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A cartoonist and historian speaks to the power of Black comic books

The history of Black cartoonists and comics dates back to the 1940s, and Joel Christian Gill has pushed to create more space for them today.
Posted at 9:03 PM, Feb 16, 2023

Black history in comic books is so much more than the modern-day success of "Black Panther."

In 1942, during the Golden Age of comics, cartoonist Jay Jackson created the character of Speed Jaxon to advocate for inclusion and equality. Five years later, the publisher All-Negro Comics debuted its first and only issue illustrated and written solely by Black artists.

Decades later, a group of Black comic book veterans started Milestone Media, introducing readers to superheroes like Static Shock, Icon, Rocket and Hardware.

"The first time I saw myself represented in visual media, I think probably in comics, it would probably go back to Milestone Media in the 90s when they were an all-Black comic book company that came out with my favorite all-time superhero, which is Hardware," said Joel Christian Gill, a cartoonist and professor at Boston University.

Gill celebrates comics across all genres. He's a celebrated cartoonist, historian, and author, with books including his memoir "Fights: One Boy's Triumph Over Violence," and the non-fiction graphic novel series "Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History."

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"I say I draw comics," Gill said. "They're like, 'Well, what kind of superheroes do you draw?' I'm like, 'Harriet Tubman. She's a hero.'"

Gill's work now also includes an exhibit on the history and power of comics as a "medium, not a genre" at Boston University.

It includes decades of work from Black artists, with a statement from comic book publisher and DC Comics veteran Joseph Ilidge that reads: "Every comic book we finish and hurl into the world is a culmination of our hope."

Gill says he realized the power of comic books as an "empathy machine" after speaking with his own readers.

"With my memoir, 'Fights,' one of the things I get from people a lot is like 'I feel seen.' Like, people who have lived like I did or grew up in a place like I did, I feel like — I don't feel like I'm alone," Gill said.

"Fights" was listed as one of the New York Times' best graphic novels of 2020, and in 2021, it was nominated for the Eisner Award for best publication for teens.

Today, Gill says he wants to use his platform to create more space in the comic book industry for marginalized voices and, ultimately, help more readers feel seen.

"It really like dawned on me at that moment just how much these stories were connecting and how broad they were in terms of their connection in their creation of empathy, to see things in a way that people hadn't seen before," Gill said.

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