Stacey Robinson and John Jennings connected over a shared love for comic books and hip-hop when they chatted at a conference in Atlanta over a decade ago.
Robinson, who is an assistant professor of graphic design and illustration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Jennings, who is a professor of media and cultural studies at UC Riverside, spoke about Jack Kirby, an author of influential comic book writer and editor who created many iconic characters such as The Fantastic Four, Black Panther, Hulk and the X-Men – and how his contributions went under-credited in Marvel’s blockbuster movie stream.
“They treat Jack Kirby like he’s black,” Robinson said. “They should call him Black Kirby.”
This exchange of ideas gave birth to Jennings and Robinson’s name to form the art collective Black Kirby, which draws inspiration from Kirby, looking at him through the lens of a politicized black comic book artist.
As Black Kirby, they create the kinds of comics they were looking for in their youth, remixing originals the way hip-hop producers use samples.
“Instead of sampling from an auditory dataset, we use a visual dataset,” Jennings said.
Black Kirby creates visual art focused on themes of Afrofuturism, social justice, representation and magical realism and is featured in two exhibitions at the Sweeney Art Gallery at UCR Arts in Riverside: ‘Black Kirby X : Ten Years of Remix and Revolution” and “Ebon: Fear of a Black Planet”, the title of which pays homage to the album “Fear of a Black Planet” by Public Enemy. Both shows will run until June 19.
“We started making these really explicit connections between Black Power, Black Liberation and Afrofuturism,” Jennings said.
The original comic strip, “Ebon”, was created by Larry Fuller, who was one of the few black cartoonists in the underground comics movement in San Francisco in the late 60s. “Ebon”, which debuted in 1970, focuses on the character of Valentine Jones aka Ebon, who has the abilities of flight, super strength and super speed.
Ebon derives his powers from his ancestor named Jom, who hails from an alien planet called Nyta where everyone is black. It is said that Jom traveled to Africa to teach advanced science to men.
The comic never made it past its first issue due to lack of demand, and Fuller was only able to use his sketches of the character after the lead artist he had commissioned dropped out. Jennings and Robinson said they were fascinated by Fuller’s work and his contribution to what is now known as Afrofuturism, the intersection of African diaspora culture, science and technology.
Although Afrofuturism is often associated with science fiction, it can also apply to various genres, including fantasy, alternate history, and magical realism.
Robinson said a simplified definition of Afrofuturism is that black people define in the future what that future is, allowing black people to have agency to shape their future, which has never been the case. in science fiction.
Jennings said early science fiction didn’t show many people of color or women unless they were saved.
“This science fiction is a political erasure of black experiences,” Jennings said. “We are trying to reclaim that and are thinking very positively about what comes next.”
They collaborated with Fuller through phone calls, Facebook Messenger and Zoom sessions and created “Ebon: Fear of a Black Planet”, which expands the character and narrative of the first “Ebon” issue.
Jennings and Robinson said their collaboration with Fuller was special because they could work directly with the original source and ask for his input. This allowed the collective to preserve Fuller’s work but also to give him an increased level of recognition.
“The Ebon show connects our mindset to collaborating with others and celebrating the legacy of those who uplift the world we operate in every day,” Robinson said. “It’s an honor to work with Larry and build this world he imagines.”
Black Kirby’s reimagining of Fuller’s work expands the Ebon character’s background and culture. Jennings designed a typeface called “Jukia”, which he based on the body movements of the African diaspora of Caribbean women.
The duo also worked with Fuller to illustrate the oracle-like gods in “Ebon” and introduced artwork to support characters that Fuller did not have the opportunity to incorporate.
“Stacey and I are really into world building,” Jennings said. “We’re storytellers, so we like to tell sci-fi stories around the character.”
Visitors viewing the exhibitions can expect to see the artworks displayed on printed posters and the digital works presented on television screens and light boxes in the gallery space. For “Ebon: Fear of a Black Planet”, there are also three-dimensional displays of Ebon’s action figures and Funko Pops.
“I think John and I are doing a really good job of developing a very simple idea that’s easy to digest and can be inspirational for a young person and an elder,” Robinson said. “They can both bring a type of commentary or experience that is beyond us.”
If you are going to
When: Until June 19.
Where: Sweeney Art Gallery at UCR Arts, 3834 Main Street, Riverside.
Information: 951-827-4787 or ucrarts.ucr.edu.