When Connecticut native Joe Young struggled in school as a child, he found that comic books offered him a positive escape while educating him on topics that he could not previously comprehend.
Young was then able to turn that passion for drawing and storytelling into a career, and is now an award-winning cartoonist, filmmaker, producer, writer, and teaching artist.
Zydalis Bauer joined Young at his studio in East Hartford to hear more about his story, his latest comic series, and his collaboration with legendary Motown artist Smokey Robinson.
Hear Young talk about creating the world’s longest comic strip in this digital extra.
This interview originally aired on March 24, 2022.
Read the full transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: When Connecticut native Joe Young struggled in school as a child, he found that comic books offered him a positive escape while educating him on topics that he could not previously comprehend.
Young turned that passion for drawing and storytelling into a career, and is now an award-winning multimedia artist.
I joined Young at his studio in East Hartford to hear more about his work and his collaboration with legendary Motown artist Smokey Robinson.
Joe Young, Cartoonist/Filmmaker: It was the creative arts that saved me, specifically writing, actually. And then when I start writing, I got into comics. So that whole comic art space changed me.
Because when I was in school, I was a slow learner and I — kids make fun of me, I made fun of myself, and I named myself the fisherman because all my grades were below sea level. But then through comics, I learned about geography, about character, about science. And so, a lot of my work is based on comics.
And from that, once you learn how to write comics, you can write scripts, and then I learned how to draw at a later age. But writing was my first introduction to art.
Zydalis Bauer: So just like, as you were saying, comic art specifically has been one of the greatest influences in your life and it has really led to your success.
But speak to me about what — what is it about that art form, specifically, that you’re so passionate? Why were you able to connect with comic art?
Joe Young: Because…good question! Because art is engaging. It’s visually attractive, it’s fun, it’s enter — entertaining.
I remember growing up, I learned about government not through social studies classes, it was a show called Schoolhouse Rock. “I’m just a bill!” And so and even now, for me to reach kids — because I do a lot of workshops, I teach cartooning — and kids seem to gravitate towards it and cartoon work.
And it’s just something about comics where I think I found my purpose when I discovered comic art.
Zydalis Bauer: Yeah, and comics also kind of provide children with an escape also —
Joe Young: Oh yes!
Zydalis Bauer: — inspiration. And so that brings me to your most recent comic series, Kemet.
Tell me a little bit about this series, how it’s unique to your other creations, and also how important is it to have this representation for especially — especially for children of color in comics or literature?
Joe Young: Yeah, well, Kemet, I’ve done so many projects over the years, Scruples — I’ve done for the Bushnell, I created characters. But this one is the most special to me.
Actually, Kemet was created during COVID. Kermit is a time traveler. He travels through time. He’s born in 1771 and he is picked up by slave catchers. He goes through a middle passage.
He comes to America — this is in 1776 — he meets and he meets Benjamin Banneker, the famous — it’s all fictional — inventor, and they create a time machine. And he travels to the 21st century to tell people in the future, if you’re going through a problem, you can overcome it. Look what people did in the past. And he brings them back and he shows them, through Black history and Black excellence , anybody can do anything.
It’s only been a year. We have over a million readership in Black newspapers across the country. We have animation. We have comic books.
And so, you know, I’m working on getting a series, developing series, I’m writing a script now for Kemet. And you’re going to you’re the first media outlet to break it!
Zydalis Bauer: And what does this do for a child’s confidence when they have this representation in a comic that they love to read?
Joe Young: Well, they see Kemet, he goes through challenges and problems and issues, but he always overcomes it because of good character. But it’s an escape for them. They can live vicariously through Kemet.
And he’s cool — he’s got the natural hair when he takes off his baseball cap — and and he speaks with an African accent. And so, they can identify with this character. And he can dance, he can break dance. And the parents can enjoy him because he loves old school music, his favorite musician is James Brown.
Zydalis Bauer: He’s got a little bit of something for everybody, right?
Joe Young: And, you know, the US Census reported that 60% of Black households are ran by Black single parents. And these parents are doing the hardest — their kids are home. And I want to create a character that they can lean on for positive stuff.
And so, that is probably the main mission for me creating Kemet. Even though he reaches Black single parents, he’s for everyone.
Zydalis Bauer: Yeah
Joe Young: Yeah.
Zydalis Bauer: And so it came out of COVID, but something else that has come out recently, you’ve been very busy during this pandemic. You have produced a short, animated film. Your depiction of the Smokey Robinson poem “Black American.”
Tell me about that and why now is the perfect time to release this animated film?
Joe Young: Because after George Floyd race relations and, you know, race is such an issue.
You know, I met Smokey at a friend of — a mutual friends of ours Curtis Robinson’s golf tournament, and I was having lunch. Robina, who works with me, senior producer here, was with me and he started reciting this poem and I said, “Wow, it is so powerful.”
But I also saw that some folks may not like what he’s saying in the poem. And I said, “I got to do this because art is supposed to provoke conversation.”
And I agree with a lot of stuff that Smokey says, some things, you know, I need some more clarity. But my thing was, create this thing and animate what he’s trying to say.
Smokey Robinson (archive footage): …appreciate it, if when you see me, you say “there goes a man who said it loud: I’m Black. I’m Black. I’m a Black American and I’m proud. ‘Cause I love being an American.
And again, that just took off. And that was a dream come true to work with an icon like Smokey Robinson you know.
Zydalis Bauer: Now you were born in Hartford but have deep roots in Springfield, Massachusetts, as well.
What are you most proud about being from this part of the region?
Joe Young: It’s just rich with history, architecture, and the people are second to none. You can find a little bit of everybody in New England and they’re very creative in New England, that Yankee, you know, ingenuity. This is where I’m at, where I’m trying to make a difference.
So, Hartford’s — Hartford’s been good to me, Hartford’s been good to me. And I have a responsibility — even though you could do it anywhere in the world because of technology — Hartford’s been good, Springfield’s been good to me. So, I’m just…I’m just a blessed individual, geographically.