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Joel Christian Gill draws 'uncelebrated' black history comics in 'Strange Fruit'

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Joel Christian Gill drew a crowd last month at BookExpo America when he appeared at the Fulcrum Publishing booth to sign copies of his new book Strange Fruit, Volume I: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History.

The artist’s graphic novel is a collection of nine stories from early African-American history representing “the oddity of success in the face of great adversity.” It evolved from the jarring subject matter of a series of paintings he made in grad school at Boston University.

“I’d toyed with paintings about lynchings, that were beautiful and disturbing at the same time,” said Gill, who hails from Virginia and now resides in New Hampshire.

“Paintings are beautiful,” he explained, while conceding that lynchings are hardly the stuff of beauty. Heightening the irony, his most successful entry in the series was a self-portrait with a noose around his own neck—though the rope itself had been cut.

“I called it 'Strange Fruit Harvested.'”

“Strange Fruit," of course, is a classic song recorded, famously by Billie Holiday, in 1939. Based on a poem by Abel Meeropol, the lyrics depict the “strange fruit” of bloody “black bodies swingin' in the southern breeze [and] hangin' from the poplar trees.”

“Living in Virginia and then Boston, I came to the conclusion, after moving to a bastion of liberalism, that we had come a long way—but not far enough,” said Gill. “People were telling me not to go to this neighborhood and that neighborhood, and I was scared to go places, whereas I was from a small town in the South where the Klan would march—but I wasn’t afraid to go anywhere!”

Of his paintings, Gill’s friends said that while he was trying to tell stories through them, he was failing.

“That wasn’t the thing I wanted to hear!” he said. “But I originally wanted to go to school to learn to draw comics, anyway, so it spurred me back to comics.”

The rest, Gill noted, “happened organically.”

First, he met alternative comics cartoonist Box Brown. Googling Brown, he came upon Henry “Box” Brown, a 19th Century slave from Gill’s home state who escaped to freedom by having himself mailed to Philadelphia abolitionists in a wooden crate after 33 years of slavery. “Box” Brown’s story is the first depicted in Strange Fruit, Volume I.

A big fan of alternative comic book artist/cartoonist Chris Ware and his Acme Novelty Library series, Gill decided he needed his own such library, a la Strange Fruit, and soon collected other “uncelebrated narratives.”

“I think of ‘strange fruit’ as a metaphor for American history—as a tree, not so much with these ‘black bodies swinging in the southern breeze’ but representing people who are off the beaten path,” said Gill. “It’s taking the idea of the song and changing it from this negative thing, twisting it on its head and reclaiming it so that it’s not just bodies, but these other kinds of stories.”

The last story in Strange Fruit, Volume I is “Bass Reeves: Lawman,” about another escaped slave, Bass Reeves, who became one of the most successful lawmen of the Old West—and the rumored inspiration for "The Lone Ranger." The story will soon be retold as the first in another Fulcrum Gill series, Tales of the Talented Tenth (Bass Reeves: Tales of the Talented Tenth, due from Fulcrum in September), the series title coming from W.E.B. Du Bois’ influential 1903 essay, which suggested that 10 percent of the African-American population—"the Talented Tenth"—would emerge to lead the other 90 percent.

The Talented Tenth stories, said Gill, will be more “action-based” than those of Strange Fruit. He adds that besides “uncelebrated narratives,” he’s now looking at “uncelebrated uncelebrated narratives” for Strange Fruit, Volume II and Tales of a Talented Tenth, Volume II.

“Lo and behold, there are some great ones!” he said, pointing to the likes of Bessie Stringfield (the first African-American woman to ride across the U.S. on a motorcycle solo and one of the few motorcycle despatch military messengers during World War II), Mary Elizabeth Bowser (a freed slave who served as a Union spy during the Civil War) and Cathay Williams (the first African-American woman to enlist in the U.S. Army, and the only one known to have served posing as a man).

And the second volume of Strange Fruit will also feature the series’ first music-related story in that of Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins, an autistic slave who became one of the best-known perofrming pianists of his time.

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