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Artistic challenge: Keeping count of this professor's projects


Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor
217-333-5491; melissa@illinois.edu

John Jennings and Damian Duffy
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Art and design professor John Jennings, left, and graduate student Damian Duffy collaborate on Eye Trauma Comix. Their work will be featured in a showcase of titles by Chicago-based publisher Front Forty Press.

Released 4/25/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If University of Illinois art and design professor John Jennings were a superhero, he’d probably be drawn with multiple limbs and a large, oversized right brain.

That’s because in real life, the talented graphic design artist, scholar and educator could use a few extra hands – and feet – to keep up with all the creative projects he’s juggling this year.

The next ball in Jennings’ illustrated air space will land at 3 p.m. on April 29 at the P.S.1 Art Center in Long Island, N.Y., a non-profit arts space affiliated with New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As part of P.S.1’s “Fine Print: Alternative Media” series, his work – created with Eye Trauma Comix collaborative partner and U. of I. graduate student Damian Duffy – will be featured in a showcase of titles by Chicago-based publisher Front Forty Press.

The program will feature Front Forty’s book “Graffitecture,” which presents the work of Chicago graffiti artists invited to draw and paint on photographs of architectural interiors. It also includes essays by Jennings and other scholars and observers of Hip Hop culture in America. He characterizes that culture, which has in recent years been appropriated by the media and corporate marketing machines, as “this generation’s rock ‘n’ roll.”

Jennings teaches a class on “Hip Hop design” at the U. of I. and describes the course, its origin and structure in “Dezyne Klass: Exploring Image-making Through the Visual Culture of Hip Hop,” a chapter in the anthology “Design Studies: Theory and Research in Graphic Design” (Princeton Architectural Press).

He has contributed an essay titled “Hypograffi: Low Class + High Ideas” to “Graffitecture.”

In “Hypograffi,” he maintains that the art of typography has been replaced in today’s technology-and-consumer-driven culture with a louder, bolder, hip-and-hype-based style of visual communication, which he dubs “hypograffi.”

The Front Forty showcase also will include a reading from Jennings’ and Duffy’s upcoming release titled “The Hole: Consumer Culture.” Jennings describes “The Hole” as an “edgy, horror character” with a gaping hole in his stomach. The character, he said, pays homage to urban-legends mythologies and also has roots in pop culture representations of Haitian Voodoo.

Other Heroes
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Catalog introductory images from "Other Heroes: African American Comic Book Creators, Characters and Archetypes."

The graphic novel is based on “the buying and selling of race in our culture,” Duffy said, and examines “the simultaneous worship and degradation of African Americans in popular culture and the bloody terror of boundaries being torn down.”

Comic scene
Click photo to enlarge
"Day 8," from a comic Jennings and Duffy created to bring attention to the struggles of individuals impacted by the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes. Nominated for 2007 GLYPH Comics Awards in three categories, the comic was published in conjunction with the U. of I.’s Katrina: After the Storm summit in 2006.

Winding down this month is another major collaborative project curated by Jennings and Duffy: “Other Heroes: African American Comic Book Creators, Characters and Archetypes,” an exhibition on view through April 25 at Jackson State University. The exhibition, which Jennings hopes will travel other venues in the future, includes images of The Hole, Urban Kreep and other comics characters he created with Duffy. It was organized, he said, as a response to a 2005-06 exhibition in Los Angeles that celebrated the work of 15 legendary comic artists.

He and Duffy also are working on plans for a second show, “Out of Sequence,” which will be exhibited at the U. of I.’s Krannert Art Museum in 2008.

“These shows are answers to the very narrow and backwards-looking show called “The Masters of American Comics,” Jennings said. Though that exhibition, which featured 15 comics masters – “including individuals who canonized the art form … people like Jack Kirby and Will Eisner” – it did not present a complete picture of the history, he said. “It shut out a certain mindset and demographic. There were no women and only one African American artist.”

In their clever introduction to the book-length catalog accompanying the Jackson State exhibition, Jennings and Duffy explain their motivations for organizing “Other Heroes” through sequential, comics-style frames featuring their own caricatures and text bubbles.

“The show began, like most everything else as a sketchy idea,” says the Jennings character.

The dynamically drawn duo goes on to explain that the exhibition grew from an initial idea of showcasing only African American comics artists. They characterized that idea in one dialogue bubble as “an empowering and positive answer to the dehumanizing portrayal of black people in American mass media.”

They ultimately decided to expand the scope of their inquiry by incorporating “non-comics work that is inspired by racial representations in sequential art, photos that reference the trope of black superhero archetypes … (or the mythic and religious antecedents of those tropes) … as well as illustrations that make use of racist caricatures of comics’ (and really, all of popular culture’s) history – in order to investigate negative stereotypes past and present.”

The exhibition and book feature veteran artists alongside the latest crop of upstarts who create Web-based comics. The talent line-up includes syndicated cartoon pioneer Jackie Ormes, originator of the 1930s character Torchy Brown and post-World War II stand-alone comic Patty Jo ‘n’ Ginger; Eisner Award-winning artist, writer and publisher Kyle Baker, known for the comics Birth of a Nation and Nat Turner; and illustrator Denys Cowan, senior vice president of animation for Black Entertainment Television and creator of Static Shock and Hardware.

The book also includes essays by Jennings and Duffy; Bill Foster, R.C. Harvey, Nancy Goldstein, Turtel Onli and Alex Simmons.

The book is available through print-on-demand publisher Lulu. All profits after printing costs will be donated to Scholarship America’s Disaster Relief Fund, which provides financial support to low-income Gulf Coast students displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita seeking post-secondary education.

A comic Jennings and Duffy created to bring attention to the struggles of individuals impacted by the hurricanes has been nominated for 2007 GLYPH Comics Awards in three categories: best male character, best writer and story of the year. The comic was published in conjunction with the U. of I.’s Katrina: After the Storm summit in 2006. Award winners will be announced at the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention in Philadelphia May 18-19.