"We as a people win the Culture Wars. We're everywhere, but we don't always control the commerce."
Name: Turtel Onli
Occupation: Black Age of Comics Creator/ Artist/ Publisher
How many ECBACCs: 2
But wait, there's more: Onli Studios Black Age of Comics
Talk to me about the beginning of Black Age of Comics.
I initiated the Black Age of Comics as a genre and then as a convention at the Southside Art Center in the Bronzeville section of Chicago. This is the last existing art center from the WPA Program out of the Great Depression and World War II. People like Gordon Parks, Charles White, and Elizabeth Catlett used to work there, so I felt the spirits would be righteous. At the time, Herbert Nipson was the galvanizing force there. He was also the Executive Editor of Ebony Magazine. The first convention was in February 1993. The year before that I had done an article on the Black Age of Comics in Comics Buyer's Guide.
Part of why I launched the Black Age of Comics (BAC) was so we could have a genre, just like there was the Bronze Age, Silver Age, and the Golden Age. You look at the big characters in the mainstream and almost all of them are the creations of people who aren't Black. They hire a lot of Black people, but where's the product coming from and where's the product going? You have to follow the money. If you are dealing with product, concepts, and individuals whose work is derived from the Black/African-American experience, that puts you in the Black Age.
This is my de facto call-out to those who don't do the creative work. A lawyer, an accountant? A couple of them would make a big difference in the Black Age.
Earlier, when we were chatting, you mention that it blew your mind when you got the ECBACC Lifetime Achievement Award. Given that you started the Black Age of Comics, can you expand a bit about why?
There was nothing in me that thought I would get an award for it. I started the Black Age of Comics as a child of the 60s. Arriving at the concept of BAC was an outgrowth of the Black cultural revolution and Black Panther Party. As I started pursuing work in the comic book industry, I thought I was just doing the next logical thing on the path.
Yumy and I had connected prior to the launch of [ECBACC]. We had a lot of conversations. All of a sudden, I got a call from Maurice asking that if they sent me a ticket and presented me with an award would I show up. Now, I was planning to go that year, but they didn't know, so I said, "Of course!" When I get there, the trophy said, "Father of the Black Age of Comics" so I've been doing my best to honor that. It's helped me to realize, in good times and bad, what it means to be distinguished and appreciated by your peers and even your rivals. I was not expecting that. It blindsided me in a good way.
How do you see ECBACC as a continuation of BAC and what would you like to see it become?
They are the most sophisticated iteration of a BAC-themed convention. It is a tribute to Yumy and the good people in Philadelphia who have bonded together in the spirit of commerce and entrepreneurship to do this. I'm totally thrilled they're doing it, and I know what heavy lifting it is.
I would like to see them own a store that is exclusively overwhelmed with Black Age products, not a store overwhelmed with the mainstream, yet again. I have a publishing company that puts out books, but if I tell you what comic book store they're in, you wouldn't find them. They put them so far in the back of the store they might as well be in another neighborhood. What you'll find in the front are Black characters created by the mainstream, so that's what you end up buying over and over again. The few Black-owned comic bookstores around the United States do the same thing. I know they're mainstream so they have to go along with that.
We need autonomy for people who want to see us in our space. It should be open and welcoming. Somebody comes in from Switzerland and they're like, "Ok I did ECBACC, now I want to go to the ECBACC store!" Ownership matters more than representation. Back in the day, we used to call it tokenism because that representative and that token don't have any power. If it's ownership, the buck stops at your desk. If it's representation, you still have to go to somebody. I don't knock anybody for being the representative or a token. A job's a job. Just understand the limitations.
Who are some indie writers and artists that you have your eye on now?
Just to go through a shortlist: Afua Richardson, Eric Battle, N. Steven Harris, John Jennings, Lauren White, Ashley A Woods, Kali Johnson. All of these people mean a lot to what the Black Age has to offer. I say that because all of these people have worked mainstream, but they have their own concepts simultaneously. For instance, I contracted with Eric to do the cover of [Future Funk] with his interpretation of Malcolm-10. And then Christian St. Pierre did the cover of [Nog: The Protector]. To me, these are people who have their own ideas and visions.
I think the mainstream can be a training ground, a challenge, and an opportunity for a paycheck. Some artists don't have their own ideas, and there's nothing wrong with that. I used to be a major market illustrator. Most of my clients did not pay me to think or create. They paid me to do. I had clients like The Rolling Stones, George Clinton, Playboy Magazine, and Ebony Magazine. You realize you're in a process. But if you have something of your own going on, you can learn from all those jobs. Now there's a cool word for it; it's called 'gigging.'
I don't believe you should have something to fall back on, I believe in falling forward. In football, if you fall forward that's a touchdown and you score. If you fall backward, everyone is like, "Dude, what did you just do?!"