New Stone Gallery Show Makes the Case That Comics Aren’t Just for Kids, but for Everyone
Comics Is a Medium, Not a Genre captures the complex diversity of America’s favorite pop art
This article was first published in BU Today on February 21, 2023. By Sophie Yarin. Photos by Jake Belcher
A black border, a white panel, and a universe of possibility. When it comes to comics, the formula is that simple, says Joel Christian Gill, an assistant professor of art in the College of Fine Arts School of Visual Arts.
And he should know. Gill (CFA’04) is not only an instructor, a historian, and a champion of the form, he’s an award-winning cartoonist. And in the new show he’s curated, Comics Is a Medium, Not a Genre, on view at the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery through March 24, he makes the case that comics are about much more than newspaper strips and superheroes.
“Comics in its early onset was very diverse, mostly because nobody else was doing it,” Gill says. Early artists “would show the serious nature of comics, the funny nature, the erudite nature, though most people tend to pigeonhole into one mainstream focus.”
The medium’s diversity is precisely the element Gill seeks to highlight in the show. He notes that the range of this collection—comprising nearly 200 original and digitally reproduced comics panels, sheets, covers, and promotional materials—makes the case that comics aren’t beholden to any particular genre. In other words: it’s about the canvas, not the painting.
In many ways, diversity comes naturally when dealing with a collection of this size. There are works from contemporary artists as well as artists who died decades ago, from locals and foreigners, legendary cartoonists and well-kept secrets. One wall bears sheets from March(Top Shelf Productions, 2013), an autobiography by civil rights leader John Lewis (Hon.’18) and collaborators, another pages from the first known newspaper comic, The Yellow Kid. Viewers can contemplate Denis Kitchen’s underground comics—those he authored and those he collected—alongside work by mainstream comics pioneer Will Eisner.
In addition to mainstream works, among them an early Batman sheet and one of Charles Schultz’s earliest Peanuts strips, the show features a plethora of “underground” comics and creators. Gill says his strategy as curator was to gather unconventional subject matter—such as nonfiction and memoir—made by traditionally sidelined artists, like those who are BIPOC, queer, and female.
If anyone is up to the task of encapsulating the depth and breadth of a 100-year-old popular medium, it’s Gill. The creator of print and webcomics about Black history, he has also published a best-selling graphic memoir, Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence (Oni Press, 2020), which was named a New York Times Best Graphic Novel in 2020.
More recently, he’s spearheaded CFA’s new MFA in Visual Narrative program, one of a few of its kind in the country. The program is not only concerned with teaching students how to tell a story through comics, but also delves into the origins of the practice. Gill is a comics historian at heart, and many of the program’s classes he teaches explore the evolution of the medium.