by Len Lear
As in so many fields of endeavor, African Americans have not been present in significant numbers in the field of cartooning, not because of a dearth of talent but because the opportunities to showcase their talents were so limited. According to the “Encyclopedia of African American History 1896 to the Present, Volume 1,” most syndicates that provide cartoons to American newspapers and magazines have intentionally limited themselves to having only one African American cartoonist in their stable, if that.
As a result, African American illustrators and cartoonists have had to find other outlets for their craft. One local guy, Jamar Nicholas, 41, whose work is clearly top-of-the-line, won several awards at the 2011 Glyph Awards, including “Story of the Year,” “Male Character of the Year” and “Rising Star” for transforming social activist and educator Geoffrey Canadaʼs personal account, “Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun,” into a graphic novel. In 2011, Nicholas’ “Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun” was selected to the Great Graphic Novel for Teens list by the Young Adult Library Services Association. (The Glyph Comics Awards recognize the best in comics made by, for and about people of color from the preceding calendar year.)
Currently through Feb. 16, Arcadia University in Glenside is presenting “Jamar Nicholas: World Building,” an exhibit that looks at how Nicholas crafts and designs the imaginary worlds found in his illustrations, comic strips and graphic novels. The exhibit is housed in the University Common Great Room lobby and is open to the public.
Last week this reporter interviewed Nicholas to get his views on a number of subjects related to his stunning work:
• When did you get into cartooning?
“My mother has always been creative, and when I was a child, she had a career as a commercial artist, which you would now refer to as a ‘graphic designer,’ but this is before the commonplace practice of using computers to do creative problem-solving. I always wanted to draw cartoons, but hanging around my mother’s studio and seeing her work made it seem like a goal I could achieve.”
• What cartoonists have inspired you; whose work have you admired the most? Have you modeled your style after anyone’s work?
“I had always been a student of comic strips, then later grew to appreciate, then love comic book art and storytelling. Some early favorites of mine were Gary Trudeau (Doonesbury), Berke Brethed (Bloom County/Outland) and, of course, Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes). Dawud Anyabwyle, (David Sims) artist of the self-published ‘90s comic BROTHERMAN was a huge influence on me as it unlocked the idea that I could create my own style of cartoons that didn’t have to fit a pre-existing archetype. I can’t say that I’ve emulated any cartoonist’s style, though I do enjoy seeing others’ process drawings and learning how they solve problems on the page.”
• There are very, very few full-time editorial cartoonists in the U.S. How do you go about getting jobs and making a decent living?
“I diversify by staying competitive in several creative fields: freelancing, I teach the craft of comics and cartooning at several colleges across the city, as well as writing for DRAW! Magazine, the how-to magazine for animators and cartoonists, as well as podcasting about being a professional cartoonist. I am one-third of a hosting team on a podcast called COMIC BOOK DINER (www.comicbookdiner.com)”
• Where did you grow up and go to school? Go to an art school?
“My family is from West Philadelphia, though I’ve spent the largest amount of time in Germantown and Oak Lane. I attended CAPA (Creative and Performing Arts High School) and University of the Arts for animation.”
• I did read that you “share a home with his lovely girlfriend and their cat, who has a heart-shaped patch of fur on her chest.” Where are you living now? What are the names of your girlfriend and cat?
“Too personal. I don’t like revealing too much about my family to the public.”
• I have read that “He has dedicated his career to empowering young people, helping them create their own comic books and cartoons.” How do you do that? Do you have a nonprofit organization for this purpose?
“No, I am not a nonprofit, but that’s a great idea! I give back by teaching and also by volunteering at my local Free Library doing cartooning workshops. When I was young, there were very few people that I knew existed or had access to who were professional cartoonists, so I want to make sure I can be a presence for a young person who has an aspiration to draw for a career in a climate where that may seem like an unrealistic dream or worse, a silly hobby.”
• Do you think it has been harder for you than for a white artist/cartoonist to get your work out there?
“I am fortunate in that we live in an age where gaining an audience is in proportion to how much effort you exert. The type of work I create has a voice not heard very often, and I believe some of my readers are drawn to that, but I don’t believe I’ve had to ‘work harder’ to get where I am. Cartooning is one of the creative paths that aren’t hung up on the creator’s race. If people like your work, they’ll support it.”
• Was there ever a time that you wanted to do something else for a career?
“No, I always wanted to have a career in storytelling and cartooning. I had a fleeting moment as a child where I wanted to be Dr. J, but I think that’s common for someone my age. Luckily I stink at basketball!”
• What things do you like to do in your spare time (assuming there is some spare time)?
“It is very hard to relax when you have so many things swirling in your head, but when I need to take a breather, I like to read or catch up with some of my comic book artist friends. I don’t use the phone as much as I used to. I’ve also taken to playing Fantasy Football during the last 15 years. I look forward to football season so I can scout my fake team.”
• Any siblings? If so, what are their names and ages?
“I am an only child. I believe that helped me develop my creativity, by having to keep myself entertained.”
For more information about the exhibit at Arcadia, call 215-572-2131. To see more of Nicholas’ work, visit www.jamarnicholas.com.
* Artist Jamar Nicholas discusses his creative process (Courtesy of Arcadia University/University Communications — storify.com/arcadia1853/jamar-nicholas/)