Fights: One Boy's Triumph Over Violence, a much-anticipated graphic memoir by Joel Christian Gill, is the story of his arduous triumph over a personal history of violence, bullying and sexual abuse. The book was published this month by Oni Press.
The book serves as cautionary tale as well as offering a lifeline to other victims (especially young people) desperate for a way out of the kinds of brutal and dysfunctional social situations Gill managed to survive. It’s also the story of how a victim of bullying can later turn into the same monster they were hoping to escape. Gill survived to become an artist and a teacher and his message to other victims is that they can survive and thrive as well.
In the book he describes a recurring dream he often had as a child: he’s in the back seat of his father’s car with no one at the wheel. It was an unconscious acknowledgement that his life was out of control. Gill’s father died when he was five years old. His mother worked and went to school, while caring for her ailing mother and he was often left alone or, worse, with family members who sexually abused him. Bullied at school by the older kids, he became a bully himself. In his own words, he was on fire.
Gill said getting married forced him to change his life for the better. He and his wife have four children, and he is an associate professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. His previous graphic novels, Strange Fruit (volumes 1 and 2) and Tales of the Talented Tenth (volumes 1 and 2), profiled little-known African-American figures in American history, and he is working on new volumes in both series. Fights is a new direction for him: It’s the story of the fires in Gill’s life and how he learned to control them.
Oni has labeled Fights for mature audiences because of the severity of your experiences. Who do you think of as your audience?
My audience is kids who are like me, some kid who is going to the library because that is the only thing they have, some kid who says what is happening to them does not define who they are. There is a way they can move it to a different place. When they put the label “for mature readers,” that was because of sexual abuse and language, but those were things that were real to me when I was 7 or 8, that’s a truth for kids now.
I thought I was a terrible person. I spent a lot of my childhood thinking these things happened to me because I was a bad kid. It took a lot for me to realize when I was a teenager that I am not a bad kid, I don’t have to be a bully. This is about how kids suffer through trauma and abuse and violence. We see the acting out part, but 99% of the time when you see a kid who is acting out and doing these things, they are dealing with something. We just don’t know what. That kid who goes into the classroom and starts punching a girl who is eating breakfast, he probably didn’t have breakfast. This is a story about redemption, how these kids move through the world.
Did you talk to people your portray in the book, either ahead of time or afterward?
My mom and Mike [Gill’s childhood friend] and my kids and wife are the only ones that are not amalgams of multiple different people. I like who I am and I like who I turned out to be, so when I gave it to my mom, which I had some trepidation about, I said: “This is tough, it’s talking about stuff that might not seem positive, but this is not me coming at you. This is from my point of view and how I saw things.” She said “It’s really fantastic. I just wish I could have protected you more.”
You show yourself being a bully as well as a victim. Were you thinking about that from the beginning?[While Gill was working on the book, he went to a reunion of kids he knew from the projects.]
There was this one kid, he’s a year younger than me, we were friends, we would fight. He came up to me and said “I used to have nightmares about you. I was scared to go outside sometimes because I knew you would be out there.” Then there was another guy who said, “I heard you wrote a book. I’m glad you made it out—I thought you would be in jail.” I was their bully. I was the guy they had nightmares about. Up to that point I thought of myself as the victim. I didn’t realize that for some of those kids, they might think I was the predator.
You were sexually abused multiple times as a child, something that often leaves people with terrible scars. Do you think you were unusually resilient?
I don’t think I was resilient. I think I’m resilient now after the fact, but I spent a big majority of my teenage years pretty broken as a result. It was obvious to me and my friends that girls were medicine for some kind of pain we had no understanding about. [In the book Gill outlines his and his teenage friends attitudes towards girls as virtually discardable objects of desire]. I wasn’t talking about it for a long time. It takes a lot of self-examination to look at these things, accept what you can, and move through that.
This book shows adults failing you in so many ways, but you survived. How did you manage that without role models?
There were family members who were terrible and abusive to me, and I was compared to those people a lot. Because they told me I was going to be like this person that was in and out of jail and was in trouble, I was determined not to be that person. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of being right. When I got married, I had to be a better person for my kids, so my wife and I in this real specific and real deliberate way were like, “We are not going to be who our parents were. We are going to be present and nurturing.”