Stacey Robinson and John Jennings connected over a shared love of comic books and hip-hop when they chatted at a conference in Atlanta more than 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, talked about Jack Kirby, an influential comic book artist, writer and editor who created many iconic characters such as The Fantastic Four, Black Panther, Hulk and the X-Men — and how his contributions weren’t sufficiently credited in Marvel’s stream of cinematic blockbusters.
“They’re treating Jack Kirby like he’s Black,” said Robinson. “They ought to call him Black Kirby.”
That exchange of ideas spawned the name for Jennings and Robinson to pair up as art collective Black Kirby, which draws inspiration from Kirby, viewing him through the lens of a Black politicized comic book artist.
As Black Kirby, they create the types of comics they sought in their youths, remixing originals like hip-hop producers utilize samples.
“Instead of sampling from a data set that’s auditory, we’re using a data set that is visual,” Jennings said.
Black Kirby creates visual art that focuses on themes of Afrofuturism, social justice, representation and magical realism and is on display 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,” whose title pays tribute to Public Enemy’s album “Fear of a Black Planet. Both shows run through June 19.
“We started to make these really explicit connections between Black Power, Black liberation and Afrofuturism,” Jennings said.
The original comic, “Ebon,” was created by Larry Fuller, who was one of only a few Black cartoonists in the underground comics movement in San Francisco in the late ’60s. “Ebon,” which debuted in 1970, focuses on the character Valentine Jones aka Ebon, who has the abilities of flight, super strength and super speed.
Ebon draws his powers from his ancestor named Jom, who originates from an alien planet called Nyta where everyone is Black. Jom was said to have visited Africa to teach men advanced science.
The comic book never made it past its first issue due to lack of demand, and Fuller could only use his sketches of the character after the leading artist he 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 diasporic culture, science and technology.
Although Afrofuturism is often associated with science fiction, it can also be applied to various genres, including fantasy, alternative history and magical realism.
Robinson said a simplified definition of Afrofuturism is Black people in the future defining what that future is, allowing Black people to have an agency in shaping their futures, which historically hasn’t been the case in science fiction.
Jennings said science fiction in its early days didn’t show many people of color or women unless they were being saved.
“This science fiction is a political erasure of Black experiences,” Jennings said. “We are trying to reclaim that and think very positively of what’s coming next.”
They collaborated with Fuller via phone calls, Facebook Messenger and Zoom sessions and created “Ebon: Fear of a Black Planet,” which expands the character and narrative from the first “Ebon” issue.
Jennings and Robinson said that their collaboration with Fuller was special because they could work directly with the original source and ask for his input. It allowed the collective to preserve Fuller’s work but also give it in an increased level of recognition.
“The Ebon show connects how we think about collaborating with other people and celebrating the legacies of those who foreground the world that we operate in everyday,” Robinson said. “It’s an honor to work with Larry and build out this world that he imagines.”
Black Kirby’s reimagining of Fuller’s work expands the character Ebon’s background and culture. Jennings designed a typeface called “Jukia,” which he based on Caribbean women’s African Diasporic body movements.
The duo also worked with Fuller to illustrate the oracle-like gods in “Ebon” and introduced illustrations for supporting characters that Fuller didn’t have the opportunity to incorporate.
“Stacey and I are really into world-building,” Jennings said. “We’re storytellers, so we like to do science-fiction storytelling around the character.”
Guests viewing the exhibits can expect to see the artwork displayed on printed posters and the digital work presented through television screens and lightboxes in the gallery space. For “Ebon: Fear of a Black Planet,” there are also some three-dimensional displays of action figures and Funko Pops of Ebon.
“I think John and I do a really good job at expanding a very simple idea that is easy to digest and can be an inspiration for a young person and an elder,” Robinson said. “They both can bring a type of commentary or experience that’s beyond us.”
If you go
When: Through June 19.
Where: Sweeney Art Gallery at UCR Arts, 3834 Main St., Riverside.
Information: 951-827-4787 or ucrarts.ucr.edu.