Nalo Hopkinson, professor of creative writing, and John Jennings, professor of media and cultural studies, in conversation about their current comic book projects, and how they’re upending industry norms.
By Jessica Weber
It’s been more than 20 years since Neil Gaiman’s widely popular “Sandman” comic series came to a close, and although a few of the series’ iconic characters have made cameo appearances within the DC Comics universe, the world of “The Dreaming” had been left in stasis — until now.
A new “Sandman” series launched over the summer, featuring four separate stories within the universe, each authored by different writers, including Nalo Hopkinson, a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside. Hopkinson’s contribution is called “House of Whispers,” which centers on the character of Erzulie Fréda, a Yoruba deity visited by the dreaming souls of worshippers of an African diasporic religion seeking guidance for love and fortune. The first issue of “House of Whispers” was released by DC Vertigo on Sept. 12, with a new issue planned for release each month during its 12-issue run.
John Jennings, professor of media and cultural studies, won an Eisner Award for his illustrations in the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred,” which was published in January 2017. Jennings’ new project, co-created with UCR graduate student Ayize Jama-Everett, is a 10-part story called “Box of Bones” about a young woman named Lyndsey Ford, who is studying African-American history and folklore. The anthology series features Ford as a narrator telling stories from the perspective of her field work, which revolves around a mysterious box. The first issue was released by Rosarium Publishing on March 28.
The authors spoke with each other about their projects, and an edited version of the conversation appears below.
Anatomy of a scene: “House of Whispers”
NH: In this scene (see above), the deity Erzulie is having a party on her houseboat. There’s like a queer ballroom competition happening and a drag queen calling. There’s a group of musicians playing songs to Erzulie, and there’s a group of Congolese “sapeurs” doing their thing and showing off their outfits, and then there’s a bunch of children playing. I asked specifically that one child be in a wheelchair and that one of the dancers on the runway have one-and-a-half legs. And Erzulie, she’s not skinny! She’s gorgeous, and she’s strong.
JJ: I’m so honored you wanted to use my design for Uncle Monday; it’s crazy.
NH: I fell in love with Uncle Monday the way you designed him. He’s from Florida folklore, where he’s a man taken in slavery in Africa. He’s a “bocor,” he’s a conjure man, and he gets taken in by the local native tribes. They are fighting a war for their land and their culture and they are losing. Uncle Monday is like, “I am never going to get taken into slavery again,” so they do a ritual with him and he turns into a huge alligator and goes into the bayous. He’s both a healer and you made him so scary, so I get to play with that.
JJ: He’s a great character, but again he’s very much a trickster and very much a part of a lot of things that Neil was trying to achieve with Sandman.
Diversity and inclusivity
NH: Since Erzulie is a deity, the way that people who worship her get to be in her space is by going into a trance, so a lot of these people are actually asleep at home in their beds. In this space, they get to be their truest selves, and it’s partly why it was very important to me to not “fix” the disabled characters. When you have a strong sense of yourself and the body you have, you’re not going to fix it when you’re dreaming. It’s your body. My first note to the artist, Domo Stanton, was “assume all characters are characters of color unless I tell you differently.” This is an African-diasporic deity. That’s where she came to be, and that’s who worships her: people of African descent and people of Latino descent, so I center it there.
JJ: I also think the idea of her having a houseboat is perfect, because it’s a roving space. It’s very diasporic in the nature of its construction.
NH: In some versions of Erzulie, she’s shown as a mermaid, so giving her a houseboat was perfect for that.
JJ: You have the demographic that they think they are making comics for, and then you have the actual people who read comics. And they don’t understand how to bridge those, so they need people like us who are kind of these weird, maverick folk. Both of us of course love stories, but we also have a particular way of thinking about the medium, and what needs to be out there. It really is a type of resistance. You writing those characters, think about what that means for people to see.
NH: I know. I’m waiting for the backlash the minute people realize there’s only so many white people in there.
Working with Neil Gaiman
NH: This actually started as a creator-owned comic by Neil Gaiman, and it made millions, so he is the person who said, “All right, let’s go back into this world.” He’s become the reference point, and he’s a very forward thinker. If there’s something we’re wrangling back and forth about, we can go and say, “Neil, what’s your take on it?” And, so far, he’s been like, “What Nalo says.”
JJ: And I love that about him. I love the fact that this really brilliant creator is such a fan of writers like Nalo. Because, let me tell you, when “Sandman” broke wide, it totally broke the stigma around people thinking women don’t read comics.
NH: Women read everything
Anatomy of a scene: ‘Box of Bones’
JJ: We have a really good friend in common who is also a graduate student here, Ayize Jama-Everett. He’s a very talented writer — science fiction, fantasy writer, journalist. We wanted to work on something together, and I pitched the comic to him maybe six years ago. There’s a previous scene where there’s a racialized altercation around this fishing hole, and these white Southern racist folks attack this black couple and steal their fish (see above). So not only did they abuse them, but — this is something Ayize came up with at the last minute — they’re eating the fish! That’s even worse. In this particular story, (the protagonist) is talking to her committee about her work, and she has this kind of flashback where she starts thinking about her grandfather, this blind bluesman, and how he used to tell her about this mysterious box that took his sight and killed the woman he loved. She used to think it was just a spook story to entertain her, but when she started doing her research, she realizes this box is pretty much everywhere throughout the diaspora, and that’s what fascinated her. The blue part here — this is where color is important — this is her thinking about that, and he’s flashbacking to the fishing hole incident that night.
