Smile Politely

Damian Duffy, John Jennings and Their Comics

Both in and out of the office, Damian Duffy and John Jennings have an unbridled passion for graphic novels. One might call them fanatics, but really, they’re professionals. Coming this Saturday, April 12, the two gentlemen will be at the Urbana Free Library, 210 W. Green St. in Urbana, for the library’s Big Read series from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Interviewed separately, their answers are oddly similar in style and content. And perhaps that’s why they have decided to collaborate on a number of works, including their newest graphic novel, which…well, I’ll let you read for yourself.

And now, without further ado, Smile Politely would like to introduce you to Duffy and Jennings, for the longest “Consumed by Creativity” we will possibly ever run.

Damian: Writer/letterer/editor-in-chief of Eye Trauma Comix, an online collective dedicated to showing comics that address social, political and educational issues through comics. (A letterer, for folks not into comics, is the person that puts in the words, word balloons and sound effects.) I’m also finishing up my MS and starting up my PhD at the UIUC Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

John: Assistant professor of graphic design in the School of Art + Design, creative director of Eye Trauma Comix, freelance illustrator, artist and activist.

D: Twenty…uh…[checks driver’s license] 28. Damn, 28? When did that happen?

J: 37.

D: I grew up in Park Forest, Ill., a south suburb of Chicago, home of the most Slurpee sellingest 7-11 in these United States. Three machines, 12 flavors. Exciting, I know.

J: Flora, Mississppi

Urbana or Champaign:
D: West Champaign, neither born nor raised, on the playground is where I spend none of my days.

J: Champaign. It has all the comics. Life is the comics.

Consumed by:
D: Comics, comix, graphic novels, sequential art, the occasional bande dessinée and a little bit of manga chewing on my big toe. I’m also hugely interested in the way media and advertising take in and spit out cultural information, which is a big part of our book, The Hole: Consumer Culture. And I’m consumed with getting everyone else to be good consumers and consume our book, The Hole: Consumer Culture, available now! Consume!

J: Um…comics. Seriously, though. The list of things that “consume” me would be the size of an encyclopedia. I think that right now I am very consumed with the state of our country and where it will be heading in the next few years. We have a lot of problems to sort out and it’s going to be very, very rough. So comics and the future of our country consume me at the moment…and ice cream. I really like ice cream.

Two things you can’t live without:

D: My wife and…actually, as long as I’ve got the missus, I’m cool. Hi Jen!

J: I would say clean air and water. I know these things seem simple but I am very concerned about the environment. The next war that happens will be over clean drinking water. Being that we are near the Great Lakes, we will be smack dab in the middle of it too. Our current population has put an extreme amount of pressure on our planet. If we continue in this manner, our future generations will pay the cost. I am not some gloomy person that spouts doom at every turn. I am actually pretty hopeful and generally jovial. I just think that we, the human race, have to seriously get our heads out of our butts and rethink our priorities…fast.

First three steps to creating a graphic novel character:

D: Step one usually involves some sort of intoxication, fever dream or night terror. This is followed by furiously scribbling sketches and notes on the walls of your padded room until that mean night nurse takes away the pen you stole from the psychologist when he wasn’t looking. Step three: Try to make your character as close to Wolverine as possible. People love that dude.

J: First, you must have eye of newt…then…wait…no, that’s wrong. Honestly, it really does depend on what happens first. Sometimes, I have created characters from doodles and then the story happens around them. Or other times, the story springs from a central concept or point of view. Once I created a character because I wanted to have a blind samurai character who carried an Uzi. It really depends.

The designer in me would love to say: 1) concept and symbolism of the character; 2) relationship to other characters in the story and relevance to the main storyline; and 3) style and design of the character. I can’t say this definitively though because the nature of comics is truly flexible and it develops over time. Everyone works differently and those differences help shape characters. It’s a symptom of the collaborative nature of comics.

For a graphic novel, or any story for that matter, to be great, the characters and story should be one. There should be a synthesis between those two main aspects.

How did you become interested in graphic novels?:
D: I became interested in comics, in general, when I was six years old. My dad bought me a reprint of the two-part story from the 1970s where the Green Goblin kills Spider-Man’s girlfriend (Gwen Stacy, not Mary Jane, movies-only Spidey fans). It doesn’t get more intense than that, especially if you’re six. Later that year I got a hold of 1960s-era Amazing Spider-Man comics by Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. (No one tells a story with pictures in sequence with the elegance of Romita Sr.) I’ve been making my own comics on and off ever since. Graphic novels, as a format, are hard to pin down, since there are a lot of things called “graphic novels” that aren’t really novels. The book most people call the first graphic novel, Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, is actually a book of short stories, for example. It’s a really imperfect categorization. But I suppose the first sort of novelistic comic I read (one written for the long form with a density of plot, image and language) was either Frank Miller’s Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The graphic novel that got me back into making comics after a few years away from writing them was Jinx by Brian Michael Bendis, so a big shout out to that one too.

J: As a kid I read a lot of mythology from various cultures. I was fascinated by Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Norse mythology. As you may (or may not know) the god of thunder, Thor, is a very popular character in Norse mythology. One day, my mother brought home a copy of The Mighty Thor from Marvel Comics. I quickly saw the relationship between the pop culture god of thunder and the classical Norse version. Then I moved from Thor to Spider-man, Dardevil, Superman, etc. Before you know it, I started trying to make my own comics and that turned into a strong interest in art in general. Graphic novels became really central to my graduate studies and now in my research into alternate types of literacy. I owe the medium a great deal. I seriously would not be typing these words if it weren’t for comics.

