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Comic book artist Joel Christian Gill on Strange Fruit and forgotten black narratives

On the Why We Write podcast: Artist Joel Christian Gill tells the stories of extraordinary black people from American history

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Find the full transcript below.

Episode notes

When Joel Christian Gill realized painting wasn't working for him, he returned to comic books and began writing and illustrating books that tell the largely unknown stories of extraordinary black people in history.

Book covers of Strange Fruit


Gill is the chairman, CEO, president, director of development, majority and minority stockholder, manager, co-manager, regional manager, assistant to the regional manager, receptionist, senior black correspondent and janitor of Strange Fruit Comics. The New York Times says, "At a moment when racial inequities have ignited this nation, Mr. Gill offers direction for the road ahead from the road behind.”

He is the author of Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride from Lions Forge 2019 and the award winning graphic novel series Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History, and Tales of The Talented Tenth from Fulcrum Publishing.

In this interview, he speaks with former Boston Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges during a visit to campus this spring.

Check out all our episodes on our podcast page or just go ahead and subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Podcasts or Spotify.

  • Transcript


    Announcer: This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Each week we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing and the writing life.

    Danielle Legros Georges: Hi, I'm Danielle Legros Georges. I am the interim director of the MFA program in creative writing here at Lesley University and really pleased to have with us this afternoon Joel Christian Gill. Joel, thank you for coming to spend some time with the MFA program in creative writing.

    Joel Christian Gill: Thank you for having me. I'm glad to be here.

    Danielle: You are an illustrator, you are a writer of award-winning graphic novels and comics, you are the chair of comic arts at the New Hampshire Institute of Arts and you are the CEO, chairman, regional manager, black correspondent, and janitor, as you say, of Strange Fruit Comics. You do so much. Super busy person. Practical question, how do you do all this and get your writing down?

    Joel: Well, when you decide that you're going to do something like this, whether it's draw comics, write stories, play hockey, that's the thing that you. Once you decide you're going to do this, you have to make time for it and it has to be an important part of what you do. Some of the things that I do is I binge watch stuff in between projects. I don't watch TV during stuff.

    I plan my time out really well. People call me the king of time management because I'm up at five sometimes and I'm working on stuff when I have deadlines. I work in five before I go to work, I go home and teach, I'll work at lunch, I'll come home, I'll hang out with my family for a couple of hours and then I'll work again. I don't sleep a lot during those times, but it's what I want to do.

    If it's something that you want to do, you make time for it and you spend the time that you have really wisely. I try to make drawing comics every day important, which is why I have a sling on my arm now because I draw all the time. Eventually, my doctor’s like, "You have repetitive stress injury."

    I think there's this quote, there's this thing called Questions to a Young Art Student by David Smith. He has this whole list of questions that you have to ask art students. One of the things he says in there-- and it's all about painters, it's mostly about painters-- it's like, "Are you going to be-- Are you a hobbyist?" or, "Is it the total life and should it be?" and, "Are you going to be a Saturday afternoon or Sunday afternoon painter?"

    I think that when I think about these things, when I think about what I do and when I make comics, when I think about whatever art you make, there are people who talk about it and there are people who do it. You have to be the people who do it. Don't be the person who talks about it. I don't want to hear about your great ideas. I want to see your great ideas. I want you to show me. Talking about it is really good, it's fun for a coffee shop, but literally when it comes down to it, what do you have to show for it? You have to make stuff.

    Danielle: Yes, that's such great advice for artists and for anyone interested in a particular field in a particular area. I want to start with the question how you began to make comics? You received an MFA in painting from Boston University, right?

    Joel: Right.

    Danielle: I'm taking it that you began your career as a visual artist but here you are making now these texts that merge, that marry text and image in compelling ways. How did that begin for you?

    Joel: When my paintings were failing to tell stories. I actually went to college original-- I always describe my making comics like a high school girlfriend. You had this high school girlfriend, you spent all your time with her. You were together forever. Then in high school, you break up and you go off to college. Then I found painting. I'm like, "Painting was cool," and painting was the thing that I wanted to do. We got married, we had a couple of kids, but it didn't really work out. We got divorced. Then I found comics again, and we've been happily married ever since. That's the best way to describe it.

