September 01, 2018
ARTrepreneur On The Rise: Putting Hartford On The Map
Joseph Young Jr., a Connecticut native, cartoonist, filmmaker, producer, writer, and educator tells us his story. From his childhood dreams, to breaking multiple records, this versatile artist has seen a lot throughout his expansive career.
Written & Photographed
by Jasmine Jones
Connecticut native Joseph Young Jr. has accomplished a lot throughout his time exploring the many fields of the art world. Apart from being awarded the Guinness World Record for creating the “World’s Longest Comic Strip” (also known as the “World’s Largest Comic Strip”), the versatile artist also went on to write a best selling novel based on his experience traveling the state with his non-profit, the Joe, Picture This Show. Wanting to try his hand at something new once again, he went on to make a feature film based on his novel, Diamond Ruff. With all of these projects and the success that followed, Young wasn’t letting any of it go to his head. Instead, he decided to stay focused and continue creating and learning, expanding his résumé to include teaching so that he is able inspire other artists.
We met for our interview on a sunny Wednesday morning at the Hartford Public Library. Joe Young rushed in, apologizing for running a little late as he had just left another meeting, which ran longer than expected. He also noted that he had a meeting right after this one with another artist. Despite his evidently packed schedule, Young took his time to introduce himself along with asking a few questions about Aislin’s own beginnings. After the introductions, Young got right down to business, passionately explaining his childhood and how he found himself immersed into the art of writing.
Growing up in Hartford, Young was raised in a big family with three sets of twins, including himself and his own twin. He began writing plays at a very young age, crediting it to his fascination with creating characters who overcome adversity, describing, “that whole David and Goliath story has always resonated with me, so my first play at seven years old was called John Lee. He was a guy who was fighting sea monsters who overcame certain challenges.” With a live-in cast and audience, provided by his own siblings and parents, a 7-year old Joe Young successfully put on his first play in his living room. “To me, it felt like I had an audience of 20,000,” says the now 53-year old artist, “even when I did my movie at the Bushnell, I had 3,000 people, that first performance was more important to me.” Young continued to write from there, until a teacher of his told him he’d never be a writer, which devastated him early on. “That just squashed my dreams,” he explains, “and then I went back to that angel on earth, my mother, who passed in 1988. She said, ‘Don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do nothing. If God gives you that passion and that drive, there’s a reason. You just have to find out how to technically make it work.’ So then, I kept going.”
Drawing came later for Young, during high school and into his college years while attending Southern University. Early on in his college career his son, Kyle, was born and the job of raising a child fell on his shoulders. “His mother had some issues when he was three months old, so I’ve raised [him] since,” he says. This compelled him to drop out of school, but like his own childhood characters, Young turned this adversity into opportunity. With more free time on his hands, he began combining his writings and drawings to create comic strips, which he states are “no more than a play on paper”. He looks back on leaving school and becoming a single parent as a beautiful thing, which gave him some discipline and made him focus on what he really wanted.
There was, however, a point when he considered giving up on art and writing all together. His mother, who continued to support him through it all, knew he had it in him to succeed but saw that he was on the verge of giving up. One day while watching TV, she mentions to Young, “I like this lady. You should write her a letter and see what she says.” Although Young responded with, “That lady ain’t gonna read my letter mom, I don’t have time for that,” he went ahead and sent the woman on TV a “big jumbo script” anyway. When his mother told him he had received a phone call sometime later he thought nothing of it, until he took the call and heard Gayle King’s voice on the other line. “Joe, I like your work,” she stated simply, “can you come on my TV show?” Young smiles as he recalls the memory: “Gayle was the one who opened up the doors for me in that way,” he says. They still keep in touch to this day, and visit each other when he goes to New York. In fact, she even took him out to lunch once his movie was released.
Young’s plays on paper eventually grew into a comic strip titled Scruples. He spent some time honing his craft, before packing up his things and making the move to New York at 21-years old. He explains his decision to move to New York as a way to expand his audience: “I wanted to go to New York to be syndicated. I wanted to have my work be seen all over the country.” The move paid off; after making sure his comic was at its highest caliber, it got picked up by Religious News Service (RNS), a news agency in New York covering religion, ethics, spirituality, and moral issues. After that, Scruples was distributed to weekly papers all over the country. He credits this success to how he handled becoming a single parent and leaving school, which could have easily led to his downfall. “Had I not turned that situation around and became disciplined, that may not have happened,” Young concludes.
“Had I not turned that situation around and became disciplined, that may not have happened.”
Eventually moving back to Hartford, Young decided to take his comic strips to the next level (literally) by creating one that was the length of a football field. In 1999, after receiving a grant for some space in the Willie Ware park, Joe Young got to work with the help of a few kids in the area. He describes the project as follows: “They gave me the Willie Ware park, the city of Hartford, because my name was a little established by then. I did a comic strip with the Scruples characters that dealt with literacy and I had the kids come throughout New England to paint on the comic strip.” And where talent and passion can be found, the world will find it. The Hartford Courant was the first to track down Young and write an article on him and his comic strip. Shortly thereafter, The Associated Press Wire called and wanted an article as well. “Once it went on the Wire, it blew up,” he describes, “And then Boston Globe called. ‘Can we do an article?’ Yeah, you can do an article. A full page ad costs about $50,000 in the Boston Globe. They gave me a page and a half. When I did that, The New York Times, which [costs] even more, gave me a half page, ‘Big Comic Strip’. Then USA Weekly came in, then Ebony magazine, Jet magazine, it was crazy. When God gives the increase, ain’t nothing you can do about it. It ain’t me, it ain’t the talent. This is what I believe.” And of course, Gayle King came out to Hartford to help and support, along with former NBA star and UConn Alum, Ray Allen.
