Anatomy of a Panel: John Jennings, Damian Duffy, and PARABLE OF THE SOWER

Extraordinary comics creators in their own right, when joining forces the inestimable John Jennings (artist) and Damian Duffy (writer/letterer) pull off the superheroic. For over a decade, this virtuoso dynamic duo have channeled their co-creative talents into radical revolutionizing of the comics scene.

Already in 2008, they pushed the art of comic book storytelling beyond any and all boundaries with their Glyph Award winning, The Hole: Consumer Culture Vol. 1. In this sci-fi horror narrative, Jennings and Duffy richly texture how capitalism, consumerism, and racism intertwine in ways that destroy African American communities. It’s been hailed as The Waste Land of the 21st century and as seminal to today’s graphic novel renaissance.

Their inexhaustible work to upturn a dominant straight and white the comics industry continued in the founding of expos and curating of exhibits across the country. For instance, in their 2009 exhibit “Out of Sequence: Underrepresented Voices in American Comics” they threw the spotlight on women of color, LGBTQ comics creators as well as the vital comics work coming out of small press, independent, web, and self-published spaces.

In 2014, Jennings and Duffy joined forces with Stacey Robinson, creating Kid Code: Channel Zero a time-traveling adventure story that follows the protagonist, Kid Code, and his compadres as they take down The Power. The creative trio’s geometrizing of the story turns hip-hop from something we typically hear to something vitally and visually seen.

In 2018, Jennings and Duffy’s Black Comix Returns (Lion Forge) introduced and celebrated nearly a hundred independent, cutting-edge, new gen. African American comics creators working across all the genres, shouting from rooftops that this is where the epicenter and life force to comics resides.

This same year, Jennings and Duffy published their recreation of Octavio Butler’s Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation (Abrams)—and to great critical and popular acclaim, including a Bram Stoker and Eisner award.

Cover art by John Jennings

Jennings and Duffy are some of the most skilled and hardest working comics creators doing the work to radically transform and diversify the comics scene. In between their creating, workshopping and teaching as profs (Riverside and Urbana-Champaign), parenting, and jet-setting, I had the great fortune and pleasure of catching up with Jennings and Duffy to talk about Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation that just dropped with Abrams.

Frederick Luis Aldama: Damian, why don’t you launch us by talking about the process of working with a source text — Octavia Butler’s original sci-fi novel, Parable of the Sower — and how this differs from co-creating a wholly original comic like The Hole: Consumer Culture Vol. 1 (2008).

Damian Duffy: It’s different in a couple of ways. With both our 2017 graphic novel adaptation of Butler’s Kindred and this adaptation of Parable of the Sower, I know we felt a tremendous amount of pressure to do justice to the Octavia Butler’s original work, her legacy, her estate and, the fandom of her novels.

Whereas, in 2008, I don’t think we cognizant of an audience in the same way. We did make The Hole to be taught in college classrooms, and eventually it was, but I think we primarily created that book to address some of our own interests and obsession. Also, more practically, the process was just different because with Kindred and Sower we worked with an editor, and the Butler estate had to sign off on our work during a few different stages of production.

FLA: Damian, can you walk us through the prep process for Parable. I know that you spend a lot of time distilling the original novel and reconstructing it in a mock-up with rough text and sketch layouts. This is then submitted to Abrams for final approval.

DD: After the success of Kindred, Abrams invited us to pitch another adaptation. We pitched both Parable of the Sower and its sequel, Parable of the Talents, at the same time, in January 2017, right after Trump was elected.

Interior art by John Jennings


So, there was a sense of urgency, since the subject matter was so prescient, featuring as it does a crumbling American society that’s mostly abandoned or undermined things like the rule of law and public education. That’s being destroyed by wildfires and droughts and unchecked climate catastrophe. And, in Talents, that includes a fascist president that’s elected by promising to “make America great again.”

The script process involves a lot of reading the novel over and over again, figuring out what parts definitely need to stay and what aspects are key to the character development of the protagonist. It’s about breaking down the story to key components needed to communicate core ideas then translating these into the comics form. I think of it as a cartooning design philosophy, using visual abstraction to communicate complicated concepts.