    Danielle: A metaphor. The high school girlfriend metaphor.

    Joel: Yes. It really is that because when I was a kid, that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to draw comics. I was going to draw for Marvel or DC. I was drawing my own comics. I was selling them. Then when I went to college thinking I'm going to draw comics and then I fell in love with painting. I was like, "I'm going to be the next best yet. I'm going to make something that's so powerful and strong that people are going to talk about it for 20 years."

    A friend of mine was like, "Yes, your paintings are failing to tell stories." I was like, "Well if that's the case then maybe I should be telling stories." Then trying to tell my own stories, I was failing and then I ran across the stories, these obscure black history stories. I'm like, "Well, these are stories no one's ever told. They're already out there. They have a beginning, a middle and end so why don't I just tell these stories as opposed to trying to tell the stories of my own story."

    That's what I did and that's when people started paying attention. They were like, "These are amazing stories. You have an incredible knack for doing this and a way of which to do it." I just started honing my craft. I'm looking at the story of Henry Box Brown that I have opened in front of me and I'm like, "Oh, my God. I wish I had drawn that hand better."


    Danielle: That's always the case, right? A work of art is never complete. It's abandoned so that you can go on to the next work.

    Joel: Yes. There's a story about Bernard who was a late impressionist and he would do these paintings and sell them and he'd be gone for five years. Then he would go back to people's houses and sneak in with a little paint kit and he would add yellow to the paintings. He would have a friend distract them and he would go in and add a little bit yellow to something.

    Danielle: Is that a true story?

    Joel: It's a true story. He would go back in and after he had already sold them and they'd be hanging up in people's houses. He would sneak back in and he'd have a friend with him and he would say, "I'm going to go ahead and I'm going to add a little yellow to that." Yes, it's never over. I rarely ever open these books because of that. I always open them up and I already see things I want to change like, "I should just redraw this whole thing."

    Danielle: But it's done.

    Joel: It's not enough.

    Danielle: Maybe the next edition or the next painting.

    Joel: I have to focus on the next thing, yes.

    Danielle: Right. You made a comment about paintings needing to tell stories. Do paintings always need to tell stories?

    Joel: No, not at all but mine were trying to tell stories and failing. They weren't doing what they looked like they were trying to do. That was the reason why-- Paintings don't have to tell stories. Some of the best paintings don't tell stories. I think John Mitchell's paintings don't tell stories. I think of my former professor, John Walker's paintings don't tell stories. They don't have to tell stories, but if you're looking toward some narrative in your painting and they're not telling the story that you want, you have look for other ways to tell a story.

    Danielle: You're a storyteller?

    Joel: Yes.

    Danielle: Clearly you're a storyteller.

    Joel: Yes. That's what I've discovered over the last so many years is that I am a storyteller or sometimes actually I am a liar because I tell stories. I've been doing it since I was a kid, which is like lying and telling people that I had all the He-Man action figures or all of the Nintendo. Not Nintendos, it was Atari at that point. Atari ColecoVision, yes, it's at my grandma's house.

    I tell them that story over and over and over again and realizing that everybody who was around me actually had the exact same lives as well because they were all-- We were trying to tell a story. Ultimately, "I am not the person you see. I am this other person. I am this other different thing. I am this-- Being a poor kid in the projects, I am a disaffected millionaire. We're just here for whatever reason. We're not supposed to be here." Yes, I'm a storyteller.

    Danielle: Yes. Stepping into the self when in visions, which is an act of art making.

    Joel: Poor kids do-- They still do this. Poor kids will still tell you stories about how they're not this thing. As soon as they realize that this thing that they have has some stigma attached to it, they're going to figure out the best way to tell you that they are not. Whether it's, "I'm going to beat you up if you look at me," whether it's, "I'm going to tell you all these stories," whether it's, "I'm going to run away and be something else." They're going to tell you some story that's different.

    Danielle: Yet you go back to these stories, these American stories, these African-American stories, these black stories of difficulty, of challenge, of enslavement, of all kinds of structures that need to be busted out of or burst out of. In some ways, you are looking at the difficult moment and you're recuperating it in some way.

