Last Saturday, Kenwood Academy–a typical high school with an auditorium and brick-lined hallways–hosted the tenth annual Black Age of Comics Convention. Artists set up tables and displays along the hallways, which would normally be clogged with students, and in the auditorium, where one would expect a podium from which a principal could address his school, there was a screen set up showing anime. By noon, Kenwood Academy turned itself into a sort of conference center, with a crowd of comic fans, collectors, and the curious shuffling from table to table and soaking up the art.
The work on display included graphic novels, political cartoons and traditional paperback comic books. Most of the artists gave their work a specifically African-American setting or content, from a comic book series set in an African Atlantis (Brother G’s “Shades of Memnon”) to a graphic novel (“Mary Fleener’s ‘Hoodoo’”) based on Zora Neale Hurston’s “Mules and Men.” Really everything that could fall under the category of “comic” or “comic book” was represented. Artists explained their sometimes off-beat creations, like Nino Masirina’s “The Incredible Laundry Detergent Man,” to passing fans and offered books and drawings for sale. Other activities included a raffle, a drawing competition with a scholarship to the Illinois Institute of Art as a prize, cartooning workshops for families, and presentations on marketing and graphic novel production.
At the center of all this was Turtel Onli, a dreadlocked artist whose business cards say “Father of the Black Age.” Onli started the first Black Age of Comics Convention in 1993 and has been organizing the conferences ever since. A trained artist with an interest in a wide range of mediums, Onli emphasizes “independent creativity” as the major subject of the convention. “Independent people need to come together and cooperate,” says Onli, and a convention, which is part of the city-wide Chicago Artists Month, is the ideal venue for this sort of cooperation. The profusion of artists, styles and messages that filled Kenwood Academy was the result of the convention’s emphasis on “independent creativity.”
Onli’s own work, like others on display at the convention, is difficult to categorize. When asked about his artistic background he says, “I split between fine art, comic book art and major market illustration.” All the while he is also organizing the annual convention–something that by itself can take up a good part of a year. He also runs Onli Studios, a showcase for his particular kind art, which is called “Rhythmistic,” a combination of futuristic, historical and fantasy elements that has parallels with both fine art and comic book art.
The Black Age of Comics Convention is an important part of what Onli sees as a movement of artistic innovation, a movement that has grown by leaps and bounds since the first Black Age of Comics Convention. In contrast to the time of the first convention in 1993, now “People see the Black Age as a legitimate movement. Before they didn’t know what to make of it,” says Onli. Over that time, the convention has expanded to include new genres, and a new set of artists and fans. “We now include anime and manga. We’re including mainstream artists like Jamal Igle [of DC Comics] and Craig Rex Perry [of Disney],” says Onli. All of this points to a new range of possibilities for the Black Age of Comics.
Leaving the Black Age of Comics Convention was something like waking up from a daydream. After an hour or so spent in the world of cape-wearing superheroes, who can dart effortlessly between skyscrapers, it was something of a shock to walk outside and see only the sun-baked asphalt of the Kenwood Academy parking lot.