FLA: For the two of you it’s clear that comics is the distillation then reconstruction of stories that matter.

John Jennings: One of the things I love about the comics is that it’s an ever-flexible storytelling medium where everything in the comic is essentially a storytelling device, a storytelling mechanism. You can even start your stories with the visuals of the front cover that then spills into pages proper of the comic. Borders, gutters — anything and everything in comics can be used for the narrative. Everything’s a picture, even sound and thought. You can actually bend sound and thought in really cool ways that advance the story.

The language of comics is inherently symbolic and surreal, almost like a dream space. Readers are willing to accept and enter into the surreal, dream space of comics. This allows me to take readers places I wouldn’t be able to in other storytelling media. I can take readers to new, strange places. The way comics convey information through the pictorial, the symbolic, along with the text is what is so powerful to me about this hybrid storytelling medium.

Sketch by Damian Duffy

FLA: Damian, can you share some of your creative decisions about the lettering, especially focused on the first couple of pages of Parable of the Sower.

DD: I knew early on that I wanted to reproduce the visuals of lined notebook paper since all the narration comes from the protagonist, Lauren, writing in her journal. I made the narration caption boxes with notebook paper lines and explored using different digital fonts that look handwritten.

The first font that I used, and was printed in the advance readers copy, didn’t work. It looked like cursive writing, and the editor and designer at Abrams decided that it was too hard to read. We ended up using a different font in the final product. Which is important because, if I lettered the comic by hand, it would be coming out in roughly a thousand years.

FLA: Damian, you use this journal/notebook motif in the beginning to give shape to her dream sequences in the opening and throughout. Tell me a little about the choice to use dream sequences, especially in the opening?

DD: I decided to use the notebook style to shape the dream motif here and throughout Parable. So much of both novels involves Lauren working out this religion she founds, Earthseed. A lot of it is her giving voice to her dreams and ideas by writing them out, building a belief system as she goes. So it seemed to make sense, connecting the journaling to her dreams.

When I first started the script, I was considering cutting the prologue-like dream sequence that opens Butler’s novel. I was worried about introducing the world of the novel through as abstract as a dream. But the more I looked at it, the more I knew that we needed it to function like an overture and foreshadowing of the entire story. The elements of walls, doors, and fire, of flying and falling, and family that show up in that sequence all have huge resonance later on.

Interior art by John Jennings

FLA: John, can you share the decisions you made when geometrizing pages 2 and 3.

JJ: Damian provides a really concise way that he wants the page laid out, either telling me about it or sketching it out for me. Because we have to do advanced reader copies, all the pages have to be sketched out, digitally inked—the entire book is done digitally — and then sent to the color assistants. They do a process called flatting: drawing parallelograms under the images in Photoshop to fill in the color with a flat color before it’s rendered.

Essentially, they’re using Photoshop to color under the art. They then send me a Photoshop file with flats. I then render it.  I add like the color, the nuance and differentiation in the color to show what’s going on around it … what the image looks like in space.

DD: Texture and shading.

JJ: There you go. All that texture and shading.

FLA: John, with Kindred you inked all the pages. With Parable you digitally ink. Can you talk about the pros and cons for both?

JJ: Honestly the main con for not doing things by hand is that I don’t have originals. A lot of artists sell their originals. I donated my entire, set of originals for Kindred to the Science Fiction Archive here at UC Riverside; they are the remnants of the final project.

Honestly, digital is the way to go, especially if you’re working on a really serious deadline. The iPad is totally revolutionized the way that I think about making comics.

Everything is generated within iPad, making it easy to import and export Photoshop files. You can make changes very quickly. You can make duplicates of images very quickly. We have tools that allow you to mimic what actual inks look like. If you’re trained classically like me, when it comes to the image making you can replicate the feel of actual analog. I don’t see going back to hand done comics, honestly. It doesn’t make sense to me at this point.

Interior art by John Jennings

FLA: John, elsewhere you’ve talked about your style as informed strongly by a woodcut aesthetic. Can you tell us a little more about that, especially as it relates to these first couple of pages of Parable?

