Comic books are a medium. They can be used to tell any kind of story or convey any kind of information. Around the world, comics writers and artists use their medium to create remarkable stories of horror, adventure, science fiction, mystery, Generation X comedy, adolescent angst, war, middle class malaise and more.
Many others use comics for journalism, as with Joe Sacco’s monumental book Palestine, or use comics to explore biography, politics and linguistics, as with books such as Introducing Chomsky. But to most North Americans, comics are, at best, a medium for kids, and quite often not even a medium, but reduced to a genre: superheroes.
That’s unfortunate, because it means many readers overlook a huge range of stories they’d find enormously engaging, as rich in characterisation, plot and social commentary as the finest movies and television series, and rivaling many of today’s best novels. And among the people doing the most beautiful art in comics today is a generation of African artists in the US.
That’s why artist and curator John Jennings teamed up with Damian Duffy to create the gorgeous coffee table book Black Comix. That’s comix with the letter X, suggesting a co-mixing of image and text. But the book also mixes genres of comics, and male and female artists, revealing an astonishing range of talents, ideas and imperatives.
According to his bio, John Jennings is “an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research and teaching focus on the analysis, explication, and disruption of African American stereotypes in popular visual media. His research is concerned with the topics of representation and authenticity, visual culture, visual literacy, social justice, and design pedagogy. He is an accomplished designer, illustrator, cartoonist, and graphic novelist. His work overlaps into various disciplines including American Studies, African American Studies, Design History, Media Studies, Sociology, Women and Gender Studies, and Literature.”
John Jennings spoke with me by telephone about Black Comix, the artists he’s profiled and the directions of African comics art in the US. Along the way we chatted about:
- Will Eis ner, the seminal writer-artist who created The Spirit
- Scott McLeod, author of the authoritative Understanding Comics
- Frank Miller, writer-artist during an inventive run on Daredevil, creator of the series The Dark Knight which led to the Tim Burton and later Christopher Nolan Batman films
- Alex Ross, the most acclaimed superhero comics illustrator working today
- Brotherman, and seminal Black comic from the 1990s, and
- Aya, a graphic novel series by Ivory Coast writer Marguerite Abouet.
You can hear our conversation here.
And here‘s another fine (text) interview with Jennings.
And finally, here’s a discussion about why there are so few African supervillains.
Originally posted Dec. 15, 2010