    Joel: Yes. The way I was thinking about these stories is that these stories are as American as any other story. They don't take place anywhere else. This is what it means to be American. This is part of our history. This is what we have. This belongs to people who are white as well as most people who are black because it's a part of our collected history.

    When I started to tell these stories, my first idea was like, "I'm just telling stories to hipsters. They'll buy avocado on toast for $9, they'll pay for this little mini-comic." Then someone like, "These are important stories in it." Somebody actually came to me with tears in their eyes like, "Thank you for telling me stories." I'm like, "This is different than I realized it was."

    The idea of telling the story, of that telling amazing stories of black people in America does the same thing as having a cup of coffee with MAGA hat wearing uncle. Having that cup of coffee and talking to them and telling them that story. It's relating on a macro level in the same way we relate on a micro level. I think that's the important thing that storytelling does. It humanizes, it normalizes it, it tells us something about somebody else.

    I feel like that's what I'm doing with these stories, I'm telling these stories to show that Bessie Stringfield, for example, was this black woman in the 1920s and 1930s who rode a motorcycle all over the country. She threw off the chains of family and attachment and just did her thing. That's not a very “feminine story” or a black woman's story in the '30s, '40s, and '50s but it actually is. It's one of those things that it actually is that story.

    That's the thing that we forget that women can be scoundrels and terrible and lovable, and men can be soft and delicate and gentle, and black people are the true Horatio Alger stories. Not the made-up story of Horatio Alger. The black community as a whole went from being property to presidents in a couple of generations. That is a collective Horatio Alger story. I think that we talk about the American dream and don't apply it to the people who actually have done it.

    Danielle: Right, and helped build this country.

    Joel: And helped build this country.

    Danielle: I really love how your stories normalize, as you're saying, the black experience, in my opinion, and are situated in black subjectivity. It's like writing from the black experience out as opposed to looking at black people with some exterior kind of gaze. I think that's really wonderful-- [crosstalk]

    Joel: I try not to look at it. Growing up in America, we all have a tendency to look at the world through a prism of white supremacy, because that's what's been inundated to us. It's one of those things you have to actively think to yourself as a person of color, or anybody in America, to not think of white is the default when you're reading a book. "What's the person in the book look like?" "They are a white person." Like, "No," because that's not the case. It may not even be the case. You have to actively think that.

    When I'm writing these stories and I'm drawing these stories, I try to think about that from a completely devoid of that. I try to not look at it through a prism of white supremacy. That prism that people look at, that prism of white supremacy that most Americans look through things black, white, or other, everybody does, because we all live in the same society, we've all been inundated with the same imagery, you actually have to actively think about it in order to change it.

    You can't just like, "I'm just going to be nice to black people and that will change things." You have to actively counter that. I had that idea like, "How do I make default not that?" With these books, I try to look at things through a prism that is Black people are normal. Black people are normal. Black people are not normal. Black people are crazy.

    The only story that I haven't been able to figure out how to tell is the story of Black Herman who was basically a shyster. He was a con man, snake oil salesman and he would travel through towns every seven years and he would only come back at these-- there are specific times. After he died, they charged admission for his death because people didn't believe he was dead. You could actually walk up and see his dead body. They charge admission at his funeral. He died on stage.

    I haven't been able to tell that story, because it's so sordid. I'm just trying to figure out like, "How do I make this a story?" Because I try to draw stories that everybody can read, not only for adults or only for kids. I try to draw stories kind of like Pixar makes movies. I try to make them for everybody. I haven't been able to figure out how to tell Black Herman story, but that's coming. I'm going to do it.

    Danielle: It sounds like a wonderful challenge. I'm wondering if you would read to us from Volume I of Strange Fruit.

    Joel: Yes, absolutely. I will read-- Actually, you gave me Henry Box Brown. This is a better story to read, because it's his own words. It's the story of Spotswood Rice. This is a little bit more poetic, because the story of Spotswood Rice is a slave who's an enslaved African who escaped. The only thing that we know about him is that he wrote a couple of letters and we have enlistment papers in the Union Army.

