Saturday, September 19, 2009

Hardboiled Wonderland & The End of the World

Graphic artist John Hendrix's work has been featured in everything from The New Yorker to Rolling Stone, Esquire to Paste, Wired, Vanity Fair and beyond. His work is often about calamity, destruction and the uh... end of the world. Last year he illustrated the children's title Abe Licoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale by Deborah Hopkinson. This year he returns with his first book as author and illustrator, John Brown: His Fight For Freedom, about famed and infamous abolitionist John Brown. It struck me as such a hard sell for a children's book, such a compelling, dark and gutsy idea in a time when "religious extremism" plays a front and center role in suffering and conflict around the world that I had to pick his brain a bit. In the author's note in the book, Hendrix is careful to point out that John Brown's "religious extremism" was rooted in freedom and not oppression which makes him stand out, but holy crap it's still a controversial theme for a tot's book. I read it with my five year old and had a veeerrry interesting conversation afterward. (Mike Knowles at Do Some Damage had a worthwhile bit on challenging children's books a couple weeks back). So here I go straining the limits of the genre again. Sue me.

Was the book a hard sell to publishers?

My first book I wrote, John Brown, ended up being my second book.

Scholastic was really interested in it when I approached them in 2003. They bought it and we were off. They were very supportive of my drawings and really felt like they could overcome the difficult subject matter to get it to fit their list. But, ultimately, we both agreed that it wasn’t really the best fit for us together. I resold the story to Abrams in 2005 and that was a much better house for the book. They do smaller runs of books that take more risks, so there isn’t the pressure to sell 50,000 of them to break even. In the end, I just wanted it published somewhere, and I’m really fortunate that it is at a house like Abrams.

While JB was lying fallow, and given that I had shopped my work around to every place in New York with a civil war interest, the story for "Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek" was a really good fit when it came across my desk.

What was the origin of the project?

It has been a long time coming as you know, but the process has been very rewarding.
For me, all ideas start with visuals. I first fell in love with John Brown as a visual subject.

I had lived in Kansas for seven years, so I really knew about him as a kind of folk hero first. Then when I moved to New York, I met a John Brown scholar, Louis A. DeCaro, he had written a very positive portrayal of John Brown’s life called “Fire From the Midst of You”- and I loved it.

When I started reading about him, I also became really enamored with who he was and what he believed in. So, I made a list of all the images I wanted to include in a story about his life, and wrote the book around those ideas. Even though I wrote the book, I would never start with words. I am not a 'writer's writer'... but an artist who uses words to frame and create my own visual content. The images are always the staring place for me.

To me, Brown is a true civil rights hero. And most people think he is a lunatic. We have this popular image of him as an insane loony who killed people with some flawed notion of his own importance who was punishing innocent civilians because of his religious beliefs. When you really read what he believed and why he was brought to his actions- you see just how unique he was in his own era. A true visionary, and he has been minimized because I think most people are uncomfortable with people who are strongly motivated by religious ideas. I feel as though he deserves a more accurate account of his life.

Where did the fascination with Brown begin? What other biographical and historical elements would you have liked to cover?

Someone recently said that perhaps I should try to do kids books on subjects that shouldn’t have kids books. I like that idea. Now, that is harder than it sounds once you start making a short list. Better yet, are difficult and untold stories. What about the German minister who tried to kill Hitler, Dietrich Bonheoffer? Or I’d love to do a book about the man who ended slavery in England, William Wilberforce. These are great stories with a sharp moral edge to rub against- and stories that most people don’t know.

Why American historical figures? (Lincoln and Brown) Any others in the queue?

I really do believe that you should write about what you know, and for me, I grew up in the heartland of America- spent my summers on my grandparents farm in Vernon County Missouri (a place that John Brown raided to free slaves when he was in the area!) and so I feel really connected to the stories of the American experience. Now, as I say that- I’m working on a story that takes place in France, but has connections to the spirit of John Brown. I’m in the midst of selling this idea, so I don’t want to mention it specifically- but I can say there will be guns involved.

Any other ideas for children's books?

Children's books were the first illustration vehicles that I truly loved. Of course, my editorial career took off when I first started out in NYC and I love doing those images as well, but my heart has always leaned towards story in sequence.

For my next book, I will be working together on another book centered on the Civil War. (Most people think I’m a civil war nut, when in fact I just really love history- this will be last civil war book for a while.) It is a great story about a young girl named Sarah Edmonds who dresses up like a man to fight for the Union. She was such a great soldier that they asked her to become a spy. So, in a Shakespearean twist, she dressed up like many different kinds of people- black slaves, female nurses, male soldiers, all to spy on confederate cannon positions. We couldn’t focus on all her spy missions in the book, so we illustrated just one episode where she dresses as a male slave- darkening her skin with silver nitrate. True story!

Adult books?

You could argue that the John Brown book might be better suited for an adult audience, but when you are working with images- there really is no market for adult picture books, unfortunately, unless you are counting graphic novels. But that isn’t really what I do.

Your work has a tendency toward disaster and apocalypse, where does that come from?

I’ve often thought about this and it is hard for me to come up with any particular reason I’m drawn towards these types of images. Artist statements that try to ferret out all the subconscious reasons for making particular images often defeat the magic of the work- and seem a bit self-important. I think that it is partially a love of the forms that come in those images- but that might be oversimplifying a bit. Some of it comes from my faith and the connection to biblical imagery- and imagery that came out of the church in the late 19th century- spiritual warfare and use of symbols much like the Book of Revelation. Of course, my work is also unavoidably goofy. I find that pairing lo-fi silly drawings with serious content like earthquakes and the apocalypse is a nice kind of visual tension.

What is the connection between your other, (art), work and John Brown?

It is hard to deny the connection between the bluster and fire of John Brown and the disaster images and doomsday scenarios that populate my other work. The brimstone that John Brown brought to the cause of the enslaved was downright Biblical. On the cover of the book, I was looking at popular images of Moses and Superman for reference… so that should tip my hand a bit. I’ve always been interested in the connection between belief and action- faith and reason- the sacred and the secular. John Brown has all these themes in his life.

How do you present this complex topic to your own children? Has it provoked any interesting conversations with children?

Well, my oldest, Jack, just turned four. A bit young to even have a basic conversation about the realities of slavery. Currently, he can’t distinguish the actual feasibility between someone like Santa Clause, Spiderman and Jesus Christ. He does know that my book is about “John Brown” and likes to draw John Brown on his own- but we really haven’t gone past that, nor should we just yet.

I’m just starting on my book ‘tour’ this fall (three places so far) and I’ll get to interact with more children about the book- I’ll let you know if I get drilled with some tough questions. I can think of a few I’d hate to get asked.

What parallels to today do you find in the book?

Usually, when we hear the name of John Brown brought up in contemporary conversation or in print- it is in association with something either horrible or notorious.
Last year, as the presidential candidate Barack Obama was floundered by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the New York Review of Books compared the situation to the way President Lincoln was mired by his association with John Brown. And on and on, the DC sniper, Timothy McVeigh and the killing of the abortion doctor Tiller have all brought mentions of John Brown- not without reason, but it is too bad that his legacy is mostly centered in the “homegrown violence against Americans” – rather than an American portrait of self-sacrifice.

Certainly, we Americans would agree that some things are worth fighting for and dying for. Our country is founded on the principles of freedom, choice and even happiness. But, it is a fascinating question to ask: how much evil would you personally tolerate before you beat it back? How many friends hauled away in chains would it take for you to take up arms and resist? John Brown could not stand the thought of inaction… for that I admire him.

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