John Hendrix grew up in St. Louis, left home to advance his art career, and eventually returned. Along the way he spent some time as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer for the New York Times, but returning home also gave him a chance to expand his first love into his current niche as an illustrator. His books have popped up on our radar several times, most notably with the recent, much-awarded The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler. Earlier, we gave Miracle Man: the Story of Jesus a starred review. At the time it seemed very unusual for a secular publisher to include an unabashedly Christian book on its list. Even though he presented the story as “more of a tall tale, or folklore,” Hendrix left no doubt in the author note that he himself was a follower of Jesus.
He confirmed that when I talked with him last December. Born and raised a Methodist, he attended Evangelical Free churches during his college and early New York years, then settled into Redeemer Church, founded by Tim Keller. Today his home church is a PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) congregation which he serves as an elder.
A few questions (as this was a phone interview, answers are paraphrased except when indicated by quotation marks):
Q. How would you describe The Faithful Spy—graphic novel? Illustrated biography? It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen!
A. Kind of a “visual novel”—I see it as 100% pictures and 100% words. Or another way to say it is “a sketchbook or journal come to life.”
Q. One thing that distinguishes a lot of your illustration work is the incorporation of word art [i.e., words included symbolically in the illustration itself]. Miracle Man makes very effective use of this, especially with the words of Jesus represented graphically. The Faithful Spy goes one better by using hand-lettering for the text! Did you actually hand-letter the whole book?
A. I hired someone to develop a font based on my hand-printing. Each character has four slightly different glyphs. When I use the font, the glyphs swap out randomly so it looks like hand-lettering, but actually isn’t. Incidentally, the word art is cool, but creates a problem when translating into other languages. Right now the French translation is in production and all the word art has to be redone. I don’t do that—I’ll create the cover of the French edition but I don’t have to redo all the text.
Q. How long have you been interested in Bonhoeffer, and how long did it take you to produce the biography?
A. I read Life Together in college, so my interest dates at least from there. The Cost of Discipleship came a few years later. The Faithful Spy took about five years.
Q. You probably read a lot of biographies. What were your primary resources?
A. There are five major biographies of Bonhoeffer out there—I read all of them. But my greatest insight into his personality came from his Letters and Papers from Prison. I got to see some of these actual letters when I went to Berlin. It was quite an experience to actually hold them!
Q. So you got to do on-site research, then?
A. Yes, I visited several Third Reich sites as well as Bonhoeffer’s house. I also visited Flossenburg, near the Czech border, where he was executed. About 30,000 prisoners were executed at Flossenburg concentration camp; they’re commemorated by a pile of ash. Dietrich’s body is in there.
Q. Other reviewers have remarked that this biography is actually two biographies—Bonhoeffer’s and Hitler’s. Is that how you planned it?
A. No, but as I went further into research it struck me how opposite they were. (The red and teal color scheme emphasizes that sharp contrast between them.) A pacifist contrasted with a fanatical warmonger, Christian vs. atheist, etc. It became kind of a “big bio/little bio,” with Hitler’s rise and the Third Reich shaping the events in Bonhoeffer’s life. His story couldn’t be told any other way.
Q. Yes! As I was reading The Faithful Spy I learned or relearned facts about the Third Reich I felt I should have known already. That “background story” actually makes for a clear and concise outline of the development of the war.
A. Other readers have told me that, too!
Q. The Faithful Spy is very explicit about Bonhoeffer’s faith in Christ. And of course, Miracle Man is all about Jesus. Did you receive any pushback from your publisher about that?
A. Abrams has been my publisher from the start and they understand that the Christian market is a market! I have a good relationship with my editor who’s overseen most of my projects, including Miracle Man. Though not Christian themselves, they are supportive, and I’m grateful for that.
Q. Let’s talk about your “other job” for a minute. You teach at the Sam Fox School of Art & Design at Washington University, St. Louis. Do you find that teaching cuts into your “creative time,” or enhances it?
A. A little of both. Teaching does cut into the time I spend on my books, but it’s good for me to be around people, especially students. Also, it’s a blessing to have a steady income so I can devote time to the projects I really care about.
Q. Speaking of projects, what are you working on now?
A. I’ve got a follow up to Miracle Man on my desk right now, titled at the moment: “Go and Do Likewise: The Parables and Wisdom of Jesus” that is from Abrams, out Spring 20.
Awesome! We will definitely watch for that one!