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Brookhaven man vies for art awards

A Brookhaven native is drawing his way into national notorietyby tackling social issues in what many would deem an unlikelymedium – comic books.

John Jennings, 36, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaignprofessor, was in contention Friday for the prestigious GLYPH ComicAwards during the Sixth Annual East Coast Black Age of ComicsConvention in Philadelphia.

“It’s offered by Temple University for excellence in the comicmedium for stories of African-Americans or by African-Americans,”he said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t win. We’re honored to have beennominated for that many awards.”

Jennings, a Jackson State University alumni, and his partner,Damian Duffy, a UIUC graduate student, were in contention for Storyof the Year, Best Male Character and Writer of the Year for “Day8,” a 20-page comic that appeared in the back of a program duringUIUC’s Katrina: After the Storm Summit in 2006.

“Day 8” was based on a poem entitled “No Ark” by fellow JSUalumna Deborah B. Gryson about a man’s struggle to survive Katrinaand its aftermath, when he was stranded for more than a week on theroof of his home.

“Most of the words he’s saying in the comic are the words fromthe poem,” Jennings said. “Actually, the poem ends before he getsrescued, but we wanted to show hope with the city stillrebuilding.”

A graphic novel entitled “Stagger Lee” by Derrick McCullough andShepard Hendrix captured all three of the awards for which “Day 8″was nominated, Jennings said.

“They deserved it,” he said. “It’s a great book.”

Jennings’ work can be seen until the end of June in anexhibition at JSU entitled “Other Heroes: African-American ComicBook Creators, Characters and Archetypes.” Originally scheduled toend April 25, the exhibit proved popular and was extended throughJune, he said.

The exhibit includes images from “The Hole: Consumer Culture,” acharacter that will debut in a 136-page graphic novel published byChicago-based publisher Front Forty Press this winter, Jenningssaid. It will be the first of two volumes.

His comics deviate widely from many of the mainstream books withtheir emphasis on superheroes and the battle between good and evil.The Hole is an edgy, horror character with a gaping hole surroundedby teeth in his stomach.

The character pays homage to urban-legend mythologies with rootsin pop culture representations of Haitian voodoo, Jenning said.

“The mouth that is part of his torso not only devours objectsand people, but also memories, ideas, concepts and other abstractqualities,” he said in an Inside Illinois article. “The Holebecomes a metaphor for not only a devouring hole but also denotingthat something is missing … heritage, history, self-awareness, asense of place in America.”

Jennings’ work often tackles tough social issues and his latesteffort is no exception. The graphic novel examines “the buying andselling of race in our culture” while exploring the simultaneousworship and degradation of African-Americans in popularculture.

“Most of the comics we do deal with social issues in anon-traditional format. The Hole is geared toward a more academicaudience,” Jennings said. “There’s an upswing in teachers usingcomics in the classroom. People want to read it because it’sentertaining, but they can have discussions about some of the mainthemes in it.”

“The Hole: Consumer Culture” will include an optional teacher’sguide for classroom use, he said.

A majority of his work is done electronically rather than thetraditional method of putting pen to paper, Jennings said. It’s agrowing field with a growing audience.

“There are a lot of collectors of online comics now,” he said.”It seems like the Web is a natural medium for this kind ofart.”

Jennings embraced art in any form from a very young age. He wasborn in Brookhaven on Nov. 5, 1970, to Janie Lenoir, of Brookhaven,and the late John Jennings Sr.

“I was trying to draw before I could even write,” he said.

He graduated from East Flora High School as valedictorian in1988 and turned down numerous college scholarships to enlist in theArmy. Nine months into his enlistment, however, he received aserious foot injury and was discharged.

“I was a good soldier, but God obviously had other plans forme,” Jennings said. “I always wanted to be an artist, but the ideaof being an artist was actually more frightening than dodgingbullets.”

After his discharge, Jennings confronted the fears of a naiveteenager and decided he would rather fail as an artist than regretnever trying. He accepted a scholarship to JSU and graduated in1993.

He worked briefly as a commercial artist, designing advertisingand drawing a few news illustrations for The Clarion-Ledger, beforereturning to JSU to build a graphic design course at theschool.

“It was pretty challenging because we didn’t have a lot ofmoney, but we had a lot of ambition,” Jennings said.

He later accepted a position at UIUC and earned a Master’sdegree in art education in 1995 and a Master’s degree in graphicdesign in 1997.

Jennings combines his passion for art and concern about socialissues in the classroom as well. As an assistant professor ofgraphic design at UIUC, he has created two special topicclasses.

Perhaps the first university course of its kind, “ExploringImage Making through the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop” examines thevisual history of hip-hop and its effect on mainstream culture,Jennings said. He has also created “Ethics of the Designer inGlobal Economics” to examine social issues through art, which willbe taught for the first time next semester.

“It’s a pretty cutting-edge class that I think will do well,”Jennings said.