Counting Down The FOLD: Johnnie Christmas

Cover image for Johnnie's newest release Firebug.

Johnnie Christmas is a Vancouver-based comic artist who co-created the Angel Catbird graphic novel series with Margaret Atwood. He also e co-created the critically acclaimed Image Comics series SHELTERED, which has gone on to translation in multiple languages. He is the creator, writer and artist of FIREBUG, serialized in ISLAND Magazine; as well as co-creator of the sci-fi series PISCES.

In our final event “countdown” interview, we spoke to Johnnie about what inspires his art, the role of comic artistry in shaping CanLit and what he’s most looking forward to about his comic workshop session at the Festival of Literary Diversity.

Tickets for Johnnie’s workshop, Writing Comics with Johnnie Christmas are available on the Festival of Literary Diversity website. If you’re interested in attending the remaining FOLD sessions, some tickets are still available.

What are you most excited for about and with the FOLD and what do festivals like this mean for your work?

I’m excited about being able to meet and talk with other authors from diverse backgrounds because it’s not something you usually come across regularly. It’s a wonderful thing that Jael is doing with this, and I’m honored that I was asked to come. Hopefully the festival places my work in the paths of people it will resonate for, because they see themselves or like the book. Generally, at festivals like this, there’s a lot less to explain about experiences, where people might say, “Oh yeah, I get that. That looks like my auntie or that’s how my Dad is,” or something along those lines. I’m also looking forward to meeting readers.

What inspires the way you draw the worlds you read, and then bring to life visually? What does this process look like for you?

Since childhood, words have worked really well and the world made a lot of sense through the written word. It made a lot of sense visually however, because sometimes words are imprecise tools. Sometimes it’s easier to evoke the feeling through a different medium and drawing helped that. When it comes to telling stories, I might see it visually first or in the written word. There’s not a very long distance to leap from words to drawing. I’m not entirely sure of how I do it, but I believe that we all have that capacity to some extent.

What would you say to people who come to your work and finally see themselves reflected in an industry, giving them the feeling they can create in the same spaces that felt limited before?

I’d tell them that they can and absolutely should do it because we need them. We need them now and we’ll need them in the future. Everyone has a personal story no matter your background. Everyone’s background, home and even breakfast is very specific. Only you can tell your story and it’s very important to tell your story. Even if the story you see may not seem like a reflection of you or that there’s an audience that’s not receptive to you, there is one. There is an audience of people who are willing to hear your story and embrace it. Get out there and do it for all of us.

How did you know that drawing and comics were your medium? Did you have a particular moment where you realized, ‘This is my medium.”?

When I was in high school, I was in an arts program and I was looking at film, photography and other art. I came across some old X-Men comics and there was something about the way Jim Lee drew, that I knew for sure it was a person. I knew comics were drawn by people but I saw them more as a product but when I saw what this person was creating, I knew that if he didn’t draw these, the series wouldn’t see the light of day. I realized that I can tell very specific stories that only I can tell on that day, with that particular pen. I don’t know why it had that impact, but it did. Knowing that I could do it by myself, with a pen and without raising millions of dollars to do it, or gather a huge team to do it was magical. It was being able to have a cup of tea by myself and craft a very specific, singular world.

When I think about CanLit, there are so many forms and mediums that we haven’t tapped into and built upon yet. Much of it is focused on fiction and novels, which may just be the “Lit” part of the name, but I’m wondering if it needs to expand so that we don’t get stuck defining it by a singularity and bring in the various forms of telling stories. As a comic artist, I’m wondering what your thoughts are about this.

Absolutely. There are incredibly powerful Canadian graphic novels and people telling stories in many different forms that you may not get elsewhere. The panel I’m doing for example, is with Jillian Tamaki who is one of my heroes and an incredible Canadian cartoonist who is part of a larger group telling beautiful, poetic stories. If she’s not part of the CanLit conversation, I don’t know who is, but I think comics in general have gotten a bad rap. Superhero comics in North America have been the dominant genre in comics so I think people assume comics are popcorn-fare that’s very superficial. There is however, a lot going on in the medium. I’m confident that in time, the power and beauty of these works will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all the other wonderful work that’s coming out of Canada. We’re all just doing our part to bring it there. People are aware that there are things happening and I think we just have to keep reminding them.

What was your favorite part of writing Firebug?

There’s a sequence where she meets some ancestors and it’s a very unguarded moment. It was a moment in writing that I felt most like I didn’t have beats to get to, and could just sit in the space with the characters and let them speak. This was the part I liked best. Being able to do the work in general was an incredible experience, in terms of pitching it and getting it published in the world for people to read. I don’t take it for granted.

What about the fan response? What is a favorite part of the fans and reader responses to the book?

Generally, Black women and Black people read it and their response has been really important to me. These stories stay in your head forever and there are a lot of readers not necessarily seeing themselves. You’re never sure whether the work will connect with anyone so when it does, it means a lot. It’s the difference in responses where people give you a general high-five saying, “That was great!” where others will tell you what it meant to them, which is a more subtle response. The meaningful responses have felt the best for me.

What are you most excited to delve into at your comic book writing workshop?

I’m excited to show people the power of the inception phase, from bringing a great logline to an outline and moving that into scripting. People often go straight to pictures or want to get into the meat of the script but you may find a lot of challenges emerge in writing if you didn’t outline most of your work, to make sure your pitch is airtight. You then have to get comfortable pitching it to everybody you know, until they get sick of the idea and you see something light up in their eyes where they ask, “What about that thing you were talking about?” That’s what you want and I’m hoping to impress upon attendees to get the seed of the story planted because from there the writing is a joy. When you’re in the weeds and feel the story isn’t working, it may be that more attention to the outline was required..

What are you working on next? Where can readers and artists find your work?

I’m working on a science fiction series that should be announced soon, releasing around the Fall. It stars a Black woman in a sci-fi setting on a distant world and it’s an ongoing series. I’m excited to look into the themes and tropes of sci-fi on a different world, where most of the people will be of varying ethnic diversities.

I’m also doing another sci-fi project which is in an already established sci-fi vein with a wonderful sci-fi writer, who many people will probably recognize when it’s announced.