a collage of a Black age of Comics flyer and a photo of the first convention

Celebrating Turtel Onli and the Black Age of Comics

The history of comic books is largely recognized by ages. The Golden Age saw the birth of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The Silver Age welcomed artists like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby into the fold. The Marvel Age, well, that’s self-explanatory. And the Black Age of Comics was launched by School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) alum Turtel Onli (MA 1989), with the first Black Age of Comics convention taking place in 1993.

Now, 30 years later, the exhibition Turtel Onli: The Black Age of Comics gathers comics, posters, and ephemera from the last three decades of the movement, on view at the Logan Center of the Arts through March 31. “The Black Age is about celebrating creators, concepts, and content that’s derived from the Black, African, urban, or alternative experience,” said Onli. In addition to Onli’s work, the exhibition features many Black artists who have contributed to the genre.

Turtel Onli holds his comics in front of a sign that reads Black Comic Books

Growing up in Hyde Park, Onli loved riding the bus to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. From those early days, he dreamed of attending SAIC, and after getting his associate’s degree at Olive Harvey Community College, he enrolled to study art therapy. As a student at SAIC, Onli was already a working artist. He freelanced for Playboy and Johnson Publishing, and worked as a regular courtroom illustrator for WGN. He wanted to create comics—but felt discouraged. “Back then, Black folks didn’t do zines,” he remembered. “A lot of times, I’d end up in circles where I’d be the only Black person in the building.”

In 1981, after an insulting meeting with a mainstream publisher who asked “do Black people read,” Onli decided to start self-publishing his comics. From there, he reached out to more Black creators, publishing limited runs of their work and curating artists for zines and comics collections. The Black Age of Comics had begun.

“I wrote a couple of articles about it, and got published in Comic Buyer’s Guide, which was the definitive comic publication covering the entire comic book industry,” he said. “And then I organized the Black Age of Comics Convention.”

a flyer for the first Black Age of Comics convention

In 1993, the first Black Age of Comics Convention took place at Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center, aiming to make a deliberate space in the industry for Black creators and their work. Since then, the Black Age of Comics has expanded past its Chicago roots to Philadelphia, Detroit, and Atlanta. Though he is not in charge of the other conventions, Onli celebrates this spread. “You can’t trademark jazz or grunge or hip-hop, so you can’t trademark the Black Age,” he said. “If it’s a genre, people should be able to embrace it and put their own spin on it.”

Over the years, Onli has also gained notoriety for his own comics work, publishing graphic novels like NOG, Protector of the Pyramides, and Grammar Patrol. His style, which he refers to as “Rhythmism,” combines historical references, afrofuturism, and superhero imagery. In 2021, he was one of the featured artists in the Chicago Comics: 1960 to Now exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (and one of his illustrations even appeared on an oversized banner outside of the museum). In 2023, he was interviewed for the Marvel Comics book Black Panther: A Cultural Exploration.

Still, even with all of this progress, modern mainstream comics still have a tendency to categorize and pigeonhole Black creators. “If you talk about art that comes from a Black perspective, they’ll talk about tribal art, naive art, maybe folk art, primitive art—and that includes the comic book world,” said Onli. Though there are more mainstream Black comic book characters than ever before, most of them were created by white artists. “Now we’re just saying you can’t make money with a Black character created by Black people,” he said. Three decades in, the Black Age of Comics continues to push against those barriers—while also providing a welcome space for all people to discover new artists.

Whether it’s the convention, the exhibition, or supporting the Black Age of Comics movement itself, Onli stresses that all are welcome. In fact, he has a tagline to encourage people to get involved: “You don’t have to be Black to get your Black Age on.” 

Four people gather around a Black Age of Comics Convention sign