Jamar Nicholas called on his experience growing up in West Philadelphia and Germantown when he illustrated "Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence," a graphic depiction of Geoffrey Canada's tale of growing up in the South Bronx.
Social activist Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, first wrote this memoir in 1995. That was before he became famous, interviewed by Oprah, featured in David Guggenheim's documentary "Waiting for Superman," and profiled in American Express ads. When his publisher, Beacon Press, decided this year to re-release the book as a graphic memoir, they took to the Internet to find an illustrator.
Canada himself chose Nicholas.
The graphic adaptation deconstructs gang behavior and portrays it with comic-book characters.
"A big part of what makes my art interesting to people is the fact that I put a lot of emotion into the characters' faces," Nicholas said. "I'm an emotional guy and can connect to the book. It wasn't a stretch for me."
Nicholas started his professional career as a self-published comic-book author in 1997. Starting in 2003, he became the Philadelphia Tribune's editorial cartoonist, drawing two editorial cartoons each week for three years.
"From there I expanded to the Web," he said. "I did a strip about a break-dancing detective called detective Boogaloo. It was pretty funny."
Born in West Philadelphia, Nicholas spent most of his adolescence in Germantown. Although author Canada grew up in the South Bronx, and his autobiographical book is set there, Nicholas found that the stories mirrored his own life in Philadelphia.
"When I was in sixth grade, I had my Sixers jacket and bike stolen," Nicholas said. "My mother sent me back outside to go get it because she wasn't going to buy me another one."
"Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun" opens with Geoffrey's older brother Dan getting his jacket stolen and being forced by his mother to go back and get it because they did not have enough money to buy another one.
"It's the facts of life growing up like that," Nicholas said.
"But, I think the bigger picture of this project is that boys who have had a troubled childhood are hard to understand if you do not come from the same background. They are not focused on their math homework at the end of the day because they are more worried about which way they will walk home so they don't get jumped. They have bigger things to worry about."
Because of Nicholas' background, he empathizes with young boys like the ones in the book.
"I really hope this book can open people's minds up to the plight of young men," said Nicholas. "A lot of people can connect with it but I want people who normally would not read something like this to pick it up so they can understand, too."