Non­fic­tion

Ghet­to Broth­er: War­rior to Peacemaker

  • Review
By – May 20, 2015

In a tight, grip­ping tale, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and writer Julian Voloj and artist Clau­dia Ahler­ing beau­ti­ful­ly weave togeth­er seem­ing­ly dis­parate sub­jects that are sel­dom found joined in a graph­ic nov­el. Ghet­to Broth­er: War­rior to Peace­mak­er is the sto­ry of gangs, the pow­er of uni­ty, and the gen­e­sis of hip-hop in New York; it is the sto­ry of a secret Jew­ish her­itage that comes to light; it is the sto­ry of the still-unfold­ing lega­cy of urban renew­al and dis­en­fran­chised neigh­bor­hoods in the 60s and 70s in New York. It is the sto­ry of Ben­ji Melen­dez, son of Puer­to Rican immi­grants who set­tled on the shores of the Unit­ed States to pur­sue a bet­ter life for their family.

As a teenag­er in the South Bronx dur­ing a dev­as­tat­ing peri­od large­ly born of mass dis­in­vest­ment, Ben­ji finds him­self seek­ing iden­ti­ty and social order through the world of gangs. But when vio­lence esca­lates and peaks with the trag­ic death of one of Benji’s gang broth­ers, there is a hope­ful, unex­pect­ed turn. The Ghet­to Broth­ers call for peace in what cul­mi­nates in the his­toric Hoe Street truce meet­ing instead of retal­i­at­ing with the same bru­tal­i­ty that took one of their own. It is then that area gangs apply their ener­gy into what would become the emer­gence of hip-hop. Ben­ji, how­ev­er, finds him­self tran­si­tion­ing into father­hood and a career in social work while embark­ing on a per­son­al odyssey that uncov­ers his cryp­to-Jew­ish heritage.

Ghet­to Broth­ers for­mat as a graph­ic nov­el does jus­tice to its pow­er­ful sto­ry. Clau­dia Ahlering’s clear black-and-white art­work ele­vates what could have been sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty into cin­e­mat­ic focus, and Julian Voloj’s voice feels authen­tic, pur­pose­ful, and nim­ble. More­over, the con­tri­bu­tion of each artist’s work deliv­ers an emo­tion­al impact that is faster and stronger than tra­di­tion­al prose. Voloj and Ahler­ing give us a sto­ry for reex­am­in­ing our lives and cre­at­ing a bet­ter future

Inter­view with Julian Voloj

by Rachel Pin­nelas

The graph­ic nov­el Ghet­to Broth­er: War­rior to Peace­mak­er was inspired by the real-life sto­ry of Ben­jy Melen­dez, for­mer gang leader who ini­ti­at­ed a gang truce, fos­tered the de­velopment of hip-hop, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly dis­cov­ered his Jew­ish roots. Author Julian Voloj shares the details of his cre­ative pro­cess and how his own back­ground helped him to under­stand his pro­tag­o­nist. See re­view on page 40, and read the unabridged inter­view online.

Rachel Pin­nelas: How did you come to meet Mr. Melen­dez? Did you seek him out? Was it by chance?

Julian Voloj: My back­ground is in pho­tog­ra­phy, and I have always loved graph­ic nov­els. I did a series on Jew­ish diver­si­ty, so every time I found an inter­est­ing per­son­al­i­ty in New York, I always try to pho­to­graph the per­son. I read a pro­file of Melen­dez in Tablet: he’s a mar­ra­no Jew who was with a gang in New York. I was very inter­est­ed in meet­ing him, so I asked the jour­nal­ist to put me in touch.

I met with him in the South Bronx. I knew the area very well from my first solo exhi­bi­tion, For­got­ten Her­itage, but I didn’t know the gang his­to­ry there. Melen­dez told me his sto­ry, which I want­ed to encap­su­late in a sin­gle pho­to­graph for my project. He’s a char­ac­ter, as you can imag­ine from read­ing the book, and as we chat­ted I decid­ed I real­ly want­ed to do more with this sto­ry. Ini­tial­ly I did a fumet­ti, which is like pho­to comics. But I thought there was so much more to this sto­ry and I saw a full movie, in a way. I con­nect­ed at that point with an old friend of mine who did illus­tra­tion for a book I did back in the nineties. She worked in tele­vi­sion, but had nev­er done a graph­ic nov­el. And so I put one and one togeth­er and said, You know what? I have this idea. Would you be inter­est­ed in doing a graph­ic novel?”

I real­ly believed in the sto­ry so I said, You know, worst case sce­nario, I do a Kick­starter. I will find a way to pub­lish it.” I met Melen­dez back in 2010, and 2011 was the for­ti­eth anniver­sary of the gang truce he had facil­i­tat­ed as a Ghet­to Broth­er. So I said, Lis­ten Ben­ji, you have all these con­tacts. Can you get to these peo­ple and maybe we can orga­nize a reunion?” And so until the reunion, it wasn’t real­ly clear if we could get this done. We only had maybe eight pages illus­trat­ed, but it was a very excit­ing con­cept, and at the reunion all these peo­ple who had been involved in the Hoe Avenue peace meet­ing were so grat­i­fied that some­one cared about it — even this white Jew­ish guy from Ger­many! They all fol­lowed up after­wards with their own pho­tographs and to share their sto­ries, and sud­den­ly we had all these mate­ri­als for the graph­ic nov­el. From that moment on, I knew it was going to happen.

RP: Is there any­thing about your own per­son­al his­to­ry that you relat­ed to in Mr. Melendez’s?

