John Jennings is something of a comics Renaissance man, holding numerous titles including illustrator, author, editor, scholar, designer, and curator, to name a few; he is also the newly appointed director of Megascope, Abrams ComicArt’s new graphic imprint. “It’s always daunting to talk about my career, because I wear a lot of hats,” says Jennings, who is a professor at the University of California, Riverside. He brings critical thinking focused on race and representation in America to each of these roles, and in the end, he seems less concerned with how he’s credited on a project than with how the work gets done and with whom.
Arguably the job title that is most important to Jennings is the unofficial one of collaborator. His most recent work is Parable of the Sower, a graphic adaptation of Octavia Butler’s eerily prescient dystopian novel, which he produced with Damian Duffy. Slated for publication in January by Abrams ComicsArts, this is the second Butler novel the duo has taken on; in 2017, Abrams released their graphic novel adaptation of Kindred. In both cases, Jennings is the illustrator and Duffy is the adapter—but the lines of the roles blur, and “we tend to tailor our collaborative process to whatever the story requires,” as Duffy puts it.
“I love collaborating, because you get more ideas on the board, you learn so much by sharing an experience, and you get to feed off of each other’s energy, which lightens the load of creation,” Jennings says. “You’re not just some lone auteur toiling away in a studio—an [existence] that I find laughable, because eventually you have to collaborate with the audience. It’s best to get out of the way of your own ego early on.”
A great many of Jennings’s published books in the comics space have been collaborations, most of them born out of long-term artistic relationships. Well over a decade ago, the Mississippi native met fellow writer and illustrator Duffy at the University of Illinois, where Jennings was a graphic design professor and Duffy was a graduate student (he’s now a faculty member). The two clicked right away, Duffy says, bonding over a shared interest in hip-hop, comics, and “using art to talk about identity in politics.”
The pair dove into the nascent self-publishing space in the early 2000s, thrilled about being able to make their comics accessible to the masses—a concept that had previously been unfathomable. “I was interested in webcomics,” Jennings says. “And then I came across [online self-publishing platform] Lulu, and I thought, let me get this straight: there’s a company where you can make content and sell it? I think I was the first person in my whole department to start creating pedagogical class materials and putting them in that space.”
Duffy estimates that he and Jennings have completed at least 10 projects together over the years. “Around 2006, we decided we wanted to curate a comics art show at the University of Illinois,” Duffy says, “partly in reaction to the Masters of American Comics art exhibition that opened in 2005 at L.A.’s Hammer Museum, which set the canon of the greatest comics creators ever. Except for George Herriman [creator of Krazy Kat], they were all white men. We wanted to make the ‘anti-that’ show, which we did with Out of Sequence: Underrepresented Voices in American Comics”—a 2008 exhibition at the Krannert Art Museum.
Lauded as a trailblazer of the Afrofuturist aesthetic and an expert on black speculative art, Jennings was an obvious choice when the team at Abrams decided to adapt the edgy sci-fi works of Octavia Butler. He didn’t hesitate to take on Kindred with Duffy, noting that Butler’s style, storytelling, and themes line up perfectly for a rich visual interpretation.
“Her prose is tight and lovely in its preciseness, which lends itself to illustration very well,” Jennings says. “It’s very descriptive, which is helpful for putting together graphic scenarios, and it’s extremely well researched, and that helps with the ephemera we can create. Also, she’s writing about power dynamics primarily, which is, of course, something that comics—and particularly American comics—are very concerned with.”
Duffy and Jennings’s adaptation of Kindred vaulted to first place on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover graphic novels and scooped up the 2018 Will Eisner Award for Best Adaptation from Another Medium. When Abrams was considering which Butler novel to take on next, the pair suggested Parable of the Sower—“because of our current political situation,” Jennings says.
Parable was first published in 1993 and opens in Los Angeles in the year 2024. The city has been ravaged by climate change and poverty. Gun violence, homelessness, and drug abuse run amok as a deranged president with the catchphrase “Make America Great Again” promises to bring back jobs and clean governmental house. “She was actually writing about Reagan,” Jennings says. “But if you took Pence and Trump and fused them into one body, you’d have the president in Parable of the Sower.”
Parable isn’t a gentle read, and Jennings asserts that it “outhungers Hunger Games; that’s ‘Little Bo Peep’ compared to this.”
Though it’s not a horror novel, Parable is indeed horrific, and it’s no surprise that Duffy and Jennings are both hardcore horror fans. Jennings says the first author he remembers reading as a child is Edgar Allan Poe. “My mother is a massive horror fan who reads a lot of crime fiction, which I read, too, and still love,” he says. “I grew up surrounded by woods and noises—and an appreciation for the unknown was impressed on me early on, as was the idea that if you can master the things that frighten you, your possibilities open up.”
Like the novel it’s based on, the graphic novel Parable leans heavily on frightening imagery. Duffy and Jennings assert that this book isn’t suitable for readers under 15—mainly because it depicts violence against children—though Duffy is quick to note that the violence “is not at all glorified—it’s very humanized.”
It’s there—in the finely lined territory of humanizing but not glorifying violence—where Jennings’s craftsmanship as an illustrator shines most distinctly. “My background is in graphic design, so I am always trying to capture the eyes in some way,” Jennings says. “Color is important; it’s a storytelling asset. Everyone has different skin tonalities, and I am always really trying to bring that out. I tend to use darker tones on people of color so that people understand that they are black. Teal also pops up a lot. My family and I lived in a teal house once. Some people down south call it ‘haint blue.’ Haint is the southern vernacular for haunt or ghost. It’s a kind of light creamy blue color that supposedly traps spirits, who mistake it for the sky. I am always trying to capture the ghost in the machine, so to speak, and thinking of technology traditionally, spiritually, and racially.”
Jennings is always thinking politically, too. “I love that James Baldwin quote, ‘Artists are here to disturb the peace,’ ” he says. “If you have a soul and you’re an artist of any kind, and you see injustice or oppression or things of that nature, in some way your work will speak to it—especially if you’re part of that oppressed group. Throughout history, oppressed people always have robust, symbolic, and powerful art. Look at works out of the Harlem Renaissance, or the Polish posters by Jewish folk during WWII. Have racism and oppressive spaces actually created a space where if you are an artist of color you have to make your work about that thing? I am of the opinion that you do.”
Nicole Audrey Spector is freelance writer and book editor whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and Vice.