What’s in the box?
JJ: The box is filled with these creatures, these spirits that punish people that hurt black folk in particular. I always pictured this Afrocentric Hellraiser. There are six monsters that live in the box. One of them is called “The Nobody.” The Nobody is essentially a giant empty mask with whips and chains for hair and breathes fire. What it does is jump from head to head and it takes it over. I wanted to create characters that were based off actual fears that black people have about living in America. The whole idea is, when you let rage out of the box, you can’t control it. It doesn’t care who it hurts, and so the whole series is kind of a morality tale about what is the difference between revenge and justice, and how long do we have to suffer, and what happens when you have no outlet for that suffering.
NH: Growing up in a racist world and being so conditioned to seeing caricatures of black people, the creatures that come out are those caricatures, so I have to keep reminding myself those are the nightmares — those aren’t black people. It’s what attacks us.
JJ: All of the characters are based off of blackface minstrelsy. Most of them have the minstrel gloves, like Bugs Bunny — he’s based off minstrel characters.
NH: Like Mickey Mouse.
JJ: They all come from how the white imagination has constructed blackness, so all of them have these wild nicknames and constructions that are based off these fears that have been implanted within us or projected onto us.
NH: Also, it brings home to me, even as somebody who’s been fighting against it for decades, how much is still imprinted.
Race and diaspora
JJ: “Box of Bones” is really about race in America and in the diaspora, and it was Ayize’s idea to make it diasporic, not just centralized in America. Over the 10-piece arch, we kind of unpack some of these issues. We also got top-level scholars to write critical articles about it.
NH: I’ve been toying with this idea that when you have connections that get really complex and cross centuries, the best way to tell those stories is through fantasy, because then you can signify so much with just an image or a metaphor. With these characters, do you find that you scare yourself?
JJ: With these particular characters, I do. I wanted to make something that we felt unsettling on a very primal level.
NH: I’m in my own way trying to express the diaspora because versions of this religious system happened everywhere there were black people whose ancestry is West African. For instance, the drag queen doing the calling for the ballroom (see “House of Whispers” scene above), she’s actually referencing a Caribbean children’s game. I have a translation of a Haitian version of a song to Erzulie and it says, “Erzulie, you’re beautiful. Erzulie, you don’t eat people anymore.” This is a Caribbean song, but they’re playing it in what would be seen as an American context. It isn’t. It’s its own supernatural space.
JJ: When you stumble into African mythology and Jamaican folklore, you start to unpack these things, and of course all these things come from the Motherland, and they kind of traveled with the slaves.
NH: And many of them specifically from West African regions. Of course, Africans were traveling all over the world well before the slave trade. The effect of the slave trade on our cultures was like forcing cheese through a sieve. They try to take our cultures away, they push the cheese through the sieve, but you still have cheese on the other end. It’s just a different configuration.
Increasing Access to Comics
NH: What has happened, where you used to be able to take your pocket money and buy a floppy every week? Comics are now like $3–4.99 an issue.
JJ: And they don’t have to be! When we were growing up, you could go to school with a dollar and buy like four comic books. You got a couple dollars and you’re reading all week! And then you can still get some candy and a soda pop. This is a thing we talk about a lot too, is access to these things. These particular comic books are very well done. They’re high-end printing now for some reason, and kids can’t afford these books. This is like a $5 book for just this one issue. So who is this book for? It’s obviously for an adult who has the disposable income to purchase it. This is something I kind of wrestle with too, because back in the day, comics were printed on the absolute worst paper, which is why they were rare, because they were all falling apart.
NH: People thought of them as ephemera. They came tucked into the newspapers.
JJ: What’s happened is they have been elevated in a certain way that predicates them being printed differently and they are a specialty item now when they were ubiquitous at first. You know there are people in my class who’ve never had the opportunity to read a comic book.
NH: Me too! It surprised the hell out of me. The eldest one was in her 40s and never read a comic. Well, this is why. I thought it was because you still had parents with the idea that comics were junk, but they just don’t have access to them.
JJ: In the late 70s-80s, when comic book stores jumped off, they stopped distributing them in the Stop-and-Gos and newsstands, so someone like myself who grew up in a rural environment like Mississippi, the nearest comic book store was like 30 minutes away by car, and then when you get there, you feel like you don’t belong there. What happens is, particularly poor kids of color, or queer kids, or readers who are women, don’t feel comfortable in those spaces and don’t know how to get comics. We have to figure out how to tell the stories we want to tell on our own terms and also infiltrate these spaces with the proper access.