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Artist Uses Comics as Unique Medium for Celebrating Black History

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Photo Courtesy of Joel Gill
Photo Courtesy of Joel Gill

By Brieanah Gouveia

 

On the night of Feb. 10 in Wortmann Ballroom, comic artist and Roanoke College Alum, Joel Christian Gill discussed the evolution of his career in the arts. Focused on the problematic segregation of minority history from the rest of American history, Gill’s work celebrates the lives of those African American’s whose amazing life stories have not received enough recognition because of marginalization.

Gill began his speech by reflecting on the growth of his art from his time as an undergraduate at Roanoke College to studying painting as a graduate student at Boston University. He explained what an intense culture shock it was to move from a small town in the south to a big city in the north. He went on to describe two instances in which he was informed of the severity of racism in Boston that significantly changed his perspective on his new home. Soon Gill came to realize that he was more afraid of living in Boston than he had ever been living in his southern hometown, despite there having been an actual Klan march through the town he grew up in when he was in the third grade. Gill remarked, “Being in love with the South for a black man is like being in love with a prostitute—there are some things you just don’t openly talk about.”

While in Boston, Gill started a portrait series inspired by Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” which tells of the lynching of blacks in the south—their bodies like “strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.” The portraits were contemporary renderings of African-Americans wearing ropes around their necks. In response to this series a critic remarked, “It looks like your paintings are trying to tell stories but are failing.” After 2 years of slaving over this project, this was not the response Gill was expecting. However, this feedback prompted him to do away with painting and pursue his true passion of comic design. Through comics, Gill felt as though he would successfully be able to combine his drawing skills with that of storytelling.

The first comic book series Gill worked on was an autobiographical narrative called Dandelions. About 50 pages into the making of this series Gill was invited to join the Boston Comics Roundtable, and affiliation of comic writers and artists from the area. This organization connected Gill with many like-minded individuals, such as fellow artist Jesse Moynihan. Gill approached Moynihan with Dandelions, and again his work was criticized of having too vague of a storyline. Feeling like an utter failure again, Gill decided to devote time to what he described as “earning his ‘Library Degree’ in comics.” This meant rather than making his own stories, he would turn all of his attention to studying other artists in order to figure out what went into making a great comic. After countless hours spent in the library, Gill finally felt as though he was ready to try his hand at comic writing again. Inspired largely by the work of Chris Ware, one of the world’s greatest comic geniuses, Gill again took to the drawing board.

Scrapping his autobiographical series, Gill looked back to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” This became the inspiration behind his graphic novel, Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History, in which he tells the tales of nine civil rights heroes, some well-known and others not as popular. The first story he was drawn to was that of Henry Box Brown, a slave who reached freedom by traveling to Philadelphia in a wooden crate. Another figure he highlighted was Spottswood Rice. Gill said this man was the only person whose story he did not struggle to tell. Equipped with Rice’s actual handwritten letters, Gill wrote using all of Rice’s own words, including his spelling errors, and even tried to mimic his own handwriting.
In response to the question posed by an audience member, “How do you find these stories?” Gill responded that “Actually, every story from Strange Fruit was told to me by another person.” He then takes it upon himself to further research into the lives of these individuals.

After reading a powerful excerpt from Rice’s story aloud, Gill segued into a critique of the generic presentations of Black History Month in schools, libraries and on television. What strikes Gill most about the pairing of historical African-American figures discussed during Black History Month, is that he finds most of them have more in common with other people of different races. Gill used the paralleling of Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr. as an example. Gill believes Mr. King Jr. has far more in common with Harvey Mill, a politician and advocate of gay rights, than he does with his fellow black-man Jackie Robinson. Gill believes there are much more substantial parallels to be made between black men with other white men; however, because black history is so far removed from being studied with the rest of American history, so too are the comparisons of successful, influential black men and women overlooked.

Gill argued that the problem with history today is the separation of “us and them.” He referred to “them” as not just blacks, but gays and women as well. He believes that by separating out the histories of minorities it makes it okay to only talk about them during a designated timeframe. Gill argues that in reality American history is made up of the history of all minorities and therefore should be talked about on a daily basis. Thus, the purpose of Gill’s comics are to celebrate black history 365 days a year as opposed to just 28 days once a year. In reference to the American mythos, Gill argued that “we built this country together so everything that makes it up is our shared history.”

The presentation was brought to an end with what most broke college students, especially those comic nerds amongst them, would consider a gift from God—Gill announced he would be giving out free copies to the first 30 people who made it to a table set up at the back of the room. Never turning down an offer of free comics, I power-walked from my seat in the first row as others shyly made their way over. Gill signed each comic and decorated them with quick sketches of Bass Reeves, another individual highlighted in Strange Fruit who Gill believes was the true inspiration behind the iconic Lone Ranger.

In addition to Strange Fruit, Gill has another comic series about amazing figures in black history called Tales of the Talented, in which he tells of more unique stories of African-American men and women. I left with one copy of both of these comics and am honored to be able to diversify my graphic novel collection with the powerful work of this talented artist. Fittingly Joel Gill has a spot on my shelf right next to Chris Ware.