By: John Rodriguez
Taking his artistic talents to Harlem Library, artist Ivan Velez Jr. is stepping out from behind his easel and is teaching a class made of seven kids how to draw the Japanese comic book art form known as Manga. At the Countee Cullen Library in Harlem on W. 136th Street, Velez Jr., 49, is not only showing his class how to draw but life lessons regarding human behavior in the process.
During a workshop involving Monsters, Velez asks his class “why do people make stories about monsters?” And he goes on to explain how Monsters are used to as a method of fear in order to control behavior. He also adds the importance of these stories is to show people how rise against crises through the use of myths. “In Tokyo, they have these natural disasters, like earthquakes and tsunamis. They have monsters as a way of dealing with it.” This concept that Velez relates to his students is something he can relate to.
As a young gay closeted teen growing up during the 1960s in the South Bronx, Velez used the world of monsters and heroes as a defense against his personal problems. “It wasn’t safe to talk about certain things. In that culture, you didn’t mention your sexual orientation. The shame was very strong.” So in order to overcome the shame and the restrictions of growing up during this constricting period, Velez escaped into this creative mind.
Teaching at libraries and other educational centers is Velez’s personal way of giving back, a way of giving back and finding the next generation of artists by providing guidance to them in order to find the strength in utilizing their creative voices. But before helping others, Velez sought help for himself. Seeking refuge within the pages of comic books like Superman, X-Men, and even Archie, Velez’s interactions with comic and kung fu movies provided sanctuary for him, “It was a way to escape the real world,” and encouraged him to pursue his own creative endeavors.
During his last year of college, Velez battled isolation and depression. Suffering from these ailments, he sought help at the Hetrick-Martin Institute on Astor Place to seek help from counselors about his developing sexual identity. It was there Velez that, “I had this thing in me, this part of me, that just wouldn’t stay quiet anymore,” and one way he spoke out was through the use of his artistic talents.
Entering the world of cartooning, Velez came up with the idea to write a “gay Archie” and after securing grant money he turned his idea for a comic into a reality. The creation was Tales of the Closet, a nine-part series about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender teens growing up in the Bronx. The comics were a success, “The first printing was about 10,000. We got through that in about six months. Then we had another printing. All in all we did about 100,000 of the first issue,” says Velez discussing the success of his comic.
The success of his comic was an impact on the comic book world, according to Velez his comic book was “a social-service comic book, and it was selling better than a lot of comics books in the mainstream.” The success of Velez’s comic paved the way for him to write comics for DC and Marvel, titles such as Ghost Rider, Blood Syndicate, and Static are just a few he has worked on. Despite his success in the comic book industry, Velez has devoted the past few years to teaching.
For the past few years, Velez has taught a class which has been designed to help and enabled urban youth to use art and cartooning as a way to change the popular comic culture. Velez describes the class as being an outlet for the students, “If you want to get out a message, it is probably one of the easiest forms to do it, because all you need is a pencil and paper. It’s very low-tech, and it has a very high potential to reach people.”
A young-adult specialist named, Christopher Shoemaker comments on the success of Velez class at the New York Public Library and its impact on the students since, “In addition to reading it compulsively, they are constantly sketching when they’re in the library. We really want to empower them to see how they can get their voice and their opinion and their personal expressions out there.”
At the library in Harlem, Velez’s students are focusing on the work of Manga, a popular Japanese-format of graphic storytelling. Using the Japanese art form, Velez intends for his students to “if anything, the most important thing I want them to learn is that…it’s possible to support characters who reflect who they are, who they like,” aside from providing the students with the knowledge of understanding and appreciating comics better than they have before.
Through his encounters with the young developing artists, Velez hopes that his impact upon them will lead them to impact others. “I know that at least I reached a couple of people. That’s what I want the kids to do–to reach people.”