JJ: Definitely. My mentor, Tom Kovacs, was a woodcut artist, a linocut artist. I was attracted to the German Expressionists creators like Käthe Kollwitz, for instance. Kollwitz was a huge influence on Kindred. She did a lot with translating into art the trauma of the Holocaust. Others like Frans Masereel, Ed Ward, and Denys Cowan were really big influences on my hand.

I abstract in my comics storytelling but I also give them a very personal feel. Comics storytelling doesn’t have to be stylized like a superhero comic. To convey this rich experience, I created my own style by drawing on influences from the Harlem Renaissance, German Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism. I’ve been working on my woodcut style for years. I love printmaking, but I don’t have time to cut prints. But I can simulate that feel through the digital, and that’s something that I try to do.

FLA: Damian, page 2 is the prologue-like dream sequence followed by a conventionally stacked page 3. What were you and then John trying to convey as we launch from prologue into the story proper?

DD: We wanted the dream sequence to convey that the main character, Lauren, is sort of a visionary. And, as I mentioned earlier, the imagery is necessary as it previews the events of the story. The panels on page 3 are stacked in a more conventional composition because those scenes are our first proper introduction to the predominant setting of the first half of the book. It takes place inside the walls of the Robledo, a kind of lower middle-class gated community in Southern California where the main character comes from.

Here we wanted the page layout to communicate the perceived safety the community draws from being walled in. But, at the same time, there aren’t panel borders between the gutters and the panels because, while Robledo is walled in, it’s really a false sense of security. The walls eventually fall, and when they do the panel structures become less geometric, more disordered.

Cover art by John Jennings

FLA: John, Parable is set in a dystopic Los Angeles with folx of color front and center. How did you decide on a color palette to convey the setting here at the beginning of Parable and throughout?

JJ: One of the things that attracted me to Parable is it’s a very diverse cast. We wanted to create strong representations of people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. I live in the Imperial Valley, so I’m not in L.A. proper. There is a character in the story from Riverside, where I live. That said, I did want the color palette — taupe and browns — to convey a really strong connection to the people and landscape in this part of the world. We are surrounded by mountains, but basically, we’re in a desert. So, I chose to use color schemes that are based off of the desert. I also base a lot of color and shapes of buildings from the Spanish, colonial style architecture here in Riverside.

I also use a rusty red color overtone in Parable. We’ve messed up the environment pretty badly, so when the atmosphere starts to be affected by the ozone it starts to get this reddish tint to it. I chose the red color scheme to convey how we’re killing the environment.

DD: With the recent wildfires and the fire tornados, there were plenty of photo references of it really happening

FLA: While very different in terms of color, feel and layout, is there a way that the dream sequence prologue (page 2) and the beginning of the story proper (page 3) connect with one another as a spread?

JJ:  I tried to amplify symbols and motifs in ways that would interconnect the two pages. So the pages that make up this opening spread echo each other in subtle ways, like how the barbed wire fence around the wall starts to feel like the lined-notebook paper, creating a visual motif that connects the two. And, the two pages of the spread work together to foreshadow events and set the tone: Lauren as visionary.

Interior art by John Jennings

FLA: The opening spread also provides a lot of breathing room with the gutter space?

JJ: While it shrinks the art page a little bit, it does give you the feel of, say, a sacred text. It’s like you are looking at some of those older, pretty bibles that had a lot of gutter. This in addition to the printing process makes it feel really sacred and precious. It’s almost like you’re carrying around a chatbook or a bible. This sacredness mirrors Lauren’s journey in the creating of a new faith and scripture.

FLA: There’s a certain stability with this opening spread that we see eliminated as the narrative unfolds and Lauren’s life becomes more precarious.

DD: As her life and the story generally becomes more hectic and intense, the page compositions and panel layouts start to mirror that. They become sort of stacked more haphazardly, and the line work around the panels becomes rougher as the events happening in the panels become more chaotic, violent, and crazy.

JJ: Damian did some send me examples of masters like Will Eisner as a way to show me how we might use a meta panel structure — doors as smoke and erratic images — to convey, for instance, the deterioration of Lauren’s community.

In comics storytelling everything’s a picture, so images of anything like doors as smoke or the borders themselves can be generators of the story.