    The letters that he wrote, he wrote one letter to his family saying that, "I'm going, don't worry, I'm going to come back and get you." Then the other letter he wrote to his former slave master. He said, "I'm coming to get my children, and I'm bringing an army of a thousand black men with me." Then he actually does this. We know he does this, because his daughter was part of a recording project in the 1920s, where she actually talks about it, when she's an elderly woman at the time. The words that are in the story are his words.

    "My children, I take my pen in hand to write you a few lines to let you know I have not forgot you. I want you to be contented with whatever may be your last. Be assured I will have you if it costs me my life. On the 28th of the month, 800 white and 800 black soldiers expect to start up the river Glasgow. I expect to be with them. Don't be uneasy, my children, I expect to have you. Your Ms. Kitty said, I tried to steal you. God never intended for a man to steal his own flesh and blood. If I had any confidence in her, I have none now. I want you to remember, if she meets me with 10,000 soldiers, she will meet her enemy. I have no sympathy for the slave holders. Give my love to all, Spotswood Rice."

    Then there's a few pages of wordless comics and he writes another letter. "I received a letter from Mary telling me that you say I tried to steal my child away from you. Now, I want you to understand that Mary is a God-given right of my own. Hold her as long as you can. I want you to remember this one thing. The longer you keep my child from me, the longer you have to burn in hell and the quicker you'll get there.

    Woe be to the copperhead rebels and the slave holding rebels, for we are making up about 1,000 black troops and we don't expect to leave them there, root nor branch. Just hold on as long as you can and the worse it will be for you. I offered to pay you $40 for my own child and I am glad now that you did not accept. The day that we enter Glasgow, I want you to understand, Ms. Kitty Diggs, my child is my own. You call my child property. I have no fear about getting married out of your hands." "That is the day that my daddy, Spotswood Rice, came and took me from slavery all those years ago."

    Danielle: This is stuff of biblical proportion.

    Joel: I love the letter. The one reason that I read that one is because I drew the pictures but Spotswood Rice wrote the words and I just reorganized them. It's a little bit more poetic even though-- I tried to keep his misspellings and I tried to copy his handwriting exactly, because I wanted it to seem like this is what he experienced.

    When you're reading that, the pictures tell a story of him escaping and running from slave traders and then making it to the Union Army, joining the military, writing the letters, going to the house, fighting in the war and then getting his child back. It's such a much more visceral story and it personifies what we think about in America when we talk about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and doing it. He didn't wait for anybody. He was like, "I'm going to bring my children in a thousand men to get my children back," and he does.

    Danielle: It's a story I wasn't aware of until I read this book. This is really important. Your books are important educational tools in addition to being these really beautiful, rich, aesthetic products.

    Joel: I appreciate that. Thank you.

    Danielle: What I love about that story too is the juxtaposition of the language, the biblical language and reference to Ms. Kitty Diggs. There's such an interesting tension between that and such a specificity. There is this huge thing going on.

    Joel: It's amazing because Spotswood Rice escapes, learns to read and decides to write letters. Like, "I'm going to communicate with my children." You don't know whether his children ever actually got the letters, but he actually does that. It's very dramatic. "I'm going to bring a thousand, we're going to make up this many soldiers and we're going to come back."

    It's was an amazing story when I read it. As soon as I read the letter, I was like, "I'm not going to write this story. I'm just going to draw some pictures to match the words," which is the great thing about comics, which a friend of mine calls the ninth art. Comics do things with words and pictures that pictures can't do alone and words can't do alone. We can take extended metaphors without actually having to expel that stuff out for you.

    When you read Mouse, there's no indication that mice are the-- There's no real clear like, "I'm going to give you some clues as to what this is." It's all left on the reader being an active participant in this whole story. I mean, comics are in a lot of ways really active, because you actually have to make the connection between one panel and the next. The gutter is the magical place that things happen. So getting people to imagine these things. So you see these words and you see the pictures and you get the feeling. You get the feeling of running for your life. You get the feeling of anger.

    The scene where he goes, "You call my child property," I made it so Kitty Diggs was sitting on the ground and he was standing over her and she's cowering in fear. When he says "property" he just walks over her. He steps over her to get this child like, "You don't even matter anymore because you called my child property." Then he walks out and the house is burning. I want to make sure that the comics do things that words alone can't and pictures alone cant.

