Reading Turtel Onli
By Max Morris
This past weekend, after an underwhelming experience in a local bookstore, I felt the sudden urge to dive deep into a large amount of printed matter. Facebook had informed me earlier in the week of a warehouse sale in Berwyn that seemed promising. On a whim I took a Metra out, and found myself swimming in their massive collection of 13,000 books. One of the final books I discovered in dusty lines of Long Boxes was the book in question for this article – Nog, Protector of The Pyramids, a 1981 self-published comic by Chicago Artist Turtel Onli.
I had first heard of Onli’s work when Edie Fake was still working at Quimby’s bookstore – I had been jawing on about Jack Kirby and energetic drawing in comics when Edie pointed me towards Onli’s backlog. He’s no stranger to the Chicago scene; he’s been self-publishing for 40 years. His recent work has a digital sheen that makes a print junkie like me feel a little gross, but I can spot an interesting off-kilter quality about the figure drawing and fluid composition.
But Nog, Protector of The Pyramids is a bit of a revelation though – while I had read about his early publications, it was the first opportunity I had to read an older piece of Onli’s work. The plot of the book is somewhat nebulous, but what I truly enjoyed about Nog was the writing – exegesis of afro-funk jive-speak, sprinkled with mythos – Nog, the titular African hero, is in a mystic battle with Mag-Nog, who seeks to defile the sacred pyramids and destroy the hero. Most of the dialog is exclamations of glossaria of this universe, with declarations of strength and nobility. The back of the book has a handy guide of the vernacular of this universe, which does not really clarify but does allow a more enjoyable experience. The narrative attempts to outline a neo-myth of Afro-centrism, which leads to the feeling that one is reading less of a story and more of a sermon, a manifesto in exaggerated jive.
The illustration is fiery and fluid. Onli refers to himself as a “Rhythmist” artist, with an attention to figurative abstraction- the pyramids loom over the figures, a symbol of hidden African knowledge. When looking at the work, I had just finished reading Druillet’s Delirius, and I felt that Druillet’s own influences blended well with Onli’s – futuristic proto-op art leads well to a energetic reading experience. While the page compositions are not your standard grid format, there is still a dynamic flow to the action.
What is interesting about these books is their originality. There is a lot of influence going on in Nog, but it has a distinctive feel. Nog is a wild, wild book; what makes it interesting is the personal saga Onli imagines for these champions of the Egyptian church – the work from this period is an ecstatic illuminator of a one-man cult.
Onli is still making work today, but a lot of his current work seems entrenched in superhero tropes. I saw him speak recently at a weekly reading group at Graham Crackers Comics in the loop, I only briefly caught him talking about the racial identity of a b-level X-Man. That universe of mainstream artists did not allow the entrance on non-white identities outside of the token appearance for many years, and it is good and healthy to have that work happening for that audience. However, I can’t help but think what Onli’s would benefit from a divorce from the universe of the mainstream myth, and pursue again his own weird legends.
You can find more info about Turtel Onli’s work at http://onlistudios.com/. His Studio is located at The Bridgeport Art Center.