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Two Lifelong Comics Fans Focus Latest Work On Increasing Representation Of People Of Color

Magic happens when author Jesse Holland and illustrator John Jennings come together to talk about their mutual life-long love of comics and favorite superheroes.

The two creatives are part of a growing number of people committed to crafting diverse storylines for the next generation of comic aficionados.

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a comics fan,” Jennings says. Some of the first comics he dove into were “Mighty Thor,” “Spider-Man” and “Daredevil.”

Holland’s story is similar to Jennings’, except it was Holland’s father who first introduced him to comic books, he says. His father gave him a copy of “The Avengers” that featured the Black Panther superhero.

“Still to this day, 50 years later, I still have my comic book digital subscriptions,” Holland says.

Earlier this month, Holland edited an adaptation called “Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda: A Ground-Breaking Anthology from the African Diaspora.” He found 18 award-winning authors to contribute with their own stories about Wakanda, including Sheree Renée Thomas, Christopher Chambers and Nikki Giovanni.

It didn’t take much prodding to get them on board the project. After all, he says, who doesn’t love a good superhero story?

Holland likens comics books to modern-day mythology — “morality tales” of honor, history and adventure, he says.

“In the past, these types of stories used to be passed orally, from father to son, to mother to daughter. But we’ve taken our heroes and we’ve now put them in superhero tights and fantastic costumes,” he says. “They’re still the same stories that we heard from John Henry, from Hercules, from Beowulf.”

This is why Jennings says imagining new superhero narratives that center on Black identities is hugely important to his work. As the founder and director of Megascope, a new line of graphic novels, he’s able to showcase speculative and non-fiction comics for and by people of color.

The name Megascope comes from W.E.B. Dubois and his 1909 speculative piece “The Princess Steel.” In the story, the megascope is an instrument that allows its viewers to see undiscovered stories from the past.

“The fact that megascope as a concept was discovered in one of the greatest scholar’s papers just sitting there for us to discover, I think was just indicative of the type of stories we want to do,” Jennings says.

Megascope will release its first two books this spring — “After the Rain,” which is an adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s short story “On The Road,” and “In The Heavy,” which dives into the life of a New York debt collector who loves jazz and is haunted by a loss in his life.

“Part of it is a reclamation of the history of the future,” Jennings says. “And what I mean by that is when you think about future narratives from the 1950s, you don’t see people of color in them.”

That underrepresentation is a form of violence and erasure, he says. “By not showing someone, you’re decimating them, you’re destroying hope. You’re destroying the fact that they existed,” he says.

Afrofuturism, both creatively and politically, reclaims future narratives and envisions Black agency and subjectivity, he says.

Holland and Jennings are both Black men from the South, Tennessee and Mississippi respectively. As a professor of journalism and creative non-fiction, Holland says he always encourages his students to write what they know.

During the process of putting together the “Tales of Wakanda” anthology, he made sure some of the stories’ settings were representative of southern locations he knew well, like New Orleans, Mississippi and South Carolina. He says stories about Black Americans living in the rural South are often under-told.

Religion and faith were two big components of Holland’s life that he also decided to confront in his work.

“I tell people, when you’re reading a story, the writer isn’t only telling you the story, they’re also telling you about themselves,” he says.

For Jennings, seeing himself in his work is like “a badge of honor,” he says.

Jennings also uses southern settings in his work, much like Holland. He uses Afrofuturism to visualize new spaces connected to the south, such as his “Cybertrap” story picturing what cyberpunk Mississippi set in the future would look like.

Being an Afro-American man and southerner impacts how his stories weave together, he says.

“My mother was a quilt maker,” he says. “And so when I think about the things I want to do with my work, like as a pastiche or like the idea around Megascope, I’m just making a giant quilt, just a beautiful quilt.”

“Return of the Queen” by Tananarive Due and “Heart of a Panther” by Sheree Renee Thomas excerpted from “Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda: A Ground-Breaking Anthology from the African Diaspora” edited by Jesse Holland. Copyright © 2021 by Jesse Holland. Republished with permission of Titan Books.

Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Jeannette Jones adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on [Copyright 2021 NPR]

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