    Danielle: Yes, because the words suggest agency, but then the picture reinforces or suggests agency in a different way.

    Joel: They tell a complete story. It's very symbiotic and comics is like that. I'm trying to get people to understand the nature of comics isn't to just write what you see or write what's happening. People always say in writing it's show, don't tell. In comics its show and tell. How much do you show, and how much do you tell? How much do I show you?

    When you're writing a story about, just say, Thomas Jefferson, when you say, "Thomas Jefferson was sitting at his writing desk." In comics it's like, "Thomas Jefferson is sitting at his writing desk." If I'm going to draw that, I'm not going say it, but I have to think about what kind of pants he's wearing, what his shoes look like and what the book looks like. It's all I'm thinking about those things. Now, what am I going to say?

    You can have Thomas Jefferson sitting at his writing desk and you can actually say something like, "He had a very important decision to make." If I've already set that up, I don't have to explain it's Thomas Jefferson, I don't have to say that. Now I just give you that emotion and you know, what's he doing? He's sitting in his writing desk deciding.

    Danielle: In a way, it seems to me that comics are these bilingual texts, if you will?

    Joel: Exactly. Comics are like this thing that activates two parts of our brain, our visual and our verbal. It activates both of those things at the same time. If you're reading a good comic, I always find if you're reading a good comic, you should know that you shouldn't be paying attention to the words or the pictures that you feel like you're doing everything. Like you're taking it all in. You should get to the end and like, "This is great."

    Danielle: You do some really interesting things in your comics that I haven't seen before. Maybe it's because I'm not familiar, super familiar with the comic world, but I've read a good number of comics and graphic novels. Some of your characters speak in icons. Talk to me about that. I was really surprised.

    Joel: There's this quote by Chris Ware who did Building Stories and Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. I'm like the biggest fan girl for Chris Ware. He said once that comics should be hieroglyphics. You should be able to read and see them and feel all of the weight of their history in them.

    When I was thinking about what people would say when they talked about black people, because I felt the word nigger would have been just a common everyday thing. I believe that in 1850, that word didn't have the same weight. It was just like saying coffee table. I don't think until after reconstruction that it actually started to carry more of the hate and the vitriol it actually had.

    I wanted to embed it with that hate and vitriol and I couldn't think of any better way than to actually use a racist image, a racist icon of a black person. So that you saw the dichotomy between the person that you're looking at and then this image that they're calling them, which is not the same thing. It's more based on what they believe as opposed to what the actual person is. I wanted you to see that and immediately see the word. I didn't want to say the word. I wanted you to see the word. Which is like, I think as a stronger thing.

    Danielle: It utterly discomfiting. At first I didn't know quite what to do with it.

    Joel: I think icons can do that. Images can make you feel a thing, have a visceral response to it. That's what I wanted people to see that. I wanted a mom and her kid to read this book, if a mom and a kid were reading it, to think to themselves, "What's this mean?" and somebody actually have to explain it because we don't explain. We don't even say the word. We say, "The n word." We don't even say the word. Now you actually have to talk about it and explain why this is actually a thing. That was my purpose behind it.

    Danielle: Yes. Really, really powerful. Also, your pages are saturated with color. I think you challenge the classic comic band. The strips separated by space and sometimes you'll take an entire page to present an image. Sometimes you'll separate the page in four, and then you'll separate them in even smaller squares.

    Joel: I think I'm really formulaic. [chuckles] I was looking at the new book that I'm working on like, all my pages are set up the exact same way. Then I think back to Watchman, which is on a nine-panel grid. The entire book is on the nine-panel grid except for the last exposition of the story. I think it's just like we get in the patterns and just things that we do. I try to challenge that sometimes. In my new book that I'm working on now, I'm trying to throw circles in there. There might be two circle panels.


    Danielle: Interesting.

    Joel: This guy's crazy. You went from a square into a circle. He's crazy. It's the thing that with-- This is the hardest thing to get people-- I think there's a difference between an illustrator and a cartoonist. An illustrator is someone who is interested in telling the story, is interested in the mechanics of telling the stories, but they come about it from a point of, "I want to use these mechanics to show you my art."

