Artist, Comics Illustrator John Jennings Fuses African Myths, African-American Folklore, Hip Hop, and Black Pop Culture
As a child, John Jennings understood the complex relationship between narrative and artistry through a close examination of the quilts his mother and grandmother produced. Influenced heavily by both women and his uncle Willie Albert, Jennings developed a love of mythology, ghost stories and the supernatural, that helped fuel a desire to become a comic illustrator. Considered one of the most innovative and prolific African-American cartoonist, designers and graphic novelists of our day, Jennings, says he leaned heavily on comics influences Gil Kane, Bill Sienkeiwicz, Kent Williams, and Dave McKean as well as visual artists like Henry Ossawa Tanner, Romare Bearden, and Lois Mailou Jones, during his formative years.
"My mother was an English major when she was at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss., so she had plenty of books around constantly. I loved reading her books on mythology; particularly Norse, Egyptian, and Greek. I also loved ghost stories and stories about the supernatural. One day she brings home the Mighty Thor and I was just hooked on comics," Jennings said.
The road from Flora, Miss., to the Comic Cons of San Diego and Paris were not always smooth, but Jennings' passion for creating vibrant, visually stimulating Black images leveled the path. And in an industry dominated by both white artists and characters, Jennings, 41, takes pride in factoring positive and resilient Black characters into his works.
"Telling speculative stories about Black people is very central to my research and to my art making. Studies have shown that children that do not see themselves in positive roles in popular culture suffer from self-doubt and have insecurities in society. I use African myths, African-American folklore, Hip Hop, and Black pop culture in my production of comics and graphic novels. It's the work that I intend to make for the rest of my life," Jennings said.
"Black images in the media were constructed to constrict the progress of Black people. Period. I want to deconstruct those stereotypes, remix them, take away their power, and create new images of future modes of expressions of 'Blackness,'" he said.
"I have recently become fascinated by what my friend and collaborator Dr. Stanford Carpenter is calling the EthnoSurreal. The way we look at it, this covers the speculative narratives that deal with the Black experience in America. However, this construction of 'Blackness' is something that Black people inherited and have been trying to circumvent since it was given to us. These stories of the future magical, the 'EthnoGothic' are ways to deal with the sheer trauma of being Black in America and having to reconcile with our experiences as a people. These are the stories that drive me and to which I am attracted," Jennings said.
Perhaps the most fascinating of Jennings' creations is Black Kirby, a creative "entity" made up of himself and Stacey "Blackstar" Robinson. Jennings said Black Kirby was meant as Afrofuturistic Black Power fantasies made possible via Jack Kirby as genre.
"Jack Kirby was one of the most prolific, influential, and creative American comic book creators in the history of the medium. Our collaboration takes his pop culture mythologies and flips them into parallel universes that see through his characters with Black colored glasses. We also are looking at the connections between Jewish American creators and Black American creators who have used the comics medium as a space of empowerment and resistance. We are very excited about the initial exhibition, which takes place at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., Sept. 13- Oct. 31, and the subsequent venues and possibilities. Our slogan is "We're not just conscious ...We're double conscious!" Jennings said.
In addition to his collaboration with Robinson, Jennings has partnered with award-winning novelist Nnedi Okorafor to create the illustrations for her original story, On the Road, a dynamic fusion of mysticism and science fiction.
"Nnedi is a phenomenal author and close friend. On the Road is an amazing narrative that I am adapting into a graphic novel with her. It's the story of a Nigerian-American woman who is a police detective in Chicago. Because of a traumatic incident from her past, she now has deep feelings of guilt and regret which have spiritually 'blocked' her growth and acceptance of various 'gifts.' During her visit home to Africa in the midst of a sudden thunderstorm; ancestral spirits are awakened and 'haunt' her in order to intervene and change her fate. It's a wonderful piece and it's going very well. I am currently working on the climax of the story and redesigning the format of the book," Jennings said.
Jennings counts his favorite character as Frank 'Half Dead' Johnson from his Noir Lock series, who uses the blues as a magical power to capture demons and send them back to Hell.
"I don't think it's difficult at all. I think the best art comes from what you know and what you have experienced. The Noir Lock character is very much like aspects of myself and I think that he makes it easy to embody various aspects of my character. I think I may bring even more of those childhood memories into the adventures of Frank Johnson. I do also have an 'avatar' that is sort of based on me. His name is Tony Pitch," Jennings said.
For the many young African Americans hoping to break into the ranks, Jennings insists they rely on their culture.
"I have a cultural touchstone that feeds me. I mix my own history with that of the pop culture landscape and that is where I discovered my own voice; at the crossroads where I am told who I am supposed to be and who I truly am as a creator of visual culture," Jennings said. "I also see myself becoming more of a mentor to up-and-coming artist-scholars. I want to leave a body of work behind that is meaningful and challenges a lot of 'norms' that have traditionally limited those who have not had access to the agency afforded via those ivory towers of academia. I want the work to help provide a road map and guide for other artists, like myself, who see things ... just a bit differently than we are supposed to see them," he said.
John Jennings is an associate professor of Visual Studies at SUNY – Buffalo in New York. He teaches Design History and Semiotics/Visual Rhetoric. Jennings' books The Hole, Out of Sequence, and Black Comix are available on Amazon.com