like Will Eisner and Ted McKeever and Colleen Doran and the list goes on and on.

I’m also an African American artist with a particular experience coming up black and poor in Mississippi, so I want to see equity in all spaces in American life. I just felt like anybody can make a comic. You don’t have to have a bunch of money to make a comic. All you need is a piece of paper, a pencil and an idea. You can make a comic, take it to your copy shop, and you’re a publisher. I love that feeling of access. I think it’s subversive in that way. You don’t have to have a bunch of money, you have to practice and become a better storyteller.

I feel like there’s always been a death of representation of folk of color in that space. Or there are people who are African American or people of color and they’re toiling away because you don’t know who they are. Because capitalism hides process you don’t know who is behind the scenes, but for a long time, you just wouldn’t see people who looked like me making comics. In Black Comix and Black Comix Returns, Damian and I set out to change that and create a canon, or at least a starting point. My hand in creating ethnocentric conventions like the Schomburg event and SOL-CON is to then once we have a community, they need to have a place where people can congregate.

Megascope was a natural next step. To collaborate with Abrams who are very forward thinking about what they wanted to put out into the world. It just worked out. But as you’re saying, there was an underlying need to do it and I wasn’t cognizant of it until the opportunity presented itself. 

And someone was going to do it, then why not you?

[laughs] The thing is, somebody has to. I just felt like my particular experiences and skillset made me a good choice to do it. Because I truly want to make comics for everyone. 

You have a great lineup of creators and books including Ho Che Anderson, Shawn Martinbrough and Ayize Jama-Everett. As you have been planning and working with people, is there a model for what you want to do or how you’re thinking about Megascope?

A lot of the ethos behind what I thought Megascope should be is based off of this device, which is an artifact created by W.E.B. DuBois and first of all the way that we discovered that this science fiction story was found in his papers waiting for us. I had become really obsessed with the idea of diagetic prototypes, artifacts in stories that have a particular allegorical meaning. Megascope was the framing mechanism for this story, which incidentally is a critique of the US steel industry as a fantasy allegory. I liked the story, but I was obsessed with the framing mechanism. This device that could see through time and space into different realities. What a great way to look at storytelling. And the device shifts depending on who’s looking through it, so it’s about agency and perspective. If I was a curator and had a megascope, what kinds of stories would I see? 

I started thinking about doing a story about The Count of Monte Cristo, which is one of my favorite novels, but also reclaiming that Dumas was of Haitian descent, a man of color, and the Count was inspired by his father. Taking the heart of the story and setting it four hundred years after the polar ice caps melt. So it’s still a pirate story, but its also a morality story about climate change. I wanted to make sure that at the center of all these stories you have people of color who are surviving into the future, whose agency and folklore is driving the narrative. When I say that, we’re not only going to be working with creators of color. It’s about the subjectivity of the characters and who is it for and the intention. Its about applying that curatorial lens to the vastness of what you can do with the medium of comics and just bringing people a spectrum of experiences. I think we still haven’t gotten out of creating stereotypical characters. When you start to see a spectrum of experiences, you start to see that person’s humanity.

That idea of looking beyond and offering a range of possibilities to think about characters and ideas and experiences, I was reminded of the work you do on Bitter Root, writing and editing the back matter, which is about additional ways to think about what we’ve just read it

It’s the stuff in the gutters that goes between. Something has been presented, but here is the underlying glue that holds it together that you might be missing.

I’ve been really fortunate because I’ve been on the creative team for Bitter Root since the beginning. I’m very proud to be on that team. As soon as David told me what the story was about, I said, okay, I’ve got to work with you guys on this. I love Bitch Planet and their back matter and how much time they put into creating an experience for the reader. I reached out to some of the top folk I could think of to write essays for us. I came up with the name for the back matter, Bitter Truths, and I do the layout for it as well. It’s a really invested process for me. I’ve been really proud of that work and I’m glad people love the series, cause it deserves it. And I’m proud of Image for wanting to do something like that. I talk to my friend Stacey about this all the time, that we as black creators are always complaining that we don’t have representation and we need to come together and put together ideas. But when a company like Abrams or Marvel or Image steps up and there’s an opportunity, you are obligated to take that chance and support it. That’s another thing too. Support Bitter Root the way you support Far Sector or Spider-Man. I’m going to get off my soapbox. [laughs]

We’re in a moment. You’re launching Megascope, Milestone is being relaunched. There are great new books by Tim Fielder and David Walker and others. This is hopefully more than a moment, but the beginning of something new.

I teach a class on the politics of the black superhero, and I had an older student in a Harlem Renaissance class. She loved that you had all these black thinkers making work like that but now that she’s thinking of comics as an art form and an intellectual process she asked, “Were they making comics during the Harlem renaissance?” I was like, “No, but they should have been.” I mean I’m sure there were, but the closest you get is someone like Aaron Douglas, who was a painter for the most part. You don’t have black cartoonists who were making work like that.

It’s a shame because comics have been looked down upon in our society so much, so you have tension between saying you want to do comics and your mother saying, “If you’re going to do, be a sculptor or a painter.” I feel bad that those folks had to go through that. There were people who could have been great comics writers, but the form itself was not looked at as a viable medium.

To me it’s fascinating that you have so many black writers coming up in the late 1800s who were writing science fiction. DuBois wasn’t the only one. I want Megascope to be the next iteration of those types of ideas where you have these really cool genre conventions mixed with ideas around representation. I think of it as a reclamation act. We’ve always been here and these are the things we want to show you. 

It’s interesting to look back at the late 19th/early 20th century, and there were so many black and feminist writers doing so many incredible things – and it got lost. Or often, shoved aside.

I totally agree with that. In the back of Bitter Root one of the people I wanted to make sure we shined a light on was Zora Neale Hurston. I love Zora Neale Hurston’s work as an archivist. She is an inspiration of mine because she took it upon herself to collect folktales and oral histories. I hate the way that she died in poverty and Alice Walker had to get her a headstone. There are so many stories of the Harlem Renaissance that are like that.

I agree with you. There was something that shifted and now people are starting to see that not only is this the right thing to do, but that these stories are very interesting. Also, they’re profitable. There’s a market for these things. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to build something like the Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg Center, because we wanted to show people that there are multiple markets out there that they’re totally missing. 

There are so many writers who were ignored as we were saying, even recently. Like growing up and starting to read science fiction and fantasy in the 1990s, everyone knew Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, who are two of the greatest, but otherwise you really had to look for people of color making work.

People like Steven Barnes. Who has two books on our list! One of the books that hasn’t been announced is that we’re doing an adaptation of The Middle Passage by Charles Johnson. Reginald Hudlin is the adaptor. 

Johnson is a great novelist, but he was a cartoonist, do I have that right?

He used to draw cartoons! And we have a book written by him and Steven Barnes. The Eightfold Path is a Buddhist, Afrofuturist Canterbury Tales told through the lens of Tales From the Crypt. So, unseemly stories told in a cave that are about enlightenment. Bryan Christopher Moss is the illustrator of these stories woven together by these legendary writers. I want to create something like Raucous Records or Def Jam where you have a mixture of all these amazing talents with different styles under one roof. And everybody is amazing but have their own way of looking at the world. 

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