Joel Christian Gill is the creator of the graphic novels Strange Fruit Volumes I & II, which tell the stories of unsung African Americans. He turns the focus on himself in his powerful graphic memoir Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence. His recounting of his young life is both brave and heartbreaking. He does not hold back in exposing the abuse and neglect he suffered and shows how it impacted the way he moved through the world. He admits how painful it was to recall these childhood memories – I can only imagine what it was like to live them, given how painful it was to read about them.
His father died when he was young, and his mother struggled to take care of him. He often had to stay with his mother’s friends or relatives, where he was sexually abused and neglected. School provided no refuge as he was also bullied by other children and mistreated by teachers. He was drowning but there was no one to throw him a life-line. He had to swim his way out on his own. He shows how children subjected to violence in words and actions absorb it all; then, like sponges, they get filled up and start to “leak” that same behavior. Eventually he became like the children around him, a full vessel leaking abuse onto others.
He was kept afloat by the library, art and a few key friendships. Once he discovered how much he enjoyed drawing, he could lose himself in it. He struggled but made his way through middle school and high school. A decision he made at age 18 was surprising, but turned out to be life-saving.
Gill’s dramatic art, with saturated colors and expressive characterizations, brings you deep into his story and doesn’t let go. The scenes where he depicts his mistreatment manage to be simultaneously subtle, infuriating and devastating. Photographs from his early life through present day bring the story even closer. The language is as evocative as the visuals. In addition to imagining children as sponges, he uses fire to represent harm. Some people are arsonists, deliberately causing pain, while others are accidental fire starters. There are also those who do controlled burns — looking for the best place to start the fire. Although this book is difficult, it shows how young people, living under dire circumstances, can still find their way out to a healthy life. He leaves us with hope.
I don’t know what it took to create this memoir, but I admire Joel Christian Gill for doing it. I appreciate his note saying he didn’t do this as a catharsis. Instead, he is speaking to young people who are experiencing trauma, sending the message that they can think for themselves and can choose a different path. He is also speaking to adults who witness young people acting as he did; he hopes they can recognize the roots of this behavior and seek to learn that child’s story.