Read B/T The Lines with John Jennings on ‘Silver Surfer: Ghost Light’, Part 2

December 14, 2023

Editor’s note: Read Part 1 of the interview here.

JOHN: How often do you get a Jamaican descendent cosmic power superhero?

GREG: Speaking of cultural markers and Al being a doctor, you mentioned earlier Al being a sort of conjure man. The art of conjuring is a part of Caribbean culture. But there’s also a huge focus on technology in this story.

JOHN: Conjuring in a sense is ancestral knowledge as a type of technology. We use tech, we think of cell phones and screens, ancestors give us knowledge. Cultural knowledge is tech, it helps us understand the world. A conjure man is another type of scientist. I like the idea of playing with spiritual and traditional Sci-fi kind of stuff.

GREG: And of course that was definitely a theme, yeah? As well as home?

JOHN: Failing tech, yes. And once I realized the Stranger was a lot of people, an amalgam of a whole planet, the story wrote itself a bit. The theme is all about home. Silver Surfer misses his home; Al is back home, Sombra is trying to find a new space due to the death of her parents; Stranger is trying to create a new home; the theme of community. There’s not a lot of fisticuffs. I really wanted to explore the miracle of family… First, establish the mundane then show the wondrous.

GREG: Since we’re on the miracle of family, my absolute favorite moment in this whole story was the interaction at the end between Silver Surfer and the grandmother, Al’s mother, HATTIE MAE. It was  Silver Surfer getting hit with the feels for me. Probably one of the rare times he’s being treated as a human. That “Your mama called you Norrin, Imma call you Norrin” energy can only feel this real from a Black writer. A truly beautifully touching and also Black moment.

Ghost Light #4, page 16 ; Ghost Light trade paperback page 96. Image credit Marvel Comics.

JOHN: Silver Surfer is a really humble character. He understands the ins and outs of life, and has gone back in time to see the birth of the universe. I thought it was interesting to consider the fact that he had a mother. Al Harper was the first human being outside of the Fantastic 4 he came across and at the time he didn’t know much about human beings. So, he’s stuck with creatures he knows nothing about. Al gives up his life to save the entire planet and the Surfer was moved by that. I wanted to humanize Al and give him a  backstory of his mother missing him. Like is said, Silver Surfer had a mom one time. I wanted to show that even though he’s billions of years old, he still respects and calls Al’s mother “ma’am.” She sort of adopts him, this moment was indoctrination into the family… I think that’s why this resonated with certain people. We’ve seen all types of cosmic adventures with Silver Surfer, but never a moment like this. When you posted that, that scene got a lot of attention.

GREG: Well it was far too beautiful not to be shared! I was excited so many people took to it and got curious to read the whole book after.

Ghost Light #5, page 17 ; Ghost Light trade paperback page 120. Image credit Marvel Comics.

(Ghost Light #5, page 17 ; Ghost Light trade paperback page 120) 

GREG: Alright, let’s jump ahead! What about “SWEETWATER?” You briefly touched on that in the beginning. And why erase the memories?

JOHN: The town’s name Sweetwater is a reference to Henry Dumas’ collection “Goodbye, Sweetwater” (edited by Eugene Redmond).

Dumas’ work was released posthumously as he was killed by an off duty transit cop in Harlem. He was coming back from a Sun-Ra rehearsal. He was 33 years old. Toni Morrison was inspired by Henry Dumas’ work. Toni Brooks (Al’s niece in the story) is named after Toni Morrison.

Ghost Light #1, page 6; Ghost Light trade paperback, page 10. Image credit Marvel Comics.

In the original story, The Stranger fixed everything in the town and made it as it was before. Also, in the original story, The Silver Surfer affects the memories of several people he encounters. I thought it would be interesting to think about how memory and trauma are such huge parts of our lives and what would have happened if The Stranger not only fixed it all but took away the fact that it even happened. Where does that memory go and what does it affect?

GREG: And in your story, that day is called the SWEETWATER GAP. And what date is that exactly?

JOHN: SWEETWATER GAP Is Octavia Butler’s birthday (June 27).

GREG: Tell me more about the antagonists of the story. You mentioned them briefly a few times earlier. First we have THE STRANGER. I saw a note of him being a “Night Doctor”? Educate us on that.

JOHN: During slavery, slave owners would tell slaves that they would be taken by “night doctors”; surgeons and scientists who wanted to experiment on Black people. The Stranger has an aspect of this in him. He’s abducting alien races and doing all kinds of experiments on them. Almost like a Josef Mengele with cosmic level powers.

The Stranger

GREG: Sombra?

