The Hippo


May 31, 2020








Joel Gill’s graphic history book, Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History.

Learn more about Strange Fruit
You can get a copy on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble and at the NHIA supply store on Amherst Street in Manchester. Visit

Words or pictures?
Joel Gill makes the case in Strange Fruit

By Kelly Sennott

 If a picture is worth a thousand words, why don’t we all just write in pictures?

New Hampshire Institute of Art professor and comic book artist Joel Gill joked in a radio interview that if he could write emails in pictures, he would — there would be fewer typos, surely, and his meaning would come across sooner and more effectively. 
His latest work, Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives From Black History, is a book full of comics that illustrate the lesser-known heroes in black history, some of whom lived in New Hampshire. Richard Potter of Andover’s Potter Place, for instance, was America’s first stage magician in the early 1800s. His best trick? His illusion; he was a black man. Another story tells of Noyes Academy, the first integrated school in America — it was in Canaan, and it opened in 1835, only to close shortly afterward.
Nine illustrated stories coat the pages of Gill’s graphic history novel, released in June. Named after the haunting song famously sung by Billie Holiday, it is to be the first of many Strange Fruit installations, Gill hopes. (Some tentative characters to come include Bessie Stringfield, a black motorcycle queen who drove across the country, and Bayard Rustin, an African American leader in the civil rights movement who was also gay.) 
But unlike the song — which tells of gruesome acts against African-Americans in the Jim Crow South — Gill highlights the unsung heroes.
“I started the comics in 2007,” Gill said. “I began drawing the first story after meeting the cartoonist Box Brown. I was cyber-stalking him, Googling his name, and I came across Henry Box Brown, a man who mailed himself from Virginia to Philly in a box [in the 1800s].”
He was inspired, so he drew about it. He published the piece himself with a limited print run. Soon, at comic conventions, people would approach him; did he also know about Marshall Taylor, the world champion cyclist? Or what about Bucky Lew, the black basketball player from Lowell, or Theophilus Thompson, the first recognized black chess master? 
At these events’ end, he’d often have notebooks filled with names and stories to research. When he went to record the stories with colors and pictures, he’d use as little text as possible.
One of his greatest influences as a comic book artist was Maus by Art Spiegelman, a story that recalls Spiegelman’s father’s experiences during the Holocaust. In the book, Nazis are cats, Jews are mice.
“I wanted to use some of those devices that Art tried,” Gill said. “I used a lot of symbolism within Strange Fruit. Racist people were depicted as crows, which was a hit to Jim Crow.”
Angry words were put in bright orange or red speech balloons. Racist, derogatory language became a blackface symbol. 
“I don’t know if there are people who think in words,” Gill said. “When you think of a tree, do you think of the word ‘tree,’ or do you think of an actual picture of a tree? It seems to me that we think in pictures. Taking the words out activates a different part of our understanding and it gives a deeper meaning.”
In the collection, he favors Two Letters, which tells the length an escaped slave travels to rescue his daughter. The only text comes from the real letters written by Spottswood Rice, with no additional words or explanations from the illustrator.
His comics grew organically. Most aren’t too foreign; they’re well-known in the places they originated. People in Andover, for instance, know about Richard Potter, and the people of Canaan often know it’s home to the first integrated school system. The thing is, if you’re not from there, you’re less likely to know the stories.
It’s not enough, he said, to only talk about black history during February, the shortest month of the year; he’s trying to start a movement, #28daysisnotenough.
“Forget Black History month. These stories are American stories. We should be talking about them,” Gill said. 
As seen in the July 10, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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