As a multi-disciplinary artist, it’s hard to nail down what exactly Ronald Wimberly might best be known for.
A New York-based cartoonist, graphic novelist, author, filmmaker and editor, one thing is for certain: Wimberly pushes and stretches the boundaries of what a comic even is, of who and what should be depicted, of what (if any) messaging lies within his art — even of what materials he uses.
An example? His latest project GratNin, or Gratuitious Ninjas, a modern ninja story that turns traditional publishing on its head with a sprawling, 600-page, accordion-folded epic that “wrap[s] up the urban sprawl of NYC into a manifold paper world,” according to his publisher BeeHive.
Wimberly’s convention-defying work was exactly what Nanaimo Art Gallery curator Jesse Birch was seeking for the gallery’s current Gutters Are Elastic exhibit, which closes on Sept. 24.
This exhibit plays with the concept of the gutter — the space between the frames in a comic — as an elastic space in which readers can insert their own perspectives, says Birch.
“I was just so excited about this artist, who’s working from so many points of view within comics — and from a really critical point of view — but is also expanding what comics can be through his work,” he says.
Together, they collaborated on an exhibit that showcases Wimberly’s ongoing work as the editor of LAAB Magazine, which he founded in 2018.
Printed on full broadsheet pages, LAAB is an art newspaper that describes itself as “powered by the radical imagination” and brings together a collection of illustrations, comics, essays, critiques and ideas from a wide variety of cutting-edge artists.
“We talked about what work of mine we could show, just as a cartoonist, and I was leaning more towards LAAB because the last few years LAAB has been, I guess, my primary art practice,” says Wimberly. “[In] the approach to displaying that or making it into an exhibition, I wanted it to be spatial, and I wanted the reproduction to be the material aspect. The materiality of the reproduction was very important to me.”
Working from the concept that it was like “a curated space within a curated space,” they decided to paste pages of LAAB all over the walls, so that it could be a room “that envelops you so you’re in the reading of it,” says Birch.
“It’s also got this urgency to it. When you wheatpaper something up, it’s because you want to say something. There’s this whole connection to DIY culture and all these other things. It was a nice nod to the urgency of what [Wimberly] is saying — not only his voice but the other artists, because they’re saying things that are really important and have to do with societal changes that need to happen. I like that the form expresses that urgency.”
Wimberly, who is Black, uses comics and other art forms to explore life, critical politics, gender, history and aesthetics through the lens of race — for example, in his viral comic Lighten Up, which details his experience in being asked by Marvel to change the skin tone of a character.
However, he says he also has mixed feelings about the reception of that comic.
“I feel good that it meant something to other artists or people who are going through something similar. It’s the worst, because [sensing racism] will make you feel like you’re crazy. They’ll swear up and down, you know, ‘It’s nothing.’ So I’m happy for that, I think that was positive …[but] I don’t want to make things for liberals to feel good about. That’s not my job,” he says with a laugh.
“Sometimes I find myself walking around, being Black, talking about being Black or talking about white people to Black people, you know what I mean? It’s crazy. It’s a little uncanny,” he says. “Maybe we’re commiserating. And often we are, right? But sometimes I’m just like, I don’t want to have to wear this thing that they’ve projected onto me all the time.”
He references Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s “standpoint epistemic essay” Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference, which explores this topic in detail and was published in The Philosopher magazine in 2020.
“This text illustrates the unique problem of market and social pressures to tell that story, whether or not it’s even one’s own story to tell, to represent even if one is not representative,” says Wimberly.
“I look in the museums right now and it’s crazy. It’s like, ‘Oh wow, we got so many representations, so many artists in there’ … and it’s our lane, right?” he says. “It’s what we get to do, Black up the place. Queer it up. Add some colour to whatever institution’s annual report so that the conscious burdened hegemon can feel better about itself.”
“And I think, oftentimes, there’s overlap. My art is gonna be probably about just that, but also it could be more. Maybe there are things I want to talk about that are important, that are about me surviving and thriving, and living life, or even radical transgression.”
But sometimes he gets the sense that these complexities are perhaps something that editors are not all that interested in, he adds. “[They’re] like, ‘I wanted a story about how Chinese you are, not about the movie houses that are closing in your neighborhood.’ So, I think it conditions us to make that stuff, ultimately. Because you have to eat. You want to be successful.”
One of Wimberly’s more recent works, Now Let Me Fly, delves into Black history and is a graphic biography of Eugene Bullard, the world’s first African-American fighter pilot. Wimberly wrote the story, and the book was illustrated by his friend Brahm Revel, who he met during a cartoonist residency at Angoulême Maison des Auteurs in France.
“It’s not a war hero book, it’s really more like an immigrant tale. A looking-for-home type of thing, and trying to find a place where you can be free. And I don’t mean in a heavy, slave-type thing. I mean in a soulful type of way,” he says. “Not that those things aren’t bound together.”
Wimberly says he has a few more ideas for historical graphic novels and is also currently working on the next issue of LAAB.
Catch Wimberly speaking more about his life and work at 7 p.m. tonight, in conversation with artist Charles Campbell at Vancouver Island University’s Malaspina Theatre.
To check out the Gutters Are Elastic exhibit, visit the Nanaimo Art Gallery at 150 Commercial St. or register yourself or a group (up to 15 people) for a lunchtime tour. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-754-1750.