Turtel Onli, an advocate for black artists in comics | Trending Viral hub

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Turtel Onli placed a stack of books, some mail, and her bag on the table. He leaned in and said, raising his eyebrows somewhere between caution and politeness, “I hope you say in this article that I’m still publishing, that I’m still here, and that I’m still an advocate for black artists in comics. That exhibition I was at at the MCA a few years ago? ‘Chicago Comics.’ Remember that? That show might as well have been called ‘Chris Ware and Friends.’ I appreciate that my NOG character was on the museum wall, as a billboard for the show, and on tote bags for the show. But do you know I didn’t get a single professional call from anyone who watched that show? No galleries, no publishers, no one. Also, people mentioned me in articles (about the show) like I was dead and gone! ‘Oh, how unfortunate about Turtel, how he’s always overlooked…’.”

But, I said, they always overlook you.

“Yes,” he said, “yes, I know. But look at me now, that’s what I’m saying.”

We sat at Cafe Logan, part of the Logan Center for the Arts, on the south end of the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park. We chose this location because Onli has a new exhibition in the cafe, one that only served to underline the fact that Turtel Onli, pioneering comics creator and one-man social network, remains obscure, literally overlooked: although the cafe was full of students , almost everyone was hunched over their laptops, showing no signs of even noticing their works, inches from their heads.

When I entered the cafe, my first thought was:

“Could someone please give this guy a proper show?”

“You should say that in the article,” he said.

Turtel Onli wanted to break into the world of mainstream superhero comics in the 1970s and 1980s. He worked as a courtroom artist for WGN-TV and an illustrator for Chicago magazines Ebony and Playboy (he was still based in Chicago at the time). so). He went to Paris and illustrated for the English newspaper Paris Metro. He would later design album covers for several R&B and rap artists, including George Clinton and Kurtis Blow; For a minute, he was even commissioned by the Rolling Stones to create the cover of their 1978 album “Some Girls.” (“They wanted something absolutely offensive. I gave it to them. The lawyers intervened, wisely, to say, ‘You can’t show that.'”) . His art was collected by Alice Coltrane and Miles Davis. Still, DC and Marvel said no.

Thus, in 1981, Onli, who grew up in Hyde Park and Albany Park, self-published a comic starring his own hero: NOG, Protector of the Pyramids. She sold it at art fairs and toiletries stores. He continued to publish more comics on his own, as well as self-help books on exercise and the zodiac, all sold as the work of Onli Studios. He never left the realm of curiosity.

Style probably has something to do with it.

Think of the psychedelic cacophony of Jack Kirby’s Marvel comics from the ’60s, the pulp of ’70s Heavy Metal magazine, the custom truck decor, and the ornate obsession of that friend you had in ninth grade who I drew all day in school folders.

An exhibit of art by Turtel Onli, a South Side illustrator and comic book creator, is on display in the cafeteria of Chicago's Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts.  (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)
An exhibit of art by Turtel Onli, a South Side illustrator and comic book creator, is on display in the cafeteria of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

“Turtel jumps in with both feet, making you turn your head to the side and wonder what exactly you’re looking at,” laughed Afua Richardson, a Decatur resident who met Onli about a decade ago. She put her in touch with other black comic creators and soon after she began drawing covers for both Marvel and DC. Recently, she drew the character Spider-Punk for the Oscar-nominated film “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”

“I think from the beginning Turtel was trying to appeal to the older Marvel and DC kids and Marvel and DC have house styles. And if you weren’t creating, say, Kirby-style, they wouldn’t let you join the club,” he said. “Turtel’s work is largely fine art, but also comic art.”

Richardson added: “Also, it started at a time when few thought of futurism and Africa in the same sentence, and they were. He was incorporating African aesthetics into comics when it wasn’t very popular. And that’s another thing: when I was starting out, if I missed a hair, you’d hear: ‘Can we make this less urban?’”

Onli was a black comics artist trying to break into an almost exclusively white industry, and in a very specific way. He casually refers to his style as “rhythmism,” assuming you understand that. He refers to art created with African and European influences, and a heady dash of fantasy, suggesting past and future. But not Afrofuturism, he insists.

