- Lauren McNeese
John Hendrix on Art, Humanity, & the Power of a Single Voice
“I fundamentally do not remember a time before drawing. I have always drawn. I don’t know what the world is like without drawing,” John Hendrix, author of The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler, recalls when asked where his love of drawing first began. His graphic novel was the summer reading book of our school’s grades six through twelve.
Hendrix knew from a young age that he wanted to choose a career that involved his passion for drawing. Upon entering junior high school, he believed that the closest he could get to this would be in architecture, and accepted an internship at an architecture firm. “And then I began to read comics,” he says, “and I realized, whoever’s making these, this is their job. And I kind of couldn’t believe that.” Upon realizing this, Hendrix began to take comics very seriously, and entered college wanting to draw comics. Graphic novels provided the perfect combination of his two loves: drawing and writing. Hendrix defines authorship as making your own ideas; in fact, with this definition, you don’t have to necessarily be a writer, but you can be an author, where you make your own ideas, you make your own things that interest you. “I truly think that art is best when it is very small and it attempts something that is humble in a way.”
Hendrix’s early inspiration ranges from Maus, by Art Spiegelman, to the original comics of Spiderman. “I really loved Spiderman, and I couldn’t identify why at the time, but now looking back the story of Spiderman is unique in a lot of the superhero narratives because he is a kid fundamentally unequipped to handle the power that has been given to him,” he explains. “I think that is a particularly beautiful and metaphorical tale.” He accredits these works to opening up his mind to the role that comics can play in readers’ lives. He also loved “The Tic,” which is a satirical comic that has since been made into an Amazon show, as well as the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which were “very dark and spooky and kind of beautiful.”
Hendrix believed that the graphic novel format would be most appropriate for his audience: going to the graphic novel format would allow the story to be promoted to middle grades and young adults. “It gave me the sort of square footage I needed to unpack the story and describe the Third Reich and all the stuff that goes along with making a very complex tale like that.”
While he believes himself to be responsible for accuracy and understanding of his works, Hendrix would not call himself a scholar. Instead, he credits the “real scholars” who studied the original sources for Bonhoeffer and whose books served as research for his own. Hendrix was impacted by Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together, when he was in college. As he delved into his publishing career, he hoped to go deeper into investigating his story. He has read all of the books on Bonhoeffer that have been published. Hendrix read those books and synthesized them into a story. He did visit Berlin to spend some time with Bonhoeffer’s original papers, but due to the fact that he cannot read German, he “really just enjoyed them as sort of an aesthetic experience and tried to get a sense of who he was.”
Hendrix hopes The Faithful Spy will teach young people some lessons about the power of a single voice against evil. He hopes that it has led readers to think about where their personal moral code comes in contact with the world, in church and in government. He hopes that it urges them to think about the problem that Bonhoeffer faced when his two moral systems collided: Nationalism and Theism. His two loves, his love for his country and his love for God, were at odds. Bonhoeffer had to make a decision wherein he felt as though whatever he did, he would be committing a kind of evil. Hendrix thinks that this is instructive, “to think of how that might impact us, how it might manifest itself in our current world.” Hendrix charges his readers who are Christian, saying that Bonhoeffer also offers a sort of warning to take away, that there is an inherent danger with the church wanting to align themselves with political power, regardless of what kind of power that is. This does, however, appear to be a very real temptation. “I think that any state is susceptible to the temptations of power, and any church is susceptible to the temptations of aligning with powerful states,” Hendrix allows, “Whether that comes from a liberal or a conservative direction, the church is fundamentally disinterested in power. That is one of Jesus’s major takeaways: that you are not to try to preserve yourself, that you are to turn the other cheek and weaken yourself.” Hendrix admits that this is a bizarre thing, and that Hitler hated that about Christianity: he thought it was just way too weak to be a state religion and so he had no problem tearing it down and undermining the basic Christian principles from the very beginning and manipulating it against itself. Hendrix is able to hone down what he believes the heart of Dietrich’s struggle to be: he was a pacifist, and he knew that he was supposed to pray for his enemies. There was an incredible tension, therefore, when he felt called to draw up arms against his government.
Hendrix says that it is important to study history because humanity has not really changed since the Garden of Eden. In fact, “we are fools to think that we are somehow better than people in the past.” While it may be easy to think that the people in the Middle Ages are dumb or didn’t understand the world and therefore can be dismissed, Hendrix claims that we are fundamentally the same. Though they may have not fully understood the way that the solar system worked, that doesn’t give us an excuse to ignore their wisdom, their thoughts, their lessons. “We, unfortunately, have an astonishing amount in common with the people of Germany in the twenties and thirties and it’s easy to think that that could never happen again,” Hendrix boldly reveals “But, I think that if you read history, then you are better prepared to deal with the world around you.”
Hendrix warns his readers (and students in general) to be wary of taking history out of its context, though, and bringing it into the current. You have to read the era. While it is important to study history, it is also important to do so with a sense of intuition.
When asked what advice he would give to young artists, Hendrix began by stating that artistic ability, like anything, takes a long time to cultivate. Behind any artist who has a particular style, there are literally thousands of hours of drawing to figure out what works and what doesn’t, to figure out what it is you do well and what you struggle with, and how you make stuff. Hendrix expounds, describing the hundreds of different choices that must be made in every piece of art: “Really, the only way to figure that out is to make all of those choices and to see which ones work and which ones don’t.” Despite being inspired to attempting a style of painting similar to Chris Van Allsburg in college, for example, Hendrix realized his talent was in drawing. “It was more about my sketchbook and trying to make my drawings the central narrative, the thing that everything else reacts to.” An artist must gain a sense, for themselves, the ways that different colors work together and the reactions that they will evoke; the artist must learn for themselves the way they are to think about background and foreground; the artist has to decide how his or her decisions will impact the other. “It’s fundamentally not very interesting to talk about because it takes one artist so long to figure it out, I truly wish there was some sort of an “AHA” moment of inspiration, and to be honest sometimes that does happen, but they are actually very rare.” Hendrix encourages young artists by revealing that, most of the time, “what it is is just sort of faithfully working hard with patience and perseverance in a particular direction, and I’m just hoping that it all works out.”
Hendrix offers two specific orders of business for young artists. The first step is to make your work really good. You must “kill your darlings,” which basically means to get rid of the things in your product that you like because others don’t think that they are working. “Listening to what people are saying about your work and how it is received is very important, and that takes a ton of practice, to be honest.” When you’re ready to put your work out there, Hendrix communicates a sense of urgency, saying that one “can’t just wait, you have to find the best things that you’ve created and start sending them out.” Hendrix motivates creators when he says that while this first step must be taken, there’s really no shame in it. Everyone has been a rookie, everyone has done it. Hendrix ends what has been quite the inspirational pitch by sharing what he tells his own students: “You don’t need to convince a thousand people that your work is good, you need one person, basically. You need one editor to like it. To see the vision, to think that you have something to offer. And that’s all it takes.”
If you would like to further your study of Bonhoeffer, Hendrix recommends Strange Glory by Charles Marsh, and of course two of Bonhoeffer’s own, Life Together and Letters and Papers from Prison. If you would like to read more of Hendrix, he has written two picture books on John Brown and Sarah Edmonds.