JOHN: SOMBRA SOLOMON is inspired by my co-writer and collaborator Angélique Roché. Angélique is a massive Doctor Who fan like myself and I wanted Dr. Solomon to have traits like the famous Time Lord. So “Allons Y” was the catchphrase of the Tenth Doctor. Also, the weird cosmic mind-blowing scene from Lab World was inspired by the Fourth Doctor’s adventure THE PYRAMIDS OF MARS and also the Tenth Doctor’s THE SATAN PIT. It is also highly influenced by the final scene of HIGHLANDER and also the giving of Mar-Vell cosmic awareness by Eon. I thought it would be great to create a new anti-hero with cosmic powers and that she would become the assistant of the Stranger. The AIM outfit that she runs is called THE SCARLET SECTOR. They are sort of ‘red herrings’ plot wise so, I thought it would be funny to make them red to connote that. Originally she was pitched as the main villain before I was given the Stranger to work with. She’s a cool character and I was able to use her for a bit more exposition of what Al was doing in those woods so long ago.

Sombra Solomon

GREG: So despite his importance all throughout the story, the Stranger was a bit of a latter addition?

JOHN:  Honestly, it was my first time pitching some to Marvel and I went all in. I put together a 42 page pitch for them! My editor clowned me so much. He was like, “Don’t EVER do that again!” I just wanted them to see that I had a good story and I knew what I wanted to do with the characters. I didn’t have the Surfer or The Stranger in the pitch because I didn’t realize I COULD use them? Once they gave me the greenlight, I went about connecting my story to the original tale.

GREG: So you’ve based Sombra on your friend, Angélique. Any other nice little shoutouts you snuck into the story?

JOHN: Yep! Dr. Bratton is named after one of my best friends from childhood, Marvin Bratton. The Brooks family is named after both my childhood friend Michael Brooks and my good friend Kinitra Brooks, respectively. Also, Josh is named after the son of Michael who passed away during the creation of this story. Josh’s initial name was Kai. Their cousin Jayden is named after my nephew.

Siblings Josh and Toni speaking to their cousin, Jayden
Ghost Light #1, page 16; Ghost Light trade paperback, page 16. Image credit Marvel Comics.

Dr. Bradley is named after my nephew Alex who is an artist and designer. The woman in the riot in issue 4 named Churie is named after my grandmother. CAMP FLORA is named after my hometown of FLORA, MISSISSIPPI.

There’s a “HALL WALLS” shout out. Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo, NY is the first large venue. That wanted to showcase Black Kirby as artists. It was part of the catalyst that ignited Black Kirby’s position as one of the most innovative creative teams in Black Speculative cultural production.

“Chip” from the news cast in issue 4 was a shoutout to Samuel  “Chip” Delany; groundbreaking Black and queer science fiction writer.

[While not a personal friend], there’s a FANTASTIC FOUR shout out. Josh and Toni see Al on fire erupt from the ground and Josh posits that it is the Human Torch of the Fantastic Four. This was a not so subtle shout out to the series where Silver Surfer was first seen and also, to call out that they are actually in the very beginning of the story in Silver Surfer #5.

Ghost Light #1, page 32; Ghost Light trade paperback, page 32. Image credit Marvel Comics.

GREG: Josh had me laughing multiple times throughout the book. And while we’re on Delightful Josh, he’s a huge jazz fan, which ends up playing a big part in the story! And music in general.

Ghost Light #1, page 20; Ghost Light trade paperback, page 20. Image credit Marvel Comics.

JOHN: Inspiration for using Jazz as technology came from the film THE LAST ANGEL OF HISTORY by John Akomfrah (1997) and a book called THE JAZZ OF PHYSICS: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe  by Stephon Alexander. Alexander is a jazz musician and physicist. His following book is called FEAR OF A BLACK UNIVERSE.

John Coltrane and the Giant Steps chord!
Ghost Light #1, page 19; Ghost Light trade paperback, page 19. Image credit Marvel Comics.
Ghost Light #5, page 15; Ghost Light trade paperback, page 117. Image credit Marvel Comics.

 Each chapter was named for a song from the penultimate album by THE POLICE; Ghost in the Machine. Chapter 1. INVISIBLE SUN; 2. DARKNESS; 3. TOO MUCH INFORMATION; 4. DEMOLITION MAN; 5. SECRET JOURNEY. For Chapter 5, there’s are the lyrics in question:

You will see light in the darkness

You will make some sense of this

You will see joy in this sadness

You will find this love you miss

And when you’ve made your secret journey

You will be a holy man

GREG: Before we wrap up, it wouldn’t be a conversation between us without getting into some horror! Now you’ve talked a bit about this essentially being a horror story and I peeped some horror influences and shout outs…

JOHN: It’s like a John Carpenter story, It’s a slow burn horror story. Most of it is set up, the structure is like ALIEN or like the THING or the DESCENT.