JV: So much of his life has been engaged in the strug­gle to find his own iden­ti­ty, and I grew up Jew­ish in Ger­many, which has its own com­plex­i­ties. There were cer­tain aspects where I tried to find of my own iden­ti­ty so I can iden­ti­fy with this whole com­ing-of-age chal­lenge. But also in the Lati­no aspect, and the Jew­ish aspect. He’s also a peo­ple per­son; I con­sid­er myself a peo­ple per­son, but we’re very dif­fer­ent of course. So it’s like, very dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances. But also, I feel like the san­i­tized New York we live in today has a lot to do with inter­est in this book. New York is now so clean and so cor­po­rate and so chain store-ish.

RP: What sparked your inter­est in the history?

JV: I have always been inter­est­ed in the his­to­ry of New York, and of the Bronx, espe­cial­ly. In 2006 I had my first solo exhi­bi­tion, For­got­ten Her­itage, at the Bronf­man Cen­ter in New York, show­cas­ing pho­tographs from a Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood if the Bronx. I explored and stud­ied the his­to­ry of the area for this project, so I very much con­sid­er myself a his­to­ry buff. I also come from an edu­ca­tion­al back­ground, so I want­ed to edu­cate but still make it enter­tain­ing. Vis­i­tors to the exhi­bi­tion respond­ed that they had learned a lot from it, which is exact­ly what I want­ed to do: teach peo­ple on a his­tor­i­cal sub­ject with­out mak­ing it boring.

RP: As a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, what was it like work­ing in anoth­er form of visu­al narrative?

JV: In a way, it was real­ly like doing a movie — with­out hav­ing to deal with all the costs and such. We real­ly recre­at­ed the Bronx. It was great that there were peo­ple like Joe Con­zo — the first hip hop pho­tog­ra­ph­er, owing to the fact that he was the only one with a cam­era in his com­mu­ni­ty at that time. Con­zo gave us some of his pho­tographs. So we took pho­tographs, from which we cre­at­ed all of these whole land­scapes for the book. It’s won­der­ful to see that: those years that you have been your head. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I’m not as tal­ent­ed as an illus­tra­tor, so I have to rely on oth­er peo­ple, but I’m a sto­ry­teller, so it worked very nice­ly that we could get this together.

RP: A lot of peo­ple equate graph­ic nov­els with their col­or­ful com­ic book coun­ter­parts, but Ghet­to Broth­er is in black-and-white. Can you tell me about that choice?

JV: I envi­sioned it in that way to cap­ture the ret­ro­spec­tive qual­i­ty of the sto­ry. When you have movies about World War II, they are often filmed in black-and-white. If you see a col­or image from the peri­od it looks weird some­how, though of course in real­i­ty every­thing was in col­or. When I thought of this sit­u­a­tion in the Bronx that was so, so dark, I felt like black-and-white would show a lit­tle bit of the des­per­a­tion from this time. In a way it also sym­bol­izes the way gangs saw each oth­er in black-and-white terms: you’re either with me or against me. Inter­est­ing­ly enough, when we were look­ing for a pub­lish­er, some peo­ple real­ly said they didn’t like the illus­tra­tion because it’s very non-Amer­i­can. It’s very Euro­pean in that sense. Amer­i­can pub­lish­ers want­ed it in col­or; they want­ed it to more close­ly resem­ble The War­riors, because they thought it would be more mar­ketable the more sim­i­lar it was to a pop­u­lar movie. But we were very hap­py with the images as they were.

RP: As an artist your­self, what was it like col­lab­o­rat­ing with anoth­er artist? And as a writer?

JV: It was a very inter­est­ing expe­ri­ence. It was also per­fect tim­ing, because I think the way we worked on this would have not worked ten years ago. I think I often drove the artist crazy because I con­tin­ued to get input from Bronx locals who lived in this time and want­ed to make sure the book was very authen­tic, very real. For me it was very impor­tant to have every detail right. So the illus­tra­tor and I were on Skype, phone calls, and email togeth­er con­stant­ly. The process took a lot of nego­ti­a­tion because I had cer­tain things in my mind, and the illus­tra­tor had oth­er things in her mind.

A great exam­ple is how we dealt with list of all the gangs who par­tic­i­pat­ed in this Hoe Avenue peace meet­ing. We were not sure if this list is com­plete or not, or how to best rep­re­sent the list in a graph­ic nov­el. We came up with the idea to show the gang jack­ets, and end­ed up list­ing” the par­tic­i­pat­ing gangs that way. It’s basi­cal­ly the first full page of the whole sto­ry. We did an event at the Bronx Muse­um, and sev­er­al peo­ple in the audi­ence were wear­ing their gang jack­ets. They came away real­ly impressed at how accu­rate­ly and real­is­ti­cal­ly we had cap­tured not just the sto­ry by the visu­als with it, and that made all the dif­fi­cul­ties and details of project worth it — even dri­ving every­body involved crazy along the way.

Rachel Pin­nelas is an Asso­ciate Edi­tor at Dyna­mite Enter­tain­ment. A com­ic fan from a young age, she start­ed her pro­fes­sion­al career in the indus­try as a Mar­vel intern, and has worked for both Mar­vel and DC Comics. She lives, reads, and writes in New York City.

Rachel Pin­nelas is an Asso­ciate Edi­tor at Dyna­mite Enter­tain­ment. A com­ic fan from a young age, she start­ed her pro­fes­sion­al career in the indus­try as a Mar­vel intern, and has worked for both Mar­vel and DC Comics. She lives, reads, and writes in New York City.

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