Nalo Hopkinson turns cultural aesthetics into pop culture phenomenon

Lydia Tsou/HIGHLANDER
Lydia Tsou/HIGHLANDER

It takes a creative soul to craft an awesome graphic novel. Professor of creative writing Nalo Hopkinson and John Jennings have put their brains and collective talents together to make “Nancy Jack.” This graphic novel is a love letter that encapsulates the discrimination and struggles of an African-American man in the 20th century.

The UC Institute for Research in the Arts, in charge of funding multiple projects, gave Hopkinson funding for 10 days to cultivate an idea that had the potential to sell like hotcakes. Rising to the occasion, Hopkinson reached into the confines of her mind and drew inspiration from a story that had been marinating for 15 years. In addition, she also knew that this grandiose idea needed a competent artist to bring her vision alive. This is where Jennings enters the fray.

Jennings, a prolific artist who has overseen several projects, took up the mantle and a creative partnership was born. Having an extensive background in hip-hop art and comic book design, Jennings knew he had the experience and craft level to take the story to even greater heights. Hailing from the University of Illinois, he taught a series of different classes outside of graphic art such as American and African studies, which unbeknownst to him at the time, was a point of convergence for the two collaborators.

Bringing light to social injustice in society during the 19th and 20th centuries has always been something Hopkinson aspired to do — making the overarching narrative of the novel was simply an ode to that passion. Hopkinson would look at derogatory art aimed at African-Americans and remodel them to change their meanings and sentiments. This is largely how Hopkinson conceptualized the images of many of her characters and settings. Once she had a nebulous inkling of some of the imagery she wanted, she turned it over to Jennings to make that visual come to life.

Jennings and Hopkinson play off and constantly bounce ideas off each other to come to a place of harmony. Although this is Hopkinson’s first time partnering up with someone, she proclaims that working with Jennings has been an easy thing to do. They utilize a style that’s been popularized as the Marvel method, which was developed by Stan Lee during his work with the Marvel comics. They described it as “using columns and doing the storyboard, followed by having an artist go back and fill them in with art.” They prefer this style to “full script” which is less collaborative when “every panel is plotted out meticulously from the writer, down to the miniscule action.”

Lydia Tsou/HIGHLANDER
Lydia Tsou/HIGHLANDER

To triumph over the burden of having a place to work, the two managed to make a home out of the Internet website Kapsul. It’s a popular website often used by graphic novelists who enjoy the art of pairing up to get a project done, and allows for easy access and editing panel by panel, and delivers a user-friendly interface, making it very universal while still mildly comprehensive. It allows artists to work in tandem to cater to each others’ demands.

In designing the main character, Hopkins came up with the idea of having the protagonist serve as a porter working on a railroad. The catch? He’s not human and his real form exists in a ball of pure fire. He has the ability to shapeshift and blend in with humans which he does to quench his desire for human company. Did I mention he’s a zombie? Don’t let your mind wander into “Warm Bodies” territory however, because this novel is seeking to be more stimulating. The African-American main character falls in love with the white railroad owner’s daughter which sets the premise of the story.

To bring the protagonist and the world to life, Jennings tapped into hip-hop to bring spontaneity and diversity to the pages. Hip-hop art connotates a certain type of freedom and is usually rooted in rich primary colors. Seeing the motley of hues interact and mesh together on the page was tantamount to watching a ‘90s sitcom opening by providing vibrant colors that made every speck on the panel an adventure.

Because the novel is still in its early conceptual stages (Hopkins and Jennings only had a few rough sketches and character designs), this novel won’t be released anytime in the near future. Too many details are being ironed out and they still need to work out definitive plot points. But from everything they showed us, I will be among the first in line to purchase the book because of its immense promise.

 

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