“I think my work is primitive from the future,” he says. “’Primitive’ as in foundational. If one is depressed by cultural and artistic roots, there are standards that already existed before us. At the same time, it is experimental. From a black point of view, it’s about the idea that we are Westerners in this country, but there was a separation, and yet I also have genetic memory and a lot of cultural continuity, and when I work, these things can flow outward. ”.

I have it?

I would explain this to middle management who just needed someone to draw Iron Man and Green Lantern. He heard: “Do black people understand science fiction?” and “Do black people read?” He told me, “It would get awkward because I would look at them like, okay, these people need help. It was also awkward because they would see the name ‘Turtel’ on a meeting list and have no idea who or what I was. Also, NOD had dreadlocks, which is fine if you were Bob Marley. Not superheroes. I was defending a black planet. I’d hear, ‘Wait, he’s not fighting the KKK?’ No, and it is not about prison life, fighting, affirmative action or thug life. I’d say, ‘He’s defending a planet, not a village or even a hidden country,’ like Black Panther. And that was unheard of.”

Luke Cage primarily defended Harlem; Black Panther mainly prowled around Wakanda.

Onli would have worked for the money and said he was once offered a $20,000 check for NOG (the editor declined to say), but “they would have owned everything and locked me up for 10 years. I was an idiot. I didn’t know better. I had no mentor. “I was making more money with Playboy and Ebony, and I tore that check into molecules.”

Onli, of course, was far from alone in his frustration, so in 1993, with the help of some other aspiring black comic artists, he declared it “The Black Age of Comics,” taking advantage of Marvel’s practices. and DC, which had already segmented and repackaged their own blockbuster stories into the Golden (1938-1950), Silver (1956-1970), and Bronze Ages of Comics (1971-1985). Onli co-created the first Black Age of Comics Convention at the South Side Community Center. Around 1,000 artists and fans attended and networked. Soon, artist Dwayne McDuffie (who died in 2011) co-founded the Black-centric Milestone Comics, which was published by DC. The Black Age of Comics conventions continued for decades, inspiring similar “Black Age of Comics” gatherings in New York City, Detroit, and Georgia.

But Onli stayed in Chicago.

He increasingly drew comics, works such as “Malcolm-10,” which capitalized on the early ’90s popularity of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm and sends them to jail. Rhythm zone.

Onli is now 72 years old and said he started his career at 18, but it was actually earlier. Her grandfather was a Chicago preacher, the Reverend Samuel Phillips. He was “born in the 19th century and became known for drawing large representations of the Bible, which he used for his sermons. He worked on them in the apartment we lived in, his three children were all at the table drawing and they let me participate.” Her grandfather’s biblical scenes, drawn on oilcloth and blinds, would become well known in outside art circles.

A selection of images on display at Turtel Onli's art in the cafeteria of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in Chicago.  (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)
A selection of images on display at Turtel Onli’s art in the cafeteria of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in Chicago. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

He said the only thing he cared about as a child was art. He would perform in elementary school as an artist. He was also good at basketball, “but when I wanted my parents to sign some papers for a basketball scholarship, they didn’t want to and I got angry, so they told me I was ungrateful and that I had to stay home for a few months. When those months were over, I kissed them and never came home. “My grandparents raised me and I went to Calumet Township High School (in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood).” He later attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and sold his first painting at age 19 to Johnson Publishing, which needed art for its new building on South Michigan Avenue.

He went to France for a while, hoping his comics would find a better home. He returned and worked as an art teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and as a clinical art therapist. Currently, he teaches art appreciation and drawing at Harold Washington College. He uses himself as a lesson. Indeed, his work is distinctive, fluid, as if each image had been cut from a larger, giant mural. Dan Nadel, curator of the MCA show, said he is drawn to Onli’s art “because he starts with cultural identity and builds fantasy and heroism from that foundation.” He considers it a “consciously ambitious interpretation” of the familiar.

That translates into a cult fandom, small enough that, aside from Onli’s website, the only place to buy his comics in Chicago right now is the DuSable museum gift shop.

“I feel like I belong, but no one understands it,” he told me.

He looked across the cafe, filled with his art.

“The beauty of this show is that you have all these young students right here. But the thing is, they don’t always turn around and see what’s hanging on the wall behind them.”

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

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