Jerry Craft & John Jennings Talk About The Schomburg Center's 5th Annual Black Comic Book Festival
Because representation is inspiration.
The Schomburg Center's Black Comic Book Festival is in its fifth year, with no sign of losing steam. In fact, the con is growing exponentially with each event. This time around the program has expanded to two days. Registration numbers are up and all of the panels will be live streamed for the people that couldn't make it.
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Dozens of talented artists and writers will spend the duration of Black Comic Book Fest having conversations about a range of relevant topics in today's comic book industry from the cultural perspective that only we can have. Even more, vendors will get to show off the amazing projects they've been working on for years, full of characters that represent groups of people that the mainstream so often has not. This is truly a for us, by us initiative– founded by the collective of Deidre Hollman, Jerry Craft, John Jennings, and Dr. Jonathon Gayles. Not to mention, it's free to the public. We spoke to co-founders Jerry Craft and John Jennings about their own personal journeys as black men in the comic book industry, as well as what this event means for the black nerd community at-large.
Jerry Craft's gateway to imagination came through Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon.
He always loved to draw and create stories from a very young age. ButThe Last Dragon was one of the first stories to really have an impact on his life. He explained, "It was the first movie that I remember that was more current with how my friends and I talked. We were into karate movies and I'd never really seen African Americans portrayed in movies who liked karate movies...I just remember leaving the theatre with, almost, goosebumps like 'Wow, somebody really knew the stuff that me and my friends liked and did it'." Craft also found inspiration in Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle. "Not only was it funny, but it also showed what he had to go through to make this movie...It was so inspirational on so many different levels."
Jerry always knew he would be making comics for a living. He told me, "I still have a comic that I take when I do school visits that I made when I was literally in the sixth grade. So I really knew this is what I always wanted to do." Although he would take two jobs in advertising before he found his way to comics, but once Craft began drawing backgrounds for graphic novelist Barbara Slate he never looked back. "Every job I've ever had, I've had to draw, write, or both. Now I've been on my own for the last 10 years."
When talk turns to the Black Comic Book Festival, Craft says, "When we did it the first year, I actually felt a little bit nervous...I've done comic cons and there were 10 of us on stage giving a presentation, and only 10 people in the audience so I had no idea." But that hasn't been the case for this event, and it especially won't be this year. The growing congregation of the fans and comic book professionals attending is proof that there is a strong black cultural presence in the comic book community. "There are people coming all the way from Canada, California – all kinds of places to meet their favorite artist; and now the artists are coming in from all over the country. So, it is really a good feeling to see it having grown to this level."
John Jennings was inspired early on by Edgar Allen Poe and The Twilight Zone.
From his mother's influence, John was very into horror movies and gothic literature. He said, "My mother was a literature major at Alcorn State University. She still had a lot of her college books, so I started reading Tanglewood Tales and Bullfinch's Mythology. I was voraciously reading mythology from other countries. That was the pathway that made start thinking about the mystical, sci-fi, and fantasy." Then Jennings' mother introduced him to comic books, which he referred to as an addiction. "I was reading Norse mythology, and then she bought me The Mighty Thor". Before you know it, I was hooked on comics. If it looked like a comic book, I wanted to read it. She was extremely supportive of me having that kind of imagination."
John also started drawing at a very early age. He lived in rural Mississippi where there weren't many other kids his age around, which encouraged him to explore the worlds of science fiction and the supernatural. His love for those genres and comic book characters like Matt Murdock, the Daredevil, Power Man and Iron Fist, and Falcon led him to a career as a Professor of Media Studies at the University of Buffalo.
Although John would consider his drawing style to be "quirky" due to his caricature influenced education, he is a respected and acclaimed artist in his own right. He and his collaborator, Damian Duffy, were tapped to adapt Octavia Butler's Kindred to graphic novel form, with Jennings as the book's illustrator. John said, "The actual experience was brutal, because you're forced to make really, really tough choices." Butler's grim fantasy took a lot of experimentation to bring to life in terms of style, but once they nailed that down he was faced with an even bigger challenge. "It's very emotional...there are certain parts where I literally just wept on the pages. It was crazy." The brutal description within the chapters of Kindred made it difficult for John to depict them in a way that paid respect to Butler's vision while making it digestible for the reader. Not to mention the personal toll it took on him as a creator. "What's really trippy about doing all the artwork on something is that you have to relive it over and over again. You have to sketch it out, you gotta draw it, you have to ink it, and you have to color it. You can't escape it." But at the end of the process Jennings said he was both relieved and proud of what he and Duffy had accomplished.
Jennings is also very proud of what he and his co-founders have been able to accomplish with the Black Comic Book Festival. "There is the perfect storm of the political climate, mixed with this really serious engagement with Afrofuturism and black speculative culture, and the ubiquitous nature of the tools to make and produce comics. You have people who have access to putting out comics that they didn't have before...It's a ground swell of representational power behind these images now." He's especially pleased at the increase in attendance, believing, much like Craft, that there would not be as much fan participation as there has been. He said, "Last year, I was blown away. I've never seen anything like that before. You would've thought the new iPhone was coming out." But what John is most proud of is not that more people are coming out so much, but who those people actually are. " It's so wonderful. They're mostly families and children who are coming to see images of superheroes and other characters that look like them, but also created by men and women who look like them. It's very empowering."
The Schomburg Center's 5th Annual Black Comic Book Festival is on January 13th-14th at 515 Malcolm X Blvd in New York City. Registration is still open and the festival is free admission.