John Jen­nings does not see a need to val­i­date the legit­i­macy of comic books and graphic novels. Just like reading and writing, he sees comics as a medium for literacy.

Reading and writing are two dif­ferent modes of lit­eracy and so are comics,” said Jen­nings, an illus­trator, graphic nov­elist, and asso­ciate pro­fessor at the State Uni­ver­sity of New York at Buf­falo. “When we are absorbing infor­ma­tion we are looking at images and texts con­stantly, and comics are a great way to pre­pare for a media-​​rich environment.”

It’s through exhibits like “Vis­ible Noize,” which is on dis­play at Northeastern’s Gallery 360 until March 13, that Jen­nings is working to change the stigma around comics while also dis­rupting racial stereo­types within the medium.

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John Jen­nings Con­tributed photo

From the beginning

Jen­nings was turned on to comics at an early age thanks in part to his mother, who bought him mythology books and the Spider Man comics. And the Mas­ters of Amer­ican Comics show in 2005 later served as the cat­a­lyst for his exam­i­na­tion of how African Amer­i­cans are rep­re­sented in comics.

All of the fea­tured artists in the show were white men,” Jen­nings said. “Don’t get me wrong, I loved all of them. We are talking about the dopest artists in the medium, but there were no women or really any people of color. And not only was this not a diverse show in terms of who was in it, but also in the type of work displayed.”

Gallery 360 - Visible Noize

Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University

Since then, Jen­nings, many times working with col­lab­o­ra­tors, has pro­duced a number of works that ana­lyze and alter the depic­tion of African Amer­i­cans in comics and pop­ular culture.

In con­junc­tion with the Gallery 360 exhibit, there is an all-​​day sym­po­sium on Thursday focusing on the pol­i­tics of race and iden­tity rep­re­sen­ta­tion in comics. The symposium—co-sponsored by the Office of Insti­tu­tional Diver­sity and Inclu­sion and the North­eastern Center for the Arts—will be held in the Curry Stu­dent Center Ball­room from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Any­body can make a comic. It may not be the dopest comic you are going to make, but anyone can take a pen, divide up a page, create a story, go down to Kinkos, and print it out, and I love that.”
— John Jennings

Roll of the dice

In some instances, Jen­nings said he’ll start a comic by rolling dice. What­ever number comes up is how many panels the comic will be. “The panel struc­ture is by chance,” Jen­nings explained. “It’s up to the uni­verse. Obvi­ously nothing is set in stone, but it gives you a starting point and is a cre­ative way to hack into your process.”

That’s how he started Kid Code, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Stacey Robinson, an artist and illus­trator. This hip-​​hop themed graphic novel fol­lows a time-​​travelling pro­tag­o­nist as he and his team work to assemble “The Ever­lasting Cosmic Mix­tape” and set the uni­verse back on course. Art from Kid Code is included in the Gallery 360 exhibit.

Gallery 360 - Visible Noize

Photo by Matthew Modoono/​Northeastern University

 

Reac­tion has been pos­i­tive,” Jen­nings said. “It is very eso­teric, it is a lot of infor­ma­tion, and it is a crazy nar­ra­tive. A lot of people have said they’ve had to read it a couple times in order to under­stand every­thing, and you can get some­thing dif­ferent from it with each read.”

Inspi­ra­tion

Jen­nings said he is influ­enced by every­thing, but he par­tic­u­larly likes reading inde­pen­dent comics because of the unique sto­ries and images that you wouldn’t see at the main­stream level.

There is a great book called Revenger that I stum­bled across about this black woman whose entire family is killed, and she becomes a one-​​woman A Team and it is very bloody,” Jen­nings explained. “It is over the top…and it is great. But you would never see that in main­stream comics.”

One of the rea­sons he loves the comic medium is because anyone can write a comic. And with advance­ments in tech­nology, there is a sat­u­ra­tion of sto­ries and a sharing of skills.

Any­body can make a comic,” Jen­nings noted. “It may not be the dopest comic you are going to make, but anyone can take a pen, divide up a page, create a story, go down to Kinkos, and print it out, and I love that.”