    Cartoonist really are auteurs. We want to control the story. We want to figure out what kind of pants Thomas Jefferson is wearing in this picture. We want to know what the light looks in that room. When you're building that entire thing, some of that is subservient. Some of the pictures of subservience. It's like there's this really delicate balance between, I want to draw this well enough that you look at it and go, "This is beautiful," but not too much that you spend any time thinking about it because it's not really the story. You want to be able to move through it.

    It's a delicate balance between giving enough information to move you through the story, giving enough information that you go, "This is beautiful." Also, giving enough writing that you say, "The writing is really--" you know what I mean? Doing all of those things simultaneously. It's like take off this hat, put this hat on. It can be really complicated and frustrating. A friend of mine, Howard Longstreth always says, "Comics will break your heart," and he's absolutely 100% right.

    Danielle: I want to talk a little bit about the titles of your series, Strange Fruit and Tales of the Talented Tenth. They are resonant titles. One referring to a song popularized by Billy Holiday based on the poem and song by Abel Meeropol in the '30s, and then the Tales of the Talented Tenth referencing a theory that was popularized by W.E.B. Du Bois, whereby the education of African Americans could be put into the hands of a--

    Joel: A talented class of men.

    Danielle: Or an elite. That's been problematic for some to consider. I was really curious about how you thought about these titles and who's writing them?

    Joel: I'll start with Strange Fruit. Strange fruit was a series of paintings that I did right out of grad school based on lynchings. I already said I was a fan girl for Chris Ware and Chris Ware has Acme Novelty Library. When I started putting together these stories, I wanted to serialize them but didn't want it be called Boxwood Brown One or Spotswood Rice Two. I wanted it to just be something that I could put anything that I wanted in. I decided, these are just telling a similar story about American history, so I'll call them Strange Fruit.

    I started to call each one of the volumes of the mini comics that I was doing Strange Fruit. When Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote the foreword to Strange Fruit.

    Danielle: Skip.

    Joel: Skip. Sorry. That's what he says, call him Skip. He says to call him Skip. [crosstalk] "Just call me Skip." Anyway, when he wrote the foreword to it, he actually wrote a defense of the title, which I thought was really great and I didn't ask him to do that. I just said, "Would you be willing to write the foreword?" He was like, "Absolutely."

    Danielle: I think he probably anticipated.

    Joel: Yes, like that's the amazing thing. That's his brilliance. He anticipated that people are going to be making some noise about it.

    Danielle: Felling some kind of way about it.

    Joel: Yes, feeling some kind of way about it. That was for Strange Fruit and once Strange Fruit finished, I wanted to do a longer story about Bass Reeves, but I knew that I would do more stories about longer biographies of people. Somebody suggested to me at one point, "Maybe you should call them African American Action Stories." I'm like, "No."

    I had just read the essay about The Talented Tenth by W.E.B. Du Bois, and so I'm like, "That's who these people are. These are the people who do these really, really amazing things. Whether it's Bass Reeves, Bessie Stringfield, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, Robert Smalls, these are all people who I'm like, "These are the people who have done amazing-- These are the people who rock--"

    Mailing yourself in a box from Virginia to Philadelphia to escape from slavery is amazing. Pretending to be a slave in the confederate White House and passing information to the Union Army during the height of the Civil War is like a level above that. Then on your way out of the White House deciding to burn it down. Robert Smalls' like, "I'm stealing a confederate artillery ship and sailing it through confederate waters." With his family, not just him, with his family and other people's family on board. Then being a politician in South Carolina during reconstruction. Those are like a level above.

    So that's what I wanted with the stories for Tales of the Talented Tenth. I wanted them to be these people who were larger than life, that we just ignore. If Robert Smalls were white, there'd be five stories. Matt Damon would be playing him in the next version of them now and Cary Grant would have played him in the 1940s and '50s. Do you know what I mean? But because he's Robert Smalls, most people don't know who he is.

    Danielle: Are there some stories that have called you more strongly than other stories? Because there are many, many stories out there.

