Comics as a medium has come leaps and bounds since the Krazy Kat and Yellow Kid strips of the early 20th Century and the idealized Nazi-fighting superheroes of Golden Age comic books; artists and writers have been experimenting and integrating elements of other visual and written genres now for decades. John Jennings’ graphic novel The Hole showcases an amalgamation of icons-both in its story and presentation -that explore this history and comprise an archetype of what independent creators can do in today’s industry.
Jennings is a an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois with a vocabulary of elements demonstrative of his background as a commercial artist and longtime lover of comic books. The Hole is his first long-form publication, rendered by his own self-researched technique of hand and digital media and stylized storytelling reminiscent of the Robert Rodriguez film El Mariachi, spun for a hero in the vein of the Punisher or Ghost Rider. In it, his protagonist becomes unwittingly joined with a demon-spirit in the form of a giant mouth bonded to his stomach, which devours all objects of the hero’s desire.
“I’ve always been influenced by horror comics,” Jennings states. And the roots of his character are noticeably anchored in that tradition. “I really liked Hellboy quite a bit. I liked the Crow a lot. They were like superheroes, but they didn’t look like stereotypical heroes. I was thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to create a character like that?'”
The sparks of his initial inspirations ignited a deeper story he has seen developing in his career in commercial graphic design. “When I first went into graphic design, I wanted to corner offers,” he recalls. “I wanted the Mercedes. I wanted to be that guy-the superstar designer. But then once I went to graduate school, I started looking at other things. I started looking at how design affects society, and I really got interested in education.”
At the same time he was picking up freelance projects on the side to support himself. “I started working with small start-up companies, some corporate stuff,” Jennings explains. “My first real job while I was in grad school was at Wolfram Research doing package design and stuff like that.”
His academic and professional pursuits synthesized a new perspective for him, opening his eyes to the arguments and narratives within art, as well as within advertising.
“I didn’t want to do fine art, so I really didn’t understand that there was a connection,” he states. His first master’s degree was in art education, so coming to the University of Illinois’ graphic design program shed a wholly new light for him on intent and persuasion.
“When I came in for grad school and saw what all these people were doing with graphic design, I thought, ‘This is really interesting.’ I fell in love with it-just the idea of solving problems for people. To me it’s always been about helping people get their messages across, whether it’s a corporation or a proprietorship or whatever.”
Jennings’ character, the Hole, is based on the mirror-effect of this relationship between producer and consumer. Like other vigilantes, the character is thrust into a world of insatiable desire to consume-desire that he transmits onto the mafia and pedophiles. The concept, like the Punisher, completes a circle of torment within its character by focusing motivation inspired by ill-conceived circumstances into a tool for justice in a world where brutality and crime run rampant.
The graphic novel was an obvious format for Jennings to realize his concept, since comic books and commercial artwork hand-in-hand have helped cultivate the medium.
“I grew up in a very rural situation in Mississippi, and my mom would buy me comics,” he says. “The first thing I really read was Greek myths, actually.”
Greek myths led to interests in other pantheons, such as the Norse gods of Viking lore. “I saw that there was a Thor in Marvel comics,” he states,” and I was like, ‘Oh, this is the same guy I was reading about.’ So I transitioned into that stuff. ”
“I was entranced by the stories, the morality tales and that kind of thing,” he explains. “This caught my attention when I was a kid.” Jennings’ fascination stuck with on through higher education.
“In graduate school, I did my thesis on sequential narrative and how graphic design processes can create a better story,” he states. Comic strips, comic books and graphic novels have only been evolutionary steps in telling stories with images and words. As Jennings asserts, “Comics is truly an American concept that’s based off of stuff we’ve been doing for thousands of years.” Grad school only augmented his creative drive.
“From there on out I was interested in the literary side of comics and actually pushing boundaries and trying to come up with different processes,” he says. “I’m really interested particularly in how pop culture has become our culture.”
Jennings’ pop culture references can been seen throughout The Hole-from Nine Inch Nails t-shirts to his hero’s own Green Lantern shirt with his Punisher-like teeth ready to tear through. This pop art vocabulary syncs well with Jennings’ original art style-a combination of manual and computer-aided methods.
“It’s a combination of hand-done work,” he explains. “Basically, each (page) is done on an 11 by 17 inch size, and then it’s sketched out, and I use a watercolor wash to give highlights and that kind of thing. The inking and the coloring is all done in digital. There’s no traditional inking. There’s no traditional coloring.”
Achieving a comfortable pairing of process and pace where he could churn out pages from The Hole quickly enough to produce a full-length work over a summer took numerous attempts with much trial and error. “This came from a lot of experimentation,” he chuckles. “It took me almost two years to get to the point where one of these pages takes an hour. But I had to go through a lot of steps to get to that point. Actually, that process has led me to other design processes. I’ve been through a lot of different types of work.”
Getting his book on comic book store shelves took Jennings to a Web site called Lulu.com that prints books on demand so that he was able to distribute the graphic novel to area comic book stores. Available in both smaller black and white copies as well as a larger full color printings, the site also provides a preview and option to order directly from the publisher at http://www.lulu.com/content/78830.
His final product fits nicely among the vigilantes and superheroes who inspired it, giving the Hole his own space within the gallery of mutants and metahumans who proceeded him.