The most important graphic novel of our time:
D: If I were to answer, Maus or (graphic_novel) Persepolis are important for the role they’ve played in the in expanding mainstream cultural acceptance of graphic novels in the U.S. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is important for its popularization of comics theory. Of course, all of those are more graphic non-fiction, so I hate calling them graphic novels. If we’re being nit-picky, and hey, let’s, I’d single out The Hole: Consumer Culture. I’m sorry. It’s compulsive.

J: Finally! An easy question! That would be The Hole: Consumer Culture by Damian Duffy and John Jennings. Next question! No. Honestly, that is very, very hard to think about being that in recent years the graphic novel has grown in complexity and scope. People are really pushing the medium and have become very savvy about the what comics are really good at doing.

I know it’s a cop out but I have three graphic novels in mind for the most important graphic novel of our time selection, but for very different reasons. The first book that springs to mind is A Contract with God by Will Eisner. This graphic novel is considered by some to be the first modern graphic novel. Will Eisner is a major figure in the study, development and application of innovations of the comic medium. His influence on comics and sequential art affects everything and everyone after him.

The second choice would be Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Speigelman. Maus was the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize Special Award (1992). It was an account of Speigelman’s personal story regarding the Second World War and how he managed to struggle and survive that incredible ordeal. The book is a testimony to the use of symbolism in the comics medium as a conveyor of very complex information in a deceptively simple yet powerful manner.

My third choice would be Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. This extremely dense and visionary story totally challenged the superhero genre and pushed the boundaries of what the medium could become. A total deconstruction of the superhero mythos, Watchmen isn’t just a great comic, it’s a great piece of literature…period. It influenced a huge amount of creators since then and will continue to be a representation of the pinnacle of the comics medium and the superhero genre.

Why did you decide to collaborate?:
D: John and I have pretty much identical ideas about comics, film, media and culture. We’re like brothers from another mother (kind of like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover). We’re both hugely interested in finding untapped potentials in the medium. So, we do crazy formal experiments where we put a comic in 3D virtual reality, a lot of academic study and presentations on comics, we write comics concerned with social justice issues and comics art exhibitions about racial representation.

J: We decided to collaborate because we saw so many points of interest that seemed to either overlap, complement or challenge each other. Damian is a very brilliant writer and just one of the smartest people I know. He makes my job so easy. He’s brutally honest, direct and fearless. I admire that and I want to try and emulate those qualities in every project that we do together. We both love and respect the medium and have both devoted a significant amount of time to the study, presentation and creation of the comic art form. I feel that we will be working together for a very, very long time.

Greatest accomplishment(s):
D: Besides The Hole: Consumer Culture? “Other Heroes,” the African American comics art show we curated at Jackson State University last April, was a huge but ultimately successful undertaking that John and I did pretty much all by ourselves. Forty-seven artists, over 100 pieces, a tiny amount of funding — we drove down to Mississippi in a van with my wife and all the art (and) hung it ourselves the day before the opening. That was crazy. “Out of Sequence: Underrepresented Voices in American Comics,” the exhibition we’re curating for the Krannert Art Museum has even more artists and pieces, but I guess that won’t really be accomplished until it opens on October 23.

J: Personally? I feel my greatest accomplishment is fighting to get my MFA in graphic design despite many obstacles and then finding a way to funnel what I love to do into my research and teaching. As far as working with Damian, I think our greatest accomplishment is becoming successful in a very competitive arena, becoming acclaimed for our research and then completing a major independent graphic novel with international distribution while not having to truly compromise our vision and our beliefs. I can’t believe that we have only been working together for just under four years. Accomplishing your dream is very scary and amazing thing.

Where, in town, do you stop to have a drink?:
D: I enjoy beer snobbery, so the Blind Pig. Seven Saints is cool, too.

J: Right now my current haunts (in no particular order) are Boltini, Seven Saints and Farren’s.

Favorite local musician/band:
D: The Primeridian, from back in the day. I’m not very familiar with the current C-U music scene.

J: I would have to say Jason Finkleman. He is a really talented percussionist. His passion for the arts in general is a beautiful thing. If you don’t believe me, just check out his amazing show “late night spACE” at the Habitat for Humanity building on April 18 and 19. Go ahead. I dare you.

If Champaign-Urbana had a speech bubble, what would it say?:
D: (See illustration.)

J: I think it would say, “Was it really and truly necessary for Brian Chesley’s blood to be spilt on my streets? Could there have been a better way to protect my citizens?”

Loudest person, place or thing of Champaign-Urbana?:
D: Tornado siren, Tuesdays at 10 a.m.

J: The loudest thing is the constant hammering, clanging and roar of the construction crews around here! Man, this place is growing, isn’t it? Impressive…and scary.

Quietest person, place or thing of Champaign-Urbana?:
D: So quiet, I’ve never noticed them.

J: The quietest thing in this place is the prairie. Please leave some space for nature to be…you know…natural. Quiet is underrated.

Damian Duffy and John Jennings can be found at the Urbana Free Library this Saturday. They’ll be showing their own work and talking about how they do what they do. Attendees are encouraged to bring out their own comics, comments and questions. The event is open to teens, anyone interested in graphic novels and those who can appreciate Duffy and Jennings’ habitual attraction to comics and fine humor.

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