From there, Young once again expanded on his comics, creating graphic novels with his Scruples characters. As a comic artist, people naturally started to associate Young’s work with kids. “Can you teach my kid to draw?” is a question he heard often. “So I think at 24 I started my 5013c non-profit, and it was called the Joe, Picture This Show,” he says, “that was my crash course into business. One thing I knew was, if you’re the best at what you do the world comes to you.” And Joe Young wanted to be the best at what he did — with writing, with drawing, and now, with starting a non-profit. “I wanted to have the best non-profit so I had to put together a board, and at that time I tried to find the most powerful black people in Hartford. So I had Mayor Carrie Perry on the board, I had John Stewart on the board, I had Jessie Campbell -- the police chief, Elaine Campbell, Elijah Young, WFSB Community Affairs…” The list goes on, and the hard work paid off. Once he got his all-star team together, the Joe, Picture This Show began to flourish, with grants coming in, one after another. He traveled all over Connecticut with the kids involved in his non-profit, performing improv theater, and entering competitions. They won the semi-finals for one competition in New Haven, but lost for the state of Connecticut. “I was cool with it,” Young recalls, “then me and the choreographers happen to go through the room and saw the judges scores. All of the black people that I knew scored me like, 1, 2. The white folks, 10, 10. And the choreographer is like, ‘no, no, there’s a reason for it’. And I said you know what, I’m not going to get mad. You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna write a book.” That book went on to become the best-selling novel, Diamond Ruff, which tells the story of a young man in prison for a murder he did not commit. “So people think it’s about a guy robbing a bank,” he explains, “No. It’s really about that competition that I lost.”
top to bottom: Joe Young drawing a cartoon character; Joe Young at The Bushnell developing comic strips with students during a workshop; An aerial shot of Young creating the World’s Longest Comic Strip which was put in the Guinness World Records in 1999.
After making his novel a bestseller on Amazon, naturally he decided that he wanted to do something he’s never done before: making an independent film. And not the typical, locally made, and put on Youtube type of independent film, if he was going to make a film, he wanted it to be big. “We were selling our cars, we were doing everything, me and my son,” he says, “he even dropped out of college because he wanted to help make the movie. He went back after, but we raised the money and we made the movie called Diamond Ruff.” Breaking another record, Joe Young was the first person born and raised in Connecticut to receive major distribution for a book-to-film project made and based in Connecticut, with theater releases in locations such as LA and Atlanta. The film stars some big names as well, including Felicia Pearson, Fredro Starr, and Michael Barra.
To top it all off, Joe Young has ventured into the music industry as one of his latest projects. After meeting songwriter and record producer Maurice Starr, who has discovered multiple bands including New Edition and New Kids On The Block, Young started working with Starr and his latest boy band, NK5. Since then, Young has became the president of Starr’s record company and oversees many projects including the visual development of NK5. His time spent with Starr has allowed Young to learn the different aspects of the music industry, including how to make a number one record. Through Starr, Young also met his current business partner, Marilyn Gill, who has been working with him on a few new film projects. “You’ve seen Sunday Best on BET? Monique Show? She’s the executive producer of both of those and I wouldn’t have met her without Maurice Starr,” Young explains.
“If you’re the best at what you do, and now that you have social media, you can do anything.”
Today, Young has turned his energy towards teaching, specifically teaching other artists, and creatives that it doesn’t matter where you come from. Young expresses that, “If you’re the best at what you do, and now that you have social media, you can do anything.” Fittingly titled, You Can Make It From Anywhere, Joe Young’s workshops are currently held all around the US and provide tips and advice on how to make it in the industry, such as how to price and protect your work, how to reach the masses, and much more. He’s also working on getting both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree so that he is able to teach the business of art at a college level. “That’s what I want to do, that’s my life mission,” Young shares.
By the end of his story, Young asks if we have any questions. He’s already told us everything we needed to know but we ask him one last question: “Of all of the things you’ve done or want to do what are you most passionate about?” His response: “I love teaching and sharing [my] experiences.” When asked if there’s any specific group that he enjoys teaching most, he replies, “Anybody, but mostly artists or creative people. It wasn’t easy for me. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, I’ve gone through a lot, and I don’t want people to go through that. You know, being black you didn’t have people, like a black cartoonist, to look up to. But they’re trying to get me, with the World’s Longest Comic Strip, they’re trying to put me in an exhibit in the African American Museum in DC. They’re working on getting one of these pieces in there as a permanent exhibit.”
Although it may seem like Joe Young has had his fill of exploring the art world and its various fields, don’t expect him to slow down anytime soon. He is currently in the process of creating a pilot tv series with Good Times star Bern Nadette Stanis (who played Thelma in the series). You can expect to see his name in the art world for many more years to come, and Aislin will be sure to keep you updated on what the future holds for him.