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The Monday Media Diet with Van Jensen
On comics, Studio Ghibli, and Octavia Butler’s Parable books
Van Jensen (VJ) is a comic book writer, author, and filmmaker known for working on DC Comics characters including Superman, The Flash, and Green Lantern. We are very happy to have him on the page today. -Colin (CJN)
Tell us about yourself.
I’m from western Nebraska, a town of about 300 people in farm country. Somehow, despite that, my family was very bohemian. Everyone plays music. Both of my grandmothers were poets. My mom is an accomplished painter. On my dad’s side, the family ran a movie theater going back to silent films.
I went into journalism but always leaned toward storytelling, what is often called narrative nonfiction. First, I was a crime reporter in Little Rock, Arkansas, which was intense and fascinating and awful all at once. Then I shifted to writing and editing magazines after we moved to Atlanta.
The whole time, I was writing fiction on the side. Short stories and novels (terrible ones). I always loved comic books, and an artist friend and I on a whim started working on a comic, and it out of nowhere had some success. Enough to get me hired at DC Comics writing books like The Flash and Superman. I’ve gone on to do a mix of big characters and original graphic novels (you can see what I’ve written right here). Basically the exact dream job I envisioned as a kid. My latest comic, by the way, is Bylines in Blood, a detective story set in a near future in which truth no longer exists.
Probably the weirdest thing that has come of my weird career is that I was named a Comic Book Ambassador by the U.S. State Department. I’ve gotten to travel internationally to teach kids from different countries how to tell their own stories through comics. All you need is a piece of paper and something to draw with, and you can create whatever world you can imagine.
Outside of comics, I’ve also done a lot of branding and marketing work for clients like Ideas United, the Woodruff Arts Center, Georgia Tech and Microsoft. My favorite aspect of that work is using elements of storytelling to unlock new ways for brands to connect with customers.
Then I also have done some work in film and TV. I’ve written and directed some short films that have done well at film festivals, along with a few music videos. And I’ve developed a couple of TV shows that, as of yet, have not become actual TV shows.
Describe your media diet.
I’m a hoops head, so I start the day checking the box scores and highlights from late NBA games. At night, I watch games on League Pass. My go-to hoops news sources are The Athletic and Dan Devine’s coverage at The Ringer (way back, I wrote for Grantland and have written about the NBA on occasion).
I subscribe in print to the Sunday New York Times, the New Yorker, the Oxford American and Atlanta magazine. Then digital subscriptions to the Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I’m pretty old fashioned, but I find a lot of newer media to be a crappy regurgitation of someone else’s reporting, or pure conjecture. I like to read about science and technology, or anything about sociology and psychology. I think of it as putting out a net. Scoop up lots of ideas. Let them clank around in my brain, see if any pieces start to click together into something that might become a story or character or setting.
I just shifted my newsletter over to Substack, and I’m looking forward to exploring some other content here.
For entertainment, I’ve been going back to the stuff I loved as a kid. Pure pandemic comfort viewing. Batman: The Animated Series, Looney Tunes, Samurai Jack, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I’ve also been watching Studio Ghibli’s films in chronological order.
What’s the last great book you read?
Great is a high bar. I think I have to go back to The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. It was recommended by fellow Atlanta author Thomas Mullen. I had tried the movie adaptation and found it unwatchable. The novel is brilliant. Hilarious and harrowing, always heartfelt. It’s a book about how men grapple (and don’t) with their own capacity for violence, which is a topic I return to often in my own writing. It also has a specific voice that is just a joy to consume. There’s a scene in which a character has to scoop a horse’s eyeball out with a spoon, and I laugh just thinking about it.
What are you reading now?
I’ve started on Octavia Butler’s Parable books (Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents). Brilliant. Just starting The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott, a beautiful graphic novel by British creator Zoe Thorogood. And then I’m re-reading Black Elk Speaks, which is the great Sioux leader’s personal history and explanation of Lakota history and spirituality. A book that is challenging and rewarding in equal parts.
What’s your reading strategy when you pick up a print copy of your favorite publication?
Magazines I often consume back to front. No idea why I’ve always done this. I’ll find whatever the final piece is, read that. Then flip to the start of the next-to-last article, and on and on. I’m fairly unapologetic about skipping things that are either poorly written or on a topic I don’t find interesting (i.e. Talk of the Town items about New York street life, or any celebrity profile).
I usually read a longer article and shorter stuff concurrently. Like, on the kitchen island, I’ve got something short that I can peek at while I’m making the kids breakfast or whatever. Then at the same time I’ll be diving deep into a 20,000 word article about how we ruined Afghanistan whenever I can carve out real focus time.
Who should everyone be reading that they’re not?
My former colleague Rachael Maddux. Rachael is one of the best, if not the very best, writers I’ve worked with. She has a newsletter about death (and other things) that is good enough that when a new edition arrives, I’m glad to see my inbox expand. I can’t say that about much else.
What is the best non-famous app you love on your phone?
SkyView. It’s essentially AR-enhanced stargazing. You can hold it up to the night sky, and it shows the stars, planets and even satellites that are in view. It tells you what the constellations are, and bits of info about different solar systems. Not much better than being outside with the kids, teaching them about the universe.
Plane or train?
I’ve never actually *traveled* on a train. I love the idea of it, but I also am a really light sleeper, so I think I might just end up awake and grumpy for the duration. I’ve also never fallen asleep on an airplane, but at least a flight is going to take me from A to B faster.
What is one place everyone should visit?
My favorite place in Atlanta (and maybe the world) is the Center for Puppetry Arts. It’s a performance space that is a great time, whether with kids or not. And it also holds a museum of a stunning array of Jim Henson artifacts.
Tell us the story of a rabbit hole you fell deep into.
To be honest, my life is a series of rabbit holes. Like the time that I got unwittingly looped into the listserv for a Danish yacht club as its members endured internal strife and a battle against the local harbormaster.
But my deepest and weirdest and current rabbit hole came about when a friend of mine visited the University of West Georgia and told me that they have a program in parapsychology, i.e. ESP. I’ve visited the college a couple of times, and I’ve also read probably 30-40 books on the topic. All I will tell you is that telepathy is absolutely, undeniably real. Also, if you ever try a heavy dose of psilocybin, for God’s sake use a guide. (VJ)
WITI x McKinsey:
An ongoing partnership where we highlight interesting McKinsey research, writing, and data.
Cybercriminals are having a field day: a McKinsey survey found a near-sevenfold increase in spear-phishing attacks since the onset of the pandemic. This ongoing threat is proving increasingly challenging for organizations, but what does it mean for cybersecurity providers? A new article looks at the four remaining unsolved challenges in the new security landscape, and how addressing even one of these challenges can help providers gain a sustainable edge.
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Eurof (EU)
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