Career Stories: Rob Stull, DIP '89
Rob Stull has a long history in the comic book industry working for publishers like Marvel and DC Comics on high-profile franchises such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Wolverine. His style developed out of many influences—pioneering artists of the African American community like Allan Rohan Crite, the AfriCOBRA artists’ collective, the comics of his youth, and the early days of Hip Hop culture. Rob is also renowned as a curator and educator. His pioneering exhibition Sequential Art: The Next Step brought into focus the history of African American artists in the comic book industry and traveled the country for 10 years. We recently caught up with Rob, who talked about his creative journey and reflected on his time at SMFA.
An Early Introduction
Art was like a family business. My father is a retired architect and was the founder of the oldest black owned firm in this part of the country. His older brother was a renowned ceramicist, and another uncle was a drawing professor at RISD. So there was always art hanging on the walls of our home when I was a child. I had exposure to community artists at an age where I didn't fully understand how important it was to have access to artists like them. I was always drawing as a result of that. I didn’t aspire like other young kids to be an actor, or an athlete. I aspired to be the kind of person whose artwork would be hanging on somebody’s wall someday.
Those are the beginnings for me, and then Hip Hop came into my life and completely dominated. I’m a byproduct of the first generation of Hip Hop. My oldest sister was living in Queens when I was a kid. I would take the 7 train out to visit her, and I would see all of this rooftop graffiti and take pictures with my Kodak Instamatic camera. I’d be smashed against the windows, and everyone else on the train was just like ‘What is this kid geeking out over?’ I was completely captivated. It was like an oasis. It was like a traveling art gallery to me. All of that stuff—from graffiti to dance and music—I got introduced to in pieces before it was packaged up and called something. That's why it's so powerful to me, because it was the definition of youth culture and youth expression. Kids created all of it. All of these elements really contributed significantly to how I began to visualize the world around me.
Finding Inspiration at SMFA
I went to Brookline High and had really great art teachers who said if you want to pursue a career in professional arts, you’ve got to look towards advertising and graphic design. So that's what I had in my head. I focused on graphic design and illustration at SMFA, and the teachers I had there were incredible. When I would talk to people about my focus, they’d say, ‘Why aren’t you at a more design-focused school?’ But I felt like what I was being exposed to at SMFA—just like all of those different elements in my environment growing up from Hip Hop culture, to the artists around my family—all those other disciplines within the school would only enhance my graphic design and illustration skills. I had amazing professors, and the lessons that they passed down to me completely enhanced everything that I was doing. I felt like—why wouldn't you want to be in a fine art school to pursue any professional discipline? I mean, it's all connected. Also, I didn’t see any preconceived notions about the right street to walk down versus the wrong one at SMFA. I got that immediately after graduating—the preconceived notions of what comic book art is, or what a comic book artist does—but I didn’t get it at school. And I think that speaks to the whole vibe of SMFA.
A Celebration of Community
Back when I was at SMFA I formed an artists’ group called AWOL, Artists Without Limits. We went from a graffiti crew in theory to a group more like AfriCOBRA. We wanted to be a business. We partnered with a lot of people around Boston—putting on exhibitions, selling t-shirts, collaborating with artists like KRS-One and Phase 2—It was a great time to be in Boston. And we’re all still friends. We just celebrated 35 years of friendship.
Inspiring the Next Generation
When I first broke into the comic book industry it was the early 90s. A lot of the artists I was meeting—who I was familiar with through their style and their name—I hadn't realized that they were African American artists. That's how the Sequential Art exhibit started. I was trying to bring attention to that. I said, ‘If this is interesting to me, then I'm going to take a chance that it would be interesting to others. And there's also the possibility that it could be inspiring and uplifting to others.’ I knew it was important to have this in communities where children like myself were growing up. When I was that age, I had access to artists courtesy of my mother and father. I wanted to create that same kind of situation for other young kids who may not otherwise have had those kinds of people or resources available to them. Or who may not have even known that Black artists worked in comics, let alone on things like Spider-Man and Batman. I wanted to put it all under one roof and say ‘You like this? Well, you can do it too.’ Its mission was to bring attention to our contributions, as black artists, to this amazing landscape of comic books. But also, to empower people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. To show them that we can not only work on mainstream franchises but that we can also develop our own franchises and tell our own stories.
Assembling a Team
After graduating, as his comic work was picking up, Rob relocated to New York and started his own design firm, Armada Design Group, with two friends.
Our main focus was to provide authentic comic book inspired artwork in other areas of media and entertainment—specifically music and Hip Hop. We could assemble a team of friends and fellow freelancers at the snap of a finger and meet any kind of job. We were doing work for Time Warner on the original Matrix movie campaigns, Tommy Boy Records, Virgin Records, Fader Magazine, Violator Management—that was a really cool time.
I’m still fixated on the whole fusion between music and visual art. If you break it down, song lyrics are a storytelling medium. You can hear a musical composition, shut your eyes, and your mind will conceptualize a sort of visual story. Some of the best painters I can think of have the ability to capture a complete story within a single image. Like Paul Goodnight and Kehinde Wiley. You can look at their paintings and it's almost like you can jump inside of them and walk down the street. All art is connected and it's all storytelling.
A High-Profile Residency at the Museum of Fine Arts
In 2020, Rob was named as an artist in residence at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His residency includes a multipart community mural project in collaboration with Rob “Problak” Gibbs, a comic book guide to community murals in Boston neighborhoods, and a series of portraits in dialogue with the Museum’s exhibition "Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation".
What a trip that is for me—from being a graduate of SMFA, right across the street, to working with this cultural institution. The MFA was always a resource and now it’s really jumping into inclusion and inspiring a lot of change. I never thought I’d see a show dedicated to Jean-Michel Basquiat, let alone his contemporaries like Futura, Rammellzee, and Lady Pink. I was involved with all of that.
Images: Artwork copyright Rob Stull.