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03/04/2010

Salon Sneak Peak: Jamar Nicholas

Cover of Fist Stick Knife Gun

Cover of Fist Stick Knife Gun

In preparation for his appearance at our upcoming event, Warning: Graphic Content, I interviewed comic book and graphic novel illustrator Jamar Nicholas. He is currently in the process of adapting Geoffrey Canada’s memoir Fist Stick Knife Gun into a graphic novel, which is scheduled for release this October. Speaking with an artist after seeing their work is an interesting experience; the viewer formulates an idea of who the artist is and speculates about what might motivate their work. Having never before interviewed an artist in any official capacity, it was satisfying to have the opportunity to test these speculations in regards to Mr. Nicholas.


Fist Stick Knife Gun is a unique project for Jamar in that the author of the memoir is alive and available to critique Jamar’s work. The relationship has been extremely collaborative and Canada has made himself very accessible to Jamar. Yet it does raise the stakes for presenting an authentic account of Canada’s experience. This pressure is compounded by Jamar’s admiration for Canada’s novel, and by his dedication to setting the same tone as the original work.


This dedication seems to be one of the reasons Jamar was selected to adapt Fist Stick Knife Gun; another is the parallel between the backgrounds of Geoffrey and Jamar. When asking Nicholas how growing up in inner-city Philadelphia shaped his work, he said that Canada required the illustrator adapting his memoir to, like Canada himself, have grown up in inner-city New York. When Canada and Nicholas spoke for the first time, the similarities between the cultures of Philadelphia and New York became apparent. Jamar says that he sees himself in the memoir, and says that anyone who has grown up in the inner-city will be able to relate to it.


Jamar also made it clear that his work, and Fist Stick Knife Gun in particular, are not intended to be exclusively for an audience with this type of background. Jamar expressed that his work is not designed to alienate any audience. Any person who feels the need to see what growing up in an urban environment is like would be equally touched by this memoir as someone who is able to personally relate.


Nor is the appeal of the work strictly regional. Jamar said tightly packed communities across the world will likely share traits with the version of New York City depicted in Fist Stick Knife Gun. Most urban environments are subject to a hidden code that governs the actions of every member of the community- as children there are things you can and can’t do. Jamar said that even the nicest, most unassuming children are forced to become fighters and establish themselves in the neighborhood’s pecking order.


Jamar Nicholas, photo by Marc Manley

Jamar Nicholas, photo by Marc Manley

Another one of Jamar’s on-going projects relates to this urban environment in a manner completely different from Fist Stick Knife Gun. The web comic Detective Boogaloo is the story of an inner city b-boy cop with super powers, fighting to bring down his super-villain brother who has taken over the city. Jamar says that this seemingly simplistic comic can be read on multiple levels. It is in essence a Cain and Abel story reinterpreted to be fun and entertaining. Most importantly, Detective Boogaloo is intended to be a love letter to an era of hip-hop long past.


The nostalgia Jamar expressed for this vanishing era made it clear that the world depicted in Fist Stick Knife Gun is not wholly complete. Indeed it is vital to examine the reality of every era through the lens of multiple pieces of art. The fact that Jamar is presently doing so through different styles of work impresses on me his flexibility and vision as an artist. He is able to look at the urban environment of his past on multiple levels, and from varying viewpoints.


In the end, speculating on Jamar’s background and motivations seemed pointless when compared to the valuable insights I gained in speaking with him. Though our conversation satisfied my curiosity about his work, it will only lead me to further speculation in regards to the work of other artists. I eagerly anticipate seeing Jamar share his thoughts and work with a wider audience at the upcoming event, Warning: Graphic Content, and hope that this audience is able to benefit just as much from his unique insights and from his unique work.


-Sarah Crawford

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