    Joel: I try not to find stories of first. Those are the stories that I try to steer away from because, of course, there's going to be a first of this and the first of that, but there's not going to be a woman who crisscrossed the United States on a motorcycle in the 1930s.

    Danielle: I love that story.

    Joel: Like Bessie Stringfield's story, or there's not going to be Stagecoach Mary Fields who was this woman who had a star route for the US Postal Service at 60 and was doing this 100-mile route in northern Montana in the winter time at age 60 in the 1870s, or punching men out, or drinking in the local bar because she had special dispensation because women weren't supposed to drink in bars. The mayor gave her a special license so she could drink in the bar. The whole town would shut down. This entirely white town would shut down and throw big parties for her on her birthday like a parade. That's not a first, you know what I mean? That's an amazing story.

    There was a group of Buffalo soldier bicyclist who decided to-- There was this captain who decided that he could prove that the standard bike was good for the military. He had a group of black bicyclists wrote the safety bike 1900 miles in the late 1890s from Montana to New Orleans and they made it. They got dysentery and they slept on cactuses. This is all true.

    Danielle: On cactuses?

    Joel: Because they were softer than the actual ground. They would actually ride on the train tracks because that was at least consistent because there was no consistency on the roads because there weren't roads and they made it. They got dysentery. That's an amazing story. They were probably the first black bicyclists that rode 1900 miles, but it's more interesting that they were trying to prove that you could do this for the military. So that's what I try to do, I try to find things that are not the first.

    Danielle: What moves you most in a work of art or work of literature?

    Joel: I always say oh crap moments. I'll give you a really perfect example. A friend of mine, John Jennings, has written a number of books and he's like horror aficionado. He did the graphic novel adaptation of Kendra and he was a Harvard fellow.

    Danielle: I'm reading that right now.

    Joel: John was here a couple of weeks ago. We were talking and he was talking about horror movies because I introduced him to Steve Bissette who is a legendary comic book artist and drew Swamp Thing all through the 1980s and is just a super great guy. He and John hit it off because they both like horror movies. I was like, "There was a point in time I didn't watch horror movies. I've gotten back into horror movies and it's like I just didn't watch them because they were scary enough."

    John was, "You have to start thinking about that because it's not like horror is not scary or is not about scaring people like blood and gore, the best horror movies are about other things." He says, "Keep that in mind when you look at them." Then Steve Bissette, coincidentally, posted this thing about a quiet place in Bird Box and he said, "In this long line of things that happened after the 2016 election, we get more horror movies that are about just holding still and everything will be fine," which is like the zeitgeist. This is what we do in--

    He said that and I was, "Oh my God." It was like my mind was blown. Everybody's making movies about just holding still. I took that out and I was never really big into congee, Japanese giant monster movies. This is one of those things that people are like, "Duh, Joel." I saw this thing and I was like, congee, are a response to World War II. Absolutely, it was, "Oh, crap."


    Joel: That's the thing. These moments in movies or books or television or poetry where you get this, "Oh, crap." This is the truth with a capital T thing, not truth in a lower-case version. It's some truth in the capital T. It's like these ideas that-- There's a level whereby everybody knows there's one level, but then there's that one more level, that deeper level where you can-- It sits on your shoulder and talks to you for a week after you finished it. It's just like you're still thinking about it, and how do you capture that thing?

    So that's what moves me in art. I think in art, movies, writing books, comics, film, everything, this is what moves me. That extra moment that we didn't see coming and when we saw it, everything falls into place.

    Danielle: I don't want to use the word revelation or perhaps it's like a peeling away of a screen.

    Joel: It's like a veil is lifted. You know what I mean? The veil is lifted. With the Japanese congee, it's like the veil is lifted. Of course, they're going to make things about saviors who come in and save the city from this destruction because that was their environment. Of course, we're going to make movies about just holding still and being quiet because that's the only thing we figured we could do after the 2016 election. Of course, that's what we would make.

    Of course, Jordan Peele will make Get Out, that makes black men sit in the movie theater and vibrate because we're saying, "Leave," the entire time and he's not leaving because we've all had that experience. It's like that's what really good horror should do. It should connect to something. It should scare you on an hour level, but it also should be a thing that sits with you, "Wow, we don't like ourselves. We don't like that other thing about us." That's us, but we don't like that.

