A review of the comic book memoir Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence

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I work in healthcare. With recent events, it can’t be coincidence that while reading Joel Christian Gill’s Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence (available through Oni Press), I started thinking about violence being like a virus, a unique strain in each human being. It’s infectious, easily able to be transferred from bully to victim, yet the symptoms and outcome for each new “patient” can be almost impossible to predict. The idea still holds up at least from an artistic standpoint, and Gill’s book makes the case for it very well.

In Boston, thanks in part to cartoonists like Cathy Leamy, there are efforts in some medical libraries to dedicate sections to comics related to medicine, however tangential. The selections can be vast, ranging from Pedro and Me to From Hell. From an objective standpoint, Fights deserves to be in such a selection as a psychological study, impressive and even painful in its thoroughness. From a metaphorical point of view, Gill’s autobiographical book dissects his own history, including the people he grew up fighting against and those who stood with him. In the end, he can only come out with the conclusion that he survived. In the end,that’s all the author needs to know and all the reader wants.

“Memoirs are not biography” was the lesson given to Gill by fellow cartoonist and teacher James Sturm while creating Fights. It’s to Gill’s credit that his story flows so seamlessly with nothing feeling incomplete. Despite admitting in the book’s afterword that some people in his life were omitted while others were combined, it’s impossible to discern who may be “real” and who isn’t. Moments and characters are captured perfectly, with no range of emotion left unrendered by Gill’s drawing talents.

Young Gill, as the main character, progresses from bullied, to potential bully, to peer with many friends, his life altered both horribly and positively throughout by fate. Even when Gill crafts a new identity once he finally moves away from abusive family and classmates to a new city, so much seems completely out of his control. This includes how his first new friend Rook becomes alienated from a social circle Gill himself only just integrates himself into.

Whereas Gill’s altercations with others as a small child appear completely senseless and random, Rook’s turn from friend to enemy in Fights is the saddest because we see nearly every step, helpless as Gill is to change any of it. As a teenager, Gill displays no ill will, only a lifelong-fed desire to belong. It’s a familiar and youthful combination of innocence, selfishness and desperation that he clings to larger numbers and isolates the first person to accept him by his new nickname “O.K.”

On top of all that, there’s the threat of death as random as the first bus fight of his childhood, and this new threat threatens to spill over into his world at every turn.

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In the end, characters fade away, are reunited, or lost tragically. Gill the author can’t make any sense out of why this happens any more than he can explain why his children have never gotten into fights. He makes a vow that they won’t, but given the unpredictability of the world, all he can be is thankful that it worked out this way.

There is no blueprint to follow in Fights, just as there is currently no cure for the current COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, all Fights can do is all we’re able to do now, which is spread awareness of an immense problem, which is more than enough.

When I was young, I got into fights a lot (I’m an adult reviewing comics, so you probably could tell). Growing up, most of the narratives I adsorbed were “stand up and conquer the bully” tropes that probably ended up doing more harm than good. Fights is a tough read even as an adult, but it does convey the message that you can survive through the sum of your total experiences, even if they are not all positive. From the relative who taught you to say Enough to the abusive teacher who somehow instilled a love of reading, your history is a tapestry with a weave that can’t be undone, only added to. That’s a lesson in triumph that anyone can take value from.

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