John Jennings is a professor, author, graphic novelist, curator, Harvard Fellow, New York Times Bestseller, 2018 Eisner Winner, and Hugo Award-winning comics creator. As a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Riverside (UCR), Jennings examines the visual culture of race in various media forms, including film, illustrated fiction, comics, and graphic novels. He is also the director of Abrams ComicArts imprint Megascope, which publishes graphic novels focused on the experiences of people of color. Jennings is co-editor of the 2016 Eisner Award-winning collection The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art (Rutgers) and co-founder/organizer of The Schomburg Center’s Black Comic Book Festival in Harlem.
This year, Jennings joined the Marvel Comics team presenting us to Silver Surfer: Ghost Light, a mini-series that saw the reintroduction of Al B. Harper, a Black character who debuted very early on in the first Silver Surfer comic book series and would sacrifice himself to help save the world. In his return, Harper is resurrected as a new superhero, the Ghost Light, reuniting him with his family as well as his friend, the Surfer himself.
The mini-series, now collected in trade paperback format and currently on sale, has garnered positive reviews! Upon expressing my excitement for this book, John and I got into a hefty conversation about the meanings, subliminal messages, and inspirations that went into crafting such an epic – but personal – story.
GREG ANDERSON ELYSÉE [Upon reading Ghost Light]: Awww man… Not me being teary eyed. That was a beautiful ending, man.
JOHN JENNINGS: Thank you, bro. That means a lot coming from you. I wrote this for US! It’s reaaalllly Black [laughs].
GREG: Yep. I was gonna say that. From language and phrases, Grandma refers to African spirituality a few times; Black music being the source of victory; it’s a very Black story. Jerk chicken. Oxtail [laughs].
JOHN: Delish. As you said, there’s a lot of Easter eggs in the story. Like the town “Sweetwater.” The dialogue of the kids after they knock Sombra out of the house? It has all three Jordan Peele movie titles…
GREG: Wooow. That is truly clever. So how did this generally come about? This project. Did you pitch this to Marvel?
JOHN: You remember that me and Angélique [Roché] are workin on that “My Superhero is Black” book? I came across Al in my research and became obsessed [laughs], as I do. One of the Marvel editors wanted me to color a Shuri graphic novel for them. I was too busy at the time but said, “Hey. Can I send you this idea?” I sent it and she loved it. The kids were to be the center. We were gonna pitch it to Scholastic, however Marvel proper saw it and wanted to keep it.
GREG: So from where did the concept of Al begin in the original stories and where did it end? There’s mention of this Labworld…
JOHN: Labworld is the Stranger’s world. I just used it as a way to bring him back. [It’s from] the original comic from 1969. I used what I needed from it.
GREG: I found a lot of horror nods and scenes.
JOHN: Oh yes. It’s a horror story! It’s paced like a horror film. The Stranger is a mad scientist with cosmic powers [laughs]
GREG: Alright, so let’s backtrack just a little bit because once you and I start talking horror, that’s it! But back to Al B. Harper himself… I saw somewhere in one of your notes, you described him as possibly a “BLACK DEATH MATTERS” character?
JOHN: The original story that Stan Lee wrote “AND WHO SHALL MOURN FOR HIM?” I believe it is inspired by the Bible quote from Zechariah 12:10: “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”
I think this was the inspiration for the title. This story was written in 1969, a year after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Lee is asking the audience, “This Black man just saved the world, do you care?”
My story is the “response” to his “call.” The main miracle of my story is the family that lost Al Harper and didn’t know where he was. It’s a Black Death matters story.
This is also why I had Al Harper state “I AM A MAN” during his fight with the demented Stranger who was treating him as less than human.
JOHN: It was a reference to the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968.
Also, there’s an allusion to Al and experimentation on Black people and medical apartheid. Al is a victim of a decade of experiments which has left him highly traumatized and with remarkable powers. Is it worth it though? Like so many Black people, Al has been a guinea pig without his consent.
GREG: Why Ghost Light?
JOHN: During the pandemic, theaters across the country were closed. A “ghost light” is a stage light that is left on for safety. It is called such because of the urban legend that all theaters are haunted. It also symbolizes that the show will return. I thought it was a great name for a resurrected character.
Also the initials GL were a sort of me signifying the name Green Lantern. Sort of like Jason Bourne’s initials signifying James Bond.
GREG: Ah, nice. Can we talk a bit about Al’s abilities?
JOHN: Al is a “systemapath.” He can interact with complex biological and manmade systems and allow them to communicate with each other. Most problems of the world are systemic. What if a hero could be a translator between these huge systems? What could they actually change?
[There is a connection of] AL B. HARPER and Double Consciousness theory, but also as a Two-Headed Doctor/ Conjurer. In Hoodoo and Conjure, a two-headed doctor is another name for a person who is a conjurer. Since Al sort of has two bodies he kind of invokes this idea. He is also a very direct metaphor for double-consciousness theory. He questions his very humanity a lot in this story because he is now faced with the fact that his new abilities have pushed him past his own humanity.
Al is sort of a “conjure man” because he uses his knowledge to heal his enemy; not destroy them.
GREG: There’s also something with his nanobots and Silver Surfer’s board, no?
JOHN: Al Harper was the first human to ever ride the Surfer’s board with him. That’s what gave me the idea to have the nanobots be able to communicate with the board.
Al can also cause a “nano-burst” that causes the nanobots to explode in a small cosmic radiation burst.
GREG: Let’s talk a little bit about Ghost Light’s suit and design. I think for any aspiring comic creator, they can get some insight of how one can go about figuring out important choices in creating designs for characters. Now I understand there’s a lot of context, backstory, and subliminal subtext involved. So let’s start a little bit with the in story backstory.
JOHN: [In the original story by Stan Lee], Silver Surfer was trying to get off of planet Earth. At this point, Galactus had stranded the Surfer on Earth, leaving him completely unable to leave. Essentially, Galactus felt if the Surfer loved humanity so much, why not live with them? The barrier around Earth kept the Surfer locked in. Desperate to leave, he steals a device from the Fantastic 4, which essentially malfunctions and blasts him back to Earth, plummeting him into woods. This is when he meets Al. Al, being the scientist that he is, creates a harness to help Silver Surfer get off of Earth. There’s a gun-like contraption that is connected to it… this device comes back into play, which the kids activate.
[Flash forward to now], this harness is used to be a part of Ghost Light’s new suit. Al is about to explode and has to put on the harness. The nanotech reconfigures his old tech into the suit, creating his next body which we see in issue 2. Al’s body is now in flux so he now has to wear a containment suit to help regulate the energy flowing through his form. He needs the suit to survive. We don’t want Al blowing up [laughs]. I did this because I feel many creators make characters so overpowered, so I wanted to give Al some limitations. He’s already pretty powerful – I mean, he knocked Silver Surfer off his ass – but I didn’t want him to be too overpowered. Plus, he’s a genius. We’ve just created one of the most powerful Marvel characters, I don’t know if anyone has realized that. He wields an aspect of the Power Cosmic and has tech that can interact with virtually any kind of system. The implications are vast.
GREG: Hey, I always felt like we had a good number, an influx as you will, of street leveled type Black folk in comics. We can use some more powerful cosmic Blacks! Let’s talk a bit about his design.
JOHN: So, Ghost Light is like if Sankofa was a person. He is literally “go back and get it” as a character. The oval on his chest is like the egg that the Sankofa bird was reaching back to get and the three pronged design is like his voice reaching back to grab the egg and speak things into existence.
Al is of Jamaican descent and I tease this through cultural markers. Including the colors on his costume [being the colors of the Jamaican flag].
GREG: The jerk chicken and oxtail! I knew it!
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.
Click here for part 2 of the interview.
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.