    Danielle: As I was reading some of your texts and seeing those large pages, forgive my lack of vocabulary.

    Joel: Two-page spread.

    Danielle: Those two-page spreads and the story of Bessie Stringfield and having these episodes of that she felt she was falling.

    Joel: I think that's probably more me than it was Bessie.

    Danielle: What was that about? In some ways, I felt something happening in those episodes.

    Joel: I tried to put myself in the position of what it was to be a kid and not having a place. I draw this in the books that I'm working on now called Fights, which is about my life, but it's all about the fights that got into with a kid. Early in the book, I tell the story of this dream that I had, this recurring dream. My dad died when I was five, my mom was working and taking care of my grandmother and I had brothers and sisters who were there and then not there. It was like we were always in turmoil.

    Thinking about that, I used to have this dream when I was a kid that I would be sleeping in the back of the car and my daddy's taking me everywhere. Dates or whatever, he would take me everywhere, and I would sleeping the back of his car, and I would wake up in this dream like something had happened like a bump on the road, and I'll wake up in the back of the car and then I'll look over the back seat and nobody would be driving. Then I would wake up because that was my nightmare, is like being untethered to the world. There's nothing I can do. I can't drive this car. It's going to hit something. We're going to go down the road.

    I tried to think about what it would have been for Bessie to not feel she had a place. I kept having these dreams where she was just falling in this empty void. It wasn't until she found a motor cycle that she actually felt like she actually hit a place where she's like, "Oh, now I've got it. Everything's under control, I am control." If you think about it, being able to drive a motorcycle, that's control, right?

    Danielle: Right.

    Joel: That's a control issue. I don't know if anybody's ever been on a motorcycle, if you've ever been on a motorcycle, but riding a motorcycle it feels freedom. It's like the road is directly in front of you, there's no glass or anything protecting you, it just feels like freedom. I was trying to think about what that would feel like for Bessie Stringfield. So that's why I've been all those panels and those pages, those spreads where she was just falling and falling and falling.

    Danielle: I think as a country we need to find a motorcycle. [laughs]

    Joel: We do, as a country find the motorcycle, find the freedom.

    Danielle: Right. Find the road.

    Joel: Yes. Be loud, don't be quiet and hold still.


    Danielle: Yes, it's true, we're in a moment. Joel, our Lesley University podcast is called Why We Write. I think you've addressed a little bit why you write, but I thought I'd ask the question directly to you. Why do you write? Why do you make art? Why do you make these books?

    Joel: For someone who does something creatively, it's almost an obsession. I want to make something. I want to tell a story. I feel like that's what makes us human, is telling stories. I feel like if I can tell these stories to make these stories known, to tell people what it's like to be who I am, to think the way I think, then I can make a difference. I always tell people I'm a cartoonist who's trying to change the world, and I think I can do that with one story at a time.

    The more stories I put out, the more information I get out there in the world, the more likely I am to do that. I guess the best way to say is, it's arrogant and I know it sounds crazy, but I want to change the world. I want to change the world one story at a time.

    Danielle: It's arrogant and wonderful and right in my opinion.

    Joel: Well, thank you, I appreciate that. I'm doing what I can. It's like the comedian said, there's a real good possibility I'm just standing in an institution yelling at a wall, "Comics, comics, comics." [laughs]

    Danielle: We have to dare to want to change the world, right? Otherwise we're standing still.

    Joel: Yes. I'm not being quiet even though I get it. I'm not being quiet.

    Danielle: Well, thank you so much, Joel.

    Joel: Thank you. This was a lot of fun. I really appreciate it.

    Announcer: Thank you for listening to Why We Write, a production of Lesley University located in beautiful Cambridge, Massachusetts. To learn more about our podcast, our creative writing program and events, visit Next week we have an interview with Caroline Heller, author of Reading Claudius, a memoir about her family and the Holocaust. After you listen, I promise you'll want to pick up a copy. In the meantime, please take a minute to rate and review us on iTunes and please share the podcast with a bookish friend.