Ghost Light #2, page 14; Ghost Light trade paperback, page 50. Image credit Marvel Comics. 

[As mentioned earlier], there’s a shout out to Jordan Peele and Monkeypaw. In issue 5 of the story, Josh and Toni blast AIM out of the house and their dialogue has all three Jordan Peele films in their speech bubbles.

Another Get Out reference.
Ghost Light #5, page 4; Ghost Light trade paperback, page 106. Image credits Marvel Comics. Monkeypaw Productions.

 

“We got you, kid…” Lovecraft Country reference.
Ghost Light #2, page 18; Ghost Light trade paperback, page 50. Image credit Marvel Comics.
“What’s in the box?” Seven reference
Ghost Light #5, page 17; Ghost Light trade paperback, page 120. Image credit Marvel Comics. 

GREG: One thing I know as a writer is that there’s always something that has to be cut out, usually due to page restraints. What comes to mind for this?

JOHN: I wish I had an issue 6, I would have had him in Labworld fighting Stranger’s forces. It would have been like JOHN CARTER OF MARS. I would have shown him as a rebel before coming back to Earth. I ended up saving some of that as a bit of info dump that shows up in issue 2 as some backstory.

GREG: Hmmm… Maybe if this is successful, we can see that story expanded on in some way in the future. Anything else?

JOHN: Doctor Voodoo was almost in consideration to be in this story as initially I didn’t know if Al was going to be a cosmic based character or even magic… that was where Voodoo would have come in.

GREG: Bruh, WHAT?!?!

JOHN: Yep! You know how big of a Brother Voodoo fan I am! However, I felt that it was a better story to connect it to the original tale from 1969.

GREG: Hell, man! You know I’m a Brother Voodoo fanboy for life! Now I want a new age Defenders with Voodoo and Ghost Light. Hmm… who’d be the brute force though?

JOHN: Good question! [Laughs] Now I want that as well! hmm.

GREG: I’ve seen  a lot of positive responses from readers. What have been some surprises or some that have tickled you?

JOHN: I think the thing that makes me shake my head a bit is when folks aren’t into Valentine DeLandro’s art. I mean, different strokes and all that but, Valentine is one of the most sought after illustrators in the game and his work is masterful. We were so fortunate to get him on the book! He’s a great designer and his storytelling is amazingly cinematic, for lack of a better word. It takes a LOT of skill to use that few lines and shapes to get that much emotion from a drawing.

I think that post-90s era superhero comics really still lean into the hyper-rendered illustration style that was made popular by folks like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane. I love a lot of the work inspired by these artists however, the generation before used cartooning in a far more abstract fashion. When I look at Valentine’s work I see the influence of people like Alex Toth, Jack Kirby, and Ross Andru. They used the simplicity of line and tone to tell stories. Valentine has the remarkable sense of space and control that you don’t really see that much in comics now. His work seems timeless to a certain degree and it definitely fit a story that was sort of throwback to 1970s styled sci-fi stories that you’d see in Marvel Comics. His restraint was a great counterpoint to my outlandish and surreal plot about cosmic mad scientists and space traveling demi-gods!

Also, since we’re talking about art, Taurin Clarke totally blew me away every time! He is one of the best in the business now. It was a blessing to be part of the team with these talented brothers!

GREG: You all were a total package. I can’t imagine another team for this story, quite frankly. It’s definitely time for us to wrap. Thank you so, so much, man, for this. Always a blast to geek out with you and pick your brain on your madness.Any closing remarks?

JOHN: I just want to thank you for this opportunity and I want to thank BlackSciFi.com for the space to chat about this character. It was a great experience and, I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s a new Black superhero in the Marvel universe and he’s not a legacy character of any sort. He was created by Stan Lee to talk about social issues and he has a remarkable power set that could lead to lots of cool stories in the future. I hope we see more of him.

It was a great pleasure helping to bring him and his amazing family into the world.


Greg Anderson Elysée is a Brooklyn-born Haitian-American writer, educator, filmmaker, personal trainer, and model. Elysée previously wrote for theOuthousers.com, where he ran his own column, (Heard It Thru) The Griotvine, showcasing independent creators of color and LGBTQ creators, as well as writing for Bleeding Cool.

Elysée’s original comic series “Is’nana the Were-Spider” is a seven-time Glyph Award Winner.

His other work includes “Akim Aliu: Dreamer: Growing Up Black in the World of Hockey,” published by Scholastic Inc. and Kaepernick Publishing, “OneNation: Stronghold,” published by 133art Publishing, “I Dream of Home” in the Lion Forge graphic novel collection and Eisner Award-winning “Puerto Rico Strong,” and “Tyrone and Jamal” in the GLAAD Award-winning “Young Men in Love.” He lives in Brooklyn.

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