Fights, Joel Christian Gill’s often bruising memoir, pretty much starts with his nightmarish earliest memory. The scared young Joel, dragged along by his mother after her release from prison, sees a possibly dead derelict sprawled out amid the detritus by the side of the road. The book concludes with a series of glowing family photos showing Joel – now easing comfortably into middle age – celebrating his academic accomplishments and surrounded by a happy and loving family.
Subtitled ‘One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence’, the book is the story of how he made that journey, as a young black man in an often chaotic environment in the American South, where violence was usually seen as the answer (even if it wasn’t clear what the question was).
Joel becomes the target of unprovoked violence from his first day at school and witnesses domestic abuse at home, presented on the page with the vividness and depth of feeling of a frightened child. Most horrific of all – and all the more chilling for its understated depiction – he is also subjected to sexual abuse.
As he faces racist bullying at school, his mother orders him to “go out there and fight back” – which he does. Then the death of his father – drowned in an apparent accident – throws grief into the volatile mix. As the fire of anger consumes him, Joel increasingly lashes out at the world, pushing away his friends and becoming an outcast.
However, the book certainly isn’t just misery porn; it also abounds in the inventive joy of childhood, from the need for poor kids to create their own improvised games to Joel’s home-brewed efforts to emulate the style of the New York B-Boys he idolises. Gill’s gentle cartooning also makes the story accessible without taking the rough edge off the events being depicted. He captures a child’s perspective on the world with a light touch (although a couple of more caricatured depictions early in the book are a little jarring).
A new friendship brings Joel back into the world, but then things fall apart again when family illness forces him to move away to live with his grandparents. Eventually the tide of neglect, racism, bullying and sexual abuse forces him to fight back again – but this time he determines to “find ways to make [his] fire a controlled burn”. As he lives increasingly independent of his mother, “getting himself together” becomes a liberation rather than a burden. His love of drawing leads to him creating comics and through a new friendship he discovers chess – “a beautiful fight” that becomes a passion.
Then, at the age of 13, Joel’s interest turns to girls – albeit (as Gill is quick to acknowledge) not in the healthiest and most respectful way. His ‘prettyness’ makes him a hit, but jealousy flares and he finds himself challenged by the other young bucks. Moving back to the city, he makes new friendships and finds outlets in rapping, chess and comics. However, his popularity leads to resentment and more conflict, which threatens to escalate dramatically when Joel finds himself threatened with a gun.
Gill’s message isn’t one of personal development platitudes. Instead, it’s a more incisive and universal call for empathy. Early in the book he outlines his thesis: “Children are the most perfect sponges; every drop greedily soaked up”. In himself and the kids around him, Gill saw negativity accumulate until it reached saturation point and had to come flooding out again.
He doesn’t express animosity towards Key Key, the angry and maladjusted young girl who follows through on her promise to “fuck [him] up” on his first day at school. Instead, he invites the reader to consider the toxic factors that might leave a child feeling they have to lash out like that. And he also highlights to younger readers that they don’t have to follow the script they might feel society has written for them.
At the end of his afterword, Gill spells out the power of memoir in general and his own powerful and inspiring book in particular: “Understand someone’s story. It will make things better.”
Joel Christian Gill (W/A), Shannon Scott (C) • Oni Press, $